Archive for the Category STS


‘Development’ as if We Have Never Been Modern: Fragments of a Latourian Development Studies

What might the work of Bruno Latour — and STS more broadly — offer critical development studies? Growing out of work in South Africa, I have a theoretical piece on what Latour can offer post-development studies and practice. It is being published in Development & Change. (open access version)

‘Development’ as if We Have Never Been Modern: Fragments of a Latourian Development Studies

The work of the French anthropologist-cum-philosopher Bruno Latour has influenced a wide variety of disciplines in the past three decades. Yet, Latour has had little noticeable effect within development studies, including those sub-fields where it might be reasonable to expect affinity, such as the anthropology of development. The first half of this article outlines some core aspects of Latour’s oeuvre as they relate to development and anthropology, particularly focusing on the post-development critique. Latour’s approach to constructivism and translation, his analytical commitment to ‘keeping the social flat’ and his distribution of agency offer novel ways of maintaining some of the strengths of post-development without falling prey to some of its weaknesses. The second half of the article explores the potential for a Latour-inspired theory of development that may provide fruitful avenues for scholarship and practice beyond post-development, emphasizing materialism, relationality and hybridity.

Growing Mobile Surveillance in Africa & Failed Biometric IDs in Britain: Two New Publications

A paper with Aaron Martin has just been published in First Monday. It is the updated version of a working paper published through LSE.

The Rise of African SIM Registration: The Emerging Dynamics of Regulatory Change

The African experience with mobile telephony has been extolled as a defining moment in the continent’s contemporary economic, social, and political development. Yet SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) registration schemes are threatening to throttle the technology’s developmental potential. These mandates, which require the registration of identity information to activate a mobile SIM card, are fast becoming universal in Africa, with little to no public debate about the wider social or political effects. Whereas some authors have explored the motivations behind these drives, as well as their potential economic impacts, this paper focuses its critique on the broader diversity of implications of this regulatory transformation. Viewing SIM registration through a lens that surveillance studies and information & communication technologies for development, it examines elements of resistance across a range of actors, as well as other emerging effects like access barriers, linkages to financialization, and Africa’s budding mobile surveillance society.

Additionally, he and I have a piece in Public Understanding of Science about the way in which a failed project of British biometric identification attempted to conjure ‘the public’ only to find multiple publics emerge. (open access version)

New Surveillance Technologies & Their Publics: A Case of Biometrics

Before a newly-elected government abandoned the project in 2010, for at least eight years the British state actively sought to introduce a mandatory national identification scheme for which the science and technology of biometrics was central. Throughout the effort, government representatives attempted to portray biometrics as a technology that was easily understandable and readily accepted by the public. However, neither task was straightforward. Instead, particular publics emerged that showed biometric technology was rarely well understood and often disagreeable. In contrast to some traditional conceptualizations of the relationship between public understanding and science, it was often those entities that best understood the technology that found it least acceptable, rather than those populations that lacked knowledge. This paper analyzes the discourses that pervaded the case in order to untangle how various publics are formed and exhibit differing, conflicting understandings of a novel technology.


Quantification, Biometrics and Social Protection in South Africa

During 2012, I researched the history and use of quantification and biometric identification in South African social policy. The study has been supported by the Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion at UC Irvine and was recently presented at their annual conference.

Liz Losh blogged some of the discussion and a video of the panel is embedded below (beginning at the 45 minute mark):

Kevin Donovan of the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town presented last in the panel session with “Composing Development? Biometrics, Smart Cards and Financial Inclusion in South Africa’s Social Protection Initiative” with research from South Africa that reflected an historical “mania for measurement” in a country that was today “awash with statistics.” Although biometrics was a legacy of the apartheid regime, as a modality of power that controlled human mobility that dated back to the introduction of fingerprinting in 1891, it continues today as a way to manage the disbursement of small cash grants for old age or disability and could be a part of democratic contestation as a rule-based activity.  He argued that statistics serve as a “technology of trust,” and that the image of perverse incentives to have children out of wedlock in order to qualify for funds was actually more complex in offering a range of types of benefits through grant programs.  He noted the importance of civil society’s “guerilla auditors” and cited the work of Kregg Heatherington on Paraguay to understand the political dynamic at work.

Given the scale of the country, however, there have been major implementation problems, such as how to connect more than 10 million pockets to the National Treasury.  The government’s contractor, NET1, has enrolled 21 million citizens in its biometric initiatives and may be as inclusive as mobile phones and propagates an ideology of objectivity and rationality.  Supposedly “ghosts” or duplicates were being removed from the system, but Donovan argued that this was actually a “myth,” and he quoted Speaking into the Air? A History of the Idea of Communication by JD Peters on doubts that “communications will solve the problem of communication” and “better wiring will eliminate the ghosts.”  Donovan also challenged the conceit that “bodies were stable unchanging repositories that could be turned into information in a database.”

Biometric failures seemed to be inevitable.  Furthermore, race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability were expressed in ways that fostered misidentification.  For example, a cut on a finger or a history of manual labor might inhibit accurate machine reading.  Nonetheless, this system was likely to continue in its present form, according to Donovan.  Many South Africans might be suspicious of fingerprinting, but they might also be in great need of cash.  They may even see the payments as “gifts” not entitlements and so put up with biometrics for the near future.  Without a strong privacy lobby or strong data integrity laws little was likely to change.

Donovan closed with more speculative remarks about the potential to depoliticize grantmaking and the intersection of biometrics with more contested financial practices.  He asserted that simplified technical systems only allowed for yes/no answers rather than processing more complicated questions about causes of poverty and might negate legitimate livelihood strategies as an impersonal machine replaces an understanding bureaucrat.  He called upon the theories of James C. Scott about “infrapolitics” to explain everyday acts of dissimulation such as grant fraud.  He also discussed how politics involve getting inside the “silver box” of the technological system and how the removal of subjective discretion is biased toward those that control the technology, for example, by quashing people’s own ways to gain access to these payments by sharing knowledge about eligibility.  South Africa has both a developed financial system and a large informal economy, which can exacerbate existing exploitation of the poor through automatic deductions.  Digital banking means digital data trails in “the dark side of financial inclusion.”  The “standardizing and formatting of the poor” have both positive and negative effects.

This panel about scams, betting, and fraud might not necessarily match the conventional financial services model and narrative of development, but these seemingly subversive practices do reveal how digital mobile money might have unintended consequences.  In characterizing financial inclusion, the words of an NGO official might say it all: “Financial inclusion means your money isn’t with you.”

Mobile Money, Network Power & Development as Freedom

The International Journal of Communication recently published an article I wrote on the implications of Kenya’s popular mobile money service, M-PESA, for Sen’s theory of development as freedom.

Mobile Money, More Freedom? The Impact of M-PESA’s Network Power on Development as Freedom

The role of ICTs in development is contested between those who believe they will facilitate human development and those who believe they are, at most, impotent, and at worst, counterproductive. This article uses an examination of M-PESA, a large-scale mobile financial service in Kenya, to argue that the impact of ICTs on development as freedom differs with both the specific conceptualization of freedom used, and the institutional arrangement of the technology in question. The article’s novel conceptual model links the adoption of mobile money to its impact, suggesting that the dominant individualistic and instrumental approaches to ICT4D overlook the ways in which power and domination function alongside freedom when these factors are considered relationally and substantively. I demonstrate that the internal plurality of the concept of freedom leads to both new forms of empowerment, but also to limitations on choice and new forms of dominance. In closing, I suggest institutional and technological arrangements that are most likely to maximize the development potential of mobile money.

The full version is available here.

Update: Thanks to Bill Maurer of IMTFI, this paper was featured in a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article entitled “Monopoly Power in Mobile Money.”