Capturing Indigenous Knowledge


A Kwakwaka’wakw canoe in 1910. Picture by Edward S. Curtis.

Engineering4Change highlights a video series about indigenous knowledge. From their article:

Thirteen video interviews in a YouTube playlist and a research paper expound the value of indigenous knowledge, the knowledge gleaned from the world throughout millennia that is not formally enshrined in academia. Ignoring indigenous knowledge can cripple engineering projects, and learning from it can enhance them, says Khanjan Mehta, Director of Penn State’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program.

Carolyn Sachs tells a story of women tending maize fields in Swaziland who ignored the advice from visiting agricultural scientists. The consultants said the farmers should weed their fields, but what looked like weeds to the visitors were actually dietary staples and a source of Vitamin A that the visitors did not recognize.

Bruce Martin explains how Ojibwe fishermen in northern Minnesota read the water to predict the location of the catch and the day’s weather forecast, sometimes better than fish-finding sonar and the local weather channel.

In another video, Audrey Maretzki tells the story of a woman in a nutri-business cooperative in Kenya who described the nutritional values of two grains. Boys raised on maize are fat and boys raised on finger millet are wiry and will beat the maize-fed boys in a fight, the woman said.

“That hit me like an ‘aha’ moment, because I knew that wimby [finger millet] was a more nutritious grain than corn. And to have her tell that in her own way was a recognition on my part that in fact there was a lot of knowledge there that we needed to figure out ways to capture,” Maretzki says in her interview.

The Internet in a Box

internet accessLow-Tech Magazine and No Tech Magazine have given permission to the WiderNet Project to distribute all of our content via the eGranary Digital Library to people lacking Internet access.

The WiderNet Project is a non-profit organization affiliated with the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill that promotes low-cost information and communication for underserved populations.

The eGranary Digital Library, also known as “The Internet in a Box”, is an off-line information storehouse that delivers educational resources to people living in underserved areas of the world.

  • In developing countries, many of the universities, schools, clinics and hospitals have no Internet connection.
  • Institutions that are connected to the Internet have such limited bandwidth that they cannot offer free Web browsing to the majority of their staff and students.
  • Bandwidth in Africa can cost up to 100 times what it costs in the U.S., so for some organizations a slim Internet connection can consume the equivalent of one-half their operating budget.
  • Even for those individuals who have the wherewithal to pay for Web browsing, the experience can be frustratingly slow — it can take hours to download a single audio file.

The eGranary Digital Library addresses these issues by moving a large assortment of educational Web documents onto the subscriber’s local area network (LAN) so that the documents can be made available to everyone within the institution freely and instantly.

Related article: How to Build a Low-tech Internet.

What Digital Does to Our Brains

Luis Quiles

Illustration by Luis Quiles

“It turns out that digital devices and software are finely tuned to train us to pay attention to them, no matter what else we should be doing. The mechanism, borne out by recent neuroscience studies, is something like this:

  • New information creates a rush of dopamine to the brain, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good.
  • The promise of new information compels your brain to seek out that dopamine rush.

With fMRIs, you can see the brain’s pleasure centres light up with activity when new emails arrive.

So, every new email you get gives you a little flood of dopamine. Every little flood of dopamine reinforces your brain’s memory that checking email gives a flood of dopamine. And our brains are programmed to seek out things that will give us little floods of dopamine. Further, these patterns of behaviour start creating neural pathways, so that they become unconscious habits: Work on something important, brain itch, check email, dopamine, refresh, dopamine, check Twitter, dopamine, back to work. Over and over, and each time the habit becomes more ingrained in the actual structures of our brains.”

Quoted from: Why Can’t We Read Anymore? The illustration was made by Luis Quiles — check out his work. Previously: Why the brain prefers to read on paper.

Why Facebook Subscribers Stopped Seeing Updates

facebook buttonFacebook now expects page-owners like Low-tech Magazine to pay in order to show updates to all their subscribers. We don’t plan to do this — except we have to do it for this post or almost nobody will read it.

If you are a FB-subscriber and you want be informed of new articles, there are two options:

Update: Since some people have asked for it, here is some more information about what happened precisely. Facebook still shows updates to about 10% of our subscribers. Until some weeks ago, each update was viewed by an average of 5,000 people, since then this has become an average of 500 people. This is in line with the observations by other page owners. The change has nothing to do with declining popularity: the new posts are not less popular than the ones before (which we can easily check by dividing views by likes and shares).

Facebook does what it wants, of course, but as a news consumer I don’t see the value of a news medium that selects news articles based on what publishers are willling to pay.

Appropriate Technology Publications Online

Engineering for change (E4C) reports about the publication of two new peer-reviewed journals dedicated to the use of technology in developing countries. Both are freely accessible online and may be of interest to Low-tech and No Tech Magazine readers.

ASME-DEMANDDemand, a publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), was launched in December 2013. It mixes case studies, stories and original reports from leaders in the sector’s fields. In the first edition, the US engineering professors Nathan Johnson at Arizona State University and Kenneth Bryden at Iowa State University place pieces in the unused cookstove puzzle with their own research in rural Mali. Other notable topics include low-cost and rugged wheelchair design, remote sensors for project evaluation, smokehoods reimagined to fight indoor air pollution and funding for social innovators. Read more about the launch of the new magazine.

The Journal of Humanitarian Engineering (JHE) was launched in May 2012. Two volumes have been published so far, and a third is on the way. The magazine, which is published by the Engineers Without Borders Institute in Melbourne, Australia, presents outcomes of research and field experiences at the intersection of technology and community development. “One of the wishes we’ve heard from experts in humanitarian design and engineering is for academia to keep pace with the rising interest in the field. Appropriate technology design and the invention of new devices, tools and infrastructure for use in regions with few resources has apparently had trouble gaining recognition in major universities. With a few notable exceptions, formal academic programs in appropriate technologies are rare, and academics have few outlets to publish their research. The JHE aims to fill this gap.” Read more about the initiative.

The Journal of Humanitarian Engineering (JHE) publishes outcomes of research and field experiences at the intersection of technology and community development. The field of ‘humanitarian engineering’ describes the application of engineering and technology for the benefit of disadvantaged communities. This field spans thematic areas from water to energy to infrastructure; and applications from disability access to poverty alleviation. The JHE aims to highlight the importance of humanitarian engineering projects and to inspire engineering solutions to solve the world’s most pertinent challenges. – See more at:
The Journal of Humanitarian Engineering (JHE) publishes outcomes of research and field experiences at the intersection of technology and community development. The field of ‘humanitarian engineering’ describes the application of engineering and technology for the benefit of disadvantaged communities. This field spans thematic areas from water to energy to infrastructure; and applications from disability access to poverty alleviation. The JHE aims to highlight the importance of humanitarian engineering projects and to inspire engineering solutions to solve the world’s most pertinent challenges. – See more at:

Demand and JHE join a growing library of publications that specialize in “global development technologies”. Appropriate Technology has been around since 2003, while Makeshift saw the light in 2011. These magazines have to be paid for. More publications and academic programs can be found here. Previously: How to make everything yourself: online low-tech resources.

Directory of Open Access Journals

Open access journals“The aim of the Directory of Open Access Journals is to increase the
visibility and ease of use of open access scientific and scholarly
journals thereby promoting their increased usage and impact. The
Directory aims to be comprehensive and cover all open access scientific
and scholarly journals that use a quality control system to guarantee
the content. In short a one stop shop for users to Open Access Journals.”

Especially interesting for Low-tech and No Tech Magazine readers are the journals in the categories History, Archaeology, Technology & Engineering, and Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Dedicated to Aaron Swartz. Also: #PDF Tribute to Aaron Swarz (via TechCrunch), a mass protest uploading of copyright-protected research articles. Previously: Censors of Knowledge.

People Are Knowledge: The Oral Citations Project

“The Oral Citations Project is a strategic research project funded by a Wikimedia Foundation grant to help overcome a lack of published material in emerging languages on Wikipedia. The idea behind the project is a simple one. Wikipedia privileges printed knowledge (books, journals, magazines, newspapers and more) as authentic sources of citable material. This is understandably so, for a lot of time and care goes into producing this kind of printed material, and restricting citation sources makes the enterprise workable. But books – and printed words generally – are closely correlated to rich economies: Europe, North America, and a small section of Asia.”

Oral citations“In India and South Africa, for instance, (to take just two countries in the rest of the world), the number of books produced per year is nowhere close to, say, the number of books produced in the UK. What this means for indigenous language Wikipedias from India and South Africa is that there is very little citable, printed material to rely on in those languages; in turn, it means that it is very difficult for any of those languages to grow on Wikipedia. (There is a related problem: writing this local knowledge on English Wikipedia is a task similarly hampered by a lack of good printed sources).”

“As a result of this disparity, everyday, common knowledge – things that are known, observed and performed by millions of people – cannot enter Wikipedia as units of fact because they haven’t been written down in a reliably published source.This means that not only do small-language Wikipedias in countries like India and South Africa lose out on opportunities for growth, so also does the Wikimedia movement as a whole lose out on the potential expansion of scope in every language.”

Description of the project, audio files, movie and links to news articles can all be found on this page. Via Appropedia.

Why Preserve Books?

Books in shipping containers“Digital technologies are changing both how library materials are accessed and increasingly how library materials are preserved. After the Internet Archive digitizes a book from a library in order to provide free public access to people world-wide, these books go back on the shelves of the library. We noticed an increasing number of books from these libraries moving to “off site repositories” to make space in central buildings for more meeting spaces and work spaces. These repositories have filled quickly and sometimes prompt the de-accessioning of books. A library that would prefer to not be named was found to be thinning their collections and throwing out books based on what had been digitized by Google. While we understand the need to manage physical holdings, we believe this should be done thoughtfully and well.” Read more: Why preserve books? The Physical Archive of the Internet Archive.

When Low-Tech Goes IKEA

when lowtech goes ikea

What happens when two industrial design students from Sweden end up in Kenya creating a pedal powered machine for small-scale farmers who are often illiterate and speak more than 60 languages? You get a do-it-yourself design that seems to have come out of the IKEA factories – pictoral manuals included.

“Made in Kenya”, the bachelor project of Niklas Kull and Gabriella Rubin, is a textbook example of low-tech made accessible to everybody, regardless of their native tongue and language skills.

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Censors of Knowledge

JSTOR1 “This archive contains 18,592 scientific publications totaling 33GiB, all from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and which should be available to everyone at no cost, but most have previously only been made available at high prices through paywall gatekeepers like JSTOR. Limited access to the documents here is typically sold for $19 USD per article, though some of the older ones are available as cheaply as $8. Purchasing access to this collection one article at a time would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Whether or not you are interested in the publications, the accompanying manifest written by Greg Maxwell deserves to be read. Find a summary below. Original manifest + download here. Via Edwin Mijnsbergen.

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