Digital Colonialism

Free Basics, Facebook’s free, limited internet service for developing markets, is neither serving local needs nor achieving its objective of bringing people online for the first time.

“Facebook is not introducing people to open internet where you can learn, create and build things,” said Ellery Biddle, advocacy director of Global Voices. “It’s building this little web that turns the user into a mostly passive consumer of mostly western corporate content. That’s digital colonialism.”

Read more: How Facebook’s free internet service has failed its users.
Previously: How to build a low-tech internet.

The Screenless Office

Current interface culture is dominated by a few large corporatate players: google/Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft. For many of us who spend countless hours working, socializing and amusing ourselves while using technical media, these powerful players have a huge influence on our experience of everyday life. Our perception of the world around us and how we see ourselves in, it is mediated by the decisions of a few privileged managers, programmers and designers, mostly male and white on the west coast of the United States. To suggest any other way of living in a networked society is to risk being percieved as blasphemous, uncool, out-of-touch, escapist or simply absurd. These interfaces have become so embedded in our conception of reality that we now have a crisis of the imagination, where it is difficult to even think of anything different.

Removing the screen is a radical gesture denying conformity to the dominating forces of contemporary interface culture. By getting rid of the display, we force digital text and images back into the old conventions of print culture. While this might have a superficial, nostalgic appeal, more importantly, it puts us into the role of acting like amateur media archeologists, investigating the history of modern visual, literary and bureaucratic systems both technical and social. At the same time, by taking newer forms of digital media and packing it into the old container of print, we open up a new experimental field of analog-digital hybrid forms. Our goal is to discover and invent novel ways of living in the digital world which might be more informal, expressive and embodied.

The Screenless Office is a system for working with media and networks without using a pixel-based display. It is an artistic operating system. The office presents a radically alternative form of everyday human interaction with media. It is constructed using free/libre/open hard- and software components, especially for print, databases, web-scraping and tangible interaction. Currently, it exists as a working prototype with software “bureaus” which allow a user to read and navigate news, web sites and social media entirely with the use of various printers for output and a barcode scanner for input. While our existing software allows for interesting new ways of consuming media, we are currently working to expand the system to make it capable of publishing content and thereby, enabling a provocative possibility for active participation in contemporary social life.

Quoted from: The Screenless Office. Via Jeu de paume espace virtuel, May 2017.

Rebuilding, Testing and Documenting Self-Made Wi-Fi Antennas

Pretty Fly For A Wi-Fi revisits the histories, origins and uses of self-made Wi-Fi antennas. Many of these designs were once shared through home pages that no longer exist and are now only partially accessible through the Internet Archive. It is a combination of pots and pans, dishes and cans through which people from around the world give shape to their collective dream of making an alternative internet.

This project tries to revive these designs by rebuilding, testing and documenting them. The antennas serve as an interesting point of departure to think about the internet’s infrastructure and how day-to-day users could potentially influence its shape and use.

Most of the antennas result out of the idea of wireless community networks, an idea which emerged shortly after the commercial introduction of Wi-Fi equipment in the early 2000s. These grassroots initiatives aim to build alternative network infrastructures, often on a peer-to-peer basis and without the need for costly wires. Such network infrastructures can be found on rooftops, balconies and windowsills and can cover large distances by broadcasting from building to building.

They are built for a variety of reasons, sometimes to provide broadband connections in areas where there are none, to make censorship free alternatives to the internet or to share the costs of a single internet connection.

More: Roel Roscam Abbing’s website (pictures) & Lídia Pereira’s booklet (drawings, PDF).

Previously: How to Build a Low-tech Internet.

The Pirate Book

The Pirate Book offers a broad view on media piracy as well as a variety of comparative perspectives on recent issues and historical facts regarding piracy. It contains a compilation of texts on grass­roots situations whose stories describe strategies developed to share, distribute and experience cultural content outside of the confines of local economies, politics or laws.

These stories recount the experiences of individuals from India, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, Mali and China. The book is structured in four parts and begins with a collection of stories on piracy dating back to the invention of the printing press and expanding to broader issues (historical and modern anti­piracy technologies, geographically­ specific issues, as well as the rules of the Warez scene, its charters, structure and visual culture…).

The Pirate Book. Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska, 2015. Picture: a code wheel, a type of copy protection used on older computer games.

Thanks to Melle Smets.

Capturing Indigenous Knowledge

Kwakiutl-Boat

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: http://www.ewb.org.au/explore/knowledgehubs/education/journal#sthash.QPQnfYzI.dpuf
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: http://www.ewb.org.au/explore/knowledgehubs/education/journal#sthash.QPQnfYzI.dpuf

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.