Reflections on the politics of African ‘limitations’ in HCI research

Authors: Muhammad Adamu, Shaimaa Lazem
Posted: Tue, July 05, 2022 - 10:46:44

Last year, I read Shaimaa’s reflection on how Indigenous cultures and folk heritage may act as a steppingstone for sustainability in the absence of resources [1]. This led to extensive correspondence with her on how lessons from Saeed El Masry’s book [2] can reframe the common dualities of scarcity and sufficiency found in African perspectives on innovation in HCI. We pondered the question of how we, as researchers and practitioners, can challenge as well as celebrate the “lacks” and “gaps” connotations affixed to HCI development in Africa. This blog thereby offers a different reading of the meaning of terms such as limits and scarcity, showing how such terms entail considerable future thinking and planning efforts. Our reflection has more to do with the politics of naming and the power dynamics underpinning the internalization of such narratives in mainstream discourses, and less to do with the practices of design research in African communities where supposedly these limitations are amplified. We draw upon existing decolonial works that explore the politics of computing research within the African context [3,4].
It is our understanding that terms such as resource-challenged, resource-constrained, underserved, and underresourced are used to represent the unfortunate realities of global inequalities. Such terms in HCI discourse mirror a certain worldview of what constitutes scarcity and sufficiency in computing and are often associated with the limited adoption of modern state-of-the-art computing technologies (e.g., smartphones, AI, drones, VR). Our concern with such a way of thinking about Africa is that it unintentionally reproduces interventionalist narratives that suggest how the introduction of technological innovation can bring about economic and material prosperity. The use of the term introduction here is deliberate as it denotes how dominant social imaginaries have cemented the thinking that Africa is not a site of innovation, and that technocratic thinking and modern technologies are the only way out of its predicament. Our frustration here is that the common narrative of lacks and gaps reduces social life in African communities to a set of problems that need computational solutions, a view in which digital technologies are necessary to catch up or transition to Western ideals of progress. This way of thinking thus pushes for the politics of organizing knowledge against a backdrop of consumerist development models that are undesirable and unsustainable.

Additionally, the performativity of limits and scarcity centers certain kinds of utilities over others, thus bringing to the fore economic, infrastructural, and technological products and pushing to the periphery human capital, natural resources, and Indigenous knowledge with which Africa is notably wealthy. Arguably, foregrounding the former repeats simplified accounts of Africa as a historical site for the extraction/production of raw materials and Africans as passive consumers of processed end products. Such accounts of African users invited us to question the extent to which the limits of the computing technologies could have been misrepresented as the limits of its users. Imagine for a moment that, instead of text, early computer interfaces relied heavily on embodied interaction and voice as the main interaction modality; that would have been a better fit with the oral traditions of some African communities [5]. As such, literacies would not have been emphasized as a limitation in the way it’s been presented in mainstream technological discourse.
To provoke different thinking about limitations in Africa, research has shown how folk practices of food preservation were adopted in Cairo as a mechanism to plan and cope with food scarcity [2]. In some districts of old Cairo, ensuring food security involves a considerable amount of planning that must be dynamic and resilient in coping with the changes in the availability of resources (e.g., unfixed income). The number of daily meals, their timing, and the content of meals are planned so that, for instance, planning the biggest meals for dinner guarantees that the person will have enough energy to get through the next day without needing breakfast. The leftover food is used as a supplement for next-day meals and snacks, and recipes are made to keep expensive food items for a long time [2].

Another example of different thinking around limitations is the adoption of the cultural model of Igwebuikem (i.e., strength in numbers) in rebuilding the community wealth of the Biafran communities of Southern Nigeria [6]. Among the Igbo tribe, shared prosperity was considered a political instrument for futuring in the aftermath of the Nigerian civil war. The Biafran civil war brought about the need for building communal solidarity in coping with the dynamic situation of hardship and tribulation—from which the Igbo apprentice systems came about as a scalable entrepreneurship program that built upon the commonwealth of the community [6]. Through its adoption as a localized model for building business ecosystems, communities were able to identify the strength of the collective, learn from each other, and scale-up instruments for rebuilding community wealth. The point raised here is that conditions of scarcity demand situated knowing that does not rely on the limitations of the past but rather on the possibilities that a differentiated thinking about the present might offer to the performance of the future.  
From the two historical scenarios of future thinking in the Old Cairo and Biafran communities, one can identify the resourcefulness that accompanies a different reading of limits and scarcity, showing how communities continuously innovate new ways of balancing present living conditions with future ones. By bringing to focus the politics associated with limitation as a concept and a reality, we are seeking to problematize its current use in HCI projects taking place in Africa. Recent efforts in HCI have been critical of technology solutionism, highlighting the nuances surrounding the use of technology as well as the importance of considering contextual and cultural specificities in design (e.g., the work of Kentaro Toyama, author of the seminal book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology). We’re nonetheless concerned with how dominant HCI has framed interaction design from the Global South in relation to development, design, and context, which has led to alternative framings of African design in HCI (e.g., the postcolonial, Indigenous, and decolonial approaches to design). Following decolonial thinking, our reflection sought to elaborate on this concern by bringing to the fore the geopolitics of technology solutionism and the interventionist narrative associated with it as Western ideologies that reproduce the imaginary of primitiveness and backwardness in relation to African innovation, and where postcolonial baggage and the promise of pop development—or the development that doesn’t really develop—remain. We argue that a differentiated identity for African innovation does not require a distinction between the unacknowledged past and the unfortunate present but rather recognizes how the relations between the past and the present give rise to the future.

The message from this short reflection should not be understood as shying away from inequalities and masking struggles resulting from socioeconomic limitations. Rather, we invite ourselves and the HCI community to rethink the “incomplete” realities we might portray and perpetuate when we only focus on and communicate lacks and gaps to inspire research encounters for and with communities from Africa. As African scholars, our hope, by sharing personal reflections, is to encourage HCI researchers to rethink the terms used in research framing and dissemination in light of colonial histories and the realities of globalization. Our call to action is to encourage HCI researchers, ourselves included, to reflect on the limit of the “limitations” described in HCI research, and to exercise humility in articulating the potential mismatch between the users and the technology introduced to them, bearing in mind the context technology was designed from and deployed to, and the worldviews that might be represented.

1. Lazem, S. What are you reading? Shaimaa Lazem. Interactions 26, 5 (2019), 12–13.
2. El Masry, S. Reproduction of Folk Heritage: How Poor Cling to Life in the Context of Scarcity. Cairo Supreme Council of Culture, 2013.
3. Bidwell, N.J. Decolonising HCI and interaction design discourse: Some considerations in planning AfriCHI. XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students 22, 4 (2016), 22–27.
4. Lazem, S., Giglitto, D., Nkwo, M.S., Mthoko, H., Upani, J., and Peters, A. Challenges and paradoxes in decolonising HCI: A critical discussion. Comput Supported Coop Work 31 (2022), 1–38.
5. Allela, M.A. Technological speculations for African oral storytelling: Implication of creating expressive embodied conversational agents. Proc. of the Second African Conference for Human-Computer Interaction: Thriving Communities. ACM, New York, 2018, 1–4.
6. Kanu, C.C. The context of Igwebuike: What entrepreneurship development systems in Africa can learn from the Igbo apprenticeship system. AMAMIHE Journal of Applied Philosophy 18, 1 (2020).

Posted in: on Tue, July 05, 2022 - 10:46:44

Muhammad Adamu

Muhammad Adamu is a postdoctoral researcher in ImaginationLancaster, a design-led research lab at Lancaster University. His research focuses on developing approaches to the design and deployment of Indigenous technologies with and for African communities. [email protected]
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Shaimaa Lazem

Shaimaa Lazem is an Egyptian associate research professor at the City of Scientific Research and Technology Applications (SRTA-City). She completed her Ph.D. in HCI from Virginia Tech. She is interested in HCI in non-Western cultural contexts, participatory design, and decolonizing HCI. She is the cofounder of the Arab-HCI community ( [email protected]
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