Cite as: Pei, Lucy. 2019. Research Program Description. University of California. November. http://centerforethnography.org/content/lucy-pei-research-program/essay

Lucy's Bio

Lucy Pei is a PhD student in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. She is advised by Professor Roderic Crooks. In light of the popular and tempting proposition of technology for social good is a popular and very tempting proposition, Lucy's research looks critically at how technology intervention is framed. She is interested in how harms and extractions are also distributed alongside benefits for marginalized communities. Lucy's research seeks to collaborate with communities to develop ways to engage openly with the downsides of technological intervention while still trying to help benefits of technology reach a wider audience. She is particularly interested in how immigrant and resettled refugee communities adopt digital technologies in the context of community literacy centers. Lucy holds a BA in Global Studies and Human Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon University.

Lucy's Research Program

This research program seeks to ethnographically understand the implications of technology for social good (including Information and Communication Technology for Development, ICTD). Researchers have evaluated methods of conducting ICTD, reported on their experiences attempting it, created frameworks of why it fails. Scholars have dismissed the projects of development and aid as neocolonial endeavors. Is there a way for technologists to practice an ethics of care and engage with systematically disadvantaged communities without re-entrenching inequalities and colonial relations?

By ethnographically studying the makers and receivers of the promises of ICTD, and the discourses, material infrastructures, designs, and spaces of such projects, this research program pushes at the contradictions between trying to help, seeking help, and perpetuating inequality and domination. 

Photo Essay

Technology For Social Good: Visual Tropes

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Facebook Free Basics Website Screenshot

This image, on the home page of the Free Basics/ Internet.org project by Facebook, is typical of the visual tropes that are expressed by the technologists involved in Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICTD) and related technology-for-social-good projects. The image is centered on a digital artifact, in this case a mobile phone, held by brown hands. The smiling face is blurry and mostly out of the frame. It would seem that the hands being brown and the background being a blurry beige are enough to signal that this is a context where free internet is needed. 

Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) Texbook Cover

This is the cover of the first dedicated textbook to the topic of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). The cover repeats the visual trope we saw in the Facebook Free Basics website image: the image centers on a digital artifact, held in a brown hand. This time there are beaded bracelets on the hands and a colorful scarf in the background. Again, these appear to be what indexes the image as being technology for a context that needs development.

Banner of Michigan ICTD (Lab) Website

Here we see another image that repeats the centrality of brown hands. This time instead of a mobile phone, the image is centered on the hand pointing at what appears to be a colorful printout of a digitally-created artifact. The background is a woven straw mat and the woman wears a print garment that does not appear Western. The research group is highly successful in publications and in projects that have produced desired impacts. Members of the lab have also produced critiques of ICTD and its attendant problems. 

Protesting the Facebook Shark

This image, found in this WIRED article about Facebook’s Free Basics and Internet.org projects, shows protesters holding hand-drawn posters against Facebook’s Free Basics. I love the drawing of a blue sock-like Facebook shark with a hook in its mouth, Free Basics as the bait. This poster and the act of the protest show the contested nature of projects that claim to be tech-for-social-good, where Facebook’s claims to philanthropy, human rights, and more equitable digital access are portrayed as fronts for profit capture and digital colonialism.

Optimistic Perspectives from the World Bank

This infographic from the World Bank hails mobile phone proliferation as a huge development success.

Toward Assets-Based Design

My prior work, in collaboration with Bonnie Nardi, looked at how varying engagements with existing community assets and novelty could increase the potential for sustainable impact in technological interventions. We published a paper at the alt.chi track of ACM CHI Human Factors in Computing Systems titled "We Did It Right, But It Was Still Wrong: Toward Assets-Based Design" in 2019.

Protesting Facebook's Free Basics as "Digital Colonialism"

Headline from the Guardian: 

'It's Digital Colonialism': how Facebook's free internet service has failed its users

"Free Basics, built for developing markets, focuses on ‘western corporate content’ and violates net neutrality principles, researchers say". Free Basics, which is supposed to offer free internet in less-connected areas, is often framed as a social-good endeavor by the tech company Facebook. This is being contested by the supposed beneficiaries of the project.

A Cynical Perspective

This meme, for which I could not find an attribution, illustrates a more cynical view of tech-for-good projects. When governments of wealthy countries provide aid money for tech-for-good projects conditional on continued political and economic conditions that prevent local-owned industry or fair labor laws, it is like offering the hand and leaving the ladder out of sight. When multi-billionaire tech companies offer non-net-neutral Internet that enrolls impoverished people in “emerging markets” in extractive relationships (extractive of attention, time, emotion, money, labor, and natural resources) under the guise of providing “internet as a human right”,  it is a failure help in good faith.

Pouring in Money

This ongoing EU-sponsored competition (closing first quarter of 2020) invites submissions for 5 million euros of funding:

"The challenge is to develop innovative solutions for the delivery of humanitarian aid based on frugal application of advanced technologies."