Decolonial Computing

Topic Description

Analogous to the way in which feminist theory has been used by researchers such as Lucy Suchman and Alison Adam to inform the development of a critical perspective on HCI and AI, it is important to explore how other kinds of critical theory might be applied to computing and related disciplines. This is because in addition to contributing novel insights into how the design and use of computing technologies might be improved, critical engagement with computing and ICT can be used to inform computing / ICT policy – social, political, economic, and cultural, both local and global – with a view to enhancing social justice.

One recent proposal in this area is 'post-colonial computing' (Irani et al. 2010) (Dourish and Mainwaring 2012) (Philip et al. 2012) which draws upon various ideas from postcolonial studies and postcolonial theory to mount critiques of HCI, ubiquitous computing (or ubicomp) and ICT4D (ICT for Development). While important and useful, an arguably more radical proposal is that of 'decolonial computing' (Ali 2014, In Press) which foregrounds considerations of power, embodiment and situatedness in relation to issues of knowledge production and ways of knowing (or epistemology) more clearly.

In pursuing a 'decolonial computing' agenda, there is a need to develop one or more hermeneutic (or interpretative) frameworks that can be used to inform critical investigations of computational, informational, cybernetic, systems theoretical and Trans- / Post-human phenomena.

Disciplines that lend themselves to be applied in the development of such frameworks include embodied phenomenology, critical race theory, postcolonial theory and decolonial thinking, and can be used to engage with various areas of computing and ICT including artificial intelligence (Turing Test, situated robotics), ubicomp (embodiment and social embedding) and ICT4D.

Specific topics might be:

• How can concepts in phenomenology, critical (race) theory and post-colonial / decolonial thought be used to inform the ethical design and use of computing and ICT technologies?

• How can post-colonial computing be decolonised so as to further enhance the ethical design and use of computing and ICTs?

• In Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction (2001), HCI theorist Paul Dourish appeals to the existential phenomenology of Martin Heidegger and, more importantly, to ideas of embodied perception articulated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty to develop a framework for ubicomp (ubiquitous computing). Insofar as the body in Merleau-Ponty's scheme is un-raced / de-raced (that is, without race), it might be regarded, paradoxically, as both concrete and abstract (in the sense of universal). What would it mean for ubicomp to problematize its conception of embodiment from a critical race theoretical perspective informed, for example, by the decolonial thinking of Frantz Fanon?

• How can computing / ICT in the 'periphery' of the contemporary world system be designed and used in ways that do not re-inscribe the distinction and asymmetric power relationships between 'the West' and 'the Rest', local and global etc.?

• In How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (1999), N. Katherine Hayles critically analysed the Turing Test from a feminist perspective, focusing her enquiry on issues of gender and embodiment. What would it mean to examine the Turing Test from a critical race theory perspective in terms of notions such as mimesis', 'passing' and 'invisibility'?

• Insofar as HCI and ubicomp engage with issues of agency and social situatedness (or embeddedness), to what extent do such disciplines lend themselves to 'decolonisation' with respect to how agency and society are conceived in such disciplines?

Skills Required:

The candidate must be capable of, and comfortable in, engaging with a range of different disciplines. They must have a good grounding in ubicomp, HCI, social science and/or philosophy, and be able also to work with either historical or social research methods.

Background Reading:

Ali, S.M. (In Press) A Brief Introduction to Decolonial Computing. XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students.

Ali, S.M. (2015) Orientalism and/as Information: The Indifference That Makes a Difference. DTMD 2015: 3rd International Conference. In: ISIS Summit Vienna 2015 – The Information Society at the Crossroads, 3 – 7 June 2015, Vienna, Austria.

Ali, S.M. (2014) Towards a Decolonial Computing. In Ambiguous Technologies: Philosophical issues, Practical Solutions, Human Nature: Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Computer Ethics – Philosophical Enquiry (CEPE 2013). Edited by Elizabeth A. Buchanan, Paul B, de Laat, Herman T. Tavani and Jenny Klucarich. Portugal: International Society of Ethics and Information Technology, pp.28-35.

Ali, S.M. (2013) Race: The Difference That Makes a Difference. tripleC 11 (1): 93-106.

Dourish, P. and Mainwaring, S. (2012) Ubicomp’s Colonial Impulse. Proc. ACM Conf. Ubiquitous Computing Ubicomp 2012 (Pittsburgh, PA).

Irani, L., Vertesi, J., Dourish, P., Philip, K. and Grinter, R.E. (2010) Postcolonial computing: A Lens on Design and development. Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI 2010. Atlanta, Georgia, USA, April 10-15, 2010.

Philip, K., Irani, L. and Dourish, P. (2012) Postcolonial computing: A Tactical Survey. Science, Technology & Human Values 37(1): 3-29.

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Mustafa Ali