The Big Frame: Community Informatics
How do we come to know ourselves? And how do others come to know us? These questions, both practical and philosophical, are fundamental to the fabric of community life. Philosophy and psychology have long struggled with these questions. This philosophy is not isolated to the ivory tower; indeed, it is rooted in, and returns its ideas to, the practice of everyday life. What do we ask when we meet a new person? What do we already presume to know? What might we never come to know, or only through the right sequence of events be let into? What does this person not even know about themselves? What might they learn through our knowing of them, and vice versa? The ways we ask and answer these questions cleaves to the communities we come from. The questions and answers reveal our origins and our journeys along the way, these journeys themselves shaped by the conversations with groups, individuals, and events of life.
Increasingly these interpersonal, and fundamentally inconsistent, organic, emotional, and human modes of becoming are being replaced by technical ones. We are known and thus, come to know ourselves, through machines that track us, analyze us, and then spit back out to us the stories of our lives. The probabilistic understanding of human behavior becomes eventually predictive, and then finally, prescriptive. From computers to social media to finance to school, this machine intervention subtly and invisibly transforms us into cyborgs – part human, part machine. Through artificial intelligence and massive big data collection, we are treated as machines, and thus perhaps also become them. Our hardware becomes modified by the physical apparatus of our lives – phones, watches, rings, glasses, headphones, laptops, home devices – they are omnipresent. And thus we are always known. And these interfaces, in turn, interpret and intervene in our lives. Thus the material infrastructural machine is built, and from there, the psychological machine can be constructed. Where once our fellow humans demanded our attention by virtue of their presence alone, our devices now control our attention. There are many wonderful stories and important research about human resistance to these methods of control, attempts to gain agency in the world of machines, and though these are real, they are not enough. Nor do they manifest in much real resistance. The access terminals to our mind-body are well-established and will only become more so. Now these terminals will be put to use to machine-ify the mind as well.
My research analyzes the ways this machinification (I argue, a new form of colonization) of the mind is taking place. As the research continues, I will post more about it on the blog.
Community informatics is a field that has long-existed in an attempt to understand and even improve the interactions between communities and technology. I believe the machinification of the mind-body is taking place both at the level of individuals and communities. But I believe it will be resisted most successfully at the level of communities. Individuals alone don’t stand a chance. While some community informatics efforts feel supercilious (“look, I used a Raspberry Pi computer and some sensors to monitor my community garden”), others are important and significant. I align my work with the practitioners of Community Informatics that critically analyze the impacts of technology, and make attempts to bend that technology into service for “the people.” Scholar Dan McQuillan presented a historical analysis of Luddism at a conference I attended recently, in which he offered that Luddites were not against technology per se, but rather against technology that was not in service of “the people.” As most technological innovation seems to be increasingly in service of capitalism and some new forms of colonization, I think we would be better served if more and more of us came to consider ourselves like the Luddites.
I align myself with Community Informatics, more so than Critical Technology Studies, because I see the latter as too uninterested in the practical matters of resistance and transformation. While Community Informatics may be uncritical at times, I find the energy more hopeful, the work more accessible, and the focus on practical matters to all be in better alignment with the values of most communities I’ve been a member of or with whom I’ve collaborated. Though I hate that it needs to be emphasized (I wish it were simply part of the definition), I’m believe that the only worthwhile Community Informatics is one that is also participatory, critical, and decolonizing in its methodologies. The work necessarily cuts across many disciplines, and for me includes not only the above, but also psychology, political science, anthropology, and philosophy. In my research and practice, I study the many methodologies that can be used to accomplish this work.
If Capitalist/Colonial Informatics represent the ways that capitalist and colonizing forces develop physical and psychological terminals via which to control us, I see Community Informatics as an alternative model. It returns us to the questions above and offers us opportunities to come to know each other and ourselves in both old and new ways. But fundamentally, it seeks to exorcise, interrupt, resist or transform the Capitalist/Colonial infestation of these questions of becoming. Like many other projects seeking such change, I see Community Informatics as always and necessarily overlapping and intersectional with all forms of injustice – systemic and interpersonal.
I’ve published several articles on this work and there are a couple more in the pipeline:
- Fink, A., & VeLure Roholt, R. (2022). Surfacing Human Service Organizations’ Data Use Practices: Toward a Critical Performance Measurement Framework. The Journal of Community Informatics, 18. https://doi.org/10.15353/joci.v18i1.4712
- Fink, A., & Brito, M. (2020). Real Big Data: How We Know Who We Know in Youth Work. Child & Youth Services, 1–29. https://doi.org/10.1080/0145935X.2020.1832888
- Fink, A. (2018). Bigger data, less wisdom: The need for more inclusive collective intelligence in social service provision. AI & Society, 33(1), 61–70. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00146-017-0719-2
How do models of Capitalist/Colonial Informatics develop the necessary scaffolding and support structures to operate and expand? How do they project their efforts beyond the requirements of scientific or logical justification? My research investigates the operations of these infrastructures and standardizations, documenting their forms and functions to reveal both their relative arbitrariness (in response to their self-proclaimed Truths) and their effects. An active example of this includes attempts to standardize a model of understanding the social and psychological development of children and youth, called “Social Emotional Learning.” Once this has been standardized, it can be used as an infrastructure for the creation of technologies that dataify, analyze, and promote specific interventions in children’s lives based on scientific necessity. The ways that this particular model of measuring Social Emotional Learning will then eventually become obscured, replaced with the message that asserts, “this is the way things are done because the research has shown it to be the best – and if you question it, you are not invested in our children.” Just like the infrastructures of our cities are built on standards known by very few, the infrastructures of our families and communities are being rapidly rewritten by a few so-called “experts.”
However, I believe there have been infrastructures for community self-understanding and knowledge sharing throughout history that have been in service of “the people.” I hope to dedicate equal study to these incredible efforts because they offer pathways forward for the rest of us. I wrote about one such effort in a paper for youth workers about the community informatics infrastructure of the civil rights movement.
How do we resist the Informatics of Capital and Colonization? While historical study offers perspective on the development of alternative informatics infrastructures for communities and this analysis does provide significant insight, it cannot offer an actual plan for how to develop community-based informatics infrastructures for today. We need strategies that work now.
Increasingly, the Informatics of Capital and Colonization seep into everything. In my work, I most often see this through the lens of social services and nonprofit organizations, especially ones that work with young people. Having long worked in program evaluation, I’ve watched as the field has become increasingly data-obsessed and technocratic. As a partner with many colleagues and several wonderful organizations, I’ve been part of the evolution of an approach to organizational and programmatic understanding that aligns with the methodological and ethical commitments of my understanding of Community Informatics. We have come to refer to this ethical-methodological approach a Learning Partnership, to communicate both the focus and method of the work. I am currently part of Learning Partnerships with several organizations focused on youth leadership development.
We are regularly studying the many roots of this model, and further developing it by drawing from diverse practices. These include: Developmental Evaluation, Participatory Action Research, Decolonizing Methodologies, and Adaptive Leadership. I’ve written articles that relate to these topics through evaluation (also here), leadership education (also here and here), I’ve also tried to understand how this works in teaching online.