By G. Edzordzi Agbozo
Purpose: This study re-examines contemporary localization theory to understand the shortcomings of the theory using the case of a state-sponsored postcolonial technology localization project. I call for centering the analysis of the power reticulations in context-specific technology localization.
Method: I engaged in extensive review of existing research on the subject and conducted ethnographic and digital surveys with users and non-users of the technology I studied. This method provided nuanced perspectives on technology localization for a grounded user experience analysis.
Results: Against current theoretical assumptions that support localization in user contexts as the solution to the chasm between developer culture and user culture, I argue that the reticular nature of power and developers’ neglect of users’ geo-epistemology also create a chasm within localization at users’ sites.
Conclusion: We need to examine the complex work of power in user contexts as part of a holistic theory on technology localization in user contexts. Thus, current assumptions must be revised. This revision must insist on the primary role of users’ worldings in localization. The context of the postcolony provides a privileged insight into theorizing technology localization and must not be seen only as a “kingdom of ethnography” (Mbembe, 2021, p. 14).
KEYWORDS: GhanaPostGPS, postcolony, power reticulations, social justice, technology localization
- Developer-user nexus is entangled with multi-layered levels of power even when localizing technologies at users’ sites. Even if developers and users live in the same context, they will not automatically understand the needs of each other.
- Practitioners must be intentional in integrating potential users into the localization process. This intentionality of users’ involvement must be accompanied with patience, humility, and respect for users’ epistemologies.
- Technology localization work must advocate for technological equity—the fair and just participation of marginalized people to ensure social, economic, and political inclusion.
- We must center the study of use and non-use in understanding complex context-specific technologies.
As Technical and Professional Communication (TPC) moves beyond the geographical confines of the ‘developed’ world, the field has yet to sufficiently pay attention to the geopolitical contexts into which it is moving and the technologies emerging from these spaces. The lack of such attention prevents us from seeing, analyzing, and theorizing the underlying complexities of hegemonic power in technology adoption, localization, and use. International Technical Communication (ITC) has tasked itself to examine contexts outside of the ‘developed’ world. Yet, besides investigating varied choices of localized technologies such as biometric election technology in Ghana (Dorpenyo, 2020), biomedical technologies in Nepal (Acharya, 2019), and mobile phone technologies in China (Sun, 2006), we have not analyzed technologies that are either created, conceptualized, concretized, compromised, or localized in the Global South.
The question of “context” to which ITC set out to respond still lingers. That is, where do we localize so that we can produce the most satisfying technological solutions for users? To fully respond to such a task, we need to move beyond analyzing localized technologies—those repurposed for specific contexts other than their original contexts of production— and pay attention to local technologies—those that are either created, conceptualized, concretized, or compromised in their contexts of use—as well. Such a move is important in providing a holistic perspective on technology localization—a theory that draws on the complexity of context especially as mediated by hegemonic forces that influence agency in specific domains. I provide such a perspective in this article focusing on Ghana, a postcolonial country in West Africa and the country’s attempt at creating a geo-location technology to solve the challenges of location finding.
I argue throughout this article that understanding the pernicious dichotomy of power and user experiences are important in how we revise current assumptions about the chasm between technology developer context and user context. This revision will allow us to see clearly how localization in user contexts does not necessarily overcome the cultural, political, ideological, and linguistic challenges associated with localized technologies and their documentation as we have held so far in the field (see for instance, Acharya, 2019; Agboka, 2013; Dorpenyo, 2020; Sun, 2006). In the rest of the article, I briefly revisit the problem of ‘context’ in technology localization. I then describe the artifact of my analysis—GhanaPostGPS— as well as the social justice issues that arise from the creation and use of this technology. I further provide evidence from a designer and users’ accounts to support my argument that localization at users’ contexts does not necessarily overcome localization challenges. I conclude the article with an invitation to technology localization practitioners and theorists in our field to pay attention to local worlding to improve user experience. By local worlding, I mean the transformations that are already happening in users’ sites—technologically cathecting without salvific interferences—in response to their own needs.
TECHNOLOGY LOCALIZATION AND THE QUESTION OF CONTEXT
Localization, according to Hoft (1995), is “the process of creating or adapting an information product for use in a specific target country or specific target market” (p. 11). Thus, technology localization is the process of making a technological product fit into the technical and cultural milieu of specific user contexts. Technology localization practitioners have long been accused of engaging in localization as a process of adding or tweaking some features on technical objects in order to accommodate the cultures into which these technical objects are being transferred without being attentive to the culture into which they are transferring the technologies. Sun (2006) addressed this concern by proposing a distinction between user localization—which must happen at the user’s site—and developer localization—which occurs at the developer’s site. This distinction allows for a clearer view of how developer localization is inadequate in taking care of the social affordances of technology in specific contexts. By social affordances, Sun (2006) means that a localized technology must guarantee “object-oriented activity and social behaviors” (p. 560) of the user context—where ‘object-oriented activity’ is the activity that the technology is created to assist or induce.
This line of theorizing technology localization—advocacy for user-context based localization—has largely defined the field and we can perhaps say that we have arrived at the solution to the challenges of localization. That is, if we localize at user’s sites, we will overcome the challenges associated with the gap between user culture and designer culture. Or, as Agboka (2013) put it, “localization should happen locally at the user’s site, where prevailing local conditions influence design” (p. 45). Acharya (2019), for instance, investigated localized Global North biotechnologies in Nepal hospitals. Acharya (2019) pointed out the localization defects and usability issues that exist in the research site; specifically design and language problems, efficiency and adaptability issues, and poor error recovery mechanisms, among others. Acharya (2019) suggested that “designers should consider incorporating a wider array of contextually situated sociotechnical components” (p. 15) into design for technologies that are to be used in contexts other than the contexts of production. Acharya (2019) also requested “technical communicators in the GN [Global North] to consider how northern technical materials can be contextualized for users in the GS [Global South] so that the North-South divide can be, at least, reduced, if not eliminated” (p. 4).
Technology localization is happening at users’ sites. In his signal work, User Localization Strategies in the Face of Technological Breakdown: Biometric in Ghana’s Elections, Isidore Dorpenyo reiterated problematic localization and suggested that users adopt creative means of solving some of the challenges of localization. Dorpenyo (2020) discussed three main user localization methods: linguistic localization, user-heuristic experience localization, and subversive localization. Linguistic localization is language used “by local users to maintain the logic of technology which has been adopted” (p. 103), although these users were not the designers of the technology. User-heuristic localization draws on users’ expertise and experiences of curbing “unpredictable real-life situations” (p. 136), like the breakdown of technologies, to provide remedies for usability problems of a localized technology—the biometric verification machine used in Ghana’s 2012 general elections. Users also “reconfigure the original intent of a technology” (Dorpenyo, 2020, p. 146), thus, subversive localization is “the determination of users to redesign technologies or documents to fit local exigencies” (p. 146). In the case of these localizations, we see users wielding some form of rhetorical agency “negotiating among competing alternative discourses” (Koerber, 2006, p. 94) and epistemologies, and they are able to reshape the outcome of their relationship with technology without involving designers in any way. These users possessed some form of power that enabled them to enact their agency. The users that Dorpenyo investigated were workers of Ghana’s Electoral Commission. These were people who had some level of western education and are largely part of the middle economic class. By their affiliation with the Electoral Commission and, to an extent, with the government no one can question their agency during these localization processes. Without such power or proximity to power, they would not have been able to engage in any of the types of localization that Dorpenyo described. Thus, although localization is happening at users’ sites, the material and immaterial labor is inconsistent with the plethora of users in these contexts who are also working within different structures of power. This obscure and multilayered power network is what I call power reticulations. Thus, power reticulation is the messy invisible web of struggles for agency within a mesh of class differences, political and cultural hegemony, the global forces, and the ways in which all these factors in user contexts influence technology localization.
User contexts are complex. Power, or proximity to power, is important in enabling agency in localization even in users’ sites. By power, I mean the possibility of a person to achieve a desired goal. More concisely, I agree with Maheshvari Naidu (2013) that power is the “ability to initiate,” to “mutually control,” and “to be in charge” (p. 157) of processes that directly or indirectly affect a person. This ability to oversee pernicious dichotomies that impinge on a person is radically enacted through rhetorical agency as a core aspect of power struggle. Ultimately, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o (2016) observed, “[t]he value toward which power is exercised and how is a moral and ethical question” (p. 4). That is why we cannot discuss technology adoption and localization through the lenses of social justice without wrestling with the question of power. When it comes to technology use, institutional power manifests through discipline (Foucault, 1975). This institutional control is made apparent in the dissemination of, but even more in the consideration of, what is acceptable (constrained and constricted possibilities for engagement), of knowledge about how, where, when, and for what a particular technology can, should, and must be used. Users’ choice to refuse such forms of control is also an exercise of power in their quest to have some rhetorical agency. For instance, as I shall discuss later, GhanaPostGPS is only sanctioned by the government to be used at a particular place and for certain purposes—power and surveillance at the service of governmental control. Social affordances (Sun, 2006) in such complex contexts are mediated by power reticulations that are not immediately visible in “object-oriented activity and social behaviors” (p. 560). As such, what users do with technical objects sometimes deviate from the original goals of these objects. Users who have some form of power could confidently express their agency in localizing technologies and their documentation. On the other hand, users who are on the fringes of social structures do not possess the form of power which can grant them the opportunities to legally reconfigure the nature, design, or use of adopted technologies, especially if such technologies are government-controlled ones such as the biometric verification machine, in the case of Dorpenyo (2020), or GhanaPostGPS in my case.
Every sociocultural context has a multifarious social behavior that cannot be categorized as purely sociotechnical matters and most often, the human participants involved in these activities might have no histories of use that can be traced and analyzed for patterns. In other words, these contexts are messier than we might think they are. Postcolonial African contexts present us examples of power reticulations from which we could draw in re-examining our current epistemologies of localization at user’s sites. In addition to political power struggles among the elites, there is also the struggle for daily survival among the lower classes, which, in a democratic dispensation, must inform policymaking. Transnational forces, such as Global North countries, exert more influence on policy directions in the Global South than the pragmatic material needs of poorer citizens (Nkrumah, 2006). Thus, there is a network of power struggles at play right from making the most basic decisions such as fishing practices to complex ones such as technology adoption and localization. However, because “the current politics of knowledge at the planetary level” casts the Global North as the place “where theory is done” and the rest of the world as “the kingdom of ethnography” (Mbembe, 2021, p. 14), such contexts are often not seen as capable of influencing theoretical shifts. By using the term “the kingdom of ethnography” Mbembe signals the longue durée of data collection in the postcolony to propose theories elsewhere without attempting to understand the theoretical roots of the behaviors and observations that morph into data-worthy postcolonial experiences. The task of theory in the human sciences has always been to understand “what characterizes our present and our age?” (Mbembe, 2021, p. 14) as a planet. That means, attention to the technologies of postcolonial spaces is also essential to defining what characterizes technology localization in our age.
In postcolonial Africa, Brian Turyabagye from Uganda has created a biomedical smart jacket that can diagnose pneumonia faster than a doctor. Lalle Nadjagou from Dapaong in northern Togo established Woelab’s 3D printing and they are making their own 3D printers using e-waste. Congolese engineers at the Kinshasa Higher Institute of Applied Technique have created human-like robots that can detect and record traffic flow. In South Africa, the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) has the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. Starting from Kenya, and expanding across many countries outside continental Africa, M-Pesa, a mobile-based money transfer application that allows users to store money in mobile phone accounts and make simple transfers via SMS messaging, is changing how people do business. In Ghana, Kwadwo Safo Kantanka founded the Kantanka Automobile Company Limited in 2001 and has since successfully assembled his Kantanka vehicles for both Ghanaian and global markets. These examples highlight the technological worlding of postcolonial spaces but because we have ignored the Global South and cast it as the ‘kingdom of ethnography,’ these epistemologies have often been delegitimized.
Examining postcolonial context and its many technologies provides a holistic picture upon which we can theorize technology localization as a “planetary” phenomenon as well as the challenges that surround such an important scientific and technological practice. Context is an essential pillar to how we comprehend localization in our time, but more important than that is to understand how power works in contexts to constrain the localization and the use of technologies. In the following section, I describe GhanaPostGPS.
Ghana—a West African country with one of the most stable democracies—goes to the polls every four years (consistently from 1992) to elect the head of state and the peoples’ legislative representatives. Prior to each election, political parties and their candidates campaign and debate on key issues of national development. Technology, especially digital technology in recent times, is one of the constant features of such campaigns and debates between the two major political parties—the center-right liberal conservative New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the center-left social democratic National Democratic Congress (NDC). Ghana held national elections in 2016. When campaigning for political power in 2016, the NPP proposed digital technology as one of the means of improving the microeconomic stability of Ghana. In their campaign manifesto, the NPP promised that it would:
Formalize the economy through the establishment of a national database, using the National Identification System as the primary identifier, with linkages to the databases of institutions such as the Police, National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), Passport Office, Immigration, Courts, Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA), and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA)… (NPP Manifesto, 2016, p. 6).
NPP won the 2016 election, formed a government, and set plans into motion to “formalize the economy.” Afrifanom Limited (then called Vokacom Limited) won the government contract to build a property addressing system. At the launch of the technology, the president of Ghana hoped that “all individuals and properties will be able to obtain their own unique addresses as we strive to build a credible national address register” (Adogla-Bessa, 2017, n.p.). Ghana’s National Digital and Property Addressing System aka GhanaPostGPS is a geocoding or geographic positioning technology for allocating addresses within a defined space. According to ghanapostgps.com (2018), “GhanaPostGPS is a global addressing system, which divides Ghana into grids of 5m x 5m squares and assigns each one a unique address, known as a digital address. With this system, every land and property gets a permanent address” (n.p.). It is Ghana’s official digital property addressing system, one of the efforts of the New Patriotic Party’s government to digitize the Ghanaian economy in order to maximize revenue generation. Prior to the development of this system direction-finding was done using landmarks such as food vendors’ shops, big trees, among others. Thus, GhanaPostGPS is a “locally relevant and country-specific” (Vokacom, 2018, n.p.) solution to solve issues concerning high cost of street naming, poor addressing system, and remoteness of certain places where there are no significant landmarks in a country that largely lacks properly planned cities and towns.
The benefits ascribed to GhanaPostGPS include assisting in emergency situations such as “communication to the Police, Fire and Ambulance services” (ghanapostgps.com, 2018, n.p.). It also helps to facilitate the ability to receive bank loans easily since small-scale business owners can now be traced to digital addresses should they default on their loans. Loan default is a huge problem for Ghanaian and African lending and financial institutions (Baidoo, Yusif, & Ayesu, 2020; Abor & Quartey, 2010). Some of the defaulters can run away from the lenders. Thus, having digital address has become a requirement to open a bank account and to access loan facilities from a bank. Despite its innovativeness, GhanaPostGPS poses challenges to usability, ethics, and information access mediated by power and control through discursive materialities as I discuss below. For instance, although created within the context of use, users and non-users suggested that the digital address has too many digits and thus cannot be easily remembered. Their experiences contradict the developer’s idea that the digital addresses should be designed like mobile phone numbers since Ghanaians already memorize phone numbers. Instead of attempting to understand users and non-users’ experiences and resistance, the government integrated digital addresses into most aspects of social services such as health insurance and national identification and, thus, used institutional power to softly coerce usage.
Traditional understandings of usability have considered only what users say or what researchers observe about users. When it comes to state-sponsored technologies and technical systems, such an approach might only tell us half of the story about usability. State-sponsored technologies like GhanaPostGPS have audiences who avoid these technologies but not necessarily because of the defects of the technology or lack of the necessary infrastructure to enable usage. Some non-users of state-sponsored technologies and technical systems have the necessary infrastructure but do not use the technology or system because of their personal political goals, among other reasons. I therefore studied both users and non-users of this state-sponsored technology—GhanaPostGPS—so that the study could present a holistic picture of the usability of such technologies. The politics of technology use and non-use is a nested contextual power relation. As technologies try to create a particular social order, responses to that attempt are also often political. Usability research must account for both sides of the argument from material and discursive perspectives. I draw on data from an online survey, ethnographic interviews, and digital archives such as Facebook, and online product reviews, “a new species of technical report” (Kimball, 2016, p. 12).
In this work, I interviewed an expert technology developer, that is, the chief executive of Afrifanom to understand some of the policy and technical decisions that informed the design of GhanaPostGPS. I further interacted with taxi drivers in some parts of Accra, the national capital of Ghana, in July 2019. The perspectives of taxi drivers are important because the government presented the technology as a location-finding tool that can ease navigation. Taxi drivers are also prominently featured in the advertisements that accompany the technology. It is therefore essential to find out how these groups of users are using GhanaPostGPS. In addition to my ethnographic interactions in Ghana, I also conducted online surveys, where I sought reports from 16 users and 20 non-users. I intentionally conducted this survey digitally to ascertain whether non-users, for example, have the necessary digital infrastructure to respond to my survey but resist using GhanaPostGPS.
The direct quotes in the analysis below come from a subset of response data from these users, non-users, and a developer. Participants quoted in this study were assigned pseudonyms for the sake of anonymity. These excerpts provide explicit evidence for power reticulations through designer decision-making, non-users’ resistances, and users’ hesitancy, or coerced usage for national identification exercise. I discuss these excerpts through textual analysis, drawing on how specific lexemes, ideas, and discursive constructions reveal the historical, cultural, political, ethical instances of power reticulations within the developer and user context of this technology.
USABILITY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE IN A POSTCOLONIAL SPACE
Non-Use as Rhetorical Resistance and as an Influence of Global Flows
Among the reasons that emerged from the non-users’ survey for their hesitance are that the technology was “a political party’s project” and that some of the users “don’t trust it.” Although some citizens of Ghana have the infrastructure to use GhanaPostGPS, they saw the technology as the project of a particular political party—the New Patriotic Party. As members of other political parties, therefore, they decided against using GhanaPostGPS as a resistance to their political rivals. Some participants also suggest that they do not trust both the government and the technology. Because it is seen as a political project, some participants thought that the technology would be abandoned by rival parties when they come into government. This line of thinking is premised on the contextual knowledge that rival political parties do not continue projects that previous governments start. In some cases, project contracts are abrogated, and the country is slapped with judgement debts. One of the participants, Senanu, said:
Things are not well coordinated in the country. GhanaPostGPS is a political party project and it will soon be dumped. We have had mass registration of people for national ID cards on 2 occasions. It doesn’t encourage me to use it because nothing really will be done with that.
Senanu’s comment feeds from his knowledge that the opposition political party—the National Democratic Congress—is opposed to GhanaPostGPS; thus, the technology will not be used by the NDC government when they come into power. Furthermore, the government required a digital address for registering a national identification card—a requirement that was not part of the processes for obtaining the card under previous administrations. There was therefore no need for this local technology, created by a local company for the government, to solve a local problem in a local context.
There is also a transnational force that motivated the resistance to GhanaPostGPS. Some participants who lived outside of Ghana and have experienced life in intentionally planned cities thought that digital addresses were not the most effective solution to the country planning problems of Ghana. John, who had graduate studies in Germany, said:
I’ve stayed in Europe and I’ve seen how their addressing system works. I don’t see why we can’t follow that system. I prefer No. 1 Agbedefu str, Agbedefukorfe to a series of numbers that I have to keep their meanings in mind.
For John, using street names is more effective than a series of digits. What influenced John’s decision about this local technology is his experience in Europe—demonstrating that we are always global even if we are thinking and doing within local contexts. For Africa, the influence of the global on the local is a daily lived experience. Postcolonial African contexts are intrinsically mediated by global flows to the extent that the continent occupies a “paradoxical position in modern formations of knowledge” (Mbembe, 2021, p. 10)—the paradox being that although it affords “privileged insight” (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2016, p. 1) into the nature of the contemporary world and its theorizing, Africa and the postcolony lacks significant presence in theorizing the present moment. Even prior to Africa’s encounter with colonial Europe, trade, science, and education from all over the known world influenced African cultural life and other world civilizations also borrowed from African knowledge systems (Asante, 2007; Thomas-Emeagwali, 2006). The present nature of global flows into African and postcolonial spaces highlight western epistemological scaffoldings and such unequal engagements also influence technology use today as we can see in John’s choice of the type of country planning and property addressing that can be considered the norm—although, as we might practically have experienced, street naming is also not a perfect system in western environments.
John’s decision does not only hinge on his perceived effectiveness of street names in Europe, but also on design. He pointed out that the digital addresses are long series of numbers that cannot be easily memorized. The reason for such a numeric design, according to the chief executive of Afrifanom Limited, is that Ghanaians already memorize their mobile phone numbers. So, the company thought that these series of numbers are memoizable. In this local context, we see, again, a gap between users and designers—the main localization problem that scholars in our field have studied.
These responses suggest that the acceptance of technology, or its rejection is based on numerous factors including compatibility with local conditions such as infrastructure, economic, and linguistic conditions (Agboka, 2013). However, intra-local-context political power struggles also condition a user’s attitude towards technologies, especially a national technology such as GhanaPostGPS. Senanu’s view about GhanaPostGPS as a political party’s project, for instance, influenced his decision not to use the technology, although he has the infrastructure to use it. Furthermore, Senanu referred to two previous national ID card registrations that did not require digital addresses. Because of that, he felt a digital address was not a necessary condition or infrastructure that could prevent his acquisition of the card. The two previous registration events that he referenced occurred when the current opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), was in government (2008–2016). Although the NDC opposed this technology, they echoed the pivotal role of digital technologies in the economic development of Ghana in response to global economic transformations. In the party’s 2020 election manifesto, for instance, the NDC standard bearer’s foreword to the manifesto stated that:
The world is changing fast . . . We must place Ghana in sync with the new developments taking place around the world in order to propel our economy into an advanced one . . . [W]e must build a knowledge-based economy and move faster into the new world of smart manufacturing and digital services (NDC Manifesto, 2020, p. 2).
Here too, we see the need to respond to global developments in the capitalist economic landscape—a development that is mediated by algorithmic reason. Contrary to the preceding discussion where global flow influenced the non-use of a local technology, the gesture to the global here is a gesture of technological escalation aimed at catching up with the West. Clearly, NDC’s opposition to GhanaPostGPS is not based on alternative ways to enhance this “catch up exercise” but an opposition that is grounded in the desire to cease electoral political power.
The point I make in this section of the discussion is that the reticular nature of power (such as the entanglements between political power and global flows) influence resistance to technology use in postcolonial spaces, specifically government-sponsored national technologies. Accounting for this reticular hegemony is an important aspect of understanding technology localization failure. Another essential aspect of such a robust project is examining the complexity of local contexts as evident in the experiences of all classes of users in such spaces. I provide an example of such an examination in the next section.
User Experience and Concerns of Social Justice
Users and non-users of GhanaPostGPS provide a critique to context-specific technology localization theory. For some non-users, GhanaPostGPS “isn’t compatible with [their] phone[s]”; some said they “don’t need it” while others stated that they “don’t like how it works.” Of the 16 participants who reported that they use or used GhanaPostGPS, 7 participants used GhanaPostGPS to generate digital addresses to register for national identification cards. Only 4 participants used the technology as a location finder—the primary function of the technology. These responses provide evidence that despite its shortcomings, GhanaPostGPS is being used. It is compulsory to provide digital address generated through GhanaPostGPS for national identification and citizenship authentication. Thus, citizens were compelled to use it for a one-time digital address for registration purposes. Although they found it useful, some participants reported that there were some issues with GhanaPostGPS. These included lack of “proper education on how the system works,” the system’s seeming “complicat[ion],” and the perception that it is just “[n]ot the best in IT [information technology] stuff.” Some non-users expressed similar concerns in their responses to a question that asked them to report any changes they would like to see. Their responses included “[l]et’s just adapt a simple system that works,” and “[b]ased on what I read from the social media, I suggest that an offline mode be added to the application.” These issues also manifested in both my ethnographic fieldwork and in the online reviews.
In the ads that accompanied GhanaPostGPS, there was emphasis on how the technology would be useful to taxi drivers’ navigation of cities. I therefore decided to speak to taxi drivers in some parts of Accra, the capital city of Ghana. My interaction with these taxi drivers revealed the ineffectiveness of GhanaPostGPS in navigating the city of Accra and its surroundings. The following interactions exemplify this argument:
Researcher: So, do you use GhanaPostGPS for your work?
Kwame (Okponglo taxi station): Why should I use GPS? I was born in Accra; I grew up here. Accra is like the back of my palm. Me, I know Accra better than GPS. Mention any place in this whole Accra, I can take you there. You know, there are new places, towns in the intotos (Pidgin: hidden places) behind Kasoa there all. I know there all. GPS can’t take me there. Na, technology yɛ nipa? (Asante Twi: So, is technology human?) Even Google mpo (Asante Twi: even), I don’t use. Some of the passengers try to use it but there are places inside the lungulungu (Pidgin: remote places) that Google doesn’t know. (Laughs) technology nnyɛ nipa (Asante Twi: is not human).
Nana: (37 taxi station): (Laughs) Hwɛ, booklongfoɔ ni bi ni o. Ehe na wokɔ? Legon anaa? (Asante Twi: See/look, one of the bookish people. Where are you going? Is it Legon (University of Ghana)?).
Researcher: Daabi. Me bisa kɛkɛ. (Asante Twi: No. I am just asking).
Nana: Okay. Me mmom deɛ, menuseu saa. (Asante Twi: As for me, I don’t use it like that).
Researcher: So how do you use it?
Nana: You see, I know Accra, so I don’t need it. Some people join my car and call some digital address numbers. To make them happy, I also put the numbers into the GhanaPostGPS App and drive them there. Customer is always right so how for do? [Pidgin: so, what can I do?].
Researcher: Do you have a digital address?
Nana: Yes, na eno deɛ vote ntia [Asante Twi: but it’s because of voting].
As evident in these responses, the participants thought that their lived experiences in this geographic space gives them superior embodied geo-epistemology—superior, that is, to that of a technology. The taxi drivers above suggest that they know Accra better than a technology could ever be able to. This assertion stems from their embodied knowledge about navigating Accra which gives them a geo-epistemological perspective that emanates from their everyday life and work. Because “technology nnyɛ nipa (technology is not human),” it is the creators of technology that need to give the necessary algorithmic “experiences” that can enable navigating Accra. Being dwellers within this local space, Afrifanom is best positioned to create a context-friendly technology. Kwame’s critique of the lack of human-like geo-epistemology of GhanaPostGPS suggests the primacy of all human experiences in a user-centered context-specific technology design. It is only when all potential human users of a technology are involved in the creation process that this technology becomes capable of accurate cartographic evaluation. Such context-specific but broad human-involvement, for instance, is important for providing GhanaPostGPS an algorithmic knowledge about shorter routes to places that might be unsafe or ridden with portholes.
We see from the taxi drivers’ accounts that user knowledge gained through experience had more ethos among these GhanaPostGPS users than the technology itself. This suggestion aligns with the observation (e.g., Agboka, 2013; Dorpenyo, 2020; Haas, 2012; Sun, 2006) that users have knowledge and that technology developers need to consider those epistemologies. Agboka (2013), for instance, emphasized that “user-in-community involvement and participation in the design” (p. 16, emphasis in original) process empowers users. Apart from empowering users, I insist that user-in-community involvement is important in developing spatial technologies that include users’ geo-epistemologies, and thus provides ethos to the technology among most users. In the case of GhanaPostGPS, some potential users were not consulted. As evident in the narrative of the chief executive of Afrifanom, only the top executives and software developers who work in his firm contributed their experiences to the development of the technology:
I had a conference call with my top executives . . . We did a lot of focus group discussions rather than opening and talking to everybody . . . We had a basic concept, we just needed to knock it down and to make it a lot more competitive . . . [W]e got a lot of feedback from focus groups rather than using open scale . . . you know everybody running around talking to 2000 people, something like that.
The developers’ key decisions were made by “top executives” and focus groups that exclude most of the users. A more inclusive method of soliciting stakeholders’ input would be to engage in “open-scale…talking to 2000 people” rather than using a select group of people. The chief executive’s response also speaks to the need for researchers to engage with materialities of technology policy and design choices. As Mbembe (2001) suggests, much of academic explanations of power relations within the postcolonial space “have reduced the complex phenomenon of the state and power to ‘discourses’ and ‘representations,’ forgetting that discourses and representations have materiality” (p. 5). In the case of GhanaPostGPS, the neglect of materiality is not limited to the focus on discourse but expands into decision-making that fails to consider the material and geo-epistemology of people who use geographic space daily, such as those taxi drivers—who one would expect to be key users—who belong to the “2000 people” that have not been consulted.
Here is evidence of the work of power and hegemony at work in a context-specific technology creation process. It might sometimes be taken for granted that such a local process will automatically include local people as “actual participant[s]” who are given “a visible, physical, collaborative presence” (Johnson, 2004, p. 93). These efforts at inclusiveness must always be intentional and radical as a product of critical advocacy that must urgently and constantly “enact systems that magnify the agency of oppressed and under-resourced people” (Walton & Agboka, 2021, p. 5). These efforts are not a given in local contexts. Localizations at users’ sites for their own sakes are not enough to overcome power reticulations.
CONCLUSION: BROADER IMPLICATIONS
I have argued throughout this work that the cultural gap between users and developers is not only a challenge caused by localizations that occur outside of user contexts. In the case of GhanaPostGPS, both developers, policymakers, and users live in the same general context, but they did not interact about their instrumental, critical, and social aspirations. Thus, within local developer-user contexts, there still exist reticular and pragmatic power relations and individualized/localized idio-contexts that must interact to overcome the challenges that technologies pose to users.
The usability of GhanaPostGPS, a context-specific technology created by dwellers within a context for their own use, reveals that developer-user nexus is entangled with reticular and pragmatic demands of power. Until we understand this network and how to settle any given controversies that these connections pose, we cannot overcome the challenges of technology use. Thus, international technical communication scholarship must move beyond arguing for localizing transferred technologies within the context of users. Investigating context-specific technologies, such as I have done in this work, is important for revising how we are currently theorizing technology materiality in international spaces. Importantly, there is a lack of substantial attention to Global South postcolonial technologies and this lack prevents us from seeing other underlying power imbalances in technology adoption, localization, and use. Thus, I suggest below a key reflection that technology localization practitioners could consider in their work within postcolonial and international contexts.
Technology localization work must advocate for technological equity—the fair and just participation of marginalized people to ensure social, economic, and political inclusion. Usability and social justice concerns should be fundamental to the planning of and preparations toward technology localization work and not an afterthought at the implementation stages. In other words, technology localization work must rethink the fundamental discursive infrastructure that leads to the production, adaptation, reconceptualization, use of, and resistance to technologies in local contexts. This rethinking must start with acknowledging the sovereignty of local knowledge-making as legitimate grounding for local worldings—a perspective that is “a mobile but more or less stable ensemble of practices, involvements, relations, capacities, tendencies and affordances” (Anderson & Harrison, 2010, p. 8). The lack of such an integration of users worldings will result in systemic marginalization in technology localization in user contexts. I will provide an example here.
One of the uses of the digital addresses generated through GhanaPostGPS is to link the address owner to state resources including health insurance. The digital address is required to obtain a national ID card, which integrates the user’s biodata into the health insurance system. The vice president of Ghana was quoted to have said that,
The scope of digitisation in the health sector . . . ranges from procurement to nationwide drugs inventory management system, patient record management, portability of patients’ records across the country, to health insurance management, and billing verification and payments across providers . . . What is key for us today is the leveraging of the Ghana Card to transform our health system (Adom online, 2020).
The broader implication of defects in usability thus includes an exclusion from health insurance service among other essential needs of citizens. In unpacking the discursive-material implications of context-specific technologies such as GhanaPostGPS, we must center the study of use and non-use, causes of non-use, and its broader implications. These questions are fundamental to social justice work.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Winner of the 2022 CCCC Outstanding Dissertation Award in Technical Communication, G. Edzordzi Agbozo received his PhD from Michigan Technological University and is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His research encompasses the rhetoric, discourse, and materiality of Global South technologies, GPS, localization, social justice, and rhetoric of health and medicine. His most recent work is published in Rethinking language use in digital Africa: Technology and communication in Sub-Saharan Africa. Email: email@example.com