Demanding to Be Seen: An Interview with Lisa Poggiali

The August 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Seeing (from) Digital Peripheries: Technology and Transparency in Kenya’s Silicon Savannah,” by Lisa Poggiali, who is currently a lecturer at Stanford University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editors Andrés García Molina and Franziska Weidle conducted with Poggiali about the article, her broader research in Kenya, and her own participation in the Contributing Editors Program.

Andrés García Molina (AGM) and Franziska Weidle (FW): To begin, could you tell us more about how you developed a working relationship with the Muhimu Mapping Project (MMP), as well as with mapmakers in the field?

Lisa Poggiali (LP): As is the case with many ethnographic projects, this research relationship developed somewhat accidentally. In other words, I had not originally planned to work with MMP when I arrived in Nairobi. My strategy in the beginning stages of my research was to poke around and interview as many people as I could who were doing work on digital mapping in Nairobi. I thought this would help me get the lay of the land, so that when I zeroed in on particular sites, I would be approaching them from a broad perspective. My research assistant had done previous work with Sarah (one of MMP’s managers) and suggested that I contact her for an interview. Sarah invited me to Muhimu, where I met Miroslav. Not only were they very interested in showing me their work, they were also intrigued by ethnographic research and anthropology. We became research objects for one another. Miroslav would consult me about how an anthropologist would approach questions of organizational monitoring and evaluation, for example. He wanted my input on designing surveys and mapping exercises in informal settlements. The settlement residents who were involved with MMP were tickled to have an American there who knew Swahili and was interested in learning Sheng (an urban language that is a blend of English, Swahili and local languages). I feel very lucky to have fallen into such an ethnographically rich and welcoming site.

AGM and FW: In the article, you describe the people who generally joined NGO projects as ”mostly male ‘youth’ (aged eighteen to forty) with good English skills, limited domestic responsibilities, and diversified sources of income.” Can you tell us a little more about the gendered stakes of mapmaking and about Elisa, one of your nonmale interlocutors?

LP: I’m glad that you brought up the issue of gender. If you consider the map’s history in colonial Kenya as an object crucial to amassing territory and controlling populations, it’s impossible not to consider it as a visual instantiation of the male gaze. The rise of participatory mapping projects through NGOs in the 1990s has changed this a bit, in that it expanded the range of people who can participate in the mapmaking process. Teenage girls, in particular, now have a role to play, and many participatory development projects have mapping components specifically targeted at young girls. The maps these girls have a hand in producing, however, are nevertheless imbricated in different layers of institutional power. NGOs play a paramount role in mediating the kinds of information and visualizations that become what we might call participatory maps.

Another way of approaching this question about gender is to examine the ways in which class informs the gendered experience of mapmaking. At the iHub, for example, there are programs that explicitly target girls. There is an organization called AkiraChix, which is a group of women coders and web designers who are committed to expanding opportunities for Kenyan girls interested in technology. These opportunities encouraging girls and young women to participate in technology projects exist primarily in higher-income spaces. In wealthy areas, women hire other (poorer) women to do much of their housework and child care. Younger female members of the household are thus relatively free to explore leisure or educational activities when they are not in school. In poor areas like Muhimu, households also often have a female helper, but the configuration is different. For example, a household might absorb a young niece or cousin who has lost her parents, and she earns her keep by performing the same functions as a hired woman would in elite spaces. The young female children are expected to help the house girl as well as the female head of the household, who works outside the home selling wares on the side of the road or making food to sell to others in the neighborhood. Hence, women and girls in settlements like Muhimu have much less time to participate in a so-called leisure activity such as technology.

Elisa was one of a few women who were active in MMP. Unsurprisingly, her family was one of the more economically stable ones in Muhimu. She and other women who participated did complain to me about sexism in the organization, asserting that their young male colleagues did not take them seriously. For all the development discourse about the need to encourage women and girls to engage with technology, gendered expectations about labor still very much inform the opportunities (or lack thereof) that young women have to engage with technology. This is present across the class spectrum.

At MMP, in particular, Miroslav tapped into and promoted a culture of male bonding in the organization by encouraging activities such as sports and beer-drinking alongside geospatial analysis. He made more of an effort to establish close social relationships with the men. Unsurprisingly, Elisa and the other young women in MMP felt excluded. There are so many barriers that young women like Elisa have to contend with, which often get elided in academic conversations about digital access and participation.

AGM and FW: In your article, you pointedly describe the tensions you found between, on the one hand, an informal, illegally occupied settlement and on the other, the different interest groups striving for making “the invisible visible.” You carefully analyze the roles of the MMP managers, as well as the mappers, in relation to local and governmental authorities as part of the broader representational economy in Kenya. Could you elaborate on the role of the other residents of these settlements? What was their view on the mapping process? Were they in favor of becoming digitally visible?

LP: There was a surge of interest in MMP when the organization first set up a base in the neighborhood, which is not unusual. Every new organization potentially represents a new opportunity. But various factors—familiarity or lack thereof with English, domestic responsibilities, economic opportunities elsewhere—led some folks to continue working with the organization and others to leave.

With regard to visibility, whenever I present aspects of this research to academic audiences, I inevitably receive a question about the pernicious aspects of making populations visible: the Foucauldian claim (extended by scholars like James Scott [1998]) that making a population visible, and by extension legible, is the precondition for certain kinds of governmental surveillance and control. In my work on mapping, this is always in the back of my mind. But this reading alone strikes me as insufficient for a number of reasons.

First, on a very practical level, settlement residents are not as invisible as one might think to technologies of power that attempt to extract value from them. The local police, who regularly demand bribes from residents, know who people are, where they live, and what they need to do to find them. When the government or the city council decides they want to use the land on which settlement residents have built their homes, they send emissaries to dismantle those homes and clear the area. So it’s important to remember that powerful people don’t need digital maps to command their power.

Second, giving too much purchase to the negative repercussions of visibility fails to take seriously residents’ claims that they feel politically invisible, and that mapping can play a role in changing this. Many residents communicated to me that the maps made them feel like they were being taken seriously, and that a digital presence could more easily connect them to outsiders who could put political pressure on local government officials to create economic or educational opportunities for the neighborhood.

Overwhelmingly, both residents who were involved with the project and those who were not were in favor of the project. What I don’t think many were considering (and something I’m interested in exploring more) is how digital visibility can attract capital investment to the neighborhood, and who this might benefit.

AGM and FW: When it comes to conducting research on sociotechnical practices, one of the main challenges for ethnographers is often the engagement with technological systems. To what extent did your fieldwork require you to become proficient (enough) with geospatial mapping practices, to understand the logics behind the technology and how they, in turn, informed the mappers’ practices?

LP: This is a very astute observation. The two major ethnographic sites I inhabited afforded me the opportunity to learn different kinds of technical skills. For example, in the informal settlement of Muhimu, I learned about the basics of data collection and analysis using open-source geospatial tools. In the elite technology space known as the iHub, I learned about the distinctions between coding languages and development for different kinds of hardware and software platforms; here, I also learned techniques for monetizing one’s technical skills. This education was not just a technical leaning experience, but also an ethnographic one, as I was able to gain insight into the different economies of technical training that operated in these different institutional environments.

The disparate training environments were shaped, in part, by assumptions about those who were participating in them; they were also shaped by the degree of access participants had (or didn’t have) to amenities like big-screen projectors and reliable, high-speed Internet connections. The surrounding infrastructural environment, from roads to the electrical grid, also had an impact on how technical economies were formed and maintained. This is all to say that while having a deep understanding of technological systems can certainly be helpful for an ethnographer interested in examining sociotechnical practices, I think it’s important to remember that these systems do not exist in isolation from the social and political worlds from which they emerge and in which they are constantly embroiled. In this vein, I think we need to be careful, because the logic that implies that the technical or the scientific is unintelligible without specialized knowledge is also the logic by which science and technology become culturally coded as omniscient: “the god trick,” as Donna Haraway (1988, 582) poetically put it. The ethnographic challenge is finding a way into a world, whether you’re engaging with a Kenyan software developer writing code or a Balinese cockfighter readying his bird.

All of that being said, I would absolutely benefit from more formal training in geospatial technologies. I’m realizing this acutely as I embark on a new project on the colonial-era mapping of Nairobi, for which I’m interested in digitizing documents to use as teaching and research materials.

AGM and FW: Finally, could you tell us a little bit about your experience in the Contributing Editors Program? How did working for Cultural Anthropology contribute to your own research?

LP: Being part of the Contributing Editors Program was a wonderful experience; it gave me the opportunity to think about how academic articles that don’t necessarily speak to one another directly are part of broader conversations that also circulate beyond the bounds of anthropology as a discipline. At the same time, as a cocreator (with Jeremy Trombley) of the Curated Collection The Digital Form, I became aware of how research produces and reflects specific disciplinary and cultural moments, which helped me to think about how my own research might align with, or depart from, current conventions and discussions.

The aspect of being a Contributing Editor I enjoyed the most, though, was creating content that could bridge the worlds of academic research and pedagogy: being able to interview authors about their work and being able to frame academic articles for a student audience made me grapple with questions of translation. The way I approach these questions in my own work is by being thoughtful about the craft of writing and storytelling. I try always to keep in mind that evocative language has, in the past, drawn me to explore challenging ideas that I might otherwise have found off-putting. When complicated concepts are rendered beautifully, the ideas have space to breathe; these openings invite people in. If my wider goal is to get students and members of the public to think critically and comparatively about issues such as inequality, power, and justice on a global scale, then I want my work to feel like an open invitation for others to enter the conversation.

References

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3: 575–99.  

Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.