Another Technology is Always Possible

Ordem e Progresso

Rui Roberto Ramos provided a fascinating case study at IFIP9.4 of ICT use by Recife City Council to impose control over informal street traders. The council's 'CSURB' program collects data from street traders in order to formalise and licence them to trade from new authorised sites. The process was driven by a top-down desire to impose a 'formalising regime' via technical control over informal entrepreneurs. The City's stated intention is that traders without licences will be removed from the street, their stock confiscated and fines imposed. Rui Roberto Ramos presents this as an example of a technology designed to discipline & punish a la Foucault. We might also see it as an example of the modernist ideal of 'Ordem e Progresso' emblazoned across the flag of Brazil?


Conformist-Technocratic ICT4D


In a previous blog-post I proposed a Typology of ICT4D practices. In terms of that typology, the technology being used by Recife City Council is a perfect example of conformist-technocratic ICT4D practices. Looking at the typology's horizontal rows, the CSURB technology clearly reflects the human interest in technical-control; it is imposed as a technocratic top-down 'solution' to a perceived social problem. If we consider the typology's vertical columns, the users of the technology have 'conformist' intent in that they seek to enforce conformity with existing social relations and licensing regulations. 


The purpose of the typology is not to force all ICT4D initiatives into categorical boxes. Its purpose is to facilitate a conversation about by what means another technology is possible. The typology is intended to serve as a basis for thinking and talking about how any particular technology might otherwise be designed or used in order to make possible other outcomes.



Recife is the birthplace of Paulo Freire: the University of Recife is where he conducted the doctoral research that informed Pedagogy of the Oppressed. So it seems fitting to ask: if Paulo Freire was running Recife City Council, would a more critical ICT4D be possible?


What Would Freire Do?


Paulo Freire argued that development should be effected through the agency of disadvantaged people themselves. Whilst Recife City Council's technical-control 'solution' was designed and implemented top-down to discipline and punish, Freirian practice calls for a human-centred process and a technology that is critical-emancipatory in its practice and transformative in its intent.


A Freirian alternative would require a process of human-centred critical dialogue amongst informal street traders themselves about how to overcome the circumstances that constrain them. Who can know better than street traders themselves what circumstances force them to exist on the margins of society and to trade informally at the edge of legality? Who is better incentivised to innovate truly equitable and sustainable solutions that improve their working conditions and livelihoods? Such 'bottom-up' critical dialogue amongst informal street traders is likely to rapidly reveal that the vested interests and intent of the city's political elite (and technocrats) do not coincide with the interests of those compelled to trade informally in the street.


Whilst it must be for street traders to define the technology that best meets their interests, another technology is always possible. If the street traders' had 'reformist' intent they might, for example, employ 'citizen technology' to lobby city politicians for policy change. If the street traders' had more 'transformist' intent they might, for example, employ social network technology to build their ability to act collectively in pursuit of more radical structural change.


Hey Tony! Thank you for this review and really glad you liked the presentation and saw some insightful theoretical connections with your framework.

I agree with you that the “formalising technology” is indeed an example of “conformist-technocratic ICT4D practices”. Moreover, a critical investigation of what “development” comes to mean within this regime might reveal more than a “conformist” intent. In fact I would say it reveals an imposed subjection trough disciplinary tactics and coercion into a modernist view of socio-economic order. It is then within this view that the problematisation of "informality" comes to emerge and we have to be careful when questioning (in a more or less participatory way) what forces this traders to “exist in the margins of society”. This because the notion of such “margins” might already be aligned with this binary view and a questioning in this manner (although with our best intentions) might reinforce the centrality of the Council’s aimed structured governance.

In my opinion the street traders are not marginal to the urban infrastructure but central to Recife’s socio-economic stability. With this in mind, if Freire was running Recife’s City Council, I wonder whether a problematisation of something central to the city dynamics would ever emerge ;) and if so, in what terms?! Probably it would not be interpreted with notions of “informality” (which consequently positions it as deviant to the “formal way”). Possibly, trough his “human centred” dialogical approach, this we now call “informal commerce” could be seen as “popular commerce” or some other similarly more inclusive concept where participatory dialogue between all parties was seen as “business as usual” ☺

I downloaded your paper from academia – really good reading by the way!! - but I’m afraid it's not the complete version. Let me know when/where to find it once is out there ok?!

Keep up the “punk” work ;)

Link to the paper:

Link to the presentation:


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