torsdag 19 juni 2014

ICT use in the post-modern city

Quite some time ago, during the autumn 2010, I posted a master's thesis proposal concerning "ICT use in the post-modern city" in a blog/on the Internet:

"If we posit a scenario where economic growth is slow to return (or absent, or negative), and unemployment will continue to be high, the future use of computing will for a gradually larger segment of the population consist of inexpensive portable computing equipment (laptop/notebook computers, smart or not-so-smart cell phones) and wireless internet access. So what if that future of ubiquitous computing and ubiquitous information services can be found in a city that has already experienced major challenges and slow decline for decades? What if the future is already here and its name is... Detroit? Detroit - the center of the American auto industry - stood at its zenith in 1950 and was at the time the 4th largest city in the U.S. Detroit has fallen on hard times since then and has lost fully half (!) of its population in the 60 years since then.  
Taking into account all the challenges Detroit faces above, the question for this proposed thesis becomes:
- What can be learned from Detroit that might give us hints about computing conditions and practices in the "city of the future"?"
- More specifically, what are the computing needs and the computing uses among people who live in Detroit's low-income areas?"

It doesn't have to be Detroit or other US "rust belt" cities, it could equally well be a city in Europe that have declined since the peak of coal, steel and mining industrialism (UK, Belgium, Germany, Poland etc.), that has shrank in size and population (e.g. ex-East Germany etc.) or that is situated in a country which is struggling with a stagnant or shrinking economy (e.g. Greece, Spain and other countries in southern Europe). These are the post-modern cities and who can confidently claim that the future of computing is not to be found in these cities?

Several students have been in touch with me over the years, but it oftentimes becomes difficult to write this master's thesis since there for example is no research project that can offer money for extra expenses. I'm therefore very happy to announce that the second completed thesis on ICT use in the post-modern city recently was presented at KTH.

Last month, my student Antonio Labajo successfully defended his master's thesis "Digital natives and the financial crisis: A study of ICT use among Spanish youth". Here's the abstract:

"The global financial crisis of 2008 had severe effects on many countries and these effects remain six years later. Spain is one of the countries that has been most severely affected in Europe. As a consequence, ordinary peoples’ lives have undergone dramatic changes, including their use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). ICT has in a short amount of time become an essential element of our lives and rapid change in the area (Internet, smartphones, etc.) has had distinctive influence on people’s behaviours. Spaniards are nowadays less affluent than they were six years ago, but prices on ICT products and services have nevertheless continued to rise. This had made access to digital technologies difficult for particular social groups and with a staggering 56 % youth unemployment, young people in general are such a group.

The lack of affordable ICT products and services is terribly discouraging for young people since they can be regarded as “digital natives” - individuals who have interacted with ICT and digital technologies since childhood. Generally speaking, youths today build their identities on and with social networks. ICT is a basic tool for them in their “life projects” and they use it as a means to communicate and keep in touch with others. It is however important to find out how far young people depend on ICT and how they might react if they had little or no access to it whatsoever, and that is the topic of this thesis. The focus on unemployed (or temporarily employed) Spanish youth between 20 and 26 years old and with a university degree, this thesis attempts to determine the impact of ICT scarcity on young Spaniards; how they use what they have, what are their needs and how do they satisfy their ICT needs despite little access to money?"

Antonio comes from Spain but went to KTH to do his master's degree. He took my course DM2573 Sustainability and Media Technology during the autumn of 2012 and got in touch with me a year later in regards to writing his thesis with me as his advisor. Since he comes from Madrid, cares about Madrid and was returning to Madrid, it fit him very well to to to Madrid to collect the empirical material for his thesis. With him being in Madrid and me being on sabbatical in the US, we have kept in touch by Skype for regular supervision sessions since January.

Antonio has more specifically interviewed 10 persons who are between 23-26 years old (i.e. "youth" in the unemployment statistics), who have a university degree, who are underemployed and who live home with their parents. Since more 56% of all Spanish youth (16-26 years old) are officially unemployed, it was not too hard for him to find informants who belong to the 1.4 million strong "lost generation" in Spain. The main research question the thesis aims to answer is "How does the unemployed or underemployed consumer satisfy his/her ICT needs in Spain today?". Secondary questions that are asked (and at least partially answered) are:

  • What are the ICT uses of the Spanish unemployed youth? (What do they have, how do they use it and what do they perceive to miss?)
  • What do they do when they cannot access technology and how does it affect their lives?
  • How do they get more for less (satisfy their computing needs for little money)?
  • Do they use alternative ways to solve their computing needs? (e.g. collaborative consumption, fixing devices, adapting old hardware to their current needs)
Since Antonio does not have an electrical engineering rather than a social science background, setting out to answer these questions has been a long journey for him with lots of things to read about "collaborative consumption", "digital natives", "diffusion of innovations" and "ICT for development" (ICTD). The results of his thesis are interesting and I will link to the thesis as soon as it's available on the Internet at the department homepage.

I mentioned that this was the second thesis on "ICT use in the post-modern city" that I have been the advisor of. The first thesis was written by Esther Contreras Montero and she started working on her thesis three years ago (summer 2011). The thesis took some time writing but she was for the most part finished with it a year later and the title of her thesis was "The poorest internet users: A case study of Ensenada Baja California, Mexico 2011". Here is the abstract:

"Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is becoming increasingly important as the technological development rapidly makes the tools of ICT more and more powerful. ICT has changed the way we conduct our lives. Furthermore, apart from the social aspects, it has made a significant impact on an economic, educational and political level. However, developing countries are lagging behind in their adoption of ICTs and are therefore not yet making use of the full potential of ICT.

Therefore this study focuses on how the poorest internet users use the Internet in the poorest areas- neighborhood of Ensenada Baja California, México. Having as principal questions: What are the usages of the Internet to the poorest Internet users in Ensenada Baja California? and What role does the Internet have in the lives of the poorest Internet users in Ensenada Baja California? to collect data and to analyze the results of the investigation a qualitative and quantitative survey was performed on the Internet usage of persons in Ensenada B.C. The survey constituted questionnaires with a total of 138 respondents, interviews of the managers of the four cybercafés, eight interviews out of 138 questionnaire responders, as well as casual observations of the cybercafés’ visitors with respect to their use of the Internet.

The results show that the users’ main activities were, listed in order of main usage, the use of social networks (Facebook and Twitter), school work, searching of diverse information and multimedia. The results also show that the users at least have a basic knowledge of using the computer. Furthermore, to some extent they do research information online as to further their personal education.

The results were discussed with respect to three theories: Internet in everyday life, Technology Diffusion and Information and Communication Technology for Developing countries (ICT4D). In conclusion, the results indicate that there is a digital divide in the sense of differential Internet usage of developing regions as compared to early adopters of ICTs."

One of the reasons it took time for Esther to complete her thesis was because I was the advisor, but the thesis was written and presented as part of Esther's master's degree in Economics of Innovation and Growth. That meant there were two different goals pulling in two different directions (economic growth vs. economic degrowth), two different departments (Media Technology and Industrial Economy) and in the end also two advisors (she needed some shepherding also from her home department to "adapt" it to their requirements). It was in the end very hard for Esther to get her thesis together and for these and other reasons the thesis didn't turn out to be great - but I know for a fact that the experience of writing the thesis changed Esther's life and that she was working in Africa at/with/close to a NGO last year. Esther's research questions for her thesis were:

  1. What are the uses of the Internet to the poorest Internet users in Ensenada Baja California?
  2. What role does the internet have in the lives of the poorest Internet users in Ensenada Baja California?

Esther comes from Mexico and she collected material in her home town of Ensenada over Christmas and new year 2011. The empirical material collected consisted of ethnographic observations in a number of different cybercafés in poor neighbourhoods, 138 questionnaires and 8 interviews in peoples' homes as well as some interviews with cybercafé employees.

The basic idea was that the poorest 10% of the population would not be affluent (or literate) enough to be on the Internet. But by how many steps (deciles) would you have to progress on the ladder of poverty/affluence before you would find (relatively) poor people who did use the Internet? These were the people Esther tried to reach. Her questions were: who are they and how do they use the Internet?

I hope more (exchange) students who are interested in this thesis topic will turn up. It would be best if they happen to be at, or can get transfer to (and present their theses at) my department. Do forward a link to this blog post if you happen to have ideas about how to make that happen! In a best-case scenario, I would be part of a research project that could extend some limited financial support to a student who wanted to write his/her thesis about ICT use in the post-modern city!

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