Same same but different. An Erasmus+ teaching experience.
This time I’d like to use our humble blog to share with you, dear interested reader, some of the experiences I made recently in the context of a teaching-related stay abroad. After all, it has been a great adventure visiting such a different place, that provides its very own intersections of religion, infrastructures, and culture, but offers also very common experiences of technological troubles.
Last year (but not for the first and only time) TUM was offering Erasmus+ scholarships for staff members for teaching at a partner university. The idea behind the program seems quite reasonable – it is meant to strengthen networks and for developing collaborations, exchanging research perspectives and approaches, connecting faculties and departments, as well as researchers. Interested in the international dimension of such a program I decided to apply for a stay at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST, simply called tech by locals), which is located in Kumasi, Ghana. Even though the offer aims at staff members “specifically in the area of engineering” (I ignored that implicit inequity), the program is in principle open to all employees. I got accepted with my proposition to give a two-week block seminar (which due to unforeseeable circumstances was prolonged by another week) at the end of November.
As I had never been to a sub-Saharan country, expectations were high and with some speculations and best hopes I started organizing the trip for which I had to deal with at least eight forms (bureaucracy!) and write actually more than ninety emails. While intensifying the email communication with both entities – TUM and KNUST – I prepared the seminar, read travel literature, discussed and received vaccinations and bought equipment as a precautionary measure against various threats (that is mainly the intense sun and mosquitoes).
On the move
Geographically located between Togo, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, Ghana is considered being one of the technology hubs in the west African region. This is not surprising as Accra, Ghanas capital city, is packed with subsidiaries of international IT and electronics companies. Because of its latitude it is also predestined for hot days that do not really cool down at night. After flying for eleven hours (the plane took a little detour through Schiphol) I arrived at 11 pm at Kotoka airport and even at this time of the day the heat and humidity hit me without warning once I stepped out of the building. All I could think of was that I might be overdressed in my jeans and sneakers with socks. Fortunately it didn’t take long until I was cooled down by the airstream that circulated through the four open (and by the looks of it never to be closed again) windows of the taxi whose rate I had to negotiate very hard. The downside of having four windows open in a taxi at night which is getting stopped from time to time by traffic lights and traffic jams alike is the constant state of cautiousness it enforces – I grabbed onto my luggage and trusted the driver. There actually was no need for mistrust but it took me some time to understand how Ghana works and what most likely will and will not happen.
Speaking of trust and mistrust. The canonical form of our relationship with technology is defined by trust. Technology that fails, in the meaning that it is not working as intended, is then often a challenge not only because it breaks this trust (temporarily) but also because as an artifact it unfolds (again, temporarily) a hidden potential of power that materializes in that very moment in a quite unpleasant and highly perceivable way. When I arrived tired and exhausted at the hotel that first night I went to the reception to do the check-in. Unfortunately the check-in was declined with circumlocutory apologies – the key-card reader seemed to have a malfunction and did not open my room door. It was that simple but powerful non-human actor that forced me to take another walk through dark and dusty alleys, backyards and roads without any orientation until I reached a hotel that finally was able to offer me a place to sleep.
The language of infrastructure
Bus stations in Ghana can be a really peculiar place – especially if you look at them with a lens that is influenced by the German version of being organized. Almost all the bus stations there have a very special setting and character. The central bus hub in Accra for example is called circle and it not only literally is a circle but stresses the orientation to a maximum. The circle is probably one square kilometer of a highly functional infrastructure – alas it is written or built in a very specific code. To me it obfuscated itself as a representation of chaos at this first day and it was highly interesting to experience how much time and effort it can take to decipher the logics of such an aggregation of humans, animals, cars, goods and other things that circulate within their own set of rules. In such a situation it is most welcome to meet translators who are happy to re-interpret and guide through that lively thicket – I met such people and they safely brought me to the right bus. Riding a bus is not less interesting than finding one. The passengers are almost all the time entertained by a very loud radio and TV program that consists of religious messages, prayers and other ceremonies. Ghana in that regard is full of Christian signs, habits and rituals.
Imagine a campus that has the size of a small town, a campus where everybody of the staff members is living in a house on-site. A campus with free-range chicken, goats, dogs, cats, different birds and a lush flora, with fields of banana, plantain and mighty trees. This is KNUST. On a campus with such a different institutional culture and infrastructural circumstances it takes a while to acclimatize, also to get to know the shortcuts to the departments (because the ways are long otherwise), their locations, and most importantly the supply facilities. The management of the compound seemed to be organized quite well. Lots of maintenance personnel dedicated their time to foster the already green environment into an even greener and denser state. Buses circle through the network of roads almost on-time to transport the students from the halls to the auditorium and vice versa and security personnel is doing its inspection rounds to keep the place safe at all time.
But even the best management cannot prevent an escalation of events sometimes. When I arrived at the main entrance of the university campus I was quite surprised to see that there were almost no people but a military vehicle with fully armed soldiers. As I was told while I got picked up by a driver of the International Programmes Office the university was object to riots that happened two weeks before. Apparently one security guard committed an act of violence towards one of the students which lead to demonstrations that built up more and more and eventually ended in burning cars, broken windows, fled security guards, curfews, interruptions of all teachings and interventions by the police and military. Fortunately tensions were not so high anymore and I only had to postpone the teaching for one week. That much for a little insight into the first days, but I’d like to use the opportunity to say a few words about the topic of my stay as well.
Of course the everyday life in Ghana is organized in quite a different manner than it is for example in Germany. But there are some similarities. Digital technology has become part of the cultural life and the everyday usage habits do not differ that much. People are texting, exchanging videos, making calls, sending money, posting on social networks and the like. This process of turning social lives into data (as in datafication) has also in Ghana become a modus operandi for corporations, the government as well as the people as it seems that they actively participate in creating data doubles. This of course has manifold implications regarding existing power dynamics, especially when power that comes from and by data is shifted to those who operate on that data. To me it seemed tempting to discuss in the context of a seminar the current debates and controversies on data, the socio-technical implications of these developments and the changes they bring. The introductory session of my seminar with the title The Power of Data, The Power of Algorithms which was held at the Department of Sociology & Social Work seemed promising. Around 17 students attended the first meeting and after a short round of naming names we talked about student’s expectations (hearing more about the mechanisms that are behind a technology they use every day), the seminar’s purpose (transferring knowledge), the goals of the seminar (help developing an understanding of and individual tactics and strategies towards data) as well as the seminar’s schedule in accordance to the time slots the students had. Some of the guiding questions have been: How are social relations and cultural life changing in the era of Big Data? What socio-technical challenges or even issues are accompanying a deep integration of Data, Data Mining, Machine Learning and Predictive Analytics in the social fabric of our lives?
I structured the seminar into three parts. As an introduction to the topic the first sessions were about reflecting on digital life, datafication and the means of becoming data doubles. In a second step datafication as a matter of concern in regard to privacy, surveillance and knowledge was addressed including filter bubbles and echo chambers as well as biases in algorithm based decision making systems. In the third and biggest part the shaping of possible futures and the idea of taking care were discussed. Here, taking care is meant in the context of re-claiming agency, re-shifting power relations, re-configuring data driven processes. During the seminar students were highly interested and motivated as their everyday usage habits as well as the core technologies who are used to structure their digital social life were touched. How necessary this kind of disenchantment is and that I have been in time with my seminar was to be seen a few weeks later when Facebook made another questionable move and signed a contract with Vodafone and the Ghanaian government to offer Facebook Zero within the country.
For the wrap-up of the seminar I was asked to give a short presentation for the whole cohort of the 3rd semester. I did so and left KNUST with hopes that sociology of the digital will be part of the curriculum soon.