Interviews / Research / Technology

A conversation with Mark Oppenneer of Ethnos Project

Mark Oppenneer

Mark Oppenneer of Ethnos Project

“So, I just digitized my entire music library,” Mark Oppenneer mentions the last time we talk via Skype. “And I’m just thinking…I’m such an idiot.”

To the casual observer, this conversion might not appear like a problem; indeed, it could be an improvement. But Mark is a bit tortured by his decision. He takes a long and critical view of technology: he wonders, given the rapid pace of technological change, how far into the future MP3 will remain the dominant format for audio. After all, these are original songs, as opposed to popular songs. As original songs, they typify the kinds of ephemera one might wish to pass on down the family line. Will his grandchildren or great-grandchildren be able to access and appreciate his now immaterial library? As increasingly digitized subjects – with data bits and code for memories, music, photos, and books – “what do we leave behind but ephemera?”

I chuckle at his off-handed musings, but the episode reminded me of what I admire about Mark: his ability to balance a profound appreciation for technology with a cautious skepticism of its transformative power. Mark now hones much of this energy into a website he founded called the Ethnos Project, which compiles resources for people interested in the intersection of technology, development, and indigenous peoples. I discovered Ethnos Project a year ago when I began drafting my proposal to study indigenous technology use around the world. Sifting through its extensive collection of academic articles, conference announcements, organization listings and blog posts, I thought to myself, “wow, this is the foremost online database for information on indigenous technology use.” Figuring that I now do much of the same work keeping my finger on the pulse of indigenous tech both in the field and in the academic world, I contacted Mark with the idea of supporting his team and contributing to the site.

Much to my surprise, Mark is a team of one. He serves as the sole curator, blogger, and developer for Ethnos. Needless to say, his “team” welcomed my participation with great enthusiasm. You can read my first post for the site, about the Arviat Film Society, here.

We have now connected via Skype several times, always in the evening after Mark has put his kids to bed in New York. That’s the most astounding thing about him – he runs the entire Ethnos Project out of his home in the States, where also he balances a “real” job and a family. “Look,” he jokes one day, envious of my travel and fieldwork , “I have four walls around me!” He lifts up his laptop to reveal a pristine painted room, a lamp and red curtains that bespeak more suburban bliss than academic monasticism. Regardless, he maintains a smart and up-to-date engagement with indigenous technology initiatives that expands far beyond his domestic restraints.

The Ethnos Project site itself avoids editorializing, serving more as a neutral compilation of useful resources for those who might want to form their own opinion about the transformative power of tech. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite place the creator’s own ICT4D ideology amid the site’s current framework. So I sought out Mark’s voice: did he consider himself a tech-optimistic? Where did this Ethnos Project idea come from and where did he hope it would go? Below are the questions I sent to Mark about his engagement with Ethnos, technology, and indigenous peoples, along with his responses.

1) How did you get interested in the intersection of technology, “development,” and Indigenous peoples?

That’s a good question considering I am not strictly a technologist, I haven’t worked in “development”, and I do not belong to an Indigenous culture. The answer lies somewhere between my love of story, my experience as a web developer, and my fascination with the human condition.

I have a life-long love of narrative. I enjoy listening to and telling stories – especially ones that come from places I am not. So I began to study story traditions from around world, a process that eventually became the focus of a Master’s degree in Mythology and Oral Tradition. I have also been a web designer and developer since the before times. I grew up as a denizen of the World Wide Web. These two parts of me, which used to occupy very different spaces, merged when I entered a doctoral program in Communications & Rhetoric. My research focused on the cultural impacts of ICTs when used by Indigenous peoples to sustain and stimulate their traditional knowledge. As an extension of that research, I have become interested in a variety of issues which involve technology and indigeneity, culture and development, ICT4D, digital humanities, and so on.

2) Tell me a bit about the creation of the Ethnos Project.

I started the site in 2008 as a research portal in the same spirit as Ismael Peña-López’ ICTlogy website. It was a place to collect resources and collate my thoughts. As well, it became a web development sandbox as I started using it to build some prototype custom databases to house my notes (I finally settled on WordPress as the content management system). I also started using social media platforms along with the site to reach out and connect with other people who share similar interests. Over the last five years, I have tried to make the Ethnos Project a research destination – next, I’d like to see it become a research community.

[Rachael’s response: I am excited to see Ethnos Project grow into an interactive discussion space. As I continue my journey, many indigenous peoples have told me they would love an online space to share information, resources, and experiences of their own technology projects. They feel they have much to learn from each other. Which leaves me wondering: what would an online portal for indigenous peoples involved in tech initiatives – not for researchers per se – look like? Does the site as it is currently structured cater to Western conceptions of project development, standards of success, and ways of communicating? Would love to hear some of our indigenous partners’ take on this.]

3) What is the most exciting new trend or project in ICT4D that you’ve seen in recent years?

That’s a trick question. To be honest, I am actually quite distrustful about the notion of ICT4D. No ICT4D project (or any endeavor that situates ICTs as a “solution” to a cultural or societal problem) can avoid having unintended consequences for the people it is meant to serve. Often, those consequences – which can be dire – do not get discussed or are conveniently ignored. Until recent movements like FAILFaire, people simply kept mum about the failures. This makes identifying good projects difficult since I am levels removed from understanding the direct cultural impacts the programs are having – and that is how I am most likely to judge a project. I can say this: I am far more Bill Easterly than I am Jeffrey Sachs (I believe in bottom up development, not top down), and more Kentaro Toyama than I am Nicholas Negreponte (appropriate technologies can amplify human capacities, but technology in and of itself is not a solution). Although I am reticent to answer you with a specific project, I think that IICD (based in the Netherlands) is an example of an organization with the right spirit and approach to ICT4D.

[Rachael’s response: I think you raise an important question in using terms like “good projects” and “failure” which is: who gets to define the terms of success for an indigenous technology project? How long of a time span do we need to fully understand the impacts of any given initiative? Too often, I’ve found, terms of success are imposed by outside funders (grants, NGOs, Western partners, etc) upon which many indigenous projects rely. Often, these terms to not align with traditional values.]

4) So, would you classify yourself as a techno-determinist, -optimist, or skeptic? Why?

Not a determinist, for sure. Skeptic, definitely. If we move off the ICT4D track and move more toward projects involving ICTs and the preservation of culture, I am slightly less pessimistic. I am drawn to projects that are born within Indigenous communities (FirstVoices is a notable example) or that stem from healthy community partnerships (I would say eBario and the Ulwazi Programme fit the bill nicely). To put a finer point on things: I am not entirely sold on the idea that ICTs as they currently exist are the proper tools for “preserving” culture. Storing information, yes. Sustaining the human spirit at the heart of a dying culture, not so much. The idea of Kentaro Toyama’s I mentioned about the potential of appropriate technologies to amplify human capacity is just as true for ICT4D projects as it is for ICT-mediated cultural transmission.

[Rachael’s response: I fall into the same skeptic category as Mark on this point. But I like the idea that technology is a facilitating force for cultural revival. For example, when Zacharias Kunuk directed his films that traced traditional Inuit history and legends – Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner being the most prominent example – community members had to work together to recreate traditional clothing and shelter for the movie. For the duration of the production process, those members in charge of props and costumes had the opportunity to practice traditional skills, some of which are fading – particularly among younger generations. Actors had to think through how their ancestors hunted, talked, and interacted. The Arviat Film Society generated hundreds of hours of interviews between youth and elders about traditional Inuit culture. The cameras weren’t doing the work there; the kids were. Another example: creating a smartphone app for an indigenous language requires that the indigenous creators and their partners think through traditional language in a systematic way. Utilizing GPS technology to map cultural sites (such as the Surui) requires revisiting events in a community’s past and generates revived discussion of history. So while the technologies themselves do not inherently “save” a culture, the human process required to engage those tools often pushes traditional practices to the forefront in an important way. ]

5) What is the biggest struggle you’ve faced in conducting your research and growing your website?

I think that my obvious skepticism and doubt is at the top of the list. Lack of time is the other bit that gets me. When I was a student, the Ethnos Project was a great way to focus my energies and time. But now my time is divided between a full time family and a full time job, which leaves only a wee bit of time for research and blogging. One other challenge has been the issue of physical distance. I am discovering and connecting with really interesting people doing really amazing things and I would love to be able to see these people in real life (one day, I will buy Niall McNulty that beer).

6) What is your hope for the future of the Ethnos Project?

Simple answer: I would like to open source the Ethnos Project. I would like to invite other people to join in and actively grow it in different directions. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you’re on board! Your experiences, insights, and energy are such a great match.

[Rachael’s response: Thanks! I am equally stoked to partner up with you. Here’s to great things in the future of Ethnos Project.]

One thought on “A conversation with Mark Oppenneer of Ethnos Project

  1. Pingback: Ethnos Project » Technology, ephemera & ICT4D: an interview with Mark Oppenneer of the Ethnos Project

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