About this site

Larry Stillman

Larry Stillman

This site contains information about Larry Stillman’s work. I am a Senior Research Fellow what is  now called the Organisational and Social Informatics ‘area of expertise’ of the Department of Human Centered Computing at Monash University.

I seek to understand how community and non-profit organisations work with information, knowledge, and technology. My PhD was a deep study of these issues in community-based organisations. I do work in Australia and increasingly in South Africa & Bangladesh in the Development Informatics area.  From 2015-2019 I was lead researcher in the first-stage of the joint project “PROTIC” (which means sign or symbol in Bengali), with Oxfam in Bangladesh, working with women villages in different parts of Bangladesh. We will be working continue to work on issues associated with mobile technologies through participatory action research until 2024 because of new  philanthropic funding.  Now I have gone part-time, though I am still too busy!

What’s the rationale for this interest?

Since the early 90s I have worked in and with community-based organisations in various information, community development, and research roles, including a number of technology innovations. With the advent of the internet, I saw great opportunities for change — and also great challenges to how we do our work.

I began to become interested in how we know what we are doing with technology, is ‘right’, ‘wrong’, or somewhere in between. I’m particularly interested in how we know what is valuable to both communities and people (usually government) who support such initiatives– their information and knowledge.

Different discourse frames and power relations mean that very different world views are frequently on stage (and all the shades therein). I’ve also become active with various networks of practitioners and researchers locally and internationally. A lot of my time has been engaged in organising conferences and workshops because much of what we do and understand doesn’t make for easy writing or documentation. It’s also an obvious truth that nothing works as well as people getting together and–networking! We are engaged in not just simple research, but applied action and research.

I’ll add content as time permits.

You might like to look at the piece on ‘community informatics’ (the academic term that is bandied around these days) that I started off in Wikipedia, and add to it. An increasingly important, cooperative space for community informatics discussions and contributions is cirn.wikispaces.com.

I’ve also got a few political and social justice obsessions which I also blog or and / or put on Facebook.  So look for me there.

In my senecditude, I am returning to my real academic love, Assyriology, and the Akkadian language, the greatest language of antiquity.  Unfortunately, except for references in the Bible and a few elsewhere, Mesopotamian civilization was lost under the sands of Iraq and Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and then Arabic and Persian took over.   I am involved with a project to publish all the texts that have ended up (surprisingly) in museums and other collections in Australia and New Zealand. The internet has of course, revolutionized such allegedly obscure academic fields, with a huge number of resources online.  More recently, I have taken up the Anglo concertina and the  whistle as a release from some of  the insanity that surrounds being in academia

Contact: larryjhs_ AT _ fastmail.fm, and remove all the bits that should be removed to make this work.

Flawed anti-colonial accusations.

east jeruslI think there is nothing as important as the capacity to engage in self-criticism in the broad left particularly on Israel/Palestine issues.

I was quite infuriated a few days ago to read an article “How Israeli rights groups prevent Palestinians from framing their own reality“  in Middle Eastern Eye by Haneen Maikey and Lana Tatour ( https://tinyurl.com/n45xar2v)  which has been hailed as an important contribution to supporting Palestinian advocacy without outside domination, silencing, a ‘racial hierarchy’, implicit Jewish/Israeli supremacy and colonization (most of those words appear in the article) by Jews.

Thus it concludes “Our concern is less with how to make Israeli organisations and activists less racist or more accommodating of Palestinians. We are more concerned with how we, as Palestinian activists, human rights organisations and solidarity groups, should respond to this racial dynamic.

Our lived realities and knowledge should not be footnotes in the reports of white, Israeli, settler-colonial organisations. A way forward is to centre Palestinian knowledge and the liberationist anti-colonial agenda “

To be fair, the the article does address an important issue, and that is the danger of occupying Palestinian advocacy spaces.

However, what I think underlies the article is an essential rejection that Israelis/Jews also have a role to play–a different one, to Palestinians in opposing the occupation and other aspects of Israeli politics. It is also angry about the limitations that Jewish/Israeli organisations have in their politics, given their fraught standing. The article particularly focussed on B’tselem and why organisations like it, which rely on Palestinian field workers, keep them in second place, colonizing and manipulating Palestinian voices for their own purposes.The article also I think reflects a frustration–and the difference–between Palestinians within Israel who can work in the system and those in the diaspora or under occupation (as the two authors are), who feel that the only way forward is separately.

It is of course, their right to call for a separate path for advocacy, but personally, I think that is deeply flawed. Thus B’teselem and other organisations are typified as part of the Zionist enterprise, as merely “settler colonialist organisations” who “footnote” Palestinians. That’s a pretty extraordinary statement to make about organisations that oppose the Israeli government, organisations that receive all sorts of threats and so on.

I offered a critique of the article on a local (Jewish) academic and activist’s FB page to which I only received a series of rude insults about my lack of intelligence, defensiveness, and inabilty to accept critical analysis. The refusal to even engage in an argument says a lot about some of the divisions on the question of Palestine even in Australia.  Debate is shut down.  I think it is also reflective of the failure of what’s become known as solidarity politics – that you don’t criticize those you support, because they are the victims of oppression (but here, one of the authors of the article is an academic in Sydney). Another interpretation that I am considered as not able to voice an opinion on the matter because I am not part of that oppressed group (only people who fully identify with that group in a  certain political way are entitled to speak).

Whatever the reason for the failure to engage, rather than fair critical analysis, I thought the article engaged in a bit of (for want of a better term , and its a bad one), abstruse race essentialism about Ashkenazi Jews coming out of “whiteness” and subaltern studies, and a desire to prove that there was a kind of apartheid operating in these organizations (they called it a glass ceiling). They are also angry that Mizrahi Jews are excluded from such organisations (here, being essentialists, they completely ignore the actual general political orientation of Mizrahi Jews). The article also gave no credit to the constrained circumstances under which many Israeli NGOs work, but all the previous reasons explain why they are unacceptable to the Palestinian cause.

None of my own analysis about the empirical sloppiness of the article in terms of the organisations they criticize was addressed in the riposte.

Here is what I put in a comment to the FB post, with a few tiny changes

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[In the article] they accuse  NGOs of an “Ashkenazi Jewish-Israeli supremacy problem.”

Check the reality, the funding dependency. NGOS in Israel are under threat & there is a line they cannot cross in change and advocacy work, both with many liberal foreign donors and particularly with the Israeli government. They are primarily speaking to Jews and Israelis and other governments or the UN about the evils of their regime over another population /land. That comes at a political price. They cannot, and should not become Palestinian advocacy organizations. They are primarily in dialogue with American Jews. This is where the power to change the situation lies, much as Palestinians may wish for a totally independent path. They have to be pragmatic, whatever they may think should be done. Israel is not a democracy of the first order. It is a militarised state with certain restricted democratic activity. We all know that. If you’d prefer the NGOs to be closed down, so be it.

But the authors are right about the apparent lateness of organisations like Betselem to use the word apartheid. It’s been a struggle, and the price is high (given the internal Israeli & foreign situation, that the authors give no acknowledgement of). Isn’t that change in the organizations to be applauded?

There thus appears to be a contradiction in the logic of this article. On the one hand, NGOs are presented as colonisers of opposition to a conflict, of silencing Palestinian voices. Of being “supremacist”. But on the other hand there is a demand they support Palestinian NGOs – but given that some of these NGOs are non-acceptable because they work within some (Zionist or funding) limits, that ‘help’/advocacy would be rejected anyway. The writers should know that there is extraordinary suspicion of outside offers of assistance and resistance to ‘normalisation’ [with Israelis] – I’ve been through this experience. If you wish to remain separate, and won’t accept others for who they are, you pay the price.

Now, as for employment practices and the ‘racial hierarchy’. Race? A terrible word, frankly, whatever abstruse modern takes are put a upon it. The issue is political.

I think the argument is confused. I think there issues around employing Palestinians across the Green Line though I know of organisations which employ staff there. Palestinian staff from the West Bank unless Israeli have all sorts of travel and security restrictions. As an example, there was a Taayush activity I went on. The Palestinian organizer was legally unable to enter one of the areas we went into – or the army would have dealt with him quickly.

The authors also are not aware of people like Ezra Nawi in Taayush who just passed away, or other people from Arab lands who take an academic role, and prefer not be engaged in direct politics, or live outside the country ( Ella Shohat, Eva Illouz), or just refuse to be engaged. Other Mizrahi activists have a much domestic & narrower focus in a community (which is diverse) that is generally hostile to Palestinians.

And perhaps, leading potential Palestinian candidates for positions have taken on roles internal to Israel politics (Joint List), or rightly put their efforts into autonomous Israeli Palestinian organizations. In fact, we can see signs of this upward trend, in both the medical field and academia- a whole new generation of Palestinians in authority. But to take on state oppression, in a senior leadership role, is well…

Thus the pool of engaged people of both Palestinian & Jewish backgrounds to draw on is not large, the personal and political cost enormous in Israeli terms. And what’s the jibe at Israeli Americans? Would they say that about Jeff Halper? Or Gershom Gorenberg? [Both these people are of US Ashkenazi origin, strong advocates of Palestinian rights]. The jibe at Ashkenazim is thus quite unfair. And given the political orientation of most Jews from Arab lands, their critique is offside. People from the latter communities are not inclined to oppositional politics in Israel. NGOS can’t be blamed for that.

The Ashkenazi criticism is thus opportunistic and not well researched (and off course, stereotyping), and well, a wee bit racist.

I looked at Betselem’s website – 3 of the board are Israeli Palestinian, one is the Iranian Israeli Orly Noy who identifies as Mizrahi. About 50% of the staff are Palestinian. The two research directors appear to be Israeli Jews. The Director El-Ad also served in the army, but that is what you’d expect in such an organization. Unless there were a Palestinian Christian, or other ‘minority’ such as a Druze who had served in the army, there will only be Israelis in such a role. Half of Gisha’s board are Palestinian, about 1/4 of staff Palestinian. The director of Hamoked is a British Jewish woman, who appears to have Sephardic ancestry. 1/2 the staff are Palestinian. Three board members are Palestinian. As for Physicians for Human Rights, the board chair is a Palestinian woman doctor.

What the writers appear [also] upset with is that the media /writing is staffed by fluent English speakers or writers and written reports don’t have Palestinians as first author or only as a partner author or acknowledged. Yet many reports have full acknowledgment of the Palestinian role in writing them. And please, give us examples where Jewish supremacist is proclaimed or implicit? And evidence that the Palestinians who work are only there because they are in some sort of subaltern status? Have they no agency whatsoever?

Now if we look at organizations not mentioned here, the Abraham Initiative ( which may be too wish washy for the writers) has joint Jewish-Palestinian directors, staff, and board, the same with IPCRI and a mixed board. Zokhrot is also mixed at the top, and the Executive Officer is queer Ashkenazi. Is that ok? Another organisation, Combatants for Peace is very binational.

As for the critique of benefactor/beneficiary dynamic, the accusation cleaning up of information to remove Palestinian voices, or reinforcing conditions of dependency, I’m pretty astounded. I work in international development. What goes on with Israel-Palestine advocacy NGOs is far from what goes in terms of the power, advocacy, and reporting dynamic I am familiar with.

There are some sour grapes in this polemic mixed up with an over-extension of whiteness studies and some slogans crudely appropriated from from critical development theory.

[I've closed off comments here-not that I expect any-because of spamming, bots etc. Contact me via Facebook or Twitter]

Sociotechnical Transformative Effects of an ICT Project in Rural Bangladesh

BD MAP

A bit of speculation here about the parts and the whole in social-technical change.

This article is not the perfect piece by any means, but it considers the PROTIC project in Bangladesh as a modeling force for innovation and pressure on established sociotechnical structures. In this analysis, we follow what Donner defines as the “interrelationship” perspective, as applied to ICT4D. In particular, the notions of niche, regime, and landscape will be used to frame the changes that a village-level project may activate or respond to at the micro, meso, and macro levels of sociotechnical interaction, following the  about what is known as the Multilevel Perspective.  We also make some comments about the complexities of trans-national and cross-cultural/gendered research at the village level and upward.

Stillman, L., Sarrica, M., Farinosi, M., Anwar, M., & Sarker, A. (2020). Sociotechnical Transformative Effects of an ICT Project in Rural Bangladesh. American Behavioural Scientist. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764220952126

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“After the Smartphone has arrived in the Village….”

women in village IDIA2020: 11th International Development Informatics Association conference. United Nations University Institute on Computing and Society Macau SAR, China, March 25-27, 2020.

It is interesting stuff. There was a lot more to say about microlevel change but there was a page limit. It’s a paper about how to measure change with a technological intervention.   In any case, it also highlights the complexities of researching complex (and distant) change initiatives with different partners, different languages. Field conditions made it difficult to get all the data we wanted, but we accounted for this.  Despite all the limitations, things have changed in this community.

Larry Stillman1, Mauro Sarrica2 Tom Denison1 Anindita Sarker1 Faculty of Information Technology, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia 2 Department of Communication and Social Research, Sapienza University, Rome, Italy


https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-52014-4_6

Stillman, L., Sarrica, M., Denison, T., & Sarker, A. (2020). After the Smartphone Has Arrived in the Village. How Practices and Proto-Practices Emerged in an ICT4D Project BT – Evolving Perspectives on ICTs in Global Souths. In D. R. Junio & C. Koopman (Eds.), volving Perspectives on ICTs in Global Souths. 11th International Development Informatics Association Conference, IDIA 2020, Macau, China, March 25–27, 2020, Proceedings. CCIS 1236 (pp. 81–94). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Abstract. This paper presents a case study of an ICT4D project in rural Bangladesh, and examines the emergence of new practices connected through a theoretical lens. Social Practice Theory and different concepts of place provide a middle-range theory frame for interpretation. Two groups of 100 women living in different remote villages took part in the project and received smartphones and training. The project also established a call center and delivered timely agricultural information by voice, apps and SMS. A mixed design was used to evaluate the project progress. A baseline survey was completed in the two areas before the project started. After one year, the two groups of women involved in the project and two control groups completed a questionnaire on smartphone use practices. Episodic interviews were also conducted with a subsample of 40 participants. Project participants developed new skills and meanings associated with smartphones, which contributed to enhanced communication practices. The new practices and the emerging proto-practices at a micro-level also resulted in new perceptions of time and place and new locations for personal presence and interaction. The use of Social Practice Theory in conjunction with insights from theories of place provides a transferable framework with which to identify and emphasize what is meaningful to individuals and communities in the relationship between skills, materials and ideas with respect to different social-technical initiatives. In this regard, Social Practice and theories of provide new insights into the integration of ICTs in development projects.

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Ethics rather than policing for the Internet

A careful oped I wrote for the Daily Star in Dhaka about The control of social media. It is a sensitive issue in Bangladesh. The piece was widely read

Academic Values and Social Impact-the painful contradiction.

The following is the text of a recent rant on Facebook.

This photo came up on my FB page today. I took it about 3 years ago. It is of village women mapping out their community assets as part of the PROTIC project in Bangladesh which looks at at effect of smartphones and sociotechnical networks on community and particularly village life. These women are faced with the effects of climate change in geologically unstable region.

But the subtext here is that rather than being in the reality of a village in a pretty isolated part of the world, the villagers had to come to us because we were grounded due to a difficult security situation. Now, it’s relatively easy to write about the “research? here- the mapping exercise-in a way that gets journal recognition.

But what about the moral and ethical questions here – should we have expected the women to come to us in Dhaka when we could not go to them. In the village? Were we acting unethically? (The judgement call was not made by us, but the partner NGO).

How does academic valuing as it currently stands account for the effort and frequent cross-cultural complexity put into organising such socially important research in which it is impossible to set up perfect experimental social science situations and I suspect even technical situations? What is worth more and has greater impacts?

Is the impact to value foremost in having women innovate in agriculture and grow better food or vaccinate cows, and writing that up descriptively in Bengali, or displayed in billboards and community education for farmers elsewhere? Or is it spending months writing paragraphs of obscure faddish jargon to please the editorial policies of a journal which even if it accepts the paper, will be years out of date? What about the impact on research students?

If we develop a way of aggregating lots of village data so that they can access it instantly on a phone, but it’s not a leading piece of research and won’t get publication points, do we drop it? Or should also we move into looking at the moral and ethical side of things (data aggregation, access and security and surveillance in a country like Bangladesh). Clearly, the hard and soft ends of research can productively come together.

Another grand question- if we think that all this is too hard for IT research and we should well, just leave it for others, then are we giving up on connecting with the grand challenges that face the planet?

maps