Ontologies, Social Research, and Technology Design

A quick pointer to a fascinating and exciting discussion by Berkman’s Ethan Zuckerman of Ramesh Srinivasan’s work on cross-cultural information technology design. Here is a teaser:

One of the key tools in Srinivasan’s toolkit is the ontology, which he describes as a structured way to examine “theories of what exist”. Describing the world in terms of hierarchies (i.e., a plant is an example of a living thing, has characteristics including leaves, roots and flowers, requires light and water to produce food, etc.) is, Srinivasan, a western construct that’s not always how a community considers local knowledge. But Srinivasan believes we can learn a great deal about how communities think about knowledge both by trying to structure their knowledge into ontologies and by understanding how they traditionally structure their knowledge.

To illustrate this idea, Srinivasan shows us some alternative ways to map physical space. A map from the Qiche tribe in Peru is radial, not Cartesian. The image of a crocodile is an Aboriginal map, a visualization of the song lines that criss-cross an area in rural Australia, a drawing of a God as well as a practical map of the landscape. Srinivasan wonders if we’re creating technologies that are this diverse, or whether we’re facing a world where most technologies are produced within one conceptual and value system and exported.

Beyond these ideas, Zuckerman discusses Srinivasan’s efforts to document and map out different knowledge systems around the world–from Kyrgyzstan to native communities in southern California–so that technology design can move beyond a few-sizes-fit-all approach to more responsive and culturally relevant models.

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