The social life of the computer in Ramingining

  • Anthea Nicholls

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    This thesis is the outcome of eighteen months of fieldwork in Ramingining - an Indigenous town in Arnhem Land, Australia - during 2006-2008, after four years of my living there as a teacher. It was made possible by the generous participation of the Yolngu people of Ramingining, in the relationships which are the subject of this thesis. Within these relationships, I paid particular attention to one actor: the computer. I asked, How is the computer living here?

    In the thesis I trace my living and working in Ramingining, with people and with computers and other objects, as an observer and as an intervener. I also trace my engagement with the research literature around material semiotics, particularly Actor Network Theory (ANT) and its subsequent developments. I show that this work - and its material, social and textual participants - became actants in turn in the story that subsequently unfolded in Ramingining. The thesis enacts a mutual, revealing interrogation between ANT and this story.

    I found that as a ‘material semiotic’ toolkit, Actor Network Theory enabled me to encounter the complexity (which it also predicted I would find) in Ramingining and to follow some significant actors: Yolngu endeavouring to use computers to get access to bank accounts, myself searching for a place to live, Yolngu computer access places emerging and disappearing, statistics revealing and hiding other actors, some ‘Balandas behaving badly’, and always, computers .. working out their own salvation while Yolngu endeavoured to negotiate the complexities of the sociotechnical world in which they now find themselves.

    As ANT predicted, I also found that when things happened, or didn’t, actors were being held by strong ties and breaking weak ones; I watched networks being built and undone. I documented something of the huge amount of work - usually hidden - which holds things in place. I found that ‘ontological choreography’ was necessary to recognise some things which didn’t behave like networks - in whose terms they were merely messes - and so to encounter them creatively.

    In this manner, I also found a way to talk about ‘goods’; to address the question of how developers and researchers might behave in an Indigenous town.

    Then in the end I allowed the computer to speak, and to tell its own story.
    Date of Award2009
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorMichael Christie (Supervisor) & John Greatorex (Supervisor)

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