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Production of Use: Reconceptualizing “the User” in Low-income Communities in Urban India

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The concept of "the user" is central to the academic discourse as well as practice of Human Computer Interaction. The concept is largely shaped by economic conditions, cultural norms, academic theories, abstractions, and formalizations shaped by western values. However, as technology finds new users, uses, and contexts across the world, this image of "the user" is proving to be severely limiting. This dissertation is concerned with understanding and conceptualizing use in emergent digital technology user groups in low-income communities in Bangalore and Chennai, India.


The methodology followed in this dissertation is comparative fieldwork. By employing the comparative method (Nardi, Vatrapu, & Clemensen, 2011), I systematically examined the similarities and differences across three technology user groups—domestic workers in slum communities in Bangalore, urban sex workers in Bangalore, and urban microenterprises in Bangalore and India—in contexts including low incomes, genders, technologies, professions, formalities, languages, geographies, and social units. I weave together these three strands of ethnography to create a nuanced analysis of digital technology as it comes to terms with these contexts and actors. I examined individuals interacting with the interface along with the broader collectives, infrastructures, cultural logics, and economics that constitute and configure technology use.


Through this study, my attempt is to produce an analytical apparatus of Production of Use to study digital technology usage within these emerging contexts. I argue that Production of Use is a more constructive and generative unit of analysis than that of "the user" in the enterprise of design. It opens us up to the possibility of multiple users engaging with a single artifact by considering the richness of human activity. I engage with debates in the fields of Human Computer Interaction, Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Ubiquitous Computing, while staying attentive to larger discourses of public policy and development.

Advisor Nardi, Bonnie A.

Committee member Cutrell, Edward; Venkatesh, Alladi

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Nithya Sambasivan, Ph.D., 2012