Tropical Virus. These words may trigger many thoughts that simultaneously run in your head. From Malaria and mosquito bites, perhaps to cocktail names with small umbrellas, many ideas battle between each other to get the right understanding of what is meant here.
So what exactly is a Tropical Virus?
In the context of this research, the Tropical Virus refers to the following ideas.
There are dynamics of reappropriation of technology that bloom in the Tropics. These dynamics function around the misuse and disuse (‘Umnutzung’ in german, ‘Gambiarra' in portuguese) of a technological artifact or environment that open the possibility to unimagined worlds. These bottom-up interventions flourish like flowers in the Tropics.
These dynamics could be translated to other contexts in other countries to take advantage of their provocative potential and creative alternatives. This Tropical Know-How can be used to infect other territories, disrupt them, and expose alternatives that weren’t contemplated before.
Tropical Virus is the translation of dynamics of reappropriation of technology in the tropics to other countries and latitudes; to rethink our current ways of living.
noun: tropic of Cancer; noun: tropic; plural noun: tropics; noun: tropic of Capricorn
the parallel of latitude 23°26ʹ North tropic of Cancer or South tropic of Capricorn of the equator.
each of two corresponding circles on the celestial sphere where the sun appears to turn after reaching its greatest declination, marking the northern and southern limits of the ecliptic.
▪ the region between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.plural noun: the tropics
This zone of the planet between the lines of the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn is known as the Tropic – from Latin America and the Caribbean, to Africa, India, and South East Asia, among others. These are areas with conditions that make possible the creative blossom of dynamics of reappropriation of technology possible.
The tropical lands are mostly associated with hot temperatures, a high biodiversity and more often than not, crisis. This mixture, or cocktail of conditions possibly strongly influence the tropical population when finding ways to respond to their needs.
Maybe it is the sun over your head, or the hours of light, maybe the excesses of humidity or dryness, of peaks over the clouds, and sand and dust in your feet. There’s always a way to turn things to your convenience. Da um Jeitinho. Many of the tropical countries have shown that because of their economical needs, ‘it can’t be done’ or ‘it isn’t possible’ is not an option. This leads to complex situations were it is difficult to differentiate a right way from a wrong one and what is supposed to be real or not. This has been covered in different cultural fields, such as literature with movements such as Magical Realism, which accept magic and unreal elements as a natural part of rational environments. Fables in Favelas, or nobles of towns lost in space and time are an example of that. Many of their pieces describe political and cultural situations of a nation and are extremely close to real situations or events.
There is also the case where situations in the Tropics are so strange that they feel fictional or surreal. An example of this, is the decision of several publishing houses that decided not to print books in some African countries, because they somehow seem to have skipped this era. The cost of printing a book and distributing it are high, and a considerable amount of the population possesses a mobile phone. That’s why the decision is to go directly mobile. A world without books feels like something that cannot be conceived, or something very fictional. On the other hand it seems easier for this population to move forward to new alternatives as they are not attached with nostalgic feelings to more classical or traditional approaches. Such is life in the Tropics.
noun, plural viruses.
1. an ultramicroscopic (20 to 300 nm in diameter), metabolically inert,infectious agent that replicates only within the cells of living hosts,mainly bacteria, plants, and animals: composed of an RNA or DNAcore, a protein coat, and, in more complex types, a surroundingenvelope.
2. Informal. a viral disease.
3. a corrupting influence on morals or the intellect; poison.
4. a segment of self-replicating code planted illegally in a computer program, often to damage or shut down a system or network.
An infectious agent that replicates itself into other organisms is known a virus, from Dengue, Malaria, Ebola and Chikunguña, to Malware, Worms and Trojan Horses. The world is full of viruses in natural ecosystems and digital ones. Tropical dynamics are very similar to viruses and can use their propagation strategies to get to other countries.
Both digital and biological Viruses have more bad connotations than good ones. It is very strong the idea of a corrupting or infecting influence. Many computer users tend to blame everything that doesn’t work as they had expected on virus attacks, even when that isn’t always the cause of what they experience. All of the anomalies that come with a virus are thought to be avoided rather than to be embraced. A similar situation experienced with the informal dynamics of the Tropics. They are not well seen and most of them are meant to be eradicated. However, there are many characteristics of the virus that can be seen as positive, or possess properties one can take advantage of.
The replicating nature is the most important property of the virus. It replicates itself by using another agent acting in symbiotic or parasitic ways. As a technically non-living organism, it takes advantage of a living one to replicate and spread. The two main interesting ideas here are the concepts of propagation and of a parasite. As an adjective, a virus presently has a better connotation, as it may be used to describe specially internet content that becomes highly popular and reaches a wide range of people. Internet memes are the common example for viral content. There’s an opportunity of taking advantage of these propagating properties to highlight and become familiar with the dynamics of reappropriation in the Tropics. They emerge and spread well within a country, and could be more effective when crossing borders and reaching other lands. In regards to the parasitic nature, this is an element that acts narratively strong in this research and could be useful for a communication project. This symbiotic attitude is reflected as well in the dynamics of reappropriation, as people take advantage of devices, infrastructures and platforms and turn them to their benefit; to respond to their needs.
Another important point is the one of vectors in viruses. A vector is the name given to the organisms or objects that carry the virus and enable its propagation, such as mosquitos with Dengue, and floppy disks and USB sticks with digital viruses. Scientists are already taking advantage of viruses, modifying vectors to spread what they want to. There are already examples of virotherapy that treat deseases with modified vectors. An example of this are the genetically modified mosquitos that treat Dengue while they are carrying both the virus and the antidote; thus spreading ‘the cure’. There’s great potential on identifying the vectors that will enable a tropical Know-How propagation, and technology plays an important role in it. Technological advances have enabled a big network of interconnected people that exchange information and already have memes or web videos as vectors of ideas.
In the recent years, technology has been improving the way it reaches more people. Slowly, technology loses the exclusive character it may have had at the beginning and becomes massive and popular. It is undeniable that the power of technology has a strong influence in new patterns of behavior, such as social media or smartphones did with the “selfie” phenomenon. This is something Marshall McLuhan already stated as technology not being inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but definitely bringing great change in a society’s way of life. What was relevant to him, was to be aware of this power of influencing and changing everything. Maybe because of this, people are so enthusiastic into bringing technology into the so-called third world countries, hoping there will be change in their complex realities of crisis. There most certainly is a change. Technology itself tends to be unpredictable even in the places were it is developed. And when it is placed in other contexts, it has very interesting reactions.
There is huge potential in technology in the way it can disrupt and change everything. Design’s role must be of great reflection of technology, and by understanding its nature, take advantage of it. “The future forecasters have a conservative role, predicting patterns of behavior in relation to technological developments. They draw from what we already know about people, and weave new ideas into existing realities. The resulting scenarios extend pre-existent reality into the future and so reinforce the status quo rather than challenging it.” Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby illustrate in Design Noir | The Secret Life of Electronic Objects, how technological environments must be understood differently rather than as a tool to maintain or reinforce things as they are, question them and challenge them. In this book, Dunne and Raby, not only suggest technology in a role of a challenger to current models of living, but also shows how it is capable of bringing scenarios full of poetry and emotions that are very important for people. He describes strange situations he finds in newspapers that are caused by technology. A man who marries a TV, a conflict because of the use of a device, those are the surreal, but real stories Dunne and Raby find in the news. “The almost unbelievable stories reported in newspapers testify to the unpredictable potential of human beings to establish new situations despite the constraints on everyday life imposed through electronic objects. We are interested in people who have assimilated electronic technologies so fully into their lives that they feel comfortable doing things others would think of as almost too sacred or highly charged for technology.” These surreal scenarios, that technology makes possible, have potential to touch people and move them because of their provocative nature. The almost fictional situations have the power to question and challenge how things are right now. This blurred line where reality ends and fiction begins, triggers not only thoughts but also feelings. They are strongly narrative and start to connect with emotions and desires, while providing an alternative solution. Similar to Magical Realism, not only present in literature but also in real contexts, the need of finding ways that make things possible and solvable, leads to unimagined solutions that have this similar effect.
With this potential to challenge and the possibility of meeting human emotional needs, is clear to see how designers should actively take part in the development of technology. Not only in its technical development, but more in its social one; in all what happens around a technological piece or device and the interactions that are provoked. In that sense, as stated by Dunne in Hertzian Tales, “..design can be used as a critical medium for reflecting on the cultural, social, and ethical impact of technology.” However, Design is not only meant to reflect, but also actively intervene in this impact on culture, interactions and ethics to a preferred future. This is a task for designers, but is something that is already happening with common people when reappropriating technology. The users are designing when using and misusing technology and are giving it a large amount of value and poetics. Some may be seen as crazy nonsense but “they can be seen as early adopters, able to find meaning and recognize the potential of new technologies for supporting complex human emotions and desires.” Identifying the way design deals with new technologies is then relevant for this investigation. For that, three Design Alternatives were explored in order to understand the roles of designer and the user. Also analyzing how they merge with each other through the development cycle of a technological piece.
Most of the native informal expressions opposed to a standard are known as Vernacular. Its most common context is languages but it is also applied in literature, architecture, arts and culture; to refer mainly to basic improvised or common expressions. In the case of design, it can be seen as one example in which the designer is not necessarily an expert, but rather a user.
Vernacular is a term commonly used in linguistics to refer to an informal native language or dialect, opposed to a literary or standard one. An example of that are the Romance Languages, such as French, Italian and Spanish among others; that in the XVI century opposed to Latin, the literate standard language. Confronted with standardization, those languages emerged as a response to local needs and resources or skills. In architecture and design, it has the same definition and suffers similar low or unqualified negative connotations, thus not always valid. This is the first paradigm that the Tropical Virus has to deals with. Due to its informal character, it is not always taken seriously or considered as valid. Although, it is still an expression of design.
Bricolage, improvisation and reuse are very often dismissed as insignificant although they are really accepted as forms of designing. “Nothing needs to be invented from scratch, as things can always be assembled using that which already exists. »Repairing« - the word derives from the idea of pairing anew - is an old, but incredibly effective design method that can make things work better than they did before. It can put old functionalities to new purposes, or vice versa.” As an exercise of working with what there is and looking for solutions and ways, Repairing or Remixing appear as basic, but nonetheless powerful expressions of Design - an art that has been mastered well in the landscapes of extended Crisis in the Tropics.
These vernacular expressions of repairing and remixing are based on specific needs and the materials available. By bringing two or more elements together, a new purpose for an specific context is created. Here users are designers themselves, since they are the ones finding solutions even with the improvised pairing of elements in different contexts. 'Engineers are not the only professional designers. Anyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.’ An example of the use of local resources for an specific need is present in construction sites made out of bamboo or its Latin-American equivalent ‘guadua’. Here a material as strong as steel is used and available at your yard for an specific need - in this case, getting the setup for a construction. These are meant to be direct responses to the environment, so when technology is introduced to the Tropics, it suffers from these repairing and remixing actions as an act of reappropriation as well. The environment changes when technology enters a game with ‘other rules’, and technology itself changes as other uses or contexts are found. This is reflected with the introduction of mobile phones and smartphones, for example, as a great amount of the tropical population posses one, even in some cases where food or a proper home are not present. So many needs are still there, but technology is already introducing itself.
With the inclusion of technology in this cocktail of crisis and bottom-up entrepreneurship, the result is a changing environment in continuous experimentation. In this case the resources don’t only come from the environment, but also from external agents that are introduced into the ecosystem, and function as technological developments. These devices don’t grow on trees like coconuts, or come from the soil like bamboo, but are designed by people mainly from the Global North. Their designs enter their environment and start being misused in forms designers and engineers wouldn’t have conceived before.
The alternative use of a designed object given by a user is known as a Non Intentional Design. Most of the objects that have been designed, are framed to a specific use. Although, it happens very often that these very same objects are exploited and used in very different ways designers wouldn’t have thought before. There’s then the intervention of the designer with an intended goal, and the one of the user that reinterprets the way something is used.
Design has possibilities that users discovers in their every day interactions and take advantage of them in a clever way. Examples of these are: magnets in a refrigerator turn it into a pinboard or seats that become coat-racks. This is a phenomenon that is present in every culture and is created out of necessity, convenience and play. Uta Brandes and Michael Erhoff, professors at Köln International School of Design found the term by the end of the 90’s. They state that NID uses, transforms and generates something new without the intention or will to create new design since most of them are spontaneous acts of daily life. In the case of the tropics, where necessity is very present, NID is the rule in the panorama. Things are being misused as if life depended on it, and sometimes it really does.
Technology is mostly designed in the Global North countries, it may be produced and assembled in other ones, but at least in terms of planning or development, this is something that is made outside the tropics. The way a technological piece is received in this zone of the planet is what reveals the spontaneous ways it is most of the time misused. Tropical people may not be reading instruction manuals but rather rescripting them, and that is the beauty of it. The interesting thing on Non Intentional Design is that both designers and users are involved indirectly in the development of a technology and of the scenarios it enables. However, the intervention of the user isn’t still fully accepted as it is considered as wrong despite the interesting outcomes.
With the unpredictability of technology and the creative interventions of the people of the tropics, very interesting alternatives are found. The reappropriations of technology are equally or even more important than the design itself since meaningful solutions are met while they are being used. These different uses should be considered as more relevant insights, in future iterations and continuous development of technology.
When a design process of an object continues while being used, is known as Use as Design. As Phd researcher Katharina Bredies remarks, “we see 'use as design' as cases when users create and enact meanings that are so original that they become similar to designing.” While using a designed piece, the user constructs actively meanings that are relevant to its context. In this case, both designer and user take part indirectly of the design process (different to participatory design where they work together) and react to the interventions made by the other. This proposes a cycle where the designer works on a piece and delivers it to the user, then this user reappropriates it finding relevant contexts to it, and then the designer takes them into account and keeps developing for repeating this process again. User intervention here is equally valid as designer’s one and doesn’t suffer from any negative connotation as Vernacular or Non Intentional Design have.
In relation to technology, this design alternative seems to suit well due to its unpredictable nature. There’s room for new possibilities but they don’t have to be shown but rather discovered. Bredies suggests that “in regards to new technologies, in which potential use scenarios that make sense must be first proved, an orientation to already existent use situations is rather contra productive as they distract the view to alternative uses.” Leaving the use open to interpretations can lead to very interesting use scenarios as the user discovers and appropriate the new technology. When an instruction is given, the scope of use can be reduced to the suggested context without having the possibility to contemplate different ones. Bredies proposes three stages of interaction between users and design, which are Adoption, Appropriation, and Reuse.
Adoption: an artifact is being used
Appropriation: when the artifact has to be modified to match the situation at hand
Reuse: when the artifact is used to support another activity or in a different situation
This is a very convenient categorization of the levels of involvement of user with design, which describes well the role the object plays when being used. Bredies also proposes an interesting model of development that will be used in this project. It is based on the constructivist approach towards design from Klaus Krippendorff and the generic model of a design process from Wolfgang Jonas. This new model exemplifies a cycle in which the development of an artifact is designed by a designer, then reappropriated by a user and come backs to a designer which repeats the process.
The continuous redefinition of a design can go even to a higher level in which it passes a cycle of reappropriations to find useful meaningful context. In the concrete case of technology, the process of innovation can travel the globe several times to expose potential contexts and uses. It could be designed and develop in the Global North, then reappropriated in the Tropics and then return to the Global North with a complete different interpretation of use. The iteration could go on with adjustments made in the Global North and then again reappropriations in the Tropics and so on. This could work as a continuous cycle of development and reappropriation between the Tropics and other countries. The terms that are used to describe the relationship between users and object are quite accurate with the exception of “Reuse” which in the English language is mainly associated with recycling, and ‘green’ initiatives. For this stage in which an artifact is used in another context with another purpose that enables new interaction possibilities, I propose the term “reappropriation” which not only appeals to the way an object is used, but also the way it is understood and the new meanings it carries.
After observing these different design approaches, it can be said that the interventions of the profesional designer and the user as designer are vital for the development of a technology. There can be lots of improvements not only in its technical specifications but more on their use scenarios. Both designer and user can indirectly work together to reveal and discover the many possibilities technology has and which preferred future we would like to have.
Use as Design as an alternative, is one that suits very well the role of a designer since it doesn’t limit itself to just observation but also considers practical influence. “The practices of adoption and appropriation should not be dismissed as insignificant, but rather amplified with design interventions. The artifacts people choose to adopt and appropriate are a valuable resource for design transfer. Therefore we need to describe ‘use as design’ and creation of meaning from an actionable design perspective, not only how we can investigate, but how we can encourage it.” Reappropriation of technology is something that happens spontaneously, but can be definitely triggered and influenced. Not to a certain direction but to the possibility of different dynamics occurring around it. By leaving open the possibilities and embracing them rather than sub-estimating them.
For a better understanding of these strategies, a collection of curated cases are observed. These illustrate the creative dynamics of popular reappropriation of technology and trigger thoughts and feelings about them.