musings on geek culture in the developing world


On the Prime Directive, Half The Sky Movement, and mobile gaming

[Edited on 3/19/13 with help from Matthew Arcilla.]

To what extent should levels of technology be used as a criteria for interaction between cultures? That’s the big question I’d like to address in this post.

In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive declares that the United Federation of Planets is forbidden from making first contact with an alien civilization unless they have unlocked the warp drive technology achievement. It’s a credo that goes largely unquestioned, but Marie-Pierre Renaud of the Geek Anthropologist challenges its core assumptions:

What I find problematic is the notions that underline the directive: evolution as a linear process with technological progress as a necessary outcome, protection of cultures that are considered more “primitive” and gullible, etc. Even more problematic are cases in which the directive dictates not to interfere with the “natural development” of a culture even if it faces impending doom.

Simply put, this “humble moral posture” presumes that warp technology serves as a galactic benchmark for sociological, evolutionary and technological progress. Ultimately, Renaud concludes:
There is no way one culture can know what is best for another. 

[ source ]

This may well be true in the context of interplanetary politics or diplomacy between imagined sentient lifeforms (and it's here that I find relative value in the troublesome Hierarchy of Foreignness from the Ender's Game saga by Orson Scott Card).

However, does this criteria make sense among us (mundy/flatscan/muggle) baseline human beings?

Skill Unlocked: Mobile Game Literacy

I ask this because developer Games For Change have started releasing mobile games intended as an educational tool for women in developing countries, to address issues of public health (Worm Attack!), women's education (Family Values), maternal health and responsible parenting (9 Minutes). All of this is made possible by the rise of widespread non-smartphone mobile usage in developing countries -- which makes this a real-world example of the Prime Directive in action.

The games were released in late 2011 under the aegis of the Half the Sky Movement, based on the work of journalists Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. As reported by Co.EXIST, Michelle Byrd, co-President of Games for Change, defines the audience for Half the Sky:

We were looking at creating games that aren't necessarily about raising awareness in the West but are really about reaching the women and girls that are the subject of the stories.

Achievement Unlocked: Greater Quality of Life

In December 2012, Communication for Change (C-Change) did a monitoring and evaluation report on 9 Minutes in India. As Games for Change proudly notes:

The evaluation shows measurable positive shifts in knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions toward promoted safe pregnancy and delivery actions following exposure to the game.

[ no photo credit - source ]

So even if "there is no way one culture can know what is best for another", there are measurable, quantifiable ways to improve the quality of individual lives. However, achieving these ends may be contingent on reaching a target level of technological diffusion -- in this case, low-end mobile phones -- alongside the literacy required to operate them (both the game and the mobile unit).

Meaning that even with resources as vast as the United Nations' -- or the United Federation of Planets', for that matter -- it may be strategic to prioritize intervention in a culture that has already reached a target level of technological advancement. This provides ground-up, localized support for more effective development communication projects -- most especially when facing "impending doom".


  1. Here is my answer! It was too long to be a comment!

    1. Wow, that gives me PLENTY to consider, at least in terms of the in-universe Trek examples. (TNG has always been the series I was least familiar with, so examining this further means committing to looking up torrents, or at least reviewing Memory Alpha entries.)

      Just to clarify when I described Half The Sky's mobile games as "the Prime Directive in action", I was referring less to the non-intervention principle, and more to the idea that resource-sharing happens only after the 'alien' culture has reached the minimum technical requirements.

      Having said that, the example of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation opens up a whole different (but related) discussion:

      Even when two cultures agree on a shared goal or issue -- be it eliminating disease or improving literacy -- there remains the question of how. It's something that was addressed in the next post (Ways and Means), but obviously it's worth exploring in greater detail.

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