Doris M. Schoenhoff’s The Barefoot Expert

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For want of any other page in Attica’s Computing the Other (yes, my book-in-progress now has a confirmed title) in which to write about it at this time, I must make a note here of my interest in getting my hands on what has proven to be an elusive book by an equally elusive author:

Schoenhoff, D.M. (1993). The Barefoot Expert: Interface of Computerized Knowledge Systems and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Oxford: Greenwood Press. ISBN: 0313288216. [Preface by Walter J. Ong.]

On its Amazon page I read that there are “7 used & new available from £83.34”, a shade more than I’d be willing to pay for a slender tome of a mere 200 pages about which I know little beyond the synopsis / publisher’s description which reads:

It may seem a strange match—AI and crop irrigation or AI and the Serengeti lions but researchers in Artifical Intelligence envision expert systems as a new technology for capturing the knowledge and reasoning process of experts in agriculture, wildlife management, and many other fields. These computer programs have a relevance for developing nations that desire to close the gap between themselves and the richer nations of the world. Despite the value and appeal of expert systems for economic and technological development, Schoenhoff discloses how this technology reflects the Western preoccupation with literacy and rationality. When expert systems are introduced into developing nations, they must interact with persons who reason and articulate their knowledge in ways unfamiliar to high-tech cultures. Knowledge, particularly in poor and and traditional communities, may be expressed in proverbs rather than propositions or in folklore rather than formulas. Drawing upon diverse disicplines, the author explores whether such indigenous knowledge can be incorporated into the formal language and artificial rationality of the computer—and the imperative for working toward this incorporation.

The title, together with the final sentence of the synopsis, suggests that this may be useful background reading to my thinking and writing about the ‘knowledge interface’ in the context of development and ICT4D. A search on both author name and title yields numerous documents in which the book is listed in the bibliography; yet only one—Stephen L. Talbott’s The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst—in which there is in-text reference to the book. Schoenhoff points out, he notes, that

expertise—the kind we export to other nations—is always “embedded in a community and can never be totally extracted from or become a replacement for that community”. When we attempt the abstraction and apply the result across cultural boundaries, the logic and assumptions of our technology can prove bitterly corrosive. Worse, the kind of community from which Western technical systems commonly arise is, for the most part, noncommunity—typified by the purely technical, one-dimensional, commercially motivated, and wholly rationalized environments of corporate research and development organizations.
Stephen L. Talbott, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, Chapter 9 [Web].

OK, so it’s pretty clear now why I’d rather like to get my hands on it. There’s been a lot published in the area of cross-cultural communication—Edward T. Hall (The Hidden Dimension, Silent Language, Understanding Cultural Differences, Beyond Culture), inter alia—but this is the first I know of in the use of knowledge-based systems for bridging the cultural interface.

And Doris M. Schoenhoff? she seems to have disappeared off the face of the planet.  No further publications, no current university affiliation, … nothing.

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