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Jenna Burrell

Associate Professor

Focus

how marginalized communities adapt technology, algorithmic fairness and opacity, human control over algorithms, ethnography

Biography

Current Research

I am the co-director of the Algorithmic Fairness and Opacity Working Group. My first book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana (The MIT Press) came out in May 2012. I am currently working on a second book about rural communities that host critical Internet infrastructure such as fiber optic cables and data centers. My research focuses on how marginalized communities adapt digital technologies to meet their needs and to pursue their goals and ideals.

What is the best thing about working at the I School?
There are so many directions you can take your research interests here, given the interdisciplinary nature of the school. It's great to be able to do social critique and theoretical work, but also to think about and influence technology design as well. It's also fantastic to be located in the Bay Area.

What Information issues interest you most?
What are the origins of the term 'information' as we understand it?
How is this very abstract concept understood in different societies and in different languages?

Your background is in Sociology and Computer Science; how did you become interested in technology appropriation in developing societies?
I was working for a couple of years with a group of social scientists at Intel. Members of the group were doing some profoundly innovative work in Europe and Latin America, thinking about new markets and new design ideas to challenge the US-centric tendencies in the industry. My interest in the developing world evolved pretty slowly out of a more general interest in technology practices in 'non-Western' societies. When I started my thesis research on Internet café use in Accra, Ghana my intent was not to study these users as people in need of 'development.' I went in to explore the process of technology appropriation in the same way it was being examined among Internet users in the U.S. and Europe. Ultimately, I realized that this work was yielding a different way of modeling the position of technology 'users' that could contribute something to the technology for development debate. So, I arrived at this interest in a roundabout way.

A Web site you recommend?
All Africa (allafrica.com) is very complete site for news from all over Africa.

Something few people know about you?
My major hobby is rock-climbing, something I tried out for the first time as a teenager. It's really hard to keep up with this, though, since I've been traveling and moving so much over the past couple of years. For the most part, I climb indoors at local climbing gyms.

What keeps you up at night?
I keep Post-It notes on my bedside table, because ideas (some good, some bad) tend to occur to me just as I'm about to drift off to sleep.

Last updated:

March 29, 2020