Introduction: Alternate Histories of the
ByDigital Humanities
Pages 35

In 2008, the startup company Adaptive Path created a steampunk mobile phone for people living in rural areas of India. Called the “Mobile Literacy Project,” the construction of the phones enabled the startup to “understand how mobile phone technology is being used by non-literate people in emerging markets.” Adaptive Path found that such users were more interested in physical interfaces like knobs and scroll-wheels rather than touch screens, and they did not care much for the vast capabilities of contemporary smart phones, preferring instead a simple set of features like cameras, texting, and music. Skeumorphic iconography, the design philosophy found on many iPhones where icons for calendar and notebook applications are made to refer to earlier technologies like paper calendars and notebooks, was met largely with confusion.1 In her post about the project, Rachel Hinman says that the design problems confronting Adaptive Path were related to Western assumptions about print culture: “[w]hat does an address book mean if your home doesn’t have an address, and you are unable to recognize alpha-numeric organization? What does an icon of an envelope mean if you’ve never received a piece of mail?” Instead of depending so much on screens and skeumorphic literacy, lead researcher and project advisor Natasha Alani found that rural users were fond of nding workarounds and using hackable interfaces. They would “leverage their spatial memory and gestures by memorizing patterns,” use the feedback tension of a radio dial to determine how to click through stored numbers, and pry open the phone, repurpose and repair its components when the device no longer served their needs. “Taking cues from Steampunk’s ‘hack-able’ aesthetic,” Adaptive Path explains, “we made the phone to look like an object that can be opened and tinkered with by exaggerating seams and making the mechanisms to open the device obvious.”