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Local Tech Ecologies: Fernanda Rosa on decolonizing technology

I’m at UC Boulder this morning at a conference organized by friend and colleague Nathan Schneider. He’s a professor of media studies who has done tremendous work thinking about communities and the systems that support them. Today’s conversation is focused on local tech ecologies, specific to Boulder, CO and more broadly. Nathan’s inspiration for the conference is, at least in part, disaster response. The Marshall Fire of December 2021 destroyed more than a thousand homes and left Boulder residents turning to social media to protect themselves and understand what was happening.

The platforms Boulder citizens turned to weren’t ones they owned, and they didn’t always work the way they should. Nathan notes that this is a theme we’re finding as communities react to disaster. During the pandemic, many of us became dependent on delivery services, which again were not designed with local needs in mind, and which often served local businesses very poorly. Thinking about how we build and maintain tech infrastructures is one of the main rationales for the conference.

Our opening keynote is from Fernanda Rosa, a Brazilian science and technology studies scholar who teaches at Virginia Tech. Rosa’s interests are in the intersections between tech structures with a global reach (the routing systems of the internet, powerful internet platforms) and local communities.

Her talk today, “Between the Global and the Local – A Decolonial Approach to Technologies”, begins by calling on Brazilian geographer Milton Santos. Santos argued that much of what we think about globalization is not real – it is “an ideology based on fabulations.” Santos argued that the idea of a global village is unrealistic, given people’s desire to recognize their own identities. He argued that our globalization today is a perverse globalization, a globalization that destroys solidarity in favor of competition.

Despite these sharp critiques, Santos was an optimist, Rosa tells us. He imagined “another globalization” where we thought of technologies in service to humanity. Could we imagine technologies for the people, not just for the spread of mass culture?

Rosa reminds us that “global” technologies are embedded in cultural and national values. Massive platforms like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Xitter are embedded in the local values of the US and of Silicon Valley, the places of origin for these technologies. We can try and use them in different contexts, but they unavoidably include those values.

“Nation and territory are different things,” Rosa tells us. “A nation is not the physical territory – it’s an ideology.” Maps, museums and other cultural institutions remind us of these ideologies. These maps emerge from violence, Rosa reminds us, invoking the Sand Lake massacre, in which the US army slaughtered 160 non-combatant Cheyene and Arapaho people. Rosa invites us to look at Native-lands.ca, which overlays homelands of indigenous people over the maps we are familiar with. She shows us homepages for usa.gov and cherokee.org, showing how both nations assert sovereignty via design, and via formal structures (domain names.)

Local, for Rosa, is not the local manifestation of global chains: the local Starbucks in her neighborhood of Sao Paolo. She’s advocating for local “opposed to the perversity of globalization”, universality and extraction. Local is rooted in local meanings, respectful of diversity and opposed to othering, in line with belonging and solidarity values. Finally, local is based on ethical relations with humans and non-humans, like the environment.

Rosa is interested in indigenous communities running their own networks. She references an indigenous phone company in Oaxaca, which runs its own 2g voice networks in a community that Telmex is not willing to serve. The service offers unlimited voice calls for $2 a month. There’s a new network that offers data services as well, which is building a 4g backbone across Mexico. While this is now a legitimate alternative to TelMex, they are having some difficulties getting clients, despite low costs.

Other communities are building internet networks. A community in Chiapas is building local internet service providers via Wifi for communities where commercial internet access is not available. They first identify where internet can be purchased, usually in a nearby big city. An individual contracts for internet service and then erects an antenna on their roof. They shoot line of sign Wifi from the rooftop to a mast in a distant community and share their domestic connection with an entire town.

This breaks the contract with the commercial ISP, but it’s also the only reasonable way to provide service to these communities, given commercial constraints. These networks are autonomous, but not in a way that’s visible to existing internet authorities. These networks don’t have the autonomous system numbers that allow routing from Border Gateway Protocol, though they’re autonomous in very real ways.

Rosa’s project is around ethnography of code:
– Can we decode the colonial encounter at the level of infrastructure with code ethnography?
– Can we recode this encounter by centering indigenous knowleges and practices with participatory design?
– Can we reimagine internet interconnection for a local network to flourish in a pluriversal internet?