Zara Rahman: Hi, my name’s Zara.
Luiza Prado: My name is Luiza.
Zara: And this is the first episode of our new podcast, Collusion, about power and technology. We firmly believe that no technology is neutral, and that power and technology are inextricably interlinked. In this podcast, we want to explore this relationship further, thinking about the power dynamics that are, and have been in the past, created by technology.
Luiza: We’ve both come across a number of great sources of information discussing power dynamics within technology. But sadly, most of them are in fairly inaccessible formats. They’re long academic papers usually behind paywalls, or long long books. We want to share with you the most interesting parts of this field of research in an hour-long monthly podcast.
Zara: First a bit about us. We met in a workshop at Transmediale in Berlin talking about feminist networks and methodologies, where realized we had a lot in common: feminism, and a fascination with the role that technology plays in shaping our societies and often in upholding social inequalities.
Luiza: I’m a design researcher, currently working on my PhD dissertation. In it, I explore the relationship between technology, medicine, and gender within our bodies, specifically focusing on The Pill as a designed object capable of creating gender fictions. As a Brazilian who has been living in Europe for five years, I’m also very interested in how technology plays a role in the power balances beteen these so-called first-world countries and those who are consistently excluded from it.
Zara: I’ve been working with open data and information activists for the past five years, looking first into the right to information, and then with the open knowledge community worldwide. More recently, into the use of technology in international development, and how technology is used to experiment upon vulnerable communities. I’ve been interested in colonialism and post-colonialism from a personal perspective. My family comes from Bangladesh, but I grew up in the UK, and I’ve been living in Berlin for the past four years.
Luiza: So what do we actually mean by technology and power? If we think about how technology has been used in the past, it’s clear that while there have been some great progress made, technological advancements have also played a role in oppression for generations. From the conquistadores, to the development of steam-powered ships allowing Europeans to travel against the current and inland in Asia, to medical developments that prevent fatal illnesses among certain populations only, not others.
Zara: That power of technology lies in the hands of the few not the many is nothing new. Nowadays though, common discourse, at least what I seem to be hearing, seems to be centered around how this power lies with big global corporations and governments, how algorithms can control us without us even knowing, how Facebook could swing an election, or how the cities of the future will be able to predict our every move, for example.
Luiza: But maybe before we think about how we want to leverage technology in the future, we can learn from the mistakes of the past. How has technology been used to oppress societies historical, and what is the legacy of those technologies today? We want to tell the forgotten stories of history. Technology and power. Thinking about design decisions that facilitated oppression and repression, and how those decisions and technologies affect us today.
Zara: We also believe that it’s important to discuss this from a non-US or EU-centered perspective. So why is that? Even though technology is such a discussed subject, its influence in culture, society, and its problems, these discussions are very much made by and for a Western or Northern perspective. But let’s not forget technology wasn’t invented in the West, nor is it an exclusivity of wealthier countries. Somehow, the scientific advances that began in the Middle East, India, China, Africa, and Oceana have been forgotten and attributed to European sources.
Luiza: As Dick Teresi says in his book Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science, iron suspension bridges came from Kashmir; printing from India; papermaking was from China, Tibet, India, and Baghdad. Movable type was invented by Pi Sheng in about 1041. The Quechuan Indians of Peru were the first to vulcanize rubber. Andean farmers were the first to freeze-dry potatoes. European explorers depended heavily on Indian and Filipino shipbuilders, and collected maps and sea charts from Javanese and Arab merchants.
Zara: In this podcast, we want to tell those lost stories and think about how the foundations they laid have been appropriated by others. After all, how often do we talk about the other world beyond Europe and the US, or Canada? How often do we discuss tech in the context of the countries that make the iPhones instead of the ones that buy them? And how often do we discuss how technology plays an enormous part in maintaining the power imbalances, economic control, and world order that hinges on inequality?
Luiza: Technology’s changing, that seems clear. In the very recent past, several necessary discussions about sexism, racism, and classism have popped up. Discussions that only a few years ago seemed to be taboo. There are a lot of people working actively to change tech, to stir these kinds of discussions, even though it is not an easy job. Things do seem to be changing, slowly, much slower than we would like. But still, it is change.
Zara: Each episode, we plan to focus on a certain technology or trend, and look at how it began and how it’s played a role in strengthening or creating certain power dynamics within different societies.
Luiza: One of our feature episodes, for instance, will focus on botany and how it was a propeller for the exploitation of natural resources in the Americas, and therefore for the colonization and slavery that happened in the Americas, too. Londa Schiebinger, a feminist who [inaudible] science explores this theme in her book that I’m reading right now called Plants and Empire. She specifically focuses on the story of the peacock flower that was used by enslaved indigenous and African women in the Americas and how the plant was taken to Europe as a mere decoration, but knowledge about its abortive properties was completely wiped out when the plant crossed the ocean. The fact that this knowledge was somehow erased seems to significant in two ways. Because indigenous knowledges were never valued as much as Western knowledges, and because abortion was already a contentious issue at the time, and there wasn’t much interest in granting women control over their bodies.
Zara: In another, we’ll be looking at the world of mapping in colonization. At the Berlin conference of 1884 to 1885, imperial powers pored over a map of Africa and divided it up between them. The data for these maps was in part collected by African slaves, and just having access to this map made this act of barbarism much, much easier. Given that mapping and collecting information about communities has sometimes been the first step to controlling those communities, how might participatory mapping be seen by communities who in the past had had their land taken away from them in this way?
Luiza: We’re looking forward to sharing these stories with you and discovering more ourselves. Get in touch if you’ve got any tips of where we should be looking and the stories we should be telling. Til next time, and thanks for listening.