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.