The struggle for control of digital knowledge has reached a turning point. Economic, geopolitical and cultural dimensions are all at play. The dominance of the tech giants is not the only issue that needs to be addressed to overcome the current imbalance and promote digital pluralism. It is also necessary to encourage the development of alternative, sustainable technologies that respect linguistic, cultural and biological diversity.
Source: The UNESCO Courier. 2023, no.2, April-June.
License: Open Access under the Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO (CC-BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Technodiversity as the key to digital decolonization
*Lecturer in the Sociology of Communication and Culture at the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Roma Tre (Italy), Domenico Fiormonte has been researching, teaching and publishing works on digital philology, geopolitics of knowledge and cultural criticism of the digital media.
Dominance has never been achieved solely through the recognition and display of superior technological or military might. Knowledge is power, and it exercises its influence, as Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci put it, in the field of cultural hegemony, establishing the boundaries of what knowledge is and is not. Information, education and cultural and scientific production form the deep level of geopolitical interaction.
Now, for the first time in history, this complex set of ideologies, practices and interchange has converged into a unified medium of production, access and diffusion: the web and its tools. The web and its sister technologies have become the ground on which to exercise control over politics and health, train new generations, disseminate scientific results, influence economic choices and challenge social norms. The cultural, aesthetic, social, juridical, economic and other structures that characterized the history of humanity up to the early years of the 21st century have been swept away by a new subject-object: the empire of the algorithm.
A major turning point
Geopolitics has become digital geopolitics, a competition and a struggle for digital knowledge – not only for its control, but also for its infrastructure and for the physical materials used to build it and maintain it. These are the cables, applications, software, data centres, metals, rare earths and other elements that make up the complex mosaic of the geopolitics of digital knowledge. It is not enough to own missiles and armies, gas and oil, economic power, research centres, universities and the media, or to be invested with religious power, because without control over the infrastructure and tools for efficient communication, those resources are blind, deaf and dumb.
Digitalization thus represents the final stage in the process described by Gramsci. It shows us how the struggle for control of digital knowledge, from the wars about control of public opinion on social networks to disputes about the use of artificial intelligence, is at a key turning point in the current historical phase.
Harold Innis, a Canadian economist, developed his theory of the political, cultural and ideological bias inherent in every technology in the 1950s. His theory implies that the physical supports of technologies have been “imprinted” with limits and bonds by their ruling class designers, often oligopolies, who then control them through these same bonds. Just as in the 1930s and 1940s it would have been unthinkable to develop a modern publishing industry without a reliable supply of paper pulp, today it would be impossible to imagine any form of communication without an adequate network infrastructure.
A cultural issue
In a world ruled by big tech monopolies, it is, of course, necessary to attack their economically dominant positions. But the real problem is cultural. As Innis explained, to maintain and spread their hegemony, those in power must “standardize” the tools and methodologies of communication as far as possible. And inevitably this means a reduction in diversity. Protocols, algorithms and software must be able to flow uninterrupted from one corner of the world to the other.
Diversity and control are thus diametrically opposed. Big tech giants, in order to perpetuate their power, must beat the competition, buy out potential rivals and, as American computer scientist Jaron Lanier says, slow down innovation and protect their technology (the “lock-in effect”). After all, you would not expect a private for-profit big-tech company to invest in languages and cultures that do not have a clear market value. For example, Google’s search page is available in 149 languages, Google Maps in more than 70 languages, and other sources say that Google’s search engine can support up to 348 languages.
However, in November 2020 Google announced that Google Ads, an essential component for anyone who wants to do business on the Internet, would only support 49 languages, over half of which are European. But according to Ethnologue, an encyclopedic reference work cataloging the languages of the world, there are more than 7,000 known living languages, meaning that even the most powerful digital company of the world can only represent a small percentage of our planet’s language diversity.
Dismantling dominant narratives
But it is precisely in this natural conflict between standards and diversity, or between elitism and digital pluralism, that a possible solution to the problem lies. If it is true that power has a need to concentrate and control, it is equally true that biocultural diversity is a necessary condition for maintaining life on the planet. It is our life insurance, and technodiversity will increasingly be needed to rally to its defence.
And here I would like to expand on the Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui’s reflections, observing that technodiversity should also be understood as freedom of choice – which in some cultural contexts can imply the “rejection” of a technology perceived as invasive or harmful. In other words, technodiversity is the right to control one’s own “digital corpus”, to fight against digital colonialism, and to cultivate solutions that respect the ecology of territories, cultures and languages.
There can be no epistemic and therefore no technological diversity without a careful reassessment of the central role of the so-called “margins” of the planet. Not only because it is in the southern regions of the world that the material resources that make digitalization possible are concentrated, but also because epistemicide, “the systematic destruction of rival forms of knowledge”, has always been one of the main causes of underdevelopment.
It was the Martinican-born (France) philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who, in his seminal work, The Wretched of the Earth, shed light on the perverse colonial ideology, based not merely on extraction and exploitation of material goods and labour, but on the cancellation of indigenous cultures.
The colonizer’s greatest victory, Fanon wrote, is not to plunder the colonized, but to convince them that their culture is inferior. Once local knowledge has become irrelevant to its owners, the colonizer will then offer a winning model, a “standard” that the colonized cannot fail to adopt. For this reason, addressing the current technological imbalance between the North and South of the planet cannot mean providing pre-packaged solutions and transferring technology from the north to reinforce the feedback loop of data theft, and then transforming the South into a technological waste dump. It is necessary to encourage the development of local technologies that are environmentally sustainable and conform to the linguistic, cultural and biological diversity of the respective territories.
However, the southern margins of the planet are currently facing a dilemma: should they create their own (infra) structures of legitimization, or team up with groups that guarantee visibility and access to hegemonic resources (and discourses)? What price is diversity willing to pay for a partial and mediated emergence? For many free software activists it is clear that “Las herramientas del amo no desmantelarán nunca la casa del amo” (The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house). But in fact, diversity and innovation can coexist. The adoption of technologies and the preservation of local lands and cultures are not necessarily in conflict. And, of course, the South-South dialogue is one of the key ingredients for combining digital innovation with digital decolonization.
Digital empowerment projects
Numerous examples of innovation show that new approaches are emerging in the Global South. From Indigenous Data Sovereignty projects to the non-aligned technology movement, from Big Data Sur to projects inspired by the commons movement, such as the pioneering FLOK Society in Ecuador. The community networks movement is flourishing in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Latin America is home also to probably the largest open access scientific publishing initiatives of the world. Redalyc, Scielo, AmeliCa, etc. do not only challenge the western-owned paywall system of publishing, but the Anglophone cultural hegemony as a whole.
Some would say that these projects are not big enough to bring about “digital empowerment” in the Global South. My answer is that transformation is not about huge debt-increasing foreign investments and technological dependence, but, in the words of Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “decolonization of the mind”. The world is changing, and the ex-peripheries are becoming reference points for plural and sustainable models for conservation, access and transmission of knowledge in digital format. A viable, multicultural and equitable model of technodiversity is already here.