Peru’s Digital Futures: An Interview with Anita Say Chan (Part One)

The language we use to talk about the World Wide Web is often universalizing: the web is seen as exhibit one in the argument that the world is flat, thanks to the ability of messages to travel from any point to any other point. For others, the Web is an Americanizing force, one which has made English an even more pervasive language among the world’s youth than ever before, one which is transforming governments and altering cultures without regard to the desires of local residents.

Anita Say Chan’s Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism adopts a position somewhere in between in part by starting with a straight forward but surprisingly rare move — she shifts the attention away from the digital cultures of North America and Europe, focusing instead on what the coming of the web has meant in the context of the global south and in particular, in the context of Peru. Her focus shifts chapter by chapter, from the stories of indigenous artisans struggling over what the future of their craft is going to look like to the saga how the One Laptop per Child initiative got taken up in rural classrooms. Her approach is skeptical, but not cynical, about claims of digital advocates that all of these changes are for the best, being attentive to shifts in local autonomy and the impact on who has power within the culture.  She writes about the impact of new media on traditional and emerging forms of intellectual property with an ethnographic perspective, one which is attentive to both universalizing and localizing forces on how people live their everyday lives.  Chan shows us the power that comes from de-centering the study of new media, from understanding media change from the peripheries.

Chan was a classmate of Candis Callison, whose book on climate change I featured on my blog last week. Chan and Callison were contemporaries entering our Comparative Media Studies Masters Program at MIT — the second cohort admitted to the program. I was lucky enough to watch them grow as media scholars and then to be able to turn them over to the faculty at MIT’s PhD Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society. Both of them have published their first books in recent months, and it’s a great pleasure to be sharing some of Chan’s thoughts via this interview.

 

You begin the book’s preface with this core question: “Why study digital culture and information technology (IT) in Peru?” And you take much of the book to fully address it. Can you provide us a brief overview of your response here?

Briefly, I underscore how that very question originates from a perspective on IT and the digital – one that’s changing, but still dominant – that presumes that there is a single digital future in the making that naturally extends from given centers of innovation and engineering, like Silicon Valley, MIT or Stanford. And according to this perspective, it’s this single digital future in the making that somehow, inevitably awaits the rest of the world.

This kind of imaginary, and the taken-for-grantedness of spaces like Silicon Valley as the center of the digital universe and its universalizing future, operates so powerfully that it’s easy to forget that even with Silicon Valley based companies like Twitter and Facebook, most of their user bases (and thus increasingly, revenue futures) lie well outside of the US; that the number 1 tweeting city in 2012 was nowhere near Silicon Valley, but was in fact Jakarta, Indonesia , and that statistics show that native English speakers online will soon be (and likely already are) outnumbered by Chinese native speakers. Yet despite such clear developments, there still remains a powerful presumption that sites like Silicon Valley are behind the digital future that naturally awaits us all.

In the book, I argue that the kind of thinking expresses a kind of Digital Universalism that disguises the means which elite designers and entrepreneurs of the IT world’s leading corporations work to promote and circulate it – whether in the pages of Wired magazine or across any number of TED conference stages. It also disguises the diverse imaginaries and investments around the digital that are cropping up all over the world, including in Peru, from diverse civil society actors – but that are easy to overlook when we focus our attention only on those coming out of just a handful of innovation centers.

Peru, for instance, was the among the first countries to propose national legislation for the use of free and open source software in public office in 2001. It was the first nation chosen by the United Nations to host its conference on the use of free and open source software in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2003. It became the largest national partner for the MIT-launched One Laptop Per Child educational laptop initiative in the late 2000s, when it pledged to deploy nearly 1 million XOs to classrooms across the rural provinces and cities alike. And AnonOps Peru, the Peruvian branch of the networked collective Anonymous, has been especially active helping to mobilize the massive waves of protests that just managed to overturn a new labor law, Ley Nº30288, known popularly as Ley Pulpin (that targeted youth workers, and that many interpreted to be an erosion of labor rights overall) — after city streets all over the country were filled with protestors in week after week of sustained demonstrations.

Your book’s title includes the evocative phrase, “the myth of digital universalism.” What do you mean by this? Where does this myth come from? And in what ways does your book debunk this myth?

Simply put, there are many digital futures, constantly in the making by a diverse range of actors, including those at the “periphery” of innovation centers, but who are far from simply passive recipients of a digital destiny supposedly being made for them from elsewhere. Digital Universalism distorts our perception of how diverse (and still undetermined) those investments around the digital really are by insisting that we keep our attention focused only and exclusively on future visions being spun out from centers of digital innovation. We shouldn’t forget how powerfully such a message operates when it’s directly promoted and reinforced by some of the tech world’s most powerful and seductive corporate leaders and entrepreneurs, who today, have not only become household names worldwide – but who often take on the roles of global ambassadors or sorts, arranging one on one meetings with government leaders that seemingly overnight, can turn their own visions of the technological future into nationally deployed policy.

My own work has been to disrupt such limited but repeatedly amplified visions of a technological future, by turning a spotlight on the many diverse imaginaries and investments around the digital that we find cropping up at the so-called “periphery,” and from diverse civil society actors. In Peru, this includes some of the parties I highlight in the book: rural artisans recruited as partners for new intellectual property for development programs; urban geeks and hackers working around free software advocacy networks; and collaborations around digital education projects in the Andes that bring the expertise of indigenous language activists, rural teachers, and free software coders into novel interfacings.

You use the example of what happens to ceramics craftspeople in Chulucanas to explore the ways that the neoliberal agendas of nation-states in regard to IP and IT can have unintended consequences on the grounds for the lives of rural and indigenous populations. What can we learn from looking at this particular example? In what sense was the outcome “not brave but brutal”?

The chapter highlights the ways that radical, neoliberal policy reforms and the demands of information age economic transformation can be narrated by their promoters as indeed, heroic, brave, and necessary. What’s striking is how such policy promoters can acknowledge that the kinds of reforms they advance might be deeply disruptive (or even largely destructive) of other social resources, established traditions or institutions, but how they can at once insist that the scale of market optimizations projected – ones that are almost always narrated as promising not only reform, but economic salvation – will ultimately be worth the price of destruction.

In Chulucanas, what we actually saw were family and kinship networks — the kinds of social support networks that artisans traditionally relied upon for ceramics production — devastated, following the state’s initiative to push intellectual property titlings as a means to reform traditional craft production for export in the village. Distrust and pitched competition between artisans grew palpably, and traditional production practices that had been maintained as a regional knowledge practice and tradition since the literally thousand of years when the pre-Colombian Vicus and Tallan civilization settled northern Peru’s coasts, eroded in the interest of newly optimized, export-scaled production. It that sense, such contemporary reform policies were quite literally brutal.

 

Anita Say Chan is an Assistant Research Professor of Communications and an Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research and teaching interests include globalization and digital cultures, innovation networks and the “periphery”, science and technology studies in Latin America, and hybrid pedagogies and collaborative research for the digital humanities. Her manuscript on the competing imaginaries of global connection and information technologies in network-age Peru, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism was published with MIT Press in 2014. Her research has been awarded support from the Center for the Study of Law & Culture at Columbia University’s School of Law and the National Science Foundation, and she has held postdoctoral fellowships at The CUNY Graduate Center’s Committee on Globalization & Social Change, and at Stanford University’s Introduction to Humanities Program.