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

 

Can you talk a bit about the role which gossip and rumor plays in your book? How might we think about the social networks that get expressed through gossip in relation to the more technologically-based networks that we often think about in discussing new media?

Gossip and rumor here were local means of contesting the dominant narratives around information age reform being pushed from the state and empowered development institutions. I draw here from postcolonial theory and framings of gossip and rumor as means of being able to contend with colonial narratives by subaltern actors. Part of my leveraging of postcolonial theory to frame the workings of rumor and gossip in this particular context of information age production was to offer a distinct framings of gossip and rumor than the version which typically gets focused upon when they are taken up as topics in digital studies.

These conventional framings in digital studies take for granted gossip’s circulation within a Western, advanced consumer society context, where rumor and gossip are typically framed as false news, or commodities manufactured for consumption, or tools to drive online consumer traffic. That rumor and gossip might have other functions, including operating as imagined foils rather than aids to market flows, or that they might function as attempts to add “noise” to the over-amplified narrative and signal of the state, is easily overlooked. There’s clearly plenty to gain, though, from bringing the insights of postcolonial theory into interface with information studies and digital ethnography.

In many ways, your book deals with the comparisons in how two internationalizing discourses collide with the local in Peru — the first has to do with neoiberalism and global markets, the second has to do with Open Software and the development of a kind of global hacker culture. Can you discuss the similarities and differences in these developments and especially in terms of the intersections between global and local concerns?

Part of what I intrigued me about the state’s approach to information society-based initiatives in Peru, was the means by which both urban free software geeks and hackers and rural artisan communities could be targeted as ideal subjects for reform, as well as ideal partners for the Peruvian state in extending and extolling the gains of its new ICT-based plans. In other words, communities that in many ways might look radically distinct from and even opposite to one another – one party representing the height of dynamic information age expertise and future development, and the other representing slow tradition and indigenous craft from the rural provinces – could be simultaneously summoned and targeted as key partners in economic development for the information age Peruvian state.

The key here seemed to turn on the means by which knowledge work and knowledge production could be framed. And while there is a large and significant literature on technology policy in the global south that emphasizes the north as the template from which technology policy and practice get copied, here we see something somewhat more nuanced unfolding within the state logic. Definitions of knowledge work and knowledge production were rather craftily and savvily understood by Peruvian government actors to encompass “traditional and indigenous” knowledge” production as well as high-tech coding and engineering work.

And while this might sound like a rather progressive advancement, I unpack in the book how such heightened investment and targeting by the state brings about rather complicated and not always promising outcomes for traditional artisan communities or networked geek and free software advocacy communities alike.

As you note, out of 40 countries who invested in the One Laptop Per Child initiative, Peru was the only one which came close to meeting the 1 million units that the foundation had demanded as the minimum commitment when the project launched in 2005. This makes Peru an important test site not only for the One Laptop Per Child project but also some of the underlying assumptions about technological change that informed it. Based on your research, what would you tell the folks at MIT who advocated for this project about what did and did not work in Peru?

To take more seriously the experience and wealth of expertise of their local partners, and not to make the conventional and all too oft-repeated mistake of presuming that the knowledge of the world’s most elite engineers is sufficient to conquer any and every global problem or situation. The global spaces where new technological deployments aim to travel today are obviously complex terrains – geographically, culturally, historically and politically – where the knowledge and experience of local partners are not only complementary, but are deeply necessary to successfully sustain any new technological deployment.

These are sites too, where the presumptions of cosmopolitan designers and engineers, no matter how well trained and globally literate, just can’t always be taken for granted. I was surprised to see how lightly deployment engineers and technicians frequently took such considerations, and how little was often invested into gaining an understanding of the layered local histories and cultural complexities of distinct deployment sites.

It was rather common to find OLPC designers, including ones who considered themselves to be invested in deployment sites in Peru, who knew very little of the knowledge and cultural practices of indigenous communities where deployments could be situated; or who knew little of recent political conflicts and uprisings in opposition to contemporary policies of the state that impacted other local deployment zones.

As a simple example of how large such local knowledge gaps were, there were situations in observing the deployment of the One Laptop Per Child Project in Peru, for instance, where highly respected lead engineers on projects entered rural communities expecting to pay for purchases with a credit card, and this was literally several years after OLPC deployments in Peru had already begun.

Gaining mutual understandings around differences in technological uses and literacies, is key and requires hard work. And as important is the work necessary to gain mutual understandings and literacies in the deeply layered cultural, political, and historical contexts that deployments are bringing designers into intimate contact with.

Your analysis of the open software movement in Peru comes to hinge on the transformative potential of play. What are some of the ways that play was conceptualized in Peru and how did playing with technologies open up space for imagining change at an institutional level?

It’s no secret that there’s been quite a lot of hype around the means by which the Internet economy fosters creative work and spaces that accommodate individual freedom, play, and flexibility. The fantastic narratives that surround Google campuses as play spaces – as well as their hyper mediation in the popular press — epitomize such framings, that arguably build towards a kind of “end of labor” narrative. And even while studies show that leading Internet companies like Google and Amazon – actually have among the highest rates of worker turnover and employment instability among all Fortune 500 companies, the notion that the digital economy somehow fosters the most ideal work conditions that can bring about an end to the problems of discontent and exploited labor, persists.

Against these popular framings, there is a growing and much needed scholarly literature on the expansion of playbour and the blurring lines between play and labor in the digital economy. This scholarship critiques, rather than celebrates, the undoing of the binary between the two supposedly polarized poles of play and labor, and has emphasized how play logics can actually operate to enable a more efficient extraction of labor from knowledge workers.

My research on play in Peruvian geek and free software networks revealed some distinct developments around “play” instead – which lead me to draw less from political economic framings of labor, and to instead draw from psychoanalytic, critical theory and anthropological framings of play. These framings emphasize play as a kind of liminal space and condition – one that enables “the real” and the “given” to be tested by actors, to imagine the “world as otherwise” — and that thus understands a certain degree of interpretive work being done, as well as potential for social transformation, that are contained within conditions of play.

You could see the free software community members in Peru grappling with these dynamics of play in some of my chapters. Another clear contemporary example of the means by which digital publics in Peru also engage these dynamics of play are in the massive social movements and street protests that literally overwhelmed the public spaces in Peru in protest of Ley Pulpin (the formerly passed labor law I mentioned earlier).

Just as spectacular as the wave upon wave of massive street protests, were the massive waves of online traffic, social media exchanges, and multiplying hashtags that the law’ critics used to denounce the law – and here, it was primarily online satire, satirical memes, absurd jokes and political humor – that blend the popular aesthetics with the popular accessibility of digital networks to express political critique. See for example.

This was a tactic adopted by AnonOps Peru hackers and average citizens alike. And indeed, after nearly two months of massive unrest that filled the streets (and social media networks) with amplified protesting voices, the new labor law was finally overturned. The same networks are still engaged in political organizing in response to a range of other pressing national issues, ranging from labor rights to media content and censorship. It’s yet another sign, among the others the book highlights, of other technological futures being struggled for by a range of diverse publics at the so-called “periphery” and beyond.

 

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.