An evolving commitment to feminist digital infrastructures

Paola Mosso

In our time of climate emergency and growing efforts to erode democratic relationships and information ecosystems, perspectives around equity, enjoyment and care help us reimagine futures that nurture and regenerate relationships and natural ecosystems. Below I explore these ideas, proposing some critical positions for looking at technologies (many of which we are cultivating in The Engine Room), which I hope will inspire others and grow like wild herbs. 

I draw inspiration from feminists from different intersectionalities – indigenous leaders, cyberfeminists, seed keepers, popular educators, linguists and poets – to encapsulate seeds of thought that articulate the direction of efforts in promoting technology decisions and technology systems focused on justice.

Some iridescent sources of inspiration are the efforts of APC, care-centred conversations with colleagues from the Latin American Urgent Action Fund and the Numun Fund, reflections on critical points with Sursiendo and its “Technoaffections” initiative, long conversations with friends like Paz Peña, and many other sources, like local gatherings where I have facilitated conversations focused on feminist technologies and Green Screen Coalition-facilitated conversations on building sustainable and equitable views of internet infrastructure.

Grounded in the territory

An understanding of technologies from a feminist perspective takes as its starting point that technology cannot be separated from the territory it exists on. We must consider the materiality of the devices and the internet’s infrastructure. Both of these rely on an extractivist model that is thirsty for data and feeds itself with more extractivism. This system has an impact on health (of humans and other living-beings), erodes the land and creates displacement of peoples.

At The Engine Room, we have documented some of the impacts of big-tech infrastructure and how this impacts communities in the Majority World. In the basin of the area of Chile where I live, for example, the expansion of Google’s and Microsoft’s data centres has diverted scarce local water sources and contaminated local water systems.

In our support to local movements and ecosystems for social justice, we also consider it essential to start from territory and context, and we ask ourselves how the definitions of “local” and “territory” vary between communities, understanding that territory in many cases does not map on to political borders, but to land, natural (for example, the Andean-Amazonian zone), ancestral or cultural environments. This territory can also be the internet.

Equity as a catalyst

Along the same lines, the possibility of inhabiting the Internet with enjoyment is facilitated or restricted depending on where you connect from. We have observed – from the experiences and concerns of the communities we support, as well as those of our team members – internet shutdowns and interruptions (whether government-ordered or due to power/network instability) obstructing work, collective organising, advocacy and enjoyment. 

To address this, we propose technological and information management alternatives that respond to the territory and identities of those who make up the collective; that offer an enjoyable human connection, reduce harm, focus on digital care, and provide tools to increase digital resilience against emergencies, which also reduces stress and strengthens well-being. For example, we have provided our team members with solar panels and chargers and portable power stations where needed in order to facilitate their remote participation, and have organised community calls to share strategies in times of disruption.

Preserving memory and the seeds of knowledge

During the pandemic, I attended several sessions organised by the Red de Guardianes de Semillas (Seed Guardians Network), which connects families that protect agrobiodiversity and promote regenerative life systems in Ecuador, within the context of advancing agroindustrial monoculture farming. Guardian initiatives and seed guardians are widespread throughout the lands of America, generally representing ancient roles that were born with agriculture twelve thousand years ago. Seeds are protected and inherited, together with the knowledge of how to keep them alive, with the aim of “sowing teachings in the community”.

Following this ancestral model, communities should have the option to choose what knowledge they seek to preserve and communicate among themselves, and through which channels they want to do it. Thus, we highlight and promote initiatives that make it possible to make knowledge and communications fly across borders privately (such as Signal Messenger), and local information management initiatives like Rede Mocambos, a solidarity movement that brings together quilombola communities, indigenous people, artisans and artists to organise community data centres.

We also have promoted and investigated development of technology projects to preserve collective memory, including through the documentation of human rights violations and the creation of workflows and open source tools for journalists and human rights defenders to archive valuable digital information. 

Uwazi, created and maintained by Huridocs, is one example of these tools. We have worked with a number of organisations to create (and sometimes publish) databases on Uwazi, including Japiqay, one of our 2018 intensive-support “Matchbox” partners who used it to create and systematise an extensive database of corruption cases from the last 30 years in Peru.

Sustaining infrastructures of care

Maintaining adaptable digital infrastructures is key to the sustainability of movements. Adaptable  infrastructures are not only made up of technology and digital information, but also require knowledge management practices, an organisational culture centring learning and adaptability, and a commitment to care and joy in development and maintenance processes.

We know that it is not an easy task to design and re-design a collective, fluid and resilient infrastructure with the multiple bodies, cultures and territories of those who make up a collective. In the ever-relevant path towards creating and sustaining a culture of care, some of the questions we ask ourselves to get closer to sustaining infrastructures are:

  • How do we learn from our past experiences with technology, and apply the learnings to future decisions?
  • What forms of infrastructure must we adopt so that everyone, with their differences, can fully participate, with special attention to times of power and connectivity interruptions?
  • What systems should be established or strengthened to allow rest, disconnection and well-being? How do you apply a holistic approach to digital security and care?
  • How do we take care of the organisation’s data and the data of the people with whom we work? How can we adopt a care policy that focuses on the collective and not on individualised practices?
  • What are the support networks that we must nurture to express solidarity and mutual support, or seek support when we need it?
  • How do we build adaptability in such a way that infrastructures can flow, and respond to the complexity of our identities and their changes? How do you create an infrastructure that promotes enjoyment for all?

Maintaining the flame of imagination

I have always admired the ability of feminisms that maintain the ability to dream – despite the passing years, democratic and human rights setbacks, denialism and misinformation resulting in violence. To create, resist and transform is sustained as a political act.

Last year, we collected some of the dreams that The Engine Room team members have around what a world with justice-focused technology and data systems could look like. Here we offer a composite of those dreams: 

We imagine an internet that builds on interconnection and joint responsibility, instead of individualism and capitalism. That is organised through consent, collaboration and privacy. Where digital platforms and networks primarily work towards community engagement – as and how communities define them. A world where we have time and space to collectively understand that technologies go beyond digital ones, and that these build from the knowledge and strategies that pass from generation to generation. Where we are able to turn off digital systems, and live a full life even if we opt out. A world that is a big playground of possibilities.

Image by Rachel Reinhardt via Unsplash.