"Decolonizing Digital Spaces"

Remarks delivered at the Principal's Symposium: Imagining our Digital Future at Queen’s University on November 26, 2018:

Thank you for having me here today, and for the generous introduction - it is such a pleasure to be with you here. 

I want to begin by acknowledging that I am here as a guest upon the territories of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples. As we gather here today and look to the future, I reflect upon the wisdom of Justice Murray Sinclair, who noted at the 2015 Indigenous Innovation Summit that 

”Innovation isn’t always about creating new things. Innovation sometimes involves looking back at our old ways and bringing them forward to this new situation.”

There is so much wisdom in these territories and in the peoples who have been stewards of them since time immemorial. As we hold space today for dialogue on digital spaces, which so often feel ephemeral and borderless, it is critical for us to reaffirm the centrality of, and our connection to, these physical territories upon which we gather. 

Setting the Stage

Power without purpose. Aspiration without intention. Ubiquity without diversity. For too long, we have been enraptured by the epithets of the internet evangelists, failing to critically examine or question their aspirations or intent. We embrace free platforms, marvel at the instantaneous delivery of our online shopping treasures, and are captivated by the steady stream of social media updates on our phones. Yet this August, Apple became the first trillion dollar company in the United States - in a ranking of the world’s largest economic entities, the company now ranks higher than the nations of Russia and Saudi Arabia. Amazon quickly followed this trillion dollar feat in September, making Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos the richest man in modern history, with an estimated fortune of $168 billion. In a world in which digital spaces play such an integral role in all aspects of our lives, this accumulation of reach, power and influence is something that poses critical questions as we continue to work towards a just and equitable digital future for all. 

During our time here together today, I want to explore and unpack the commodification and corporatization of digital spaces and its impact upon the real and urgent decolonization efforts we have committed to as a country. I strongly believe that the creation of decolonized digital spaces is still possible, but requires us to reckon with the roots of the technology sector, acknowledge the realities of our present platforms, and identify and amplify ongoing and emerging efforts at the intersection of digital rights and social justice. I’ll address each of these briefly in turn, then look forward to joining Kanonhsyonne for a dialogue with you around some of these themes. 

I. The Roots of the Sector

As we explore the promise and possibility of decolonized digital spaces, we must begin with a reflection upon the roots of the technology sector as we know it today. The seeds of Silicon Valley were planted in part by military defence spending - ARPANET (the forerunner of today’s Internet) was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Communications Agency, and a grant from a ballistic missile defence program. The first transistors produced by Fairchild Semiconductor (one of the earliest and most prominent semiconductor companies in Silicon Valley) were used in the computer of the B-70 Bomber, with others used to form the guidance system for the Minuteman II ballistic missile. And the first tenant of the Stanford Research Park (now dubbed “the heart of Silicon Valley”) was Varian Associates, which had its roots creating military radar components. Yet as the Santa Clara Valley moved from apple orchards to Apples of a different variety, the Vietnam War (and later, the Cold War) raged, with American military might often being used to aggravate colonial tensions or solidify colonial borders. Thus, we cannot extricate the online spaces of today from their deeply colonial roots, and must acknowledge the ways in which our technological progress has oftentimes come at the expense of Indigenous peoples around the world.

II. Current Realities

As the pace of this technological progress in Silicon Valley steadily increased, perceptions around technology began to shift - no longer a niche product for military or academic applications, young upstarts such as Bill Gates had high aspirations for the sector’s potential. It was about more than the mere selling of keyboards and mice - there was a belief that technology had the power to fundamentally transform all aspects of our lives, far beyond the reach of the first Netscape browser. These early aspirations were evidenced by Apple’s “here’s to the crazy ones” ad, which posited that “the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” But lost in this clever catchphrase was a deeper truth - that despite a utopian dream of borderless and democratized digital spaces, social inequities and injustices continued to inexplicably determine whether your crazy, world changing idea would even be heard or resourced.

This emergent culture of the early PC pioneers has grown and mutated in the ensuing decades - as the prevalence and pervasiveness of the sector’s products has grown, so too have its aspirations. In today’s digital age, products and platforms are pitched not as consumer goods, but as means with which to pursue transformative social change. And technology firms, rather than eager participants in capitalist colonial systems, are the benevolent leaders that will guide us to a better tomorrow. Facebook, for example, aspires to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” But what is community in this context, and what is connection? In part, it is defined by (and is a reflection of) the lived experiences of those within the sector, a sector that continues to attract, promote and follow the leadership of the most privileged segments of our society. Of its five dominant firms (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft), at least half of their workforces identify as white, upwards of 74% (in the case of Microsoft) are male, and only 2 include Indigenous peoples within their workforce demographics, with both coming in under 1%. For these dominant voices, the fact that so many Indigenous communities continue to face the effects of the digital divide, or that Indigenous peoples must confront toxic messaging and hurtful attacks online on a daily basis, are realities that often exist outside of their lived experiences.

How can we build a future for all, with so few voices at the table? “Progress” as prescribed by dominant voices is a road we’ve ventured down before, with detrimental and destructive results for those whose rich ways of knowing and being exist outside this privileged paradigm.

The Way Forward

So where do we go from here? How do we continue to elevate, advance and empower meaningful efforts to realize a decolonized digital landscape for future generations? 

Meaningful change begins with recognition of technological innovation as a fundamentally human endeavour. Behind the sleek glass and metal enclosures of our lithium-charged lifelines are people, with each line of code carrying with it all the complexities of the human existence - technology is not a neutral force nor are digital spaces safe spaces for all, instead mirroring, replicating and at times exacerbating the real and pressing realities faced by Indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities in physical spaces. A social justice lens must therefore be applied to all that we discuss, design and develop in the digital realm. 

In acknowledging technology as a force crafted by humans, we must then assess how these platforms are being created, and by whom. Such an assessment will require us to more meaningfully confront the privatization of our digital spaces, as the fact these private corporations hold such disproportionate power and influence within them carries real and significant implications for our decolonization efforts. For companies aren’t governments - they are driven not by public good nor public accountability, but by profit and market dominance. And Silicon Valley has no obligation to diverse or marginalized communities outside of those that are provided to its entire (paying) user base. Market demands and citizen rights are two very different calculations, producing markedly different outcomes.

Thus, the question of public good must come to play a more active role in conversations around the future of the technology sector. In this sense, I believe that governments must come to play a far more active role in both the growth and regulation of the sector. I’ll address each briefly in turn:  

The Growth of the Sector

As is the case with any economic sector, an accumulation of market size and influence in the hands of a select few is cause for concern, particularly for those communities that are already pushed to the margins within that sector. In the case of the technology sector, the current realties are distressing. In a thorough (and thoroughly depressing) analysis of the state of cyberspace today entitled “The Web Began to Die in 2014,” André Staltz opens with a startling truth - “Google and Facebook now have direct influence over 70% of Internet traffic.” Coupled with Amazon (whose digital dominance includes the provision of one half of all cloud service hosting), Staltz suggests that we are moving rapidly from an internet to a Trinet - in essence, a trio of companies complicit in the carving up of cyberspace into domains of power and influence, pursuing electronic empires through lines of code.

It is time to bust up the tech monopolies, just as we did at the turn of the 20th century with the Carnegies and Rockefellers of that era. Doing so will require us to reexamine how we define economic monopolies - rather than arguments rooted in the conception of “consumer welfare” that rose to legal prominence in the 1980s (a standard by which Amazon, who offers cheap goods, often at a loss, does not violate), we must shift to one rooted in the principle of citizen welfare. 

Regulation of the Sector

Which brings me to the second area of policy focus - more clearly articulated policies and protections for citizens in digital spaces. I believe this starts with 3 areas of focus: 

    1. An expansion of the dialogue around reconciliation efforts and associated policies at the provincial and federal level to more explicitly address the digital domain, addressing such questions such as how treaty rights apply to digital spaces and the foundations of Nation-to-nation relationships in an increasingly digital age. 

    2. The creation of a digital bill of rights that is rooted in the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This would give new urgency to efforts to connect remote communities (of 292 identified as such in Canada, 170 are Indigenous communities), and to digital skills training initiatives for Indigenous peoples. 

    3. A series of regulatory frameworks that will enforce these rights and hold the sector accountable. Sector self-regulation efforts to date (particularly in regards to content moderation) have been woefully inadequate, heralding the need for a sector-wide approach. The recent Public Policy Forum report “Poisoning Democracy: How Canada Can Address Harmful Speech Online” included a recommendation to create a Moderation Standards Council, which would establish a digital equivalent to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. And Change the Terms, a coalition of organizations committed to the rights of marginalized communities online, is advocating for more stringent efforts to combat hate in digital spaces. 

Perhaps most importantly of all, the advancement of decolonized digital spaces requires a thoughtful and significant re-shift in how we carry ourselves in digital spaces - the philosophy of “nothing about us without us” must hold across all conversations of digital rights and technological advancement. For digital spaces hold such incredible promise - an opportunity to reimagine, with each line of code, a different way of engaging with each other and with the world around us. Current constraints, barriers and inequities have been unable to halt Indigenous innovation, creativity, resiliency or resistance in digital spaces - what would be possible if we embraced the wisdom of Justice Murray Sinclair and wove longstanding Indigenous ways of knowing and being into our forward-facing visions, shifting the culture of the sector and its driving motivations? With Indigenous activism embracing social media as a tool of resistance, digital media platforms such as Makoons Media elevating Indigenous voices and Indigenous youth using digital technologies as tools for cultural revitalization and resurgence, I can’t wait to find out. 

Alexander Dirksen