"Indigenous Access and Digital Change"

Remarks delivered at the FWD50 Conference on November 2, 2017 for its panel on Indigenous Access and Digital Change:


Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for having me here today. I would like to begin by acknowledging the Algonquin nation whose traditional and unceded territory we are gathered upon today. 

When you think of the year 2025, what do you see? Is an autonomous car whisking you to your soon-to-be-automated job? Are you voting for a Kremlin-approved candidate on your smartphone? 

Now imagine you are in Masset, Haida Gwaii, a remote community of 800 people within the Haida Nation in northern British Columbia. When you think of the year of 2025, do you imagine the same future? 

We exist in an age of reconciliation, one in which an increasing number of Canadians are beginning to explore their role in meaningfully addressing historical and ongoing injustices and inequities. As we undertake this journey, it is important to note that this work is not just about reconciling our past, but also reconciling current trajectories - our future is being actively written as we speak, in part through the lines of code that power the platforms and services we rely upon in our daily lives. In creating our digital domain, will we emphasize true equity by reflecting a diverse range of lived experiences and elevating underrepresented voices, or will we fall victim to replicating the same biases, perceptions and stereotypes that continually threaten to divide us in our physical spaces? 

For what has constrained Indigenous peoples in the digital age is not a lack of innovation - Indigenous peoples have been innovators upon these territories since time immemorial. Instead, what has limited us is access. As we explore Indigenous access and digital change during our time here together today, I want to emphasize that issues around access are now emerging on 2 fronts - the digital divide that continues to be exacerbated through unequal access to infrastructure and skills development opportunities, but also one that is less visible but could nevertheless perpetuate the digital divide long after our communities are fully connected to the digital domain. 

As technology companies testify before Congress in our neighbour’s capital this week, serious concerns are being raised as to what NY Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo has dubbed the “Frightful 5” - a set of companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft) that have come to dominate the landscape as a form of digital gatekeepers - from Amazon Web Services serving as the backbone of countless websites to the necessity of marketing through Google and Facebook (which accounts for 60% of ad revenues in the United States and 50% worldwide), a growing concern over access for the population at large is one that is amplified and magnified within underrepresented and underserved communities. What does this digital dominance hold for the future of nation to nation relationships if the reach and influence of these companies is beginning to exceed that of the Western nation state? 

When we speak of access, we must speak of unfettered access, for it is with this type of access that we will be able to fully unleash the incredible potential and opportunity for innovation in the digital age.

Alexander Dirksen