Community networks and feminist infrastructure: reclaiming local knowledge and technologies beyond connectivity solutions

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Image description: Illustration depicting mesh network

Image description: Illustration depicting mesh network. Source: excerpt from Our Routes: Women's node - an illustrated journey of women in community networks: by Bruna Zanolli

At least two recent scandals have brought the debate over surveillance and concentration of power over the internet to the front pages of newspapers in many countries. In the 2000s, Edward Snowden make revelations regarding the practices of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States that highlighted the cooperation between the state surveillance apparatus and large internet companies. More recently, in March 2018, news articles from the New York Times, The Guardian among others, revealed a scheme of misuse of data from millions of users to influence political choices. Cambridge Analytica, which has been involved in controversial campaigns such as the election of Donald Trump in the US, has been investigated in a case that led Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to the US Parliament for explanations.

In Brazil, the series of attacks that marked the 2018 election race led to people and groups who were at higher risk, such as communicators, human rights defenders, women, LGBTQI+ and black people searching for information about digital security. The election of the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro as the country’s president also raised questions about data being used for predicting and influencing people's behaviour and political choices[1].

To a certain extent, media scandals help to amplify debates such as - the increasing digitisation of human and non-human activity into gigantic databases; the control of data by a few powerful companies; the lack of transparency in the monetary exchanges involving the data collected; the ability to influence behaviours which in turn leads to new forms of concentration of power, profit and accumulation; big tech companies cooperation with government apparatus and their role in political disputes that seems to be, to some extent, associated with the emergence of authoritarian leadership in several countries. This big picture also brings new perspectives to the tensions around the idea of centralisation and decentralisation that marks internet history.

Other aspects of this phenomenon and how they connect to these debates, however, are usually less visible in scandals, which include the control over infrastructures that are opaque for millions of internet users and the different impacts they will have on contexts, social groups and bodies. Technologies and the role they play are often not in the spotlight, as they are perceived as apolitical or neutral. There is apparently no politics in technologies, but only in the acts of politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro or CEOs from big companies such as Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.

Technologies and the role they play are often not in the spotlight, as they are perceived as apolitical or neutral.

We already know, however, that technologies are not neutral. Different literature has already problematised the distinction between science, technology, and politics in society, rejecting conceptions such as technology as the application of science and schemes that separated human (political) action from scientific discoveries, artifacts, and techniques[2]. Among them are many feminist authors and perspectives that discussed the non-neutrality of technologies at many levels, including that their impacts will not affect people and social groups in the same way[3]. Other works also studied the political decisions embedded in technological infrastructures and how these are present but invisible in daily life[4].

Thus, the expectation of autonomy, decentralisation and horizontality that marked the beginning of the debate on the internet from a communication perspective has been confronted by increasing processes of power concentration aiming to primarily promote new forms of monetisation for private accumulation by large companies and surveillance by companies and states. This expectation was also confronted by the denunciation of the inequalities – especially of gender, race and class – that feminist legacies help to foreground the discriminatory patterns and pointing out that the processes of control and concentration will not impact all people in the same way. However, the literature that critically analyses these processes does not seek to construct a narrative of technological determinism or relativism, but rather to understand the emergence of new forms of power and to point out that new analysis and political action for resistance will be necessary.

In this context, based on paradigms of openness of design and collective management to promote shared connection to the internet or to constitute a local digital network, autonomous and community networks have been seen as an alternative of resistance, of social interaction with infrastructures in the territories and of the search for communication and technological autonomy.

Considering that the installation and maintenance of a community network (CN) in the territory allows the design and management of infrastructures to be done locally and in a shared way between members of the community, this field can be understood as an alternative for experimentation to reclaim technologies for multiple realities and needs. Thus, the debate on autonomous and community networks gains new perspectives as it goes beyond the field of connectivity solutions for places and populations without internet access, and becomes more linked to several political agendas, including those with a critical perspective on the internet.

Thus, the debate on autonomous and community networks gains new perspectives as it goes beyond the field of connectivity solutions for places and populations without internet access, and becomes more linked to several political agendas, including those with a critical perspective on the internet.

All of this, however, is not something given by design, but a possibility that can be explored and that will be crossed by many contradictions. Neither should this potential lead us to adopt a perspective of technologies as a ‘magical solution’ for complex and structural inequalities or even an expectation that community network processes will happen in a homogeneous or "pure" way -- recognizing that they will vary greatly and that different relationships will be established.

The destabilization of our universality statement

In order to do my master's research[5] recently, I have been in different events that gather free technology groups to discuss CN and autonomous infrastructures. In one of these events, a woman was talking about feminist infrastructure experiences in Mexico. An Argentinian man raised his hand and said, "This all sounds very interesting as an exercise you're doing there, but I'm more interested in how we are going to bring down Google and Facebook?"

A god complex and a notion that cyberactivism can be the new privileged social theory to deal with all inequities at once – both things crossed my mind at the time. The question, which may be important when it represents a reflection on ways of organising economic and social life, becomes disruptive in this context as it is mobilised to end the debate and shrink the importance of local knowledge. The confrontation of multiple, localised experiences with the imperative of overthrowing the system as a whole can become a comfortable shortcut to not listening and not rethinking our own practices[6].

In the course of the research, this question would often appear in different ways, which would make me reflect: many people find it important to have more women, black, transgender people, and more class diversity in spaces and networks, but many of us do not deepen the reflection on why this really is important. Nor does this destabilise our own expectation of neutrality – the gender debate is still little constructed from the perspective of masculinity, just as the discussion of the need to fight racism is almost nonexistent from the perspective of whiteness. We are often more concerned with challenging the gender bias of local communities than questioning what in our own practices corroborates the naturalisation of inequalities. It is easy to conclude that technologies are colonised and colonising. But it's hard to accept that we, to some extent, are too.

It is easy to conclude that technologies are colonised and colonising. But it's hard to accept that we, to some extent, are too.

Different feminists authors have pointed out the need to question universalisation, which historically operated with the concealment and naturalisation of inequalities, even contributing to the perpetuation of western colonialist practices in the fields of science and technology[7].

So, it is important to keep in mind that the operation of a community network implies relationships between a multiplicity of individuals and social groups with different lived realities and needs, and who are not equally affected by socio-technical systems. In a recent article for GISWatch[8], I and other authors already discussed some universalization in perspective in the CN field. So, in this article, I would like to discuss the creativity that emerges from the CN encounter with feminist infrastructure.

In my master's research, I argued that the encounter with feminist infrastructures brings important destabilisations to reshape relationships from the local perspective and considering distinct needs, interests and bodies when building CNs. My assumption was that self-organisation and autonomy are already practiced in different ways by many social movements in Latin America – and not exclusively by the feminists in focus in my research – and can be activated to bring new contours to technopolitical debates and practices in this field.

In the course of questioning androcentric, capitalist and colonialist legacies, there is a search in feminist infrastructures experiences for other forms of action and experimentation, in which differentiations arise. I organized some choices that seem important in feminist infrastructures practices as there is an active effort to reclaim women narratives around four axes:

  1. the incorporation of multiple conditions when designing technologies and networks, far beyond a quantitative claim for more women in initiatives; 
  2. the collective perspectives of safety and care;
  3. language hacking and the activation of local narratives and memories; and
  4. the aim to build collective autonomy and an effort towards the decolonisation of our imaginary when designing technologies and networks.

We will not be able to discuss each of these aspects in-depth here, but I would like to point out that they allow us to think of infrastructures as materiality that shapes the reproduction of life and action that will be shared by different bodies. So, feminist infrastructures include servers, networks, cables, antennas, software, hardware, and the use of electromagnetic spectrum, protocols, and algorithms. But they also include spaces, temporalities, priorities, relationships between humans and machines, and agreements that can be (but not always) established, verbalised, made visible and renegotiated if necessary. From feminist perspectives, all this must be traversed by a collective care effort and crossed by alliances that recognize differences and brings a commitment to act when they are triggered to reify structural inequalities.

Feminist infrastructures, thus, are not only electronic materiality made by women and non-binary people, but they also carry out a commitment to rethink from other perspectives -- priorities, space and time organisation, agreements, relationships between people and groups, and even between humans and machines. Feminist infrastructures help us to remember that technologies are not, in fact, neutral, but they are also not limited to the uses and interests of those in power – there will always be escapes and hacks. They allow us to think about women's ability to insist on existing and to refuse invisibility beyond resistance to hegemonic processes. This could be a path to open our experiences with CN to what is not foreseen, has not been programmed and calculated or even for what already exists in diverse groups in terms of local knowledge, technical invention and other kinds of networks and ways of living.

 

Footnotes: 

[1] A meeting between one of Bolsonaro’s son and Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist of the polarized and nationalist narrative that elected Donald Trump, increased speculation about the use of a similar tactic in Brazil and raised a discussion about the ethical and legal limits of WhatsApp use in the race and the impact of misinformation on the process.

[2] See FEENBERG, 2010; HARAWAY, 1995; SANTOS, 2003; WINNER, 1986

 

[3] See HARDING, 1998; MAFFÍA, 2005; NATANSOHN, 2013; SARDENBERG, 2002

 

[4] See BOWKER, STAR, 1999; VICENTIN, 2017

[5] Based on references and feminist research methodologies, my master research (named Feminist infrastructures and political action of women in autonomous and community networks) aim to reflect on the formulations and proposals that emerge from the technopolitical articulations of feminist collectives and activists around the debate about network infrastructures that enable the traffic of digital data. Also, on the resistances to hegemonic processes and the alternatives that emerge from these articulations - in particular, the proposal of constitution of autonomous and community networks with feminist infrastructures. The results were systematized in reflections that emerged from the questions that crossed the research route: what are feminist infrastructures?; what are their impacts on the debate on autonomous and community networks?; what changes when a network is thought through the perspective of breaking the colonial, androcentric, and capitalist legacy?; how do feminist infrastructures and autonomous and community networks dialogue with the questioning of power disputes on the internet? More than producing fixed answers to these questions, the intention was to look at destabilizations that has been happening and that may help to update forms of resistance, promote alliances and rethink our technologies and connections considering diverse contexts and with a commitment to social justice. The work was based on two joint research procedures: literature review and a field research conducted in five events in Brazil and Chile, some exclusively for women and trans people and others not, in which I sought to map public debates and presentations around community and autonomous networks and/or feminist infrastructures. The research was realized at Unicamp University and received funding from the Coordination of Superior Level Staff Improvement (Capes) for 18 months.

 

[6] See STENGERS AND PIGNARRE, 2011; HARAWAY, 1995

 

[7] See HARAWAY, 1995; RIBEIRO , 2017

 

[8] See https://www.giswatch.org/en/infrastructure/feminist-infrastructures-and-community-networks

 

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