Anita Say Chan: "Technological Futures & Networked Time at the Periphery" - Response by Gabe Malo & elizaBeth Simpson

Monday, March 27, 2017

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[On March 13, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "Technological Futures & Networked Time at the Periphery." The speaker was Anita Say Chan, Associate Professor of Media & Cinema Studies and the Institute of Communications Research at UIUC. Below is a response to the lecture from Gabe Malo & elizaBeth Simpson (Institute of Communications Research).]

"Seeing Spaces: Re-centering Peripheries"
Written by:
Gabe Malo (ICR): Lecture, Q&A, and Conclusion
elizaBeth Simpson (ICR): Introduction and Response

Prof. Anita Say Chan was introduced by Prof. Cameron McCarthy, who praised her “consistently stellar and brilliant scholarship and intellectual forward motion.” McCarthy began his remarks by drawing a contrast between W.W. Rostow’s five-stage theory of modernization development, and Chan’s work which "contributes to subaltern efforts to rethink contemporary center-periphery relations in the digital age." In particular, he took up her book, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism in which she "explores cultural imaginaries of global digital connections expressed in Peru and the rising zones of subjugated and artisanal knowledges in transnational peripheries and in the rapidly transforming globalizing context of post-development states.” He placed Chan among feminist scholars such as Ien Ang, Saskia Sassen, and Doreen Massey, noting that Chan takes up James Carey’s call to assert the public significance of her work, and in so doing “to expand the field of reference in academic discourse.” 

Source: MIT Press
Anita Say Chan is Associate Professor in Media and Cinema Studies and the Institute of Communications Research. She is also Faculty Leader of the INTERSECT Learning to See Systems Research Group and Faculty Co-Leader of the Recovering Prairie Futures IPRH Research Cluster

Lecture: Technological Futures and Networked Time at the Periphery
The talk began with Prof. Chan considering the notion of the technological periphery not only in its stabilized dimensions but also in its temporal dimensions. She argued that the relation between the technological “center”—places like Silicon Valley—and the technological “periphery” is largely shaped by the relations of labor, tech, and power to particular real and imaginary temporalities. Her talk focused on Peru as a site for digital culture in order to critique the physical and temporal localities that place it on the technological periphery in Euro-centric paradigms. Such a conception, she stated, ignored the advancements and adaptations which have occurred on the technological periphery. 

She opened her presentation with a discussion of the One Laptop Per Child program, which was widely embraced by Peru at the time of its expansion, before turning to the more recent incursion of Intel and Hewlett-Packard on the scene as part of 2014’s Encuentro Internacional Virtual Educa which was sponsored by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture. Such encounters seemed on the surface to reinforce the standardized temporal relationality between the technological periphery and the technological center; however, Prof. Chan’s analysis illustrated the fundamental disconnect between the real and imaginary temporalities that exist on the technological periphery. 

The temporality of Peru, in the Western imagination, is largely based in the past, whereas the trappings of technology are placed within imaginaries of the future. In this comparison, Prof. Chan drew parallels between her approach and that of Latin American scholars like Walter Mignolo, who argued that sites such as Peru that are on the periphery are conceptualized as being outside history. These temporal stereotypes—those of a place without history, or a place in need of guiding technologicalization—are challenged by the actual experience of technology in the Peruvian sites of Prof. Chan’s study. For instance, Peruvian educators did not unquestioningly adopt the technologies presented at Encuentro Internacional Virtual Educa; instead, ideas of forcing accelerated adoption of new technology have been met by resistance as individuals instead attempt to rework dominant logic and tempos of technological economy according to their collective diversities, needs, and histories. These histories—both long-distant and quite recent—have frequently been ignored by those who are writing the codified histories of technological innovation.
Caption: A Scene from Encuentro Internacional Virtual Educa in Lima, 2014
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was with this idea of history that Prof. Chan closed her talk, drawing both upon her experiences with technological practices in Peru and her experience as a member of the Prairie Futures group, which considers the technological significance of and contributions from the American Midwest, a peripheral place in relation to putative US centers of technological innovation such as Silicon Valley or MIT. Prof. Chan focused on Peruvian hackerspaces as examples of the uncomfortable and fraught frictions that occur when the temporalities of technological space intersect with traditional and local temporalities. In discussing these spaces, she was able to show that such frictions are not irreconcilable; modes of communication central to the Andean world, such as rituals, were made central within hackerspaces, and these practices opened the door for productive consideration of the relationalities between technology, humankind, nature, and that which is uncontrollable through humankind’s interventions. These intersections and new relationalities, Prof. Chan argued, represent ways in which history can be remembered, and through which the periphery can be seen as contributing to the technological landscape, rather than being eclipsed by it.

Response: Intentional Interdisciplinarity
Emily Knox, Assistant Professor of Information at the School of Information Sciences at UIUC, author of Book Banning in 21st Century America, and 2015 recipient of the Illinois Library Intellectual Freedom Award delivered the response to Prof. Chan’s talk. 

Positioning her talk at the intersection of technological pasts, futures, and makerspaces, Prof. Knox introduced the concept of “disruption,” and unpacked the meaning of “informatics.” She described her presentation as having three anchors: people, information, and technology, particularly technology-in-the-world. Placing emphasis on the importance of story collecting in the information sciences, Prof. Knox returned numerous times throughout her presentation to the need for intentional interdisciplinarity, asking, “How do you give people access?” and “How do you offer the tools you have to others?” As example, she provided histories of technology-as-tool at UIUC including computer-based information retrieval circa 1966 and synchronous online education courses beginning in 1996.

Source: Makerspace Urbana
Using hacker/makerspaces as points of access, Prof. Knox then made connections to Prof. Chan’s work of critically evaluating so-called technological peripheries, bringing specific attention to ethical concerns about gender in these spaces, which so often replicate dominant norms of white masculinity. Referencing support for blended practices at Makerspace Urbana (e.g. cross stitching with conductive thread and LEDs) as an example of intentional interdisciplinarity, Prof. Knox then engaged the mission statement and anti-harassment policy of Makerspace Urbana as a pivot to emphasize the challenging but vital work of engaging foundational inquiries such as “what can we do to make sure the space is more inclusive?” when conceiving projects but also at points of transition. Demonstrating inclusivity in action, Prof. Knox closed by inviting attendees to visit Makerspace Urbana and consider learning to solder (“it’s very easy, it opens up a whole new world of electronics to you, I promise”); to participate in Heartland Makerfest as an attendee or table host; or to provide input as to how Makerspace Urbana can avoid de facto gender segregation as it expands into a second room. 

Follow-up questions to both the main lecture and the response centered on the multiple sensibilities within local (and extrapolated global) contexts. When asked a question about the sensibilities of solidarity and safe spaces in the current political moment, Prof. Chan pointed towards Donna Haraway’s conception of situated knowledge. She also gestured towards work on networks of care and feminist science as examples illustrating the importance of visibilizing not only data, but the labor that goes into the presentation of that data, and placing that visibility as critical to creating such spaces effectively. The visibility of old technologies in a modern context was also interrogated and brought into local contexts, with Prof. Knox discussing the care and mindfulness utilized when deciding which technologies to include in Makerspace Urbana. Also in this vein, a question about the uniqueness of studying Peru as an example of the technological periphery was answered via comparisons to the overlooked-but-vital centrality of the Midwest in the development of information technology. After the lively Q&A session adjourned, many of the participants—as well as the speakers—left to attend Cyberfest at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.


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