Latin America, Computing, and the Politics of the Past and Present

David Nemer
Aug 8 · 4 min read

(I delivered this talk at LASA 2019 in the panel "Computing in Latin America: Big Data, Modernization, and the Politics of Connection")

These papers [presented by Colette Perold, Marcelo Viana, and Sam Kellogg] show a different perspective and open the black box of technology in different settings in Latin America- they show how technical, political, and social factors affect and are affected by the design of technology and development models. It is important to bring such perspective as a way to be aware of possible “encounters” and possibilities of making “ontological politics” — in terms of Annemarie Mol (1999) and Helen Verran (1998).

Latin American cities have been considered to be the “wrong” places for science and technology because they are outside the main economic, technological, and political centers of the world. But as advocated in these papers, it’s important to study the “wrong” places, especially their history, because we can learn a lot about their persisting importance in today’s so-called “knowledge economy.” The authors deny that the long and historic process of modernization is turning the world flat, as if place didn’t matter, like translating technology from the US to Latin America and expect everything to flow flawlessly. In order to understand the processes of development and modernization, we shall look closely at individuals in such “wrong” places, their struggles, and failure- because it is right when rupture happens, as technology often does outside of their sites of development, that Latin American innovative ways emerge to stitch the "seamful magical" technological objects together.

However, these technological objects are enforced and brought to Latin America as a seamless network to connect the South to the North in order to bring progress, as mentioned by President Truman in 1949, in an attempt to force models of modernization in Latin America after WWII: “For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and the skill to relieve the suffering of these people… I believe that we should make available to peace-loving peoples the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life… What we envision is a program of development based on the concepts of democratic fair-dealing… Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace. And the key to greater production is a wider and more vigorous application of modern scientific and technical knowledge.”

After World War 2, the United States and United Nations set an agenda to solve the problems of the “underdeveloped areas” of the world in which “greater production” was the key to prosperity and peace. Greater production, in their terms, meant the vigorous application of modern science and technical knowledge. The plan was to implement a total reconstruction of “underdeveloped” societies through capital, science and technology. Arturo Escobar (1995) writes how such ethnocentric and arrogant “dream solution” turned into a nightmare, as told by our speakers. Instead of the “kingdom of abundance” promised by theorists and politicians in the 1950s, the discourse and strategy of development produced the contrary: “massive underdevelopment and impoverishment, untold exploitation, oppression, and technological dependence” (p. 4).

An example of this is the case written by Ivan da Costa Marques (2005): where he highlights the real intentions of American tech companies in Brazil. He brings the case of the Mac of the Periphery in which Unitron was able to reverse engineer Apple’s machine functional characteristics without violating Apple’s patents- but when that happened, Apple “invested” in lobbyist and was able to reshape the notion of authorship in Brazil and had members of SEI (Informatics Special Secretariat) voting against funding Unitron and to stop operations and products. Apple, and as many other companies brought by the authors, like IBM, not only reshaped the sense of authorship but also what counts as legitimate design and innovation work.

Unitron Mac 512 (left; photo: Chester’s Blog) vs. Apple Macintosh 512k (photo: Wired)

One provocation brought by Ivan da Costa Marques, that still shapes our engagements with technology in Latin America, is that “Laboratories and courtrooms create boundaries or frontiers between purified objects and keep them stable. Western laboratories and courtrooms play a crucial role in constructing and updating purification divisions sketched by the modern ‘colonizer’.” (p. 156). Not only laboratories and courtrooms, but also the press and marketing campaigns as highlighted by our speaker Marcelo Vianna.

Colette and Marcelo bring past events to illustrate this provocation, and in Sam’s paper, we can see the same negotiations that happened in Brazil in the 70s, but happening now with different players. The difference is that we have Google, instead of Apple and IBM, and a Left-wing populist dictatorship instead of a military right one. Unfortunately, this shows us how technology seems to be above political ideologies and seem to be plastic enough (boundary object) to please every spot on the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, we seem to be living the political climate from the 60s and 70s all over again- in Brazil, with the rise of the far-right and military aligned government of Bolsonaro, and in Cuba, with intense censorship policies like the Decree 349, and the tightening of the Embargo by Trump. With all that said, what lessons can we bring from Latin American's studies and history to the current times we are living in?

*If you enjoy reading and/or writing about Latin American and Science and Technology, please visit the journal "Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society" https://tapuya.la/ & https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ttap20 and

References

da Costa Marques, I. (2005). Cloning computers: From rights of possession to rights of creation. Science as Culture, 14(2), 139–160.

Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mol, A. (1998). Ontological politics. A word and some questions. The Sociological Review, 46(S), 74–89.

Verran, H. (1998). Re-imagining land ownership in Australia. Postcolonial Studies: Culture, Politics, Economy, 1(2), 237–254.

Human-Centered Computing Across Borders

This publication is meant to be a co-learning space for researchers working on human-centered computing, across various borders and intersections. Here we share our stories, work, reviews for others' work, and more. Join us!

David Nemer

Written by

Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Author of Favela Digital http://dnemer.com

Human-Centered Computing Across Borders

This publication is meant to be a co-learning space for researchers working on human-centered computing, across various borders and intersections. Here we share our stories, work, reviews for others' work, and more. Join us!

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade