Curb Your Digital Enthusiasm?


As a scholar who has worked for close to 25 years studying indigenous media use in remote areas of the world where digital media has been slow to arrive and broadband is often inaccessible, I often find myself in conferences and in classrooms uttering cautionary warnings to students and colleagues who imagine that the whole world is wired and web accessible. I like to remind them that however ubiquitous online technology is on the streets of NYC, only 35% of people on the planet are internet users, according to date from June 2012 (, accessed March 28, 2013). I am not suggesting that the massive shifts in communication, sociality, knowledge production, and politics that the internet enables are simply irrelevant to remote communities; my concern is with how terms like the digital age smuggle in a set of assumptions that paper over cultural, political and economic differences in the way things digital may be taken up in radically different contexts. In my work, I seek to disrupt this sense of evolutionary inevitability and foster an appreciation for the innovation and alterity emerging in what Cyrus Farivar calls in his 2011 book, The Internet of Elsewhere. For example, in addition to the widespread use of cell phones, the remarkable Digital Indigenous Democracy Project developed by the ever creative  Inuit media collective, Igloolik Isuma along with seven other remote Baffin Island Inuit communities. As the creators of this project point out, global digital media threatens to make their 4,000 year-old oral language extinct

unless they begin to create digital media in Inuktitut by the next generation. Second, a rapid increase of multinational mining development threatens to overwhelm Inuit communities who lack the information and communication tools to protect themselves. Global warming has triggered a multinational ‘rush’ in the Baffin region for gold, uranium, diamonds and the world’s richest iron ore deposit ever discovered. Because this is Canada, not Congo, environmental assessment processes guarantee Inuit rights to participate in decision-making that affects their future. Unfortunately, interactive digital media tools that make such participation possible or effective – providing information, communication and political organization – do not work in low-bandwidth Baffin communities. To overcome this handicap, DID installs in each slow-speed community a low-cost, innovative package of community-based technology that allows users to jump the Digital Divide and use interactive media at high-speed. As the world’s first digital public space for Indigenous people to interact freely as equals in their own languages and exchange Indigenous know-how and millennial experience...

In short, rather than simply bemoaning the stratification of access that threatens further polarize the those on either side of the digital divide, I turn to such cases in my teaching, research and writing to show the creativity and complexity that such experiments bring to the table, finding new ways to use digital tools to help “humanity navigate what will be an unpredictable and dangerously challenging 21st Century”.

Image on front page by hummingcrow and available on Flickr. 


One of my favorite things coming out of this project is the reminder that the internet, and broadband specifically, is not a one-size-fits-all approach to life in the 21st century. I do have a question, the quote highlights the fact that these hub communities allow for indigenous peoples to communicate on their own terms. Does it also allow for individuals to pool resources to enter into these national conversations on the use of this new land? If they are interacting in their own language online, are there individuals translating that work into advocacy programs? I would love to hear about one of these projects as well. 

Great post, Faye! I really appreciate your point that the digital divide is not merely about access to broadband, but also about an inverse lack of knowledge about how those lacking access have found innovative ways around that asymmetry. Rather than reductively assume that those lacking access to broadband lack essential forms of knowledge, we must do a better job paying attention to indigenous forms of entrepreneurial knowledge that emerge in response to unequal access.

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