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Informatics of the oppressed

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Information will be “free” only when the oppressed can be heard as loudly as their oppressors.

§ What I took from it?

Most important quote:

The remarkable innovation of the Brazilian liberation theologians is that they moved beyond a narrow focus on free speech and toward a politics of audibility. The theologians understood that the problem is not just whether one is free to speak, but whose voices one can hear and which listeners one’s voice can reach. The intercommunication network was meant to produce more equitable conditions not just for speaking, but for listening and for being heard. Ultimately, the network’s purpose was to amplify the voices of the oppressed. Today, our task is to reformulate this more critical conception of information freedom for the digital age. Information will be “free” only when the oppressed can be heard as loudly as their oppressors.

§ My highlights:

The Cuban experiments were supported by a socialist state. But experiments with anti-capitalist informatics are also possible in the absence of such a state. In fact, another major undertaking took place in countries that were controlled by US-backed right-wing military dictatorships.

In many Latin American countries, including Brazil after the 1964 military coup, authoritarian regimes took violent measures to silence dissidents, such as censorship, imprisonment, torture, and exile. Some of the most vocal critics of these measures were Catholic priests who sought to reorient the Church toward the organizing of the oppressed and the overcoming of domination. A key event in the formation of their movement, which would become known as “liberation theology,” was a 1968 conference of Latin American bishops held in Medellín, Colombia. At the landmark conference, the attendees learned of the dynamics of oppression in different countries, and collectively declared, “A deafening cry pours from the throats of millions of men, asking their pastors for a liberation that reaches them from nowhere else.”

How could this cry be heard? The Medellín experience inspired a group of liberation theologians, largely from Brazil, to try to envision new forms of communication among poor and oppressed peoples across the world. Their objective was conscientização, or “conscientization”: the development of a critical consciousness involving reflection and action to transform social structures—a term associated with their colleague Paulo Freire, who had developed a theory and practice of critical pedagogy. Towards that end, the theologians planned to organize a set of meetings called the “International Journeys for a Society Overcoming Domination.”

But international meetings were prohibitively expensive, which meant many people were excluded. One of the project organizers, the Brazilian Catholic activist Chico Whitaker, explained that “international meetings rarely escape the practice of domination: in general they are reduced to meetings of ‘specialists’ who have available the means to meet.” To address this problem, the liberation theologians and allied activists envisioned a system of information diffusion and circulation that they called an “intercommunication network.” This network would make available “information that was not manipulated and without intermediaries,” break down “sectoral, geographic, and hierarchical barriers,” and make possible “the discovery of situations deliberately not made public by controlled information systems.”

By “controlled information systems,” the organizers referred to the severe state censorship of print and broadcast media that had become prevalent across Latin America. Liberation theologians wanted the liberation of information, which would enable a new phase of Freirean pedagogy: from the era of “‘conscientization’ with the intermediaries” to that of direct “‘inter-conscientization’ between the oppressed,” in Whitaker’s words.

[…]

Over the years, the intercommunication network circulated an extraordinary diversity of texts. Chadian participants examined the social consequences of cotton monoculture since its imposition under French colonial rule. Sri Lankan participants reviewed the labor conditions in the fishing industry, the profiteering tactics of seafood exporters, and the limitations of fishing cooperatives set up by the state. Panamanian participants narrated their struggle for housing and their formation of a neighborhood association. From Guinea-Bissau, a group of both local and foreign educators, including Paulo Freire, wrote about the challenges of organizing a literacy program and changing the education system in the aftermath of the war of independence. Between 1977 and 1978 alone, nearly a hundred texts circulated in the network. These were later compiled into a monumental volume, published in four languages and discussed at regional meetings of network participants across the world.

This volume featured an unusually sophisticated system of indexing. Each text had a code composed of a letter and a number; for example, the aforementioned Chadian text had the code “e35.” The letters indicated the type of text—“e” for case studies, “d” for discussion texts, “r” for summaries—and the numbers were assigned chronologically. The volume was divided into sixteen numbered sections, each about a different theme of “domination.” Section III focused on “domination over rural workers,” section IV on “non-rural workers,” section VII on “domination in housing conditions,” section X on “health conditions.”

Each text was printed inside one of the thematic sections, but since the classifications were not mutually exclusive, the index of each section also listed texts that intersected with the theme despite being from different sections. For instance, the index of section IX, on education, listed some main texts—“e4” from Thailand, “e6” from Guinea-Bissau, “e38” from the Philippines—as well as other texts from different sections, like “r3” from section X, which discussed the intersection of health and education in structures of domination. The end of the volume featured an additional index that classified texts according to “some particular categories of victims of domination”: “women,” “youth,” “children,” “elderly people,” and “ethnic groups.”

The astonishing diversity of texts circulated by the intercommunication network soon brought its organizers into conflict with conservative factions of the Catholic Church. In 1977, some readers were especially scandalized by text “e10,” submitted by a small, women-led, self-described “community of Christian love” in rural England. The text bothered conservatives not only for its explicit denunciation of “the Roman Catholic Church as an instrument of domination” engaged in “a kind of efficient and specialized ‘brain washing,’” but also for its feminist proposals, which included the refusal “to call anyone ‘father’ in a clerical context” and the commitment to “calling the Holy Spirit ‘She’ and not ‘He.’”

After a long deliberation at the Rio de Janeiro diffusion center, the project organizers decided to publish the text along with a note restating their commitment to free expression and reminding readers of the minimal requirements for publication. Still, conservative bishops complained to Vatican authorities, who were increasingly concerned by the rise of liberation theology in Latin America and beyond. Pope Paul VI, who did not sympathize with the project, sent emissaries to Brazil to intervene. The Vatican demanded that the bishops stop, claiming that the conference in Rio de Janeiro “could not take an initiative of such breadth, and had surpassed its competence by inviting other episcopal conferences to join the project.” By building a distributed worldwide network via regional conferences, the liberation theologians had bypassed the central authority of the Vatican. Despite the Vatican’s order to stop the project, a group of Brazilian organizers continued in disobedience until 1981.

[…]

The remarkable innovation of the Brazilian liberation theologians is that they moved beyond a narrow focus on free speech and toward a politics of audibility. The theologians understood that the problem is not just whether one is free to speak, but whose voices one can hear and which listeners one’s voice can reach. The intercommunication network was meant to produce more equitable conditions not just for speaking, but for listening and for being heard. Ultimately, the network’s purpose was to amplify the voices of the oppressed. Today, our task is to reformulate this more critical conception of information freedom for the digital age. Information will be “free” only when the oppressed can be heard as loudly as their oppressors.

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