Indigenous Techno-Ethics – shaping the future through ethical tech design
Technology is often portrayed as a disruptive force, reshaping society and economies in its wake. But the ethical considerations needed to ensure these advancements are inclusive and holistic are often left for another day, ultimately leading to the creation entrenched bias within the system.
So, how can we use ethically designed technology to mould a positive and inclusive future of our choosing? According Founder of Old Ways, New, Angie Abdilla, it’s crucial to consider the first peoples of Australia and the 60,000 years of history, experience and innovation that evolved during that period.
Speaking at D61+ LIVE 2019, Abdilla, a Palawa woman, explains that while technology is typically thought of in numbers drawing the concept back to the broader and pre-digital realm must be the first step.
“Australia is home to some of the oldest technologies on earth, ancient technologies, developed by Indigenous Australians.”
“Some really deep, sophisticated knowledge has survived and nurtured six thousand or more generations of our ancestors, and the design and development principles behind those technologies have inherent social and environmental sustainability principles baked into them.”
“I think that’s the key to what defines indigenous technologies and western technologies.”
The fundamental ethical differences of indigenous and western technologies and their applications stem from the societal structure of the culture they were created by, says Abdilla, with this understanding of the relationship cultures have with all things animate and inanimate the starting point to considered development.
“Western systems have typically evolved from that hierarchical, patriarchal manner, whereas, from an indigenous perspective, it’s largely flat, and mostly, but not always, metro-centric, and often matriarchal and relational, contextual, inter-relational dynamic that we, the first peoples of Australia, have with country.”
“We come from country, whereas man has typically evolved from the eye of God, as having dominion over all things. So, it’s about a different way of understanding your relationship with other things.”
It’s this kind of comprehension that can eliminate bias from the blueprint of technology, however, collaboration and co-design must not be underestimated, with diverse perspectives from all parts of society needed to incorporate ideas and considerations suitable for the audience these tools are being designed for.
This methodology is incorporated within Old Ways, New, a research and development company founded by Abdilla with a focus on indigenous consultants and technologists creating a new digital world.
“It’s a process we’ve developed within our company called Country Centre Design. It comes back to this understanding that we are part of country, and that country is part of us. And when we talk about country, it’s all things in land, water, sky, not just birth or nation state.”
“The country centre design is a process that ensures that we’re looking at the entire system. So, within country and within that community, we start with asking many questions.”
“Whose country are we on? How do we acknowledge that? Who are the traditional custodians of this place? And how do we forge relationships with them? Who are the elders that need to be involved in that process? Who are the other community members and organizations that need to be involved? How are they inviting us in? Are they identifying the problem, or is it somebody else? How is the traditional knowledge, of place and relating to country, able to penetrate the research? What relevant knowledge do we plug in to that research body? What are the different modalities that we’re applying to resolve?”
“The technology only comes at the end, after we’ve gone through that rigorous process.”
Indigenous ethics often take the form of lore, or the dreaming, explains Abdilla. All projects that are undertaken have dreaming and lore, two concepts that can sometimes be interchangeable. It means that there’s a common story, and an understanding by all parties that they will collectively understand the problem or situation and how to work together for the common good.
“I think that the way that we work is far different to most technologists and researchers,” says Abdilla
“My uncle instilled in me this key term, ‘Indyamarra’ which is actually a rotary word that denotes the act of doing something with respect, with resonance, and doing it slowly with care.”
She goes on to explain that traditionally in the indigenous community, lore must be attached to a thing before it is utilised, noting that lore not only incorporates science, psychology, religion and law, but also an action guide to living and understanding the world.
“Lore encompasses the inter-relational and contextual understanding of all things, and how everything inter–relates and interconnects, so, when there’s no lore around technology, it’s really concerning.”
While Abdilla notes the human element of techo-ethics is crucial, it should not be the only element that resides in the heart of the concept.
“We need to consider earth rights, the rights of mountain, the rights of the river. These have really created a different path of technological evolution, because it has a much deeper relational context to place, communities, and the social and environmental sustainability of this planet, as opposed to just humans.”
Watch the full panel discussion below: