Part of the Distributed Book Review of Race After the Internet, ed. by Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White
Review of Chapter 8, "Connection at Ewiiaapaayp Mountain: Indigenous Internet Infrastructure" by Christian Sandvig
What does technology infrastructure tell us about race/ethnicity? Well, according to Christian Sandvig, it could say a lot. In his chapter “Connection at Ewiiaapaayp Mountain,” Sandvig describes how the history and politics of racial/ethnic inequality play a substantial role in the formation/construction of Internet infrastructure. Looking at Tribal Digital Village (hereafter, TDV)—a multimillion dollars developmental project to build a wireless Internet network for Native American reservation lands in Southern California—as his case study, Sandvig argues that providing wireless Internet infrastructure on such a place as Native American reservations is different from providing a connection in the affluent suburbs of San Diego. The difference, he adds, is not necessarily a matter of different methods of construction per se. It also reflects issues such as identity politics and technological appropriation as well as innovation.
Combining communication theory with ethnographic approach, Sandvig reveals the problematic status of TDV as a developmental project. Proposed by Hans-Werner Braun—a German-born engineer with a long and distinguished career in computer networking—the TDV’s rationales emphasize technology transfer, poverty, and cultural patrimony, elements that expertly cater to the instrumentalist demand of public policy and philanthropic subsidy. These rationales overlook the history of Native Americans’ forced migration, which has unfairly relocated their homes to an “offline-by-design” environment, i.e. inhospitable lands with extreme conditions (172-74, 183). The result of these rationales is a moral burden for the indigenous people who are using this subsidized infrastructure. They have to justify their use of the Internet as educational while for the most part what they want (and what they actually do) is to be able to use the Internet just like everyone else, such as opening up MySpace account (a case that will be discussed further in the next chapter by Danah Boyd) or playing online games.
Moreover, Sandvig also describes that because of this naturally inhospitable environment, the TDV project had to design their infrastructure in a different way than what the commercial wireless infrastructures—such as AT&T—would do. The TDV producers had to “appropriate” the intended uses of such things and devices as antennas, wireless towers, and car batteries in order to build a successful wireless Internet distribution network. While this technological appropriation in the end leads to an innovative wireless system in many ways and has transformed the Native Americans involved in the project from mere users to highly skilled producers of wireless technology, Sandvig reminds us that the TDV’s appropriation speaks for a very different perspective than the increasingly popular discourse of countercultural and subversive technological appropriation in cases like hackers and phreaks. Instead, it is—in Sandvig’s terms—an “appropriation toward parity,” where rather than being an “engine of difference,” it aspires to become “engines of similarity in the development of technological infrastructures” (191 original italics). Just like the users, these Native American producers would rather have a normal wireless system than what they have built. Yet, they had to build an unorthodox system because they had no other choice. As Sandvig aptly puts it, “[i]nnovation, in this context, is both liberating and oppressive at the same time” (190).
Overall, Sandvig is successful in unfolding the complexities of technological infrastructure establishment, especially in regions with specific histories of racial and ethnic injustice. While I find his division of the indigenous producers and users sometimes inflexible, I believe it is strategically necessary to point out the serious disconnect between everyday uses of the Internet and the rhetoric of subsidizing it. The division is also useful to underscore the presence of identity politics such as tribal sovereignty in the establishment of technological infrastructure, an activity that sometimes is taken for granted. In the end, I agree with Sandvig’s statement that learning the case of the TDV, it “provides us with a new way to think about technological change and human identity” (194).