Technological Sovereignty: What are we talking about?

Margarita Padilla

What is technological sovereignty?

Dear Reader, we would like to talk about technological sovereignty, a concept that perhaps still means nothing to you.

Wikipedia says that “sovereignty” is the supreme political power, to be sovereign is to have decision-making power, the power to make law without receiving it from another. It also says that it is impossible to understand this concept without taking into account struggles for power: history defines the question of sovereignty, what it is and what it will become, and at any given moment, who is sovereign.

Transferring the question of sovereignty to technologies, the question we wish to discuss becomes, who has the power to make decisions about them? About their development, about their use, about access and about distribution, about supply and consumption, about the prestige they have and their power to fascinate…

I believe that, with questions of power, there are no simple answers. Nevertheless, there are desirable and desired horizons. With this publication we hope to pause and think about the technological horizon we are projecting, to apply critical judgement and, above all, to share our ideas.

In informal conversations about technologies, friends often say things like “I just don't understand that”, “I'm not very good at that”... So I try to shift the focus towards another, more political terrain. I firmly believe that what a single person knows or does not know is not really such a significant part of an overall approach to technologies.

This shift is already being applied in other areas. For example, I don't need to personally understand chemistry to “know” that the air is contaminated. I say “know” in inverted comas because I don't really know it, in the scientific sense of the word, because I have never myself conducted an atmospheric contamination analysis. However, I do “know” it in social terms, because many groups and individuals that I trust have told me. For me, the belief that the air is contaminated is a social truth.

Something similar occurs with organic food. I don't need to go to each and every organic producer to conduct chemical analysis of the nutritional value of their produce. There is a chain of trust, a circuit that makes what I personally know or do not know irrelevant. I base my ideas on what this shared knowledge presents as social truth.

In the same way, my horizons in terms of technological sovereignty are not made up of self-sufficient individuals who control every last detail of their devices and the programmes on their computer or mobile phone. It is not technological individualism (as I understand it, I know, I keep saying I...). I don't believe that the subject of technological sovereignty is the individual (you know, that young, handsome, intelligent, successful, white man... above all, because he does not exist).

Where does it happen

As with all other sovereignty, technological sovereignty is made in communities.

Communities exist, and they are everywhere, unceasingly creating and recreating themselves. Shared flats, neighbourhoods, friends, workmates, professional networks, extended families... Communities are everywhere.

As with any symbolic construction, communities are not something you can see with your eyes. They are something you see with your mind, and feel the bonds with your heart.

This means that in the same situation, a community can be very real and active for some people, yet totally invisible to others. This is a real problem because if you don't see where communities are walking, you run the risk of trampling them. Although often the tech industry does not aspire to trample communities, but to control them.

For those of us fighting for technological sovereignty, communities are a tangible reality. They are there, we see them and we feel them. Although technology is stereotypically related to consumerism, elitism, luxury goods and isolated individualism, this is only the vision presented by the industry and the market. A market that seeks to isolate and bewilder consumers.

All technology is developed in community. These communities can be more or less autonomous, or more or less controlled by corporations. The struggle for sovereignty, is about these communities. Nobody invents, builds or codes alone, quite simply because the task is such that it would be impossible.

The premise of a community that aspires to be sovereign is that all knowledge should be shared, and all individual developments should be returned to the commons. Knowledge grows through cooperation. Intelligence is collective, and to privatise knowledge is to kill the community. The community is the guarantor of liberty, which means it is the guarantor of sovereignty.

The relationship between communities and knowledge has a long history, and it was not born of new technologies. For example, in a culture where women are responsible for attending during other women's births, conserving and transmitting knowledge about birth becomes fundamental for the reproduction of life. This means that there will be a community of midwives, that can be more or less formalised, or, to put it another way, community relations will form between midwives that relate to the preservation of practical knowledge. If some power wishes to destroy this community (this sovereignty), one way to do it would be to “destroy” the knowledge held in common by that community, making it seem useless, ridiculous or out of date. This could be done through policies that “shift” this knowledge into hospitals and into the hands of conventional medicine. If women go to give birth in the hospital they are attended by doctors, and the community of women is weakened or disappears altogether (it loses its sovereignty).

Briefly expressed, community, in its most radical form, is autonomous, self-organised and self-regulated, and it is the guarantor of sovereignty. If you have a community you will have freedom and sovereignty. Or even further: it is only within communities that we can be free and sovereign peoples.

I hear you say “but poor me, I don't have the time or the money, and I don't understand technology, and I already have thousands of other problems in my life... how can I join a community to make technologies?”.

To “join” a community does not necessarily mean becoming a coder, or going to meetings, or taking on responsibilities. Communities are generous. There are different levels of involvement and different ways to contribute.

This book aims to offer clues about things you can do, and we will suggest some of them below. However, there is one that is more important than the others. It does not take time, or money or knowledge. Just good intentions.

You can adopt a stance that contemplates the value of the community.

Continuing the example of the destruction of the community of midwives, it supposes that there is a social perception that their knowledge has value. The power that aims to break up the community of women must make propaganda to devalue the community and give value to the knowledge of the doctors in the hospital. We all participate in the social perception of value and how valuable something is. The individual decision a women makes between going to a hospital to be treated by a doctor, or giving birth at home being cared for by another woman, is taken in a social context that will “judge” (assign value to) one or other decision as being the “right” one.

We are not talking about economic, practical, commercial or market value, we are talking about social value. If you contemplate value, you are giving and taking value.

For example, although men will never give birth, their vision of the value of the community of women attending births is very important. If they take the position of seeing its value, they are giving that community more legitimacy and more sovereignty.

Therefore, in addition to all the practical things that you can do, your point of view can make the communities stronger, and in that way, you are already contributing.

Why is this important?

Antonio Rodríquez de las Heras says that technology is to culture what the body is to life.

Just as the human body protects genetic life (the “first” life), technology protects cultural life as it emerges from human beings (the “second” life).

Just as the human body, with its marvellous complexity, is an impressive adventure over thousands of millions of years, that began when a tiny membrane began to protect a genetic message in the most changeable of environments; so technology is developed and grows more complex to protect this other vital message that is born of human beings: that of culture.

Technology, from fire or flint to the monumental constructions that we use everywhere, almost without noticing, is the body of culture. Without technology, there would be no culture.

The relationship with technology is paradoxical. It allows you to do more things (autonomy), but you depend on it (dependence).

You depend on those who develop and distribute it, on their business plans or their contributions to social value. And you change with it. Are Whatsapp and Telegram not changing the way we relate to each other? Is Wikipedia not changing culture of the encyclopedia? And you change it too, in turn.

Which is why it is so important to keep open the collective question about what technological horizons we desire and how we are building them.

How to value it

In the boom of the financial crisis and a culture of obligatory business ventures, the technology industry, on which the power of communities is not lost, began to use participatory architectures to take advantage of collective intelligence and obtain market value.

This market supply deals all the time with other styles of cooperation, in a hot-bed of tendencies that mark the episodes in the struggle for technological sovereignty.

The technology industry wishes to naturalise its preferred choices. It wants you to stick to its products and services without asking questions.

Thus, to resist technological submission, I propose that in your technological choices, you value the following:

Comfort should not be the only criteria. It is more comfortable not to separate your garbage. It is more comfortable to take the car and drive around the corner (assuming there will be parking, of course). It is more comfortable to eat fast food... However, we don't always do that, because comfort is not always the best criteria. And with technologies it is the same.

Be aware that gratitude is not the only cost. It is good that there are free public services, which is a way of saying that they are paid for by everyone, in a common fund. It is also good to exchange gifts, for free, that we pay for as a way of showing gratitude and love. However, when we talk about technology industries, free is just a strategy to get greater profits by other means. Such freeness comes at a high cost, both in terms of loss of sovereignty (as we remain at the mercy of whatever industry wants to “give” us in any given moment), but also in environmental and social terms. Saving a photo in the cloud, to give a simple example, has environmental and social costs, since in order to save it there must be a server on at all times, the “motors” of which consume electrical energy, etc. That server perhaps belongs to a company that does not pay taxes in the place where the person saved the photo lives, and is therefore extracting value without contributing to the commons, etc. Everything costs something. We should therefore perhaps think of this kind of “gratuity” as indirect costs that will hit somewhere else.

What can you do

No one lives in absolute technological sovereignty. Sovereignty is a road to be walked. However, we cannot accept that, since we cannot do everything, we should not do anything.

There are many things you can do. Of course, you could use more free software. In this publication you will find many proposals for free programmes that function perfectly. You could also actively participate in a community. However there are many other things you can do:

If you have concerns about your technological practices, share them, discuss them, help them to circulate. Technological practices are not individual issues. They have a social dimension that we should make into an issue. Technologies should be on the collective agenda, just like health, work or political participation. We need to talk about technologies.

If you are part of a group, don't assume that all the members are willing to use all the computer programmes or internet services that you use. When I participate in a group and, without any discussion, someone proposes we have a Skype or a Hangout, I realise that the person proposing it has not considered that there might be people who don't want to open a Skype or Gmail account. It is as though we wanted to force vegetarians to eat meat because it is more comfortable (or cheaper or whatever) to make a single plate according to the criteria of the acritical majority. That would be unacceptable, no? Well, in the same way, someone can refuse to use (or be used by) certain services. It is their right. The decision about which technologies to use is not only practical, it is also ethical.

If you are an educator, transmit the values of free software. Why should we pirate what communities already offer us and that we can share freely? Free software is the software that practices and defends the values of the community. If we like public education because it is the commons, should we not want public schools to use public computer programmes, without licensing costs and privatization mechanisms? Public is not the same as free.

If you have the power to make contracts (such as for the website of your association), seek out companies in the social economy that are contributing to the communities. Put the money that you spend on technologies into circulation in the communitarian social circuits. In this book you will find a chapter dedicated to the cooperatives that recombine social and solidarity economies with technological sovereignty. These cooperatives are grouped in networks of social economy or local social markets. The groupings have websites where you can find cooperative companies to take on your work.

If you can programme activities (within your association, social centre, PTA...), organise awareness raising talks, workshops or trainings about technological sovereignty. This is an endless task, that should be ongoing, because nobody is born with this knowledge. If you don't know who could give these talks or workshops, ask the cooperatives. They will know who could do it. As we have already said, we need to talk about technologies.

If you have prestige or influence, make technological sovereignty a relevant issue on political and critical agendas. If you don't, read up on the issue in the sections that many newspapers already have about technologies. Talk to people about what you have read. Make it an issue. Seek out critical and reflective perspectives. It is not about chasing the ultimate market tendency, but rather a question of keeping up to date in the many ongoing political and social debates about technological sovereignty.

If you have the energy or the capacity for leadership, promote the creation of groups to fiddle with things, exchange knowledge, and enjoy technology in company. Technologies are also a source of happiness and pleasure. There are groups that meet to repair electronic toys or small white goods. Others meet to do sewing with free hardware components (electronics). Others do creative programming... Technologies are not only for hard work or for isolating people. As we have said before, they are the body of culture. And culture is far more than just work.

If you are a woman, seek out other women to ask questions together, about how gender constructions are separating us from active, creative and leadership relationships with technologies. The active presence of women in the construction of technological sovereignty is scarce. There is a lot of work to be done there. In this book you will find some references, in the women who wrote some of the chapters.

And if you do not know where to start, seek help. In addition to all the people you know personally, these days we can enter into communication with people we don't know. If you see a video that interests you or an article you would like to go into in more depth, it is likely you can send a mail to the author. Even if we don't know each other, we can help each other.

We have edited this publication with the intention of digging deeper into the diversity and richness and the current situation of technological sovereignty around the world, to present its potential and the difficulties faced.

We hope you find it interesting and that you read it critically, and help us to improve and distribute it.

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