Decolonizing the definition of technology
We have all had that moment where something rubs us the wrong way. When we know something is not fully true and we battle our unfiltered urge to call it out.
My first moment feeling this sensation was when my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Parker, explained the connection between the dominance of Britain’s East India Company and the colonization of India. She concluded that British colonialism catalyzed India’s development. Without that colonial infrastructure and technology, many of the modern-day systems of India would not exist.
“Well, this is a stretch,” I remember thinking (although preteen me probably said something much sassier). I am of Indian descent, so I was exposed to the vast and beautiful pre-colonial practices and methodologies that many in India still use today. But because they do not resemble Western society’s portrayal of technological development, they are often dismissed.
The present definition of technology is narrow and often limited to Western views and standards, with the internet, advanced databases and smartphones considered the peak of modern, successful technological feats. The post-colonial hangover that even greasy hash browns can’t seem to cure is the idea that modern technology is going to save humanity — especially within developing economies — from the climate crisis.
But machinery, AI carbon sequestration and advanced calculation algorithms can only take us so far. We must broaden how we define technology and learn from communities that have used centuries of observation, deep geographic understanding of their land and ancestral practices to cultivate sustainable ways of living and working. There are many compounding social and environmental benefits to tapping into place-based and traditional technologies — from the co-benefits of leveraging native biodiversity to stimulating the local economy by including typically marginalized communities in the management of their land.
For example, when I visited my family in India in December, it was clear to see that our communities still possess vast swaths of untouched knowledge that support sustainable development. The village farmers of Tamil Nadu, in Southern India, tapped into their holistic understanding of monsoon patterns to inform planting practices, maximizing water use in a way that seemed rather advanced to me. It’s certainly more effective than planting monocrops until the soil depletes and dies.
Another success story of returning to ancestral practices is the sustainable development of AlUla Valley in Saudi Arabia. The scarcity of resources in the desert region has inspired a return to traditional architectural and agricultural methods used to manipulate and cultivate the elements for centuries, such as the irrigation technique known as qanat. Focusing on harmonizing this new balance in architecture highlights that “integrated sustainability means not only integrating the economy with nature and society but also integrating the past with the present, the present with the future, and technology with culture.” This idea reminds us that the profound comprehension of a technique is also technology, and many communities have mastered techniques rooted in place-based traditions and ancestral knowledge.
Companies and municipalities are starting to understand the importance of indigenous and place-based practices. Deloitte recently released a baseline framework, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, detailing the importance of integrating decolonized perspectives and stating that “the solution lies in reorienting the systems of ‘value’: to listen to; respect; and economically, academically, socially and politically value the knowledge that governed land use and care for millennia. Nature has a human voice. It’s just not one that the colonial systems have been willing to hear.” While frameworks of acknowledgement like this are a good foundation for movement forward, we have much more work to do.
Decolonizing our definition of technology is imperative to unlocking our potential to amplify the solutions humanity needs in this moment. And understanding that not all of the best ideas and advanced solutions flow from one spout. Rather, the technology required to move the needle further and faster in addressing the climate crisis must be driven by intersectional solutions and the perspectives of those who deeply understand the regions and systems of the issues being tackled. If we can do that, maybe then we can finally get to a real solution.