This interview was originally published by Data & Society Research Institute here on April 29, 2020. Visit datasociety.net or follow @datasociety on Twitter to learn more.
Note from interviewee Anita Say Chan: In the weeks since this interview, we're all encountering a world that is by no means an unforeseen event or disaster attributable to the novel biology of the virus alone, but indeed, a symptom of an already-ailing system decades (or more) in the making. The breathtaking loss and destruction we now see didn't just happen far away, in some abstract "elsewhere," and it didn't happen overnight because of a virus. It advanced gradually, over time, with every mundane decision to ignore precarity either locally or globally, or to exacerbate vulnerability by disinvesting from civic infrastructures and public capacities (and normalizing such divestments), thus feeding what Nancy Fraser has called the "crisis of care" (h/t Lisa Nakamura) that devalues care work–even as the essential nature of nursing, among other disciplines, is made all the more apparent. We are, and have been, in need of a global reset; not as some version of salvation that someone else brings, but as a new terms of being that allows us to recognize the differential agencies we do lend, and have lent, to our own local and worldly contexts, and that we might now work in relationally if new forms of worldly connection are to emerge.
Rigoberto Lara Guzmán: Anita, you are a Data & Society Faculty Fellow, an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a Feminist scholar of Information Science, researcher of the periphery as well as an ethnographer of digital cultures in contemporary Peru and overall cyber-badass time traveler. How would you begin situating all these experiences?
Anita Say Chan: Well, I begin with biographies. Our methodologies are derived from our context long before we enter the official Academy. Our listening, seeing, and research practices overall have a lot to do with the places we've come from and the places we've been. I situate myself as a researcher, a first-generation Chinese-American—but Chinese from the Philippines. So histories of migration, fragmentation, and displacement are all over my family history. It raises this question of, where is home? How do you make new homes and new forms of commitment across a series of routings, upheavals, movements? Which is now very much the story of modernity, so it can be a shared story, but one of course that impacts families and individuals really differently and distinctly depending on where their contexts are situated.
Being first generation Chinese American, I was aware of how much certain stories were missing from dominant public narratives. I didn’t have the language for this when I was growing up. I just knew I didn’t see other Chinese-Americans, Asian-American, or even the immigrant American experience in general, in my visual and cultural storytelling ecology outside of the home.
In my own home space, I could see what stories were worth being shared and whose voices got to matter. I remember constantly asking questions about what my grandparents' experiences were of migration, of displacement, moving from rural into urban contexts, living through wars, through a version of American militarization in the Philippines. And constantly the kind of responses I would get were, "You don't want to hear about that. That's painful. Let's not talk about that." Which was a version of silencing, as well. I guess in a sense you could say I witnessed that kind of quiet violence that happens when you're not able to speak your own story or don't feel like you could own your story. And that tears at souls in a lot of ways.
Through the methods I develop and teach as a researcher, I see myself as someone who aims to attend to those missing stories. A patience to want to listen to what is not supposed to be told. I think a lot of us in this space have that ethic, but there are lots of different kinds of demands that urge us away from the patient technique of listening.
Natalie Kerby: How do you support someone who is dealing with the tension of, “this is a story that isn't told”? How do you decide if, when, and how you bring that story out?
Anita Say Chan: These stories are stories of vulnerability. One version of the answer is, "How does one create safe contexts for listening and telling?" I think that's a lot of it. Not every story told has to be amplified. But the act of telling the story in private settings can still be really, really important and empowering, and transformative for both listener and teller alike.
It's not always the case that there aren't spaces to actually hear them, or that the stories aren't being told. Often, it's that we don't actually have the right calibration to pause and take the story in. You see that everywhere. You asked, where is the periphery? The periphery is everywhere.
We're trained to listen to things in such narrow ways, to fit stories into such narrow frameworks. If you're not telling a narrative around success, then it's not a story worth listening to. Also, what does it mean to recognize forms of expertise or knowledge from those who aren't given the space to be authorized as knowledge practitioners or experts; even experts on their own life experience?
I think as a young anthropologist first doing field work in Peru, that became really obvious to me when I started doing work with ceramic artisans in Chulucanas, an area where a huge number of families have been involved in pottery making literally since pre-Colombian times. The ceramic artisans there were one of the first to participate in a state program to develop intellectual property titles, granting them a special intellectual property designation, much like champagne producers in France have.
The special designation—a legal distinction granted by the state—was meant to be a recognition and protection of cultural heritage there. But in actual practice, the programs developed around it took a very market driven approach. The first workshops rewarded—and those that ultimately received the most benefits from the state-based programs—were the ones that were ready for global export, or were willing to be "reformed" for it. Basically, the workshops that could speed up to market production and meet the orders of chain stores here in the U.S. — not the workshops that local artisans themselves considered to be honoring traditions in craft production.
The state constantly framed the traditional craft practitioners, not as experts, but as being in need of reform in order to be recognized as a modern knowledge practitioner. But, of course, if you talked to any rural artisan, they knew more about the kinds of nuances and the psychologies, global pathologies and local ravages of market-based capitalism in the 21st century than your average urban consumer here in the U.S., submerged though we may be in any variety of personal information technologies.
As a young ethnographer, I remember the interviews and encounters I had with traditional, rural artisans as constant illuminations. In a context where craft was often described in quite sacred terms, it became known that some producers were willing to make, what seemed to an outsider like me to be, unthinkable compromises around tradition to meet a global contract. And I remember speaking to an artisan, one who kept the tradition, to explain this, and I remember he simply looked at me like, "What would you think global capitalism would do to a village like this?"
Rigoberto Lara Guzmán: So let's use that example of the artisans to tease out a couple of things. One is the practice of ethnography. You used the term "a listening practice." We also talked about storytelling. Is ethnography a kind of a listening practice looking for stories that are then coded as data?
Anita Say Chan: Hmm. I mean, at a very superficial level, it can be. But I think of that as really much more of an extractive politics than anything else. I think of ethnography as a practice of listening, for sure. But also, a practice of co-being. And ideally some version of co-making.
When I describe to my students what ethnographic practice can do, it’s a mode of co-being but co-making where you literally leave a familiar context. You defamiliarize yourself with that context and are put into a situation where you’re obligated in some ways to be remade.
As a researcher, it might mean having to pick up, literally, a new language. But you probably aren't recognized as a grown up in that language. You may be infantilized. It doesn't always happen instantaneously that you have authority with that community. So, what does it mean to learn, to speak with some version of authority and to gain trust, to build a version of personhood being with the community?
Sometimes it requires a contribution authorized and recognized by the community on their terms, since communities don't always necessarily care about publishing in academic journals and presenting papers and conference speaking. It means now having to learn to become in a way that's valued for a different locality or in a different situated context. That's true for ethnographers who go into labs or industrial contexts, too. You may share the same language of tongue, but it means picking up a different speaking jargon. It requires having to gain some version of nuance and familiarity with what it means to be someone who can contribute meaningfully in that space. It’s a becoming-with, and ideally, hopefully, a kind of transformation-of.
There is no innocent form of listening and recording and documenting. So how do you use that intervention to foster some version of transformation-with that vectors towards a world of social justice, towards one that addresses some of the power inequalities that we’re seeing in those spaces?
Rigoberto Lara Guzmán: You’ve used some really textured, wonderful language here: "multi-sited," "co-being," "co-making," "becoming-with."
Natalie Kerby: "Defamiliarize" was not a word I expected you to say.
Anita Say Chan: Yeah. Or a "de-centering." A de-centering of the givenness of experience and the self. I think that's a methodology of the ethnographic that's still relatively unique.
Rigoberto Lara Guzmán: These words to me signal a value of kin making, a centering of kinship, which I think goes against discourses of expertise and the single, objective researcher. How has your work with feminist and decolonial methods influenced this positionality in your research?
Anita Say Chan: I think it's constant. It's trying to be attuned to a state of shared but differential vulnerability. I don't like to think about feminism and decolonial politics as ones that have to be abstracted into the spaces of the Academy, although that's where we tend to go. In part, because so much work has been done to get us to address who gets to produce their stories and narratives. Where do those stories and narratives come from? And what are the politics of gender and the coloniality of knowledge, the politics of race and class? What do all of these have to do with these versions of what gets authorized, legitimized, and reproduced as the official story?
For all the struggles that we have as feminist, decolonial, postcolonial, anti-classist, anti-racist, academic thinkers, these are shared with a whole range of other practitioners outside the spaces of the Academy, outside the spaces of official theory-making. And their struggles oftentimes have even less space for attention.
We saw some work of academic/practitioner allyship happening with the Feminist Data Manifest-No. How do we decenter our own conventions for knowledge-making so that they can generate new resources and acknowledge past resources we draw from? I think for most feminist and decolonial and anti-racist, anti-classist practitioners, reproducing their methods and reproducing feminists in the Academy is not actually their end game. That's part of it. But that's not the only thing. It’s about remaking worlds in general.
The Academy is one resource, one tool. So how do we work to re-center and distribute the resources that we have in the spaces of relative privilege that we occupy, so this work of world making can be safely taken up by other collectives beyond just the Academy? The larger challenge is getting their work recognized as such, and part of why it’s so important to redistribute resources when you have them, because people are working in such diverse situations of precarity that of course aren’t subsumed or captured by the versions of precarity that we experienced in the Academy.
Natalie Kerby: I like the idea of thinking about the Academy as a tool as opposed to an institution. What else is in your toolkit?
Anita Say Chan: Yeah, beyond the Academy? [Laughter] I think it’s worth noting the Academy is a multilayered toolkit! I mean, these are the conversations that I have with people at Data & Society and beyond, to try and rethink the value of pedagogy and the classroom space. Usually in the Academy, pedagogy is not necessarily a valued practice, especially because the real thing that authorizes you as a researcher is supposedly your research and publishing record.
The classroom, really, is a space that takes up a lot of commitments. It's a space of sociality, a space of cultivation, a space of making new, a new generation, particularly in interdisciplinary fields.
But pedagogy is super important for many feminist, decolonial, anti-racist practitioners I know. The classroom, really, is a space that takes up a lot of commitments. It's a space of sociality, a space of cultivation, a space of making new, a new generation, particularly in interdisciplinary fields. I think in critical data practice there is a special imperative for what it means to use the classroom space to regenerate a new version of feminist decolonial, anti-racist, anti-classist, data practitioners because they’re not getting it in so many of the other disciplinary spaces that are authorizing them to become data scientists and information scientists. That gap is stunning, but it should put fire under all our heels.
There is a real imperative if we are going to catch up and counterweight some of the work being vectorized out of Silicon Valley. A classroom space is 16 weeks, or however long the semester is, where you get to be part of a shared conversation that’s designed to be stretched, and returned cyclically back to. The conversation is cumulatively built upon. That is a really, really special thing that doesn’t happen naturally in many settings, family, institutional, or otherwise. There is a privilege to that temporal design, that temporal space. You get to try and construct that space for an intimacy of accountability and a return back to the layered conversation as an art craft, a craft of sociality and community-making.
Rigoberto Lara Guzmán: I want to pick up on the temporality of relationship-building that you begin to address. In "Data Driven: Managing Care and Dis(re)membering in the Knowing City," you map out how neoliberal governance is quote, "optimally managing space and time in lived urban environments." I had a question about how you experience time, having now spent time and space in the Andes, a high-altitude environment, a very rural environment at some points, navigating this rural/urban periphery dynamic.
Natalie Kerby: You're a really interesting person to talk about time because you’re also commuting between New York City and Central Illinois, so throwing that out here too!
Anita Say Chan: [Laughter] I will say in my own situation, I have to recognize and be thoughtful about the other bodies and the other labor that enables me to split time between New York City and Urbana-Champaign, Illinois—the Midwest, the Prairie, Central Illinois, which is by no means easy to get to. It's definitely taxing even for my own physical body.
I have a project manager, Mitchell Oliver, and grad students, Adrian Wong and Jorge Rojas, and really thoughtful collaborators, Karrie Karahalios and Karen Rodriguez'G as part of the lab I've helped found, the Community Data Clinic, that keep things going even when I'm not there. So I'm enormously grateful for them. They enable a network of agency. If not for them, I would not be able to be at Data & Society, and vice versa. The work that gets done here at Data & Society is collaborative and can only be done because there’s a collective of bodies and labor here that’s enabling that. So nods to both.
Tempo is a challenge. I’m sometimes frustrated by this as an anthropologist precisely because I think the pace of work and modern institutions is pitched around the tempo of our digital technologies and the logics that come out of Silicon Valley.
The way that we experience this as knowledge workers has different kinds of refractions from the life of everyday families. In the data ecologies that we live in, everyday digital technologies are siphoning literal petabytes and petabytes of user data every single minute. Many working families are absolutely willing to make that tradeoff because they are navigating complex systems and always feel like they have to catch up. Digital devices can help them navigate the system with various layers of precarity in a system that is obligating them to constantly do more with less. Having a device that can remind them where they need to be, that can instantaneously map a quick route without having to rely on others, can be appealing.
And of course, I saw families that I was working with in Peru—whether in urban or rural contexts—also make these tradeoffs. The frustration is, as an anthropologist, I see the imperative of the ideal form of relationality as not just the relations of convenience, but instead the relations of reciprocity, what’s called ayni in the Andes. I could see it with the indigenous media activists and digital technologists I collaborated with who were living in Puno, Peru. The access to the publishing spectrum that I was bringing in as an MIT graduate student mattered less than being able to exercise and demonstrate a form of reciprocity and obligation. That meant a physical return every year back to the community, and being able to work side-by-side with them in the things that mattered locally in Puno, Peru. So whether that was organizing a workshop, visiting people’s farms, recording conversations with elders four hours away by bus, organizing photo exhibits for rural schools, that was a form of labor and work that was reproductive of relationships.
Natalie Kerby: How do you approach scale? I feel like you’ve spoken about scale in so many different ways throughout the conversation: Local vs. global, rural vs. urban. Or, for example, when you were talking about when things started to scale for artisans in Peru and capitalism came in.
Rigoberto Lara Guzmán: And the way in which your work undoes digital universalisms by focusing on micro-narratives.
Anita Say Chan: I think there's a version of scale, but there's also a language of connection. There’s a version of this question which is about how we see ourselves as connected to, imbricated in, entangled in, and impacted by similar trends in global phenomena.
We tend to say, "this is where real capitalism is happening." We tend to over-privilege what we in the West or in the Academy tend to see and therefore think of as sites of hyper-production, like Wall Street, or hyper-consumption, like New York City or Silicon Valley, without thinking about the networks that are actually imbricated in supporting them. We de-visibilize all the other labor that actually makes that network go.
Extraction at the periphery is where so much action is happening. You can't make the internet go without all the versions of energy extraction that many communities still live with. We just don’t see that as immediately tied to the politics of Silicon Valley, but the people who are working in those systems, mining for battery materials that will now enable digital devices, are absolutely aware of the politics by which their work is extracted and the kind of ecological trade-offs. People who are working in those sites in the peripheries absolutely see their work as connected back to these versions of global capital.
Natalie Kerby: In thinking about my question, I had a lot of binaries like local versus global. It seems like your point is we're all actors in that network.
Anita Say Chan: That's right. There are versions of the narrative that we tell ourselves that keep us focused on the "action" that's supposedly happening in the so-called “centers.” When of course there's action that’s happening all across. If we could see ourselves as actually implicated and connected to the array of different work, we might acknowledge it as real work that's co-productive. We also might find a different politics for alliance making and remaking. I draw upon the work of really wonderful scholars like Anna Tsing, Donna Haraway, Lucy Suchman, and Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui to think through connections beyond these binaries.
When I write about universalism, I tend to think about it as an ambition or illusion that some actors in privileged centers think of as already a done deal. Silicon Valley thinks about their products as already so ubiquitous and everywhere — that to them, they “obviously” have universal relevance. But even as a young ethnographer in Peru, I witnessed routinely how much this presumption of universalism was no more than a thin veneer. You could see it every time you find some corporate IT spokespeople in the Global South making promises of not just technological solutionism, but technological salvationism. I spent literally years watching them do this repeatedly in Peru as I was tracking educational technologies there—first with the One Laptop Per Child project, then later with Google. They would come and sell new technologies to public schools as a new version of technological solutionism that was of course going to solve "the problem of public education" in Peru; that they just needed the cloud or a new ed-tech company to help them pull resources.
But any teacher in Peru to this day still knows most schools, especially in rural contexts, can’t count on reliable internet connectivity. The cloud as a reasonable means to build out the future of education works in just a couple of classrooms largely in urban zones. But Google can come into a space with such arrogance that from the vantage of Silicon Valley, they can already know it all, and that they of course have come to "know it objectively," that they miss seeing how much they operate on the presumption that every context that they work in must look like Silicon Valley. Which is far from most places. They run into that error time and time again.
Natalie Kerby: So, at one point we’re all connected, we’re all networked, right? But we’re not approaching it in the sense that it looks the same on every node. From my understanding, that’s where you’re pushing back against universalism.
Anita Say Chan: Well, also, just to remind ourselves that Silicon Valley is a province. New York City is a province [Laughter], our most powerful universities are provinces. Once you get outside of their bubble, their logics often break. The norms in terms of resources or value or cultural practices don’t translate. We tend to forget that. But from a feminist, decolonial, standpoint, this isn't necessarily a liability. Just because we can recognize how much a version of knowledge practice extends from or is cultivated in local spaces and provinces, doesn’t mean it has to be reduced to a form of epistemological weakness. It should in fact be recognized more as an epistemological asset and relational strength that enables us to be and act with more accountability in and with situated contexts.
I think this is now the new imperative for us as networked knowledge practitioners: find new means of forging alliances across sites. I think that’s the challenge. How to forge that alliance between Urbana-Champaign and Puno, Peru. The symptom of needing to develop more nuanced practices for listening well is something that translates almost across all sites.
In my Community Data class, we’re forced to look at data sets that are coming from local communities or regional contexts. Many of my students re-learn Urbana-Champaign precisely because of that practice. It’s a different form of listening even when they’re trained as ethnographers because they think the site that, again, defamiliarizes them has to literally be far away. Even after they’ve been here for years, even as really thoughtful humanists and social scientists dedicated to social justice practice, the idea of what it means to attend to conversations and communities that are three blocks away from the university site is not something they’ve encountered.
Rigoberto Lara Guzmán: As we’re getting close to the end here, we want to know what is at stake for you right now, what’s coming up?
Anita Say Chan: I'll give a series of workshops in Latin America around community data practices, and be hosted as a Fulbright specialist with the PhD Program in Communication, Languages and Information at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia. We'll be designing a community data walk as part of that workshop to start to get a diagnostic on what’s missing in Google Maps datasets. I’ll also get to collaborate with some of the organizations there that have been working on feminist justice issues, mapping violence in Quito, Ecuador and working with scholars in the STS Summer School at FLASCO.
COVID-19 addition: My last few weeks have been spent trying to dedicate some collaborative energies outward to local community organizations at the daily work of first- and crisis-response, including collaborative grant writing with Cunningham Township and Champaign County Community Coalition. I've also been working to use online class space as a platform for care, and to think beyond the classroom as a space primarily for delivering educational content. I’ve aimed to allow students to develop new information resources (or support existing ones) and data sets that map, gauge, and track experiences of local vulnerability and care (whether on campus or elsewhere). My students co-designed a survey that invites fellow students to assess the current climate for a campus culture around diversity, accessibility, and inclusivity.
Anita Say Chan is an Associate Professor of Communications in School of Information Sciences and the College of Media at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. At UIUC, she directs the Community Data Clinic at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, running active partnerships with Cunningham Township, Champaign County Community Coalition, and the Champaign Country Mental Health Board. Her first book, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism (MIT Press, 2014), explored the competing imaginaries of global connection and information technologies in network-age Peru. As a 2019–20 Data & Society Fellow, she researches decolonial, feminist data methods. This summer, she will be a Fulbright Specialist at the University Javeriana in Bogota advancing work on the relational infrastructures of feminist data collectives in Latin America.
The Data & Society series #unsettle: Strategies for Decolonizing Tech Research unsettles existing research practices by centering Indigenous, Asian, and Black feminist perspectives, and by unpacking technology’s myriad relationships to the historical, unfinished, and everyday effects of empire. Check out the first post, a citation practices zine, here, and our chat with Anthropologist Héctor Beltrán here. This series originates from an ongoing dialogue at Data & Society initiated by Director of Research Sareeta Amrute and Events Production Assistant Rigoberto Lara Guzmán.
We acknowledge that "decolonization" as a word has become diluted with use and we run the risk of diminishing its rich and extensive history of struggle. We embrace this contradiction and use it to signal contemporary debate on the power and practice of sociotechnical inquiry. —Rigoberto Lara Guzmán
Anita Say Chan was interviewed by Data & Society's Communications Associate Natalie Kerby and Events Producer Rigoberto Lara Guzmán.