Space-based and Internet technologies have been central to the radical social and institutional reconfigurations precipitated by the COVID-19 Pandemic. But the extent to which they can help or harm depends entirely on the manner in which they are used, by whom, and toward what ends. To these critical questions we must also add: where and how are the raw materials essential for the production of these technologies are sourced?
This issue is explored in the short film Material Zoom, recently published by the UN Environment Programme. Produced by UD Professor and International Resource Panel Member Dr. Saleem Ali, directed by filmmaker Alex Tyson, and researched by Ingrid Burrington and others, the film provides a snapshot of the resource requirements for the digitally connected world. It highlights the profound disparities among people who use these technologies and the people who take on a whole complex of risks in order to supply global demand.
As governments and other organizations scrambled to transform a small part of the massive state and corporate surveillance apparatuses into tools that could be used to protect people and fight the Pandemic, digital rights advocates seized the opportunity to talk about data confidentiality and privacy. The moment has brought an important long-standing question to the fore: if global connectivity is the goal, who controls the infrastructure that sustains it and the information that flows through it? In other words, is the ongoing surrender to perpetual harvesting of our identifiable personal information by countless and largely unknown third-parties the price we have to pay for the promised benefits of connectivity? It is, as many have pointed out, a spurious proposition.
A timely publication by scholars at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and other collaborators dares to reimagine the internet as a place that fosters truth, transparency, and autonomy. Of course this is not the first such re-imagining. In this area as well as many others, feminist scholarship was about 25 years ahead of the mainstream. Creating transparent and truthful spaces online is essential to if increased connectivity can be credibly promoted as a desirable goal. This behavioral sciences approach could work by addressing the very algorithms that drive ‘clickbait’ and have made the internet into a cesspool of shock, lies, and horror. But implementing this requires more than taking on a few outsized corporations whose business models are built on ever more intimate forms of surveillance and algorithms designed to appall—although that is urgently important. The research of feminist media scholar Dr. Adrienne Shaw shows that the virulence of Internet spaces is not some accidental effect of technology or algorithms, but inseparable from the larger cultures in which these technologies are used—cultures where misogyny, racism, and hate are salient features of everyday life.
On the materials front, strategies abound for how to sustainably source technology metals needed not only to close the digital divide but also to support the IPCC-recommended renewable energy transition. But implementation requires taking on a global mineral market where competition is still won by sourcing the cheapest possible commodity, regardless of human and environmental cost. Largely unchallenged, this paradigm continues to drive extraction into vulnerable communities and ecosystems. Left unchanged, this paradigm means that the benefits of digital connectivity will continue to accrue for some people at the expense of others.
Space-based technologies are crucial to digital and physical connectivity. They are indispensable to global navigation, disaster forecasting, tracking, and management, and to combatting the multiple unfolding public health, environmental, and economic crises of the moment. But their successful deployment and operation depends on a free and peaceful outer space environment. As I have written elsewhere, a free and peaceful cosmos has been essential to globalization as we know it—for better and for worse—because this has made it possible for the exceedingly delicate satellite technologies on which so much of the operations of everyday life depend to be placed in Earth’s orbits. But this very regime is also under threat from the latest US government moves to permit the privatization and militarization of outer space.
So the radical social and institutional reconfigurations of the COVID-19 era highlights what has been true all along: that efforts to close the digital divide can widen other sorts of divides that many have mobilized for years to address. Although these divides manifest in different forms—the risks assumed by mining communities, the uncalculated personal and societal tolls of Internet harassment, misinformation, and hate-mongering, the gaps in accessibility to basic services during a global health and economic crisis, the struggle to keep outer space free and peaceful—they are all connected. The task at hand is to make sense of these connections. If we can analytically link the seemingly disparate histories of these issues with our present predicaments, then we can envision and build a future that differs—dramatically, beautifully, and positively—from the present.