What Knowledge for a Decolonial Agenda in the Philosophy of Technology?
Published in Distributed. David Blamey & Brad Haylock (Eds.). Open Editions.2018
1. Invisible Knowledge & Knowing
Over the last few years, I’ve found myself spending a large chunk of every short academic break in my home city of
Karachi, searching for books that can’t be found easily in the United States. Usually, considering how niche my interests
are, I find excellent books almost by accident – for example, this last year, while standing at the checkout counter of a local
bookshop, my eye caught the religious section, and specifically a small stack of Amina Raquib’s Islamic Ethics of
on the bottom shelf in a nondescript corner. Naturally, I bought a copy right away – but I was only the third
person to have done so. Islamic technology studies books apparently don’t have the same appeal as 101 Shining Stars of
or A Collection of Favorite Moral Tales
. On another occasion, I was shown Waqar Husaini’s Islamic Thought
in the Rise of Islamic Technological Culture
by a vendor, after having requested another book – I silently thanked the local
practice whereby booksellers try to sell you books they think are close to what you want when they don’t have the book
you asked for.
A look at the publishers of the above two titles also reveals something about the economy of scholarly publication and
distribution in Pakistan. Raquib’s book — based on her PhD dissertation, which was undertaken at the University of
Queensland — was published in Kuala Lumpur, while Husaini’s book was published in New Delhi. They can’t be bought in
American bookstores. While they can be found in Pakistan, they are admittedly not widely distributed: it is easier to find a
copy of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time
or Bijker and Pinch’s The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts
than it is to
find one of the most comprehensive studies of the political economy of technology in Pakistan, Ghulam Kibria’s
Technology Acquisition in Pakistan
, which is sold only at its publisher’s store in Karachi.
I cite these examples because they reveal a peculiar problem about the construction of disciplinary knowledge today. In
the age of the internet, when one can assume that almost any kind of information can be found online, no matter how
obscure, through the mechanisms of digital search engines and their consistently self-improving algorithms, in digital
libraries, databases, or archives. And yet none of these books can be bought or downloaded online. No digital versions
exist – the only reference, for example, to Mr. Kibria’s book is in the form of a review of it by Prabir Purkayastha in 2001.
And I think that this is important because it raises important questions about the perceived lack of scholarship on
technology in Pakistan, for on the outset, it seems as if there is little to none – and we haven’t even accounted for the
possibility that there might be scholars working in Urdu and other languages that are completely invisible to the English
What does this mean for technology studies in Pakistan and abroad? Do any scholars read these books, apart from those
working in the incredibly niche field of Pakistani technology studies? Why aren’t these books part of the curricula of the
few programs that study technology critically in Pakistan? Is there important work that has been done in languages other
than English? Does the lack of visibility for scholars working in countries like Pakistan mean that their work is doomed to
obscurity, relegated to marginality unless it can find an audience with, or relate to the output of, work being produced in
the Anglo-European sphere? And, most importantly, what does this mean for the constitution of what we can claim to
‘know’ about technology or technicity (the condition of being technological beings) both locally and globally? Why is the
canon of the philosophy of technology, from Martin Heidegger to Lewis Mumford to Bernard Stiegler, so disturbingly
As the anthropologist Arturo Escobar notes, in the general climate of anxiety about the anthropocene and the waning of
Western civilisation, new and interdisciplinary ‘transition discourses’ are emerging to propose ways of moving from the
unsustainable structure of contemporary global capitalism towards new, plural ways of imagining life on the planet
(Escobar, 2011). The ‘pluriverse’, as Escobar and other decolonial scholars including Walter Mignolo have called it, stands
in contrast to the universalist paradigms of development, freedom, democracy, etc., that define the agendas of global
institutions today. The pluriverse is characterised by multiple and different alternatives coming from different cultures
and different parts of the world:
Hermeneutics, in the Western genealogy of thought, names a type of reflection on meaning and interpretation
within one cosmology, Western cosmology. When you have to deal with two or more cosmologies, as I did in The
Darker Side of the Renaissance, you need a pluritopic hermeneutics.
As Mignolo argues, as the political and economic hegemony of the West gives way to the growing multipolarity of a world
in which Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (the ‘BRICS’ nations) are coming into their own, the epistemic
hegemony of the West also needs to be questioned. And as I have attempted to indicate, the present structure of our
global knowledge systems leaves much to be desired.
This short essay examines why and how new knowledges must be generated in technology studies. Through the lens of
decolonial theory, I attempt to trace connections between, on the one hand, the global distribution of indigenous texts on
technology and, on the other hand, the structure of knowledge in the history and philosophy of technology, in order to
propose ways to decolonise modern knowledge systems. I focus on the theoretical foundations of such a project, I define
the problem of knowledge and pluriversality from a decolonial perspective, and I propose two projects relevant to the
task of decolonizing technology studies.
There is an urgent reason why I believe such a move is necessary. We no longer live on a planet that can sustain the
current lifestyles of vast populations of people. While I do not believe that ecological catastrophe will spell the extinction
of all life on earth, or even human
life on earth, it will mean the end of modern civilization as we know it. Technology has a
crucial role to play in this – the technological foundations of modern life are the basis for the unsustainability of our
present condition. Therefore, regardless of whether or not one is invested in a decolonial politics, i.e., whether one thinks
from the center of Anglo-European hegemony or from the margins of non-Western indigenous discourses, thinking
ecologically entails that we strive to develop alternative ways of thinking about technology and technicity.
2. The Problem of (Modern) Knowledge
Modernity has a specific character. It encapsulates within it ideas, logics and paradigms, as well as institutions, practices,
subjects and, of course, technologies. Democracy and the sovereign nation state, capitalism and the global market
economy, development and industrialization, the media and the art and entertainment industries, the courts and modern
ideas of law and justice, globalization, and so on, all fall under the rubric of modernity. Together, these comprise what
Immanuel Wallerstein and Janet Abu-Lughod, in their macro-historical analyses of civilizations, would classify as the
(Wallerstein, 1974, Abu-Lughod, 1991). As Wallerstein and Abu-Lughod showed, the roots of the
present world-system lay in the expansion and growth of European civilization through colonization from the sixteenth
century onwards. Colonization was brutal and efficient: through a combination of genocide, enslavement and subjugation
(Lindqvist, 1992), the Europeans swept through the Americas, Africa and Asia, displacing and replacing older political,
economic and social systems, and establishing new loci, new centers and peripheries, of power (Quijano, 2000). Where
prior to the sixteen century there had been many continent-spanning empires but no single hegemonic power, the new
world-system was unprecedented in the history of humanity in the sense that it was the first truly global and totalizing
This world-system is still in place, as decolonial scholars including Anibal Quijano, Ramon Grosfoguel and Walter Mignolo
have recognized. Formal processes of decolonization began in the decades following World War II, since European
nations were unable to continue their imperial projects after the war. Yet, the new world order continued the colonial
project: the hyper-industrial West, led by the superpowers of the Cold War era, the US and the USSR, continued to set both
the terms and the content of global political and economic agendas. This happened, if not by approval, then by coercion:
Under the spell of neo-liberalism and the magic of the media promoting it, modernity and modernization, together
with democracy, are being sold as a package trip to the promised land of happiness... yet, when people do not buy
the package willingly or have other ideas of how economy and society should be organized, they become subject to
all kinds of direct and indirect violence.
(Mignolo, 2007, p 3)
However, the decolonial critique of modern civilizations does not end with observations of relative power dynamics and
dependencies between the West and the rest. The continued dominance of the West relied upon the ex-colonies
continuing to hold onto their colonial legacies, tying their subsequent development and growth to the ideas, ideals and
institutions that Western modernity espoused. This meant buying into market capitalism as the continued dominant
mode of production, into industrialization, automation and mass production as the dominant enablers of growth and
development, and into globalization and Western lifestyles, values and norms as ideals for social and cultural imaginaries.
Thus, even after decolonization, coloniality
— the logic specific to colonialism — continued to exist as the dominant logic
This logic was and is characterized by the subsumption or replacement of non-Western ways of thinking and being by
western ones, and by the creation of new hierarchies of power not native to colonized populations. This meant, for
example, the constitution of the idea of race
as genealogical purity by the Spaniards and Portuguese over the course of the
invasion of the Americas, its introduction into cultures where it had hitherto been unknown as a concept, restructuring
their sense of identity, and its implementation as the basis for the classification of peoples as a justification for genocide,
slavery and subjugation (Quijano, 2000). Eurocentric ways of knowing and interpreting the world replaced indigenous
ways, and this rupture has continued to haunt the psyches of ex-colonized peoples to this day, whereby the identity of the
colonized can only be defined in relation to their ex-colonizers:
I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I discovered my blackness, my ethnic
characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects,
slaveships, and above all else, above all: “Sho’ good eatin’.”
(Fanon, 1952, pp 82)
Coloniality, therefore, as the underlying logic behind Western hegemony, is an implacable, omnipresent force. It is a
totality, one that ‘negates, exclude, occlude the difference and the possibilities of other totalities’ (Mignolo, 2007, pp 5). As
a part of continuing modernity, it continues to suppress other forms of knowledge and knowing, wherever they may be
found. This would mean that colonial logic underlies modern academia, the site of new knowledge production in the
world: colonialism underlies the structure of the modern school and university, the siloing of disciplines, pedagogical,
research and publishing practices, and the various systems and platforms for knowledge distribution and dissemination.
This raises important questions about the production and dissemination of knowledge: who
produces knowledge, where
, to what ends and for whom? Who has access to it and who doesn’t? Whose institutions and platforms are the
primary sites for the dissemination of knowledge? How knowledge is distributed, its forms and mediums, become crucial
matters to consider, especially to those for whom a project of creating alternatives matters. And yet, as we have seen,
following the colonial rupture, a pure access to non-Western epistemologies is impossible, with the exception of perhaps a
few small indigenous populations, relatively undisturbed or only recently exposed, scattered throughout the world. One
could go so far as to say that knowledge has forever been tainted by Eurocentric bias, therefore we are doomed to be
modern. Whatever access the ex-colonized have to pre-colonial ways of knowing and being will always be through the
lens of modernity. How does one delink
, to use Mignolo’s term, from modernity, and think from the margins of the
world-system? How does one practice ‘thinking from the borders’? (Mignolo, 2011) How does one decolonize knowledge?
3. ‘Other’ Genealogies of Technics, ‘(An)Other’ Internet(s)?
I would like to begin to explore this question by underscoring the distinction between the coloniality of knowledge
production and that of dissemination, because they produce slightly different, though interrelated, methodological issues.
The first has to do with the structure of knowledge itself — in other words, the question of what
knowledge is, which is
tied to questions surrounding who produces it and where it is produced, its history and genealogy, and the ends to which
it might be put. George G. Joseph makes a connection between misconceptions about the history of mathematics, which in
most standardized school textbooks is a largely Eurocentric history that marginalizes the significant contributions made
by non-Western civilizations, and structural biases within the global practice of mathematics as discipline:
[T]here is a widespread acceptance of the view that mathematical discovery can only follow from a rigorous
application of a form of deductive axiomatic logic, which is perceived as a unique product of Greek mathematics. As
a consequence, ‘intuitive’ or empirical methods are dismissed as of little relevance in mathematics.
Questioning the genealogy of thought in mathematics, to de-center it from its Anglo-European core, is necessary in order
to open up the question of what mathematics is and what it could be. The same is true of the study of technology and
technicity. As scholars from many disciplines have long argued, from philosophy to sociology to design studies, epistemes
and epistemologies cannot be separated from materiality and artifice. We perceive and know the world through the
mediation of tools and technologies (Verbeek, 2005), and the world we engage with today is itself artificial (Dilnot et al,
2015). Modernity also cannot be separated from modern technicity, and from its historical roots in the Industrial
Revolution, as thinkers as far back as Marx attempted to show. However, there are hardly any accounts in decolonial
scholarship of the role of technics in shaping the modern world-system, or the role that technologies play in shaping and
molding decolonial subjects and subjectivities.
So that we might be able to design for pluriversal
ways of knowing and being, technology studies must first theorize
technicity in relation to modernity, as a means to theorize what could be beyond modernity: to theorize beyond modernity
is also to theorize technicity and artifice as other than what it could be.
If unsustainability is intrinsic to technology today,
but if technology determines the character of contemporary life, then the project of decolonizing the history and
philosophy of technology is vital in order to develop alternative technological foundations that might lead to a more
sustainable existence. This project of decolonizing philosophical thought needs to begin with an assessment of what
modern technology is.
So far, there has been considerable interest generated within the Anglo-European sphere of thinking beyond modern
technicity. For example, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk proposes a homeotechnological
project, in which
humanity would learn to cooperate on a global scale and would turn care for both the planet and ourselves into a
collective project, in order to turn the earth into a ‘global co-immunity structure’ that will both protect and nurture
human existence and allow nonhuman life to thrive. (Sloterdijk, 2014) He proposes this because, for the first time in our
history, human beings across the planet are connected in vast, global network of communication and knowledge. This
means that there is the possibility to cultivate a global sense of crisis and use the immense reach of our connecting
technologies to embark upon social and geo-engineering projects of a global scale. Similarly, Bernard Stiegler believes
that the solution to the destructiveness of modern technology lies within the technology itself: invoking the idea of the
which he borrows from Jacques Derrida, modern technicity is both poison and cure. Stiegler argues that the
design of the next generation of technologies must deal explicitly with the problem of how we can have a freer, more open
relation to the information we produce, overcoming an economization of knowledge and desire.
There are two issues with both positions. Firstly, both Sloterdijk and Stiegler are trying to find a way out of our present
unsustainability by finding a way through
it: the underlying idea is that the foundations of modern technicity are in
themselves not totally problematic, so they could be molded into less oppressive and less destructive forms. In other
words, mass production, mass consumption and mass connectivity are so inherently part of the human condition now
that we cannot go back, or find another way – the only way to deal with the technological crisis is to reorient these very
things to new purposes. They are both, in my opinion, conservative projects. Secondly, through a decolonial lens, both are
rooted in the universalizing project of Eurocentric thought, whereby possible alternatives to modern technology founded
in different knowledges, values and imaginaries are entirely precluded. Both start with an analysis of modern technology
and end up proposing the same kinds of projects that modern technology enabled and was enabled by — this is also true
of the vast majority of other philosophers of technology. And so we must look elsewhere for alternative proposals, to
work being done outside of the Anglo-European sphere, by thinkers on the margins of the world-system.
In his recent book The Question Concerning Technology in China
, the Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui tackles the difficult task
of reconstructing a genealogy of Chinese thought on technology by considering Confucian and Daoist philosophy (the nod
to Heidegger’s seminal work in the title is not incidental). Hui starts his book with an analysis of one of the most common
and widely cited origin stories of how humans received the gift of being-technological: the myth of Prometheus and how
be brought fire to humans. He then raises the provocation:
In assuming a universal Prometheanism, one assumes that all cultures arise from techne, which is originally Greek.
But in China we find another mythology concerning the creation of human beings and the origin of technics, one in
which there is no Promethean figure.
(Hui, 2016, pp 14)
He then proceeds to trace a chronology of philosophical thought in China throughout history, parallel to the development
of technological thought in Western civilisation, from Laoxi and Confucius through to the present day.
What Hui shows us, as other scholars in both philosophy and other domains like the arts in the Eastern traditions like
Watsuji Tetsuro and Jun’ichiro Tanizaki have attempted to show too, is that since the program of analysing modern
technology that Heidegger initiated is one that traces its descent from the Greek techne
and Latin ars
, one could speculate
as to what concepts and histories non-western genealogies of technology would draw from. This makes it imperative that
a decolonizing of philosophy of technology is necessary in order to meet the conditions of pluriversality in design that we
had outlined above - as designers committed to decoloniality, we must not accept that there is only one form of technicity,
that which belongs to the West.
Which brings us to the second issue, that is, how is one to begin constructing such genealogies, and even if such projects
were successfully undertaken, to what end and to whose benefit? This is precisely where the current ways in which
knowledge is carried and disseminated globally becomes problematic, for, as I pointed out at the start of this essay, the
lack of accessible scholarly work online can mean one of two things: “Is it that no work in Urdu exists in the philosophy of
technology, or just that it isn't visible?”
If we consider the second question first, then what it leads us to is the conclusion that scholars like Mignolo have arrived
at, that the internet and its various platforms are racialized. In our increasingly hyper-digitized age where everything
becomes the object of online surveillance and documentation, where the trend is to bridge the gap between the real and
the virtual by translating the real into information (including the human subject, where the ‘real’ subject becomes
increasingly answerable and reducible to the ‘virtual’ subject), both the careers of academics and the continued
production of academic knowledge is increasingly contingent on what can be seen and accessed virtually. In this case, the
natural course of action would be to bring in more non-Western scholars onto the internet, something that corporations
with the necessary computational power like Google have committed themselves to – as Anne Wil-Harzing points out,
Google Scholar now dwarfs other scholarly search engines like Scopus and Web of Science in terms of representation.
And yet the problem with taking such a direct approach would be to give in to the nature of the Internet as a global
knowledge platform that not only excludes but also totalizes,
for the Internet is the expression of a totalization of all
sensible human experience and thought into information. As such, it is inextricably part of the technological foundations
of the global world-system. This leads us to a necessary reassessment of the uses of knowledge in the 21st century.
The question posed then becomes a question of not whether or not the work of non-Western is represented, but what
ends its representation serves, since all information that becomes accessible
knowledge in the hands of human subjects is
also subject to the tithes and taxes that global capitalism exacts from the individual seeking knowledge and to the
exactions from totalizing structures like the academic-industrial complex and its institutions.
“Today's capitalism should be called the information economy. Information has become wealth to be extracted and
accumulated...Cybernetic capitalism develops so as to allow the social body, devastated by Capital, to reform itself
and offer itself up for one more process of accumulation.”
(Tiqqun, 2016, pp 22, 24)
If to be present within the world system is to circulate within its mechanisms, then how is one to break out of it? Here,
two strategies present themselves. Tiqqun, in their polemical manifesto The Cybernetic Hypothesis
, observed that the
structure of the World Wide Web was designed in such a way that it could survive the destruction of the majority of its
nodes, but would collapse if a small number of core nodes were targeted in incisive strikes by hackers – they were
motivated by the scenario of a disintegration of the whole global system by ‘guerilla warfare’.
I do not think that such a scenario, as commendable in its aims as it may be, is realistic. However, another scenario
presents itself – that of creating spaces that are both accessible and not. To delink, to circle back to Mignolo and the other
decolonial scholars, is not to disappear. Invoking Derrida’s figure of the pharmakon
, not in the Stieglerian sense of making
the technology more open and casting a wider net over the hidden world of academic publishing, but to do the opposite,
to create sites and spaces of knowledge that are accessible and yet reside outside of the monopolistic confines of the
digital world-system. I posit that this is entirely possible in the shape of archives that operate as collaboratively
constructed communities. An example of this would be the internet repository AAAARG, which started as a small
community of scholars uploading, sharing, and curating open collections of texts and grew over a decade into one of the
largest member-driven collections of academic texts online, providing an alternative to the heavily gated paid platforms.
As Janet Abu-Lugodh pointed out in Before European Hegemony
, the world-system prior to the rise of Europe had no
single superpower or civilization at its center – instead, power was shared between many different, regionally bound
societies and cultures, many of them in contact with each other, sharing resources and information in syncretic, rich ways.
The model of the pre-colonial world could be a model for the global knowledge economy and its platforms today, where
localised archives also serving as sites for the creation of alternative genealogies and canons in disciplines like technology
studies could be the basis for a flowering of non-Western thought. Perhaps there could be other possible ways of
structuring the internet that do not follow the increasingly centrally core-governed trajectory of the internet today, and so
the challenge for the architects at the margins of the future web would be to imagine what new possibilities, new visions
of the internet could emerge: new knowledges sustained by new platforms in new, plural realms of the digital.
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