Decolonizing Data, One Language At A Time

At a time of growing anxiety about the ubiquity of digital technologies, the idea that we are witnessing the age of digital and data colonialism is gaining traction. In recent years, scholars and activists have increasingly relied on the notion of coloniality to understand the social impact of data-centric technologies, discuss their harms, and imagine liberating and empowering alternatives.

Central to this area of research, design, and advocacy is the question of languages. In March 2022, the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University and the Tierra Común network held a virtual conversation with speakers bringing various perspectives and insights to the topic. Their work invites us to reconsider the place of languages in the development of technologies but also in the public framing of these technologies. Together, the speakers explored why language gaps in digital technologies are so significant to address and how they are entrenched in a colonial legacy. They discussed many creative ways communities have been responding to these language-related challenges. And they reflected on what decolonial perspectives on language and data mean in practice.

This document is the outcome of this conversation. Rather than releasing a video recording of the event, we have prepared an edited version of the transcript. Our goal is to introduce some generative friction in how we disseminate information to invite people to slow down and engage more thoughtfully with the conversation. You won’t immediately hear the many accents in our discussion, but you will encounter words in different languages. In addition, we are also releasing a Spanish and Kiswahili translation of the transcript. The choice of these two languages reflects the Latin American and African emphasis in the experiences and projects discussed by the speakers.