Marisa Duarte – Network Sovereignty

23 August, 2021 - examPrep

Marisa Duarte’s Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet Across Indian Country is something of a hybrid between a historically-contextualized sociology of ICT buildout in Indian Country and a policy handbook for people working on ICTs in Indian Country (this impression seems to be reinforced by the presence of a glossary in the backmatter). Her three stated objectives are to “(1) weave Native and Indigenous thought more firmly and productively into the broad fields of science, technology, and society studies; (2) introduce Native and Indigenous thinkers to the language of information science and sociotechnical systems; and (3) share what I have learned thus far about the uses and implications of broadband Internet in Indian Country with colleagues in the sciences, students, educators, policy makers, tribal leaders, and the general public.” She definitely accomplished her third goal; Network Sovereignty is, in the main, a richly detailed account of the knowledge and experiences she has collected about the uses and implications of broadband internet in Indian Country. As for the second goal, given that I am not a Native or Indigenous thinker, I feel it is impossible for me say if they were productively introduced to the language of information science and sociotechnical systems, although — as a non-Native and non-Indigenous thinker — I do not think I would say I came away from this book with a thorough primer on information science or sociotechnical systems.

Her first objective, however, presents much more food for thought. She aimed to “weave Native and Indigenous thought more firmly and productively into the broad fields of science, technology, and society studies.” The choice of the verb weave is an interesting one in light of her basket metaphor. In Duarte’s conception, texts are baskets of rocks, collected, polished, and arranged by their author (for what it is worth, her basket is full of great, well-polished rocks that she clearly worked very hard to collect and present). Readers take rocks from others’ baskets, polish them, maybe break off pieces as needed, and arrange them in their own baskets. Duarte does not feel that her collection of rocks is her main contribution to scholarship; instead, she feels the basket she is “weaving” is her main contribution:

What might the Native and Indigenous peoples of the world have to say about their experiences with information and communications technologies? What might our experiences as Indigenous peoples teach us about the ways we conceptualize this ineffable, somewhat immeasurable phenomenon we pursue, which we are calling ‘technology’? How does it relate to our dedication — itom herensia, itom lu’uturia — to uphold our tribal ways of life?


The above excerpt is all she explicitly says about her basket. I am not sure if the basket is meant to represent the structure and arrangement of the text for others to borrow or, perhaps, it represents a particular methodological approach. Duarte never makes this clear, which, it seems, might make the basket less easy for others to borrow. In the absence of an explicitly defined basket, what might we infer from the text?

For one thing, of the dozen or so illustrations in the book, only two are not network diagrams (one is a caste painting, representing some degree of mestizaje, and one is a painting of Manifest Destiny incarnate). The rest are all network diagrams (or flow charts or however you want to think of them). These flow charts are almost exclusively non-hierarchical and non-linear — some of their components always loop back and feed input into one or more of their “upstream” components. These network diagrams do not supplement the text with additional information, but instead reformulate the content of the text into a different conceptual and mediate modality. Entire sections and even entire chapters of Duarte’s book are encapsulated in these diagrams and so they function as a kind of paratextual shorthand for the book. I suspect these diagrams represent the basket of an author “[a]lready attuned to the deeply Indigenous concepts of relationality, interconnectedness, and emergence” who then “picked up the poststructural study of networks — social (actor) networks, social media networks, sociotechnical networks.” Duarte sees this as one point through which Native and Indigenous scientific principles and Western epistemic methodology can be co-informative of one another. In this light, the rocks in Duarte’s basket — the internet and ICTs — become not just any case study but the embodiment of the basket itself. The internet, in short, is “relationality, interconnectedness, and emergence” incarnate. Duarte’s basket is filled with baskets — a matryoshka of little baskets woven into other bigger and smaller baskets, like a mesh network of local machines connected to a radio transmitter contacting a tower across a rugged valley beaming to a satellite beaming back to a transceiver at an internet hub.

Duarte’s chronology is equally fascinating. Rather than arrange the book according to the “chronology of historiography”, she instead orders the book according to how the findings revealed themselves to her. This imparts a natural narrative crescendo to the story, as her understanding of ICTs in Indian Country deepens, so does the readers, taking us along with her on her learning journey. Rather than succumbing to the innate asynchronicity of immutable mobiles, then, Duarte syncs the reader’s acquisition of information up with her own, lending an experiential quality to her story that combats the impersonality of narratives abstracted into artificial chronologies. This is something I would like to consider adopting, or, at the very least, seriously contemplate the scholarly implications of.   


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