Encounters Across Difference: The Digital Geographies of Inuit, the Arctic, and Environmental Management
Young, Jason Connel
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There is broad consensus amongst scholars across a wide range of disciplines that digital technologies are having profound effects on micro- and macropolitical processes across the world. However, research into digital geographies has not rigorously examined the role of the Internet in bridging epistemological difference. Rather, most of this research has focused on the digital practices of a narrow group of elite users, situated in the Global North and largely lacking epistemological diversity from one another. Those few studies that do shift their focus to the Global South either take an anthropological view of a single society, or focus on unidirectional impositions of the Global North on the Global South. In doing so, these studies similarly ignore any bidirectional dialogue, or interepistemological encounters, between digital users situated in very different regions from one another. To overcome that gap, this project focuses on a dispersed and highly international set of digital practices. Specifically, I analyze the emergence of digital, interepistemological encounters related to environmental thinking and climate change politics related to the Canadian Arctic. Issues surrounding the Arctic environment are ideal for this study because they have attracted a global and diverse audience. Debates around Arctic environment often produce debates between two different groups – Western scientists and Canadian Inuit – that hold very different epistemological perspectives from one another. Inuit are increasingly using the Internet to broadcast their voices to broader audiences, and there is some evidence that digital technologies are successfully allowing them to overcome the spatial distance between their Arctic communities and geopolitical centers of power. However, it remains unclear how effective these tools have been for overcoming differences in epistemology between Inuit and other digital users. I begin by drawing on diverse strands of postcolonial and Deleuzian theory to develop a theoretical framework capable of identifying how knowledge hierarchies are reproduced and disrupted across digital spaces. Using this framework and an innovative set of computational and qualitative methods, I identify three sets of digital processes that extend knowledge hierarchies into digital spaces. First, I find that the material infrastructure of the Web within the Arctic has intersected with colonial conditions to erode social practices that support the transmission of Inuit knowledge. Second, I find that Inuit have comparatively less access to the digital tools and spaces that might help them to transmit their knowledge to large audiences. Third, I identify a range of transformative, digital practices that flatten Inuit knowledge to a set of empirical observations, rather than as rooted in a comprehensive knowledge system, so that these observations can be integrated into Western scientific frameworks. Each of these sets of processes decreases the likelihood of transformative and pluralistic discussions between Inuit and Western scientific epistemological systems. However, I also find that Inuit are actively developing mediating concepts and practices to work against these knowledge hierarchies and open space for more epistemologically pluralistic digital engagement. This research thereby offers a comprehensive and empirically-grounded examination of how indigenous engagement with digital technologies produce new forms of epistemological politics. In doing so it extends geographic research on digital inequalities, digital participation, and knowledge production. It also offers a novel postcolonial framework for analyzing digital knowledge politics, and extends research into the role that digital technologies play in shaping international discussions about climate change.
- Geography