Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Technology

In August 2021 I gave a talk at DDDPerth on what Indigenous Knowledge Systems can teach us about building sophisticated, ethical technology. It’s a topic I’ve been researching and embedding into my own work, and I am delighted to share some of my own learnings with the tech community.

Indigenous cultures are not monolithic. Each area on this AIATSIS map represents a country; over 300 distinct groups of people with their own culture, language, customs, knowledge systems, and lore. I come from Ngadju and Mirning people on the south coast, and while I honour my connection to those communities, and am dedicated to repairing the ancestral trauma of colonisation in my family, I cannot speak for these communities but only share my own perspective.

When discussing Indigenous epistemologies (or knowledge systems) this includes how to navigate complex kin systems, collective wellbeing, knowledge of flora and fauna, of ecosystems, and astronomy. These knowledge systems reflect over 60,000 years of refined knowledge and understanding of how to live with complex adaptive systems. In order to sustain continuous cultures for so many thousands of generations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have used sophisticated knowledge systems to live in balance with this country’s ecology. And while these cultures are not monolithic, there are commonalities in the ways of thinking that emerge.

Reading List

Abdilla, A. (2014). Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Pattern Thinking: An Expanded Analysis of the First Indigenous Robotics Prototype Workshop. The Fiberculture Journal. https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/bitstream/10453/124435/1/FCJ-209AbdillaFitch.pdf

Indigenous Knowledge is transmitted through strict, compressed oral lore, to ensure its veracity, reverence, relevance and ability to sustain and nurture all life. This could be conceived as akin to code, to coding.

Abdilla, A. (2019). Beyond Imperial Tools: Future-proofing technology through Indigenous governance and traditional knowledge systems. Decolonising the Digitalhttp://ojs.decolonising.digital/index.php/decolonising_digital/issue/view/DecolonisingTheDigital/2

Lee, L in Glynn-McDonald, R. (2021). First Nations Systems Thinking. Common Ground. https://www.commonground.org.au/learn/first-nations-systems-thinking

When we consider knowledge systems from a First Nations perspective, we are looking at many interconnected relationships or pieces of knowledge that overlap and interact with each other without conflict. This is often referred to as kinship or balance.

Bundjalung, Thunghutti and Muagal man Leeton Lee

Lewis, J. E. et al (2020). Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence Position Paper. https://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/986506/

Lewis, J. E. et al (2018). Making Kin with the Machines. Journal of Design and Science. https://jods.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/lewis-arista-pechawis-kite/release/1

We do it because we believe that Indigenous epistemologies are much better at respectfully accommodating the non-human. We retain a sense of community that is articulated through complex kin networks anchored in specific territories, genealogies, and protocols. Ultimately, our goal is that we, as a species, figure out how to treat these new non-human kin respectfully and reciprocally—and not as mere tools, or worse, slaves to their creators.

Nakamura, L. (2014). Indigenous Circuits. Computer History Museum. https://computerhistory.org/blog/indigenous-circuits/

Swords, J. (2020). Ethical technology: From purpose to practice. Thoughtworks Perspectives. https://www.thoughtworks.com/perspectives/edition11-ethical-technology/article

Tynan, L. (2021). What is relationality? Indigenous knowledges, practices and responsibilities with kin. Cultural geographies. https://doi.org/10.1177/14744740211029287