Mobile technologies have proven enormously transformative in the developing world, expanding possibilities for freedom and democratic agency. We see it daily, in the news headlines we read each day (often on mobile devices).
The movement from margin to center these tools have inspired for so many has deepened the resonance of utopian visions in recent art and literature. For example, imaginations across the world were captured by Black Panther’s Wakanda, in part, because the liberatory potential of technology had been the direct experience of millions.
At the same time, these technologies have given rise to oppressive and deeply authoritarian forces, as well. The tracking of mobility, surveillance, data-harvesting and the corresponding engineering of public trust and political institutions all continue to generate headlines, daily. What’s often forgotten is that the superficial democratic features of mobile technologies obscure the fact they are not public utilities and not publicly accountable. The capital that develops them, and in turn the power behind them, is incredibly concentrated — policing the boundaries of possibility, nodding in the direction of George Orwell’s 1984. Wakanda, tellingly perhaps, recreates this subtle, unspoken tension. A utopian vision nested within a monarchy, the distribution of its technological power visibly uneven.
The third installment of Babbel: Perspectives, our in-house speaker series in Berlin, sought to explore this tension in all its provocative, unsettling richness.
Dr. Ronda Zelezny-Green, a mobile technologist, educator, and researcher specializing in education technology and gender, offered a window into a series of case studies; a breakdown of how mobile technologies, particularly in the global south, have enabled millions to access and utilize education platforms, carry out quick financial transactions, and deepened engagement in offline life. At the same time, she highlighted how State institutions have bent mobile technology to centralize power, monitor public life, and suppress political speech — even within countries like the United States.
Ingrid Burrington, a writer and researcher on infrastructure, technology, and politics, took us down the thorny path of contingency. That is, assuming things will invariably fail or go wrong even under the most utopian of circumstances, what sorts of negative outcomes are we willing to entertain or live with? And further what do the contingencies we’re willing to accept tell us about the worlds we seek to build —technologically, or otherwise— and the aspirations that drive us forward?
Bringing things full circle, Babbel’s own Daniela Ordonez hosted discussion with both guests, opening a more imaginative conversation, exploring hope, science fiction, and the prospects for democracy in a world increasingly connected by infrastructure with unclear lines of accountability.