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Interrogating Digital Literacy in Language Education: Unveiling Colonial, Racial, and Environmental Impacts in the Global South

Written by Souzana Mizan |
Interrogating Digital Literacy in Language Education

Over the past four decades, the internet has experienced exponential growth in usage. In its early stages of development during the 1990s, the internet symbolised ideals of freedom and equality. However, in the early 21st century, the landscape shifted dramatically. Large corporations, known as GAFAM (Google/Alphabet, Apple, Facebook/Meta, Amazon, and Microsoft) in Silicon Valley and BATX (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, and Xiaomi) in China, have come to dominate and control key aspects of the digital realm: software, hardware, and network connectivity, as emphasised by Kwet in Digital Colonialism: US Empire and the New Imperialism in the Global South (2020).

Running centralised social networks is expensive, with costs for cloud infrastructure, skilled programmers, and compliant data collection and storage. Despite initiatives to provide technology access to poorer populations, such as in South Africa and Brazil, many users in countries like Brazil rely mainly on cell phones for internet access. However, limited data packages often result in loss of access before the end of the month.

In the information and new media age, the civilizational mission has been substituted by the communication and access to information endeavor. Consequently, the more people adhere to the platformisation of their lives, the richer the owners of these platforms become. Capitalism continues to utilise free enterprise and the free market to enrich a select few, while the masses perceive themselves as entrepreneurs and self-made individuals (subjectivities) capable of achieving financial success through the use of these pre-made platforms.

Thus, we observe that the digital age is characterised by, many times, opposing tendencies. On the surface, there are common-sense, celebratory discourses related to innovation, sharing, convergence, and a sense of networked community. On a deeper level, though, the epistemologies of digital literacy try to go beyond these idealist discourses by encouraging research on coloniality in the digital space. Specifically, they examine how an environment that once fostered autonomy, performance, ubiquitous learning, and social inclusion transforms into a colonised and structured environment that concentrates data flow in a few hands.

Language education courses often portray digital culture through celebratory discourses that uphold values like equality, diversity, freedom of speech, and democracy. The primary goal of using the digital ecosystem in classrooms has been to familiarise ourselves with the platforms for educational purposes. However, we often overlook the aspects of digital colonialism that perpetuate the coloniality of knowledge, power, and existence. This is because epistemologies aim to concentrate digital know-how in a limited number of places, such as Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, countries in the Global South merely pay for the use of these platforms and software, whose source code and algorithms they cannot access. Moreover, although our computers, phones, and searches on web browsers and artificial intelligence platforms don’t seem to pollute the environment, the data centres and batteries that power them often have significant environmental impacts, contributing to pollution and resource depletion.

In his 1971 book The Open Veins of Latin America, Uruguayan journalist and writer Eduardo Galeano fiercely criticises the historical exploitation and economic oppression suffered by Latin America. Galeano investigates the strategies of the European colonial powers and, later on, the United States of America to systematically exploit for their own enrichment the abundant natural resources of Latin America, such as minerals and agricultural products.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019), Zuboff warns that examining this work through the lens of digital colonialism and environmental racism, which perpetuate the dismantling of local cultures, the subjugation of physical spaces, and the appropriation of territories and human experience, transforms them into behavioral data for algorithmic surveillance. This implies that while Latin America continues to produce wealth, it is not for its own benefit.

However, while in the past there were certain nations that benefited from the fruits of colonialism and imperialism, in the age of technology, it is big data companies and private mining companies that appropriate for their own needs the wealth of the Global South. Digital technology, particularly the Internet, has significantly transformed socialization, information access, the global economy, entertainment, activism, and concepts of time and space since its widespread use in the 1990s. However, cyberspace, initially exalted for its potential for democratisation and freedom, has also emerged as a platform for cybercrime, surveillance capitalism, fake news, election manipulations, echo chambers, and the extraction of data and mineral resources from the Global South.

In Brazil, the uneven distribution of digital infrastructure among different segments of society perpetuates historical models of inequality. Furthermore, the state opposes the adoption of public policies aimed at enabling equitable access to the advantages of the digital age, thereby impeding the realization of digital inclusion. Despite the disadvantages these social groups face in terms of connectivity, they bear the brunt of large corporations' systematic environmental aggression. The lithium race, an essential mineral for electronic equipment manufacturing, promises to transform the Jequitinhonha Valley in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais into a prosperous valley. According to local media, the exploitation of the polyvalent mineral that powers the batteries used in our cell phones brings the prospect of prosperity to a region known for its poverty.

The myth of strengthening the labour market and the local economy is the neoliberal discourse that most of the Brazilian journalistic media—and Bolsonaro’s government between 2019 and 2022—use to justify the extraction of minerals used in the digital ecosystem. Martinique-born environmental engineer and political scientist Malcom Ferdinand points to the interfaces between colonialism, racism, and environmental issues. He reflects on the double fracture of modernity, that is, the colonial and environmental fracture. The colonial fracture, on the one hand, acknowledges the racial, social, and economic injustices and inequalities established by the colonial practices of the past and that persist today in both the Global South and the Global North. On the other hand, the environmental fracture highlights the consequences of modernity's division between nature and culture, which places humanity above nature. Technological, scientific, and economic advancements manifest this division by exploiting nature, resulting in pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Furthermore, it perpetuates social issues like gender inequality and poverty, resulting in the creation of marginalised and disposable lives.

In conclusion, it is paramount to shift the educational discourse surrounding digital culture. Although it is important to be acquainted with and use the affordances of the digital ecosystem in our classrooms, there is also a need to acknowledge and address in our language education classrooms these colonial, racial, and environmental implications of the structure of the Internet in the Global South.

Souzana Mizan is a Professor of English Language and Literature in the Language Department of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) and in the Postgraduate Program in Languages at the same institution. She holds degrees in Education and Languages—Greek from the University of Tel-Aviv (1992), a Master's (2005), a doctorate (2011), and a post-doctorate (2016) in Linguistic and Literary Studies in English from the University of São Paulo (USP). She participates in the National Literacy Project, Cycle 3: Languages, Literacy, and Decoloniality (2021–26), based at the University of São Paulo and led by Professors Ana Paula Duboc and Daniel Ferraz. She has experience in the field of language, with an emphasis on foreign languages, mainly in the following areas: language education, literacies (visual, critical, and digital), multimodality, critical pedagogy, digital colonialism, and epistemologies of the Global South.

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