Colonizing powers often argue that, armed with superior technical knowledge, their mission is to civilize underdeveloped cultures. According to University of Michigan Professor Ron Eglash, Western science, philosophy, and mathematics generally dismiss indigenous forms of knowledge. Some Westerners even claim to have independently discovered mathematical proofs centuries after indigenous groups integrated them into their daily lives. Indigenous knowledge, argues Eglash, often employs complex algorithms for practical, artistic, or spiritual purposes that mirror modern computing. The field Eglash invented to study this phenomenon is called “ethno-computing.” To address some of the problems of colonialism, Eglash has worked with educators to teach modern processes using indigenous knowledge systems. Students use a website called “Culturally Situated Design Tools” to re-create cultural staples like African braids, Navajo rugs, and Latin beats as the algorithms they really are. He’s also proposed an alternate economy that doesn’t appropriate or commodify indigenous computing practices. Worldview’s Julian Hayda spoke with Eglash about how racism, capitalism, colonialism, and mathematical concepts have overlapped, and how reclaiming indigenous forms of knowledge can lead to a more just world.
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