Decolonize AI, decolonize knowledge: interview with Lewis Gordon

Decolonize AI, decolonize, decolonize knowledge:
interview with Lewis Gordon

Interview conducted by Elen Nas

Opening comment:

I met Lewis Gordon at the Caribbean Philosophy Association (CPA) Conference in 2021. With the pandemic and the conference entirely virtual, the “chat” room in between sessions became unified, and at one point I picked up my ukulele and played a song. Lewis then displayed the instruments around him and began to play along. Other academics with musical abilities also joined in and it was absolutely fun to have this moment of integration when social interactions were limited to the virtual world.

Lewis Gordon is an American philosopher at the University of Connecticut who works in the areas of African philosophy, existentialism, phenomenology, social and political theory, postcolonial thought, theories of race and racism, liberation philosophies, aesthetics, philosophy of education, and philosophy of religion. He is the author of several books, the most recent being, “Freedom of Black Consciousness” (2022), “Freedom, justice and decolonization” (2021), “Geopolitics and Decolonization: Perspectives from the Global South”(2018).

From my entry as a postdoc in the Oscar Sala Chair at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo, I started to coordinate, under the supervision of Chair Virgílio de Almeida, a group focused on the discussion of prejudice (racism, misogyny and extremism) within human-computer interaction.

I was already researching technology within interdisciplinary debates in arts, design and bioethics, where every discussion is aligned with the issues of decoloniality, which is also a discussion about cultural diversity, challenges for a transdisciplinarity, issues of inclusion, plurality of thought and paradigm breaks in science, education and society.

Thus, within the posdoc the theme of decoloniality emerged for me as an urgency that I could no longer postpone. I had already participated the previous year in the Mozilla Festival where it was proposed to decolonize the future of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and my talk was about how to co-create the meta-world by populating this world with dense descriptions of our everyday experiences with knowledge shaped by algorithms. Populating this world with our views and images about the things one wants to categorize. In this way, I proposed that our theme dialogue with the inspirational model in a platform format called ‘decolonize’.

From there we started discussions based on literature reviews and, while researching more about references to decoloniality of knowledge and technology in networks I came across Lewis Gordon again, started watching more of his lectures and reading his books, to finally invite him to talk a bit in this interview, which took place on January 27, 2023 via Zoom, planning to make it available in podcast format.

We started by adjusting technical problems and talking about general issues, so I cut out a good part of my initial speech. But I need to situate, because when Lewis answers he comments on some topics of this initial speech that was cut, such as the issue that in Brazil there is a differentiated discrimination in skin tones that causes people from the same family to be classified as white, brown, and black, which is the case of my family. And it is also the case in Lewis’ family, but he comments that if this same distinction in ethnic references doesn’t occur in his family, the division is, in general, also a consequence of colonialism.

The transcript and subsequent translation of the retained audios in the final version of the PodCast follows below.
Since the interview was long and editing the audios, comments, and transcriptions are new immersions in the content that require time and reflection, I have chosen to make it available in separate parts and only after the last part is published will I make a final version in article format.

The review of the transcript automatically generated by Zoom, besides requiring corrections to the transcript, reveals some grammatical and sentence construction errors that are the stumbling blocks of those who communicate in another language.

Episode 1: Colonialism and lies

Elen: Lewis Gordon. Thank you very much for accepting an invitation to talk to us about the colonization of knowledge.

One of the things is, if we have a knowledge that is totally colonized, how can we decolonize the web space, the technologies itself, the development of technologies and etc.?

First, you can give your introduction for what you would like to say at first. I’d like to ask you questions about your path with the questions you brought up with the colonization of philosophy and the challenges you found when you are in the academic space.

I also, as a mixed person, which is very common in Brazil, I realize that I don’t identify with this knowledge (the colonized knowledge) and I think we have challenges in education.

We have questions like, how indigenous people, for example, go to school, and how they fit in the knowledge, and how their capacities will be judged by their fitness inside this knowledge, and the knowledge they already have will be undervalued.

I’m talking about indigenous because, in 2020, I was seeing some movies related to indigenous people in America, for example. So they have a language difference; they grow with their language. So, when they go to the educational system, they have difficulty to learn and are judged by this, so I think this is an example of how we have certain hierarchies in knowledge where people assume that you need to go to steps 1, 2, and 3. When they meet someone from a different culture, background, etc., they don’t take into consideration this person brings the knowledge with himself or herself, and I’m not even talking about racism. But this is a type of racism as well because of how racism is embedded in knowledge in a way that you give more value to one type of knowledge over other types.

It’s a big introduction. Just to let you know, I’ve been reading and seeing all things you’re bringing up to these questions of technology and knowledge itself.

Lewis Gordon: Well. Thank you. First obrigado. And I say obrigado because I can read Portuguese and I’m familiar with the different kinds, but because I did not learn to speak it.

You are being very hospitable. And you’ve been very kind to enable me to be interviewed in English. So I thank you for that.

I thank also the listeners or viewers for their hospitality, for their graciousness to engage with my ideas.
And although there are other languages that I read and can work in eventually, I would develop a better understanding of how to communicate verbally in Portuguese.

It’s just that I am not there as often and the pandemic, as you know affected the times I would visit.
So I start that there.

Second, the thing to bear in mind, because you brought up the question of mixture and light and brown, and so forth.

These are colonial categories and they’re used also in the Caribbean Islands. They’re used in Australia and the South Pacific. They used across South Asia.

The very fact that people are using these terms it’s absurd. Your brother and you are family.

My family, a typical black family, as an example. The family is called black, have people of different shades but we wouldn’t be listed as if we’re different races.

My brother, my middle brother, is your complexion. My other brother is a little lighter than me, and I also have relatives, of my color, and some more darker. My children, one of my sons is like your color, your color of hair. And my daughter has dark charcoal eyes, and she’s light, and she has my hair.
In other words, People are people.

Now, so we’re really talking about racial designation there. But if we’re going to go further I’m going to begin by saying something short. And that is the thing to remember colonialism is a lie.

What colonialism does is to impose upon a people a version of the world that attempts to convince them that they should be dominated, exploited, abused. That they are inferior, they’re less.

You see? That’s not the way people ordinarily live. But it’s not just a lie to the people who are dominated. It’s also a lie to the dominator to convince people that they are inferior to you.

You must convince yourself you’re superior to them and to do that requires creating concepts, ideas, ways of thinking that are also false.

But you must make yourself believe them as true. I call that bad faith. Bad faith is when you make yourself believe a pleasing falsehood right to avoid a displeasing or horrible truth.

The horrible truth is that these are horrible things being done to people and that the people we call masters or superior, whatever, are near people just like everybody else. They eat, sleep, defecate.
They have desires; they have hopes, they have dreams.

And they also have limits. But if you convince yourself you are intrinsically superior to other people you believe you have no limits. And this is part of it, right? To make why the construction of blackness led to anti-blackness.

This is because of the value system that says to be valued you must have no limits and so the world of blackness is looked at as limits, and the ultimate limit is enslavement. And a construction called whiteness is looked at as an absence of limit. Which means, to be white, you can do whatever you want.
That creates the notion that white is desirable

Now, that’s how racism is linked to colonialism.

But you see, historically, there’ been many colonies before what we call euro-modern colonization.
If we look at ancient Kemet or Egypt, or we look at a Syria, we look at the Roman Empire. All of these things. They had their problems. There were colonization, they were colonial, but the difference between them and the world we live in is that the world we live in brought special anthropology to its colonization.

You see, in many other societies. Although they were exploiting and colonizing people, there was a sense that the people they were doing it to were fellow human beings. And there were processes
of having human belonging. In other words, one could become a citizen. One could be a lot of things one could become.

But again, that’s very simple because there are many societies in which women, for example, were treated in such a way that women were like a slave or property.
And then, there were societies in which women were not treated that way. But some of those societies were colonized. And a form of patriarchy was imposed on them.

So I begin by talking about lies, because when we, one of the lies is for us to talk about people
in reductive or homogeneous ways.

We need to bring out complexity of what people are when we talk about women, when we talk about gender, when we talk about race, when we talk about sexuality, when we talk about class, all those things operate at the same time.

And the lie those who dominate tell is basically that they are perfect. And your modern colonialism, which is the context we’re talking about created a notion that there were some people who were perfect by virtue of being, say, Christian. Perfect, by being, say male. Perfect by being, say, white. And perfect by being, for example, rich.

So. and there is more. But if we bring together capitalism. Christianity, patriarchy, and race. Then we have with it to make those work. We have to tell a lie that those individual constructions are the way people really are.

So that’s the thing we have to talk about those to whom a lie is told and those who lie to themselves.

Music: Solstice Groove by BOCrew (c) copyright 2022 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.