Indigenous knowledge systems and the construction of virtual reality

The internet may have increased global equality, but only if you know how to use it, says indigenous computer science researcher Kevin Shedlock.

Kevin Shedlock

An assistant lecturer in Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, Kevin (Ngāpuhi nui tonu) is working towards his PhD on indigenous knowledge systems and the construction of virtual reality (VR).

He has worked with Māori and North American indigenous communities on VR and on framing information technology artefacts, artificial versions of things in the real world.

He applies this knowledge to building technology through an indigenous lens and has led several high-value projects for iwi communities in recent times, including Te Ruapekapeka Trust.

Kevin says VR offers “tremendous opportunities” for indigenous communities to experience themselves in settings not available in the real world.

“However, any deviance from heritage or known indigenous relationships may result in a disconnection between the traditional world and the unreal digital world if wrongly presented.

“The concern is VR as a technology may be replacing the traditional identity of users with an online digital version of themselves. At the centre of this problem is the technology itself, when it has not been exposed to indigenous notions and concepts during the construction of any virtual reality artefact.”

Concerns are being raised about how indigenous knowledge is produced and disseminated, he says.

“Indigenous academics from around the world are saying technology is creating a one-system-for-all scenario that is colonising indigenous practices, the way indigenous people engage with each other, the way knowledge is stored, the way knowledge is used.

“Take Zoom, for example. I personally have no problem with Zoom, but it would be inappropriate to use if you were wanting to see tūpāpaku [the body of the deceased] at a tangihanga [funeral], or wanting to engage with others via a digital pōwhiri. And I’m not sure if it is even possible to perform a wero challenge on Zoom.”

So has the internet created a more “even” world across many different cultures?

“Yes, but only if you are part of the selected group who know how to use the internet’s power.

“The internet has created a modularised way to communicate and interact as part of a process towards reaching agreement.

“If we type in the correct URL, we will be able to navigate to a page to read a story; if we download a movie, we can view and listen to the same story. The problem then becomes ‘whose version of the story is being retold?’.”

Kevin says artificial intelligence is paving the way to improve and fine-tune the world’s ability to connect with data.

“However, who governs the data and who owns the data becomes topical.In this way, technology agreement is about touting position and optimising relationships, as opposed to an indigenous awareness of technology and the preference to maintain relationships with the world it knows about.

“It is not always about one way being the right way, given there exist thousands of indigenous communities in the world today.

“Indigenous technology actually challenges the notion of ‘normal’ that has been constructed by the dominant culture, and seeks to identify and uphold its own indigenous views, solutions, and ways of prioritising. It is about empowering indigenous people’s voice, practice, and knowledge.”

Kevin has completed the case studies for his PhD and hopes to complete the draft by the end of the year.

He has been working with Te Ruapekapeka Trust, represented by Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Hau, Kapotai, and Ngāti Manu.

He intended also to work with indigenous North American communities but COVID-19 stymied those plans last year—he was in Canada when the world started to close borders, so returned home.