By Michelle Wibbelsman

Humane Technologies Discovery Theme

In Spring of 2017 I was invited to join the Humane Technologies Discovery Theme as a research fellow from the Humanities. My area of expertise lies with Latin American indigenous cultures, epistemologies, and performance practices, particularly those of the Andes and Amazonia, which have unique perspectives on technology, humanity, livability and wellbeing.

In Ecuadorian Quichua, sumac kawsay (also spelled sumak kawsay or sumaq causai) captures the essence of meaningful, beautiful, proper living and connotes a sense of “livability.” In indigenous worldview, making things knowledgeably and beautifully is conducive to meaningful and proper living, as is personal and collective reflection by way of oral traditions, participatory practices and indigenous art. Another key aspect of sumac kawsay is the practice of sustained dialogue, mutual nurturing, and exchange based on relations of respect and cariño (affect).


Aside from the ethics of good, proper living, people often frame meaningful, beautiful living in terms of an aesthetic defined by zig zagging and a back and forth movement (quingushpa), evident in weaving, music, poetic linguistic patterns, dancing, pottery designs…and pretty much everything else as a recurring and reiterating pattern. At the height of its expression, this aesthetic reflects mastery of a sense of playfulness between symmetry and asymmetry. In contrast, being too direct or going straight to the point is considered yanga puringashpa (following an ugly and aimless path) be it in artistic expression or cultural habits such as speaking too directly, not using enough suffixes, ending a conversation too abruptly, conducting a financial transaction without engaging in pleasantries, doing or making things without embellishment, knowledge and sensitivity…


When people state that they live “always talking, always conversing with one another” in this quingushpa sort of way as part of sumac kawsay, more than signaling a cultural practice, they are underscoring a rhythm or style of going about life. Moreover, they are not only referring to a human community, but to a sustained conversation with beings in other time-spaces or pachas as well. The Andean indigenous world has four pachas: the world above (hawa pacha) where all kinds of spirits and syncretic divinities exist, “this world” (kay pacha) which is the world of nature, “the fourth world” or “the other world” (chusku pacha or chayshuk pacha) where the ancestors live, and uku pacha which is the world below or more precisely the world within where people live. I outline these pachas in my book Ritual Encounters: Otavalan Modern and Mythic Community (2009) and argue that they are not theoretical or folklorized notions, but instead a fundamental part of people’s daily reality.


Obligations to other people in terms of respect, dialogue, exchange, mutual nurturing, conviviality are similar to those with beings from other time-spaces. Animals, plants and things are often referred to as runa (literally, fully human being—the self-designator of Quichua ethnic communities). The Earth, for instance, is pachamama, Mother Earth, and is treated with the respect and sensitivity due to a mother. The animated landscape, with gendered qualities, embodies ancestors referred to as dear great grandparents. Saints as well as animals, including plague animals and insects, are treated with cariño and brought into a relation of compadres or fictive kin. Many agricultural techniques rely on dialoguing with the insects and listening to the signs of nature. The souls of the deceased are kept alive through frequent visits to the cemetery. Without food and conversation, indigenous people say the souls would die for real, (like the mestizo souls since no one visits them)…


All of this to signal that notions of “humanity” are much more inclusive in the Andes. This in turn changes the way people relate to their environments from the hierarchical arrangement that puts people on top in the Western conception (and justifies exploitation of the environment as a resource for people) to a less hierarchical, more reciprocal system where people are on par with other beings that share their humanity.


Andean technologies work with nature rather than trying to go against it or dominate it. We see this in the impressive Inka stonework where each piece is tailor-made to work with elements in its environment.



Similarly, people say that they do not try to eradicate pests or cut out diseases, but rather to dialogue with them, understand their needs, find a compromise that allows everyone to live well—a radical redefinition of the “common good.” They do not try to force production, but rather respect a healthy pace of production, including rest periods. Value is not defined by maximizing profit and accumulation but instead guided by principles of redistribution. This marks a significant difference from Western practices in agricultural techniques, medicine and healing.


This attention to relations of mutual nurturing with the environment also points to a vision of long-term commitment with nature, and with humanity. The future is defined not in terms of immediate gain, but rather sustainability along a millenarian timeframe. It seems that time and sustainability must necessarily be a factor in defining humane technologies and livable futures. As I traveled through the Sacred Valley in southern Peru in summer of 2017, I was impressed by the fact that Inka and pre-Inka constructions and technologies endure—structures are intact, the Great Inka road continues in use, aqueducts are functional, agricultural terraces are in production. In the meantime, earthquakes have devastated colonial and modern constructions. Remnants of electric and gas-driven mechanisms, pipes, modern roads lie abandoned and in disrepair alongside technologies that are more than 500 years old and perfectly functional. Modern agriculture has turned once fertile fields into deserts due to overuse of fertilizers, herbicides and gm crops not endemic to the region. The flower industry in northern Ecuador is one such example where as one glances across the landscape one can clearly see how corporations simply move to another plot of land once they’ve exhausted the previous one. 20th and 21st century technologies do not appear to have improved on Inka and pre-Inka engineering.


The idea of a shared humanity with other living and also nonliving things opens a space for thinking about nonhuman ontologies (or perhaps now that we’ve defined human more broadly, ontologies not exclusive to people). My sense is that the recognition of and engagement with other ontologies is where the rigorous theoretical work begins to decenter people in a conceptualization of humane technologies.


I hope the synopsis above does not present an overly simplified impression of concepts and practices that carry important depth. The notion of sumac kawsay, for instance, has made it into the 2008 Ecuadorian constitution as a recognition of indigenous values and principles.  At the same time, its complexity has been reduced in the Spanish translation buen vivir (good living) and by way of this simplification the concept has been coopted by the State to reference the common good in terms of the duties of the Welfare State within a capitalist economy. This is quite different from the understanding, lived practice and context of sumac kawsay, the common good, and well-being in indigenous communities.


As we collectively turn to a renewed attention to topics of livable futures, humane technologies, and well-being in the midst of growing inequality in our societies and escalating concerns about our global environment, indigenous cultures may have something important to contribute to the discussion by way of the radical alternatives they put forward.