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“Like a Donkey Playing the Flute”: Developing Environmental Risk Mitigation Technology in Mexico and the U.S.
In the past twenty years, over 1.35 million people were killed by so-called “natural hazards”. Earthquakes are the most deadly of them all. In this talk, I address one technology that has been celebrated as potentially lifesaving in the face of the unpredictable temblors that are inevitable in many places around the world: earthquake early warning systems.
These systems register earthquakes and alert people in range seconds or even minutes before seismic waves reach them. I draw on ethnographic research to explore the work of pathbreaking Mexican engineers who have developed and managed an earthquake early warning system for over twenty-five years, now marginalized in conversations about a new system planned for the West Coast of the United States.
I demonstrate that this marginalization perpetuates a troubling politics of knowledge in which Mexico is a site of extraction, not innovation, and that it may have consequences for the people at risk from earthquakes in the U.S. I build on insights in this case to frame new questions about data infrastructures and institutions in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands — and environmental data justice efforts that might bridge them.