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A Digital Difference

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By James Knutila

Published Oct 1, 2017 9:00 AM


Ramesh Srinivasan wants to reimagine our digital technology to better serve diverse users around the world.


Photo by Mitch Tobias.

Ramesh Srinivasan, UCLA associate professor of information studies and design/media arts, has worked with Egyptian revolutionaries, explored video storytelling in India, and studied Native Americans’ unique approach to the Internet. He is a critic of the top-down, black-box technology of Silicon Valley. In his new book, Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World, Srinivasan envisions a digital future where communities take greater control over their technology, stories and data.

You study the relationship between digital technology and culture. Why that focus?

[As an] undergraduate, I worked in software and artificial intelligence. I then went to the MIT Media Laboratory for my master’s degree. The Media Lab sent me to India, where I saw how unaware [we were] of people and their lives when we built these systems in our laboratories in Cambridge, Mass. I saw an opportunity to think about people, communities and cultures in conversation with technology, and to reimagine how technologies are designed, how they can serve people, and how reimagining can occur collaboratively.

What inspired you to write Whose Global Village?

The book is really just coming out of my heart, out of my own process, and all the stumbles I’ve had along the way. And, really, what I’ve learned from my mistakes. It’s my stories of trying to work past some of the existing limitations and myopia of Silicon Valley-centric thinking that says anything can be solved by some technical fix, and instead seeing technologies in relation to people and communities. The book is a story of my attempts to do that kind of work.

In one story, in rural villages in Southeast India, you studied the way people use video as a catalyst for dialogue and action. What drew you to that project?

It was a narrative that I had seen in action, and it bothered me — [the idea that] simply giving people access to the Internet or some technology magically uplifts them.

I was thinking about how technology can support collective reflection — what are the dialogues they’re having within their communities about their future? And I realized that a very easy thing that we could do was to use technology in very simple ways to tell stories, and share those stories within the community. And “story” doesn’t have to mean a Hindu epic. It could just be some sort of narration, like a video about our temple, which is falling apart. Or a video about women and women’s voices in the community. And they can often be politically tricky stories. But they force people to have dialogues. And that process of collectively talking about and reflecting on one’s experience through the medium of digital storytelling turned out to be incredibly helpful for those communities.

That’s the first example in the book. Later chapters get more into architectures of the Internet, how you design a database, how you design an algorithm. But the point is, it can start by storytelling.

In contrast to the collaborative process you describe in your fieldwork, you’re often critical of Silicon Valley technology. How do platforms such as Facebook and Google affect us in ways we might not realize?

These are the places we go to for social experience, to some extent cultural experience, and, increasingly, political experience. It’s having a huge, huge effect on us on multiple levels. One is, we don’t know why we see what we see on there. We’re left guessing. We don’t know what’s retrieved for us when we do searches, right? The idea of browsing or surfing the Web has now been replaced by information being pushed onto you or retrieved by some opaque black-box algorithm.

But here’s the second thing, which, to me, is much more important at this point: We don’t have any understanding of what is happening with our data. What’s being collected about us? For how long is it being collected? How is it being sold?

How can we address these concerns and also make these platforms more collaborative? How can we take back our media?

It’s such a challenging and important question. There are a few things. Facebook can develop more of a social contract with us. Facebook and Google can talk with us as the user communities of these platforms. I don’t think that that’s going to affect their bottom line. I think it’s going to make them much more sustainable.

The second thing is that Facebook needs to create more open spaces for communities around the world to build their own digital ecosystems on top of the Facebook platform. That is going to be a huge benefit to Facebook. Because now you have more data, you have more textured data, you have more heterogeneous data. I have problems with that data accumulation. But at the same time, if Facebook wants to resolve the critique that they are kind of black-boxing a kind of weird, top-down, opaque platform to the world, they can open up the ways in which the platform actually can create local kinds of ecosystems. [For example], a Native American community can model its own sort of data structure and networks, and tell its own stories on top of Facebook. That would be a very smart thing to do. The third thing we can do — this is what I’m working on now in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Yes, what are you working on next?

Yeah, this project is so interesting. I’m studying how communities build their own digital networks and how they’re thinking about issues of surveillance. But they’re also thinking about the ownership of the network, the data of the network — how they can take power over those things. In Oaxaca, these communities are building their own DIY cell networks. The project is called Rhizomatica. They are not served by telecom or Internet service providers. Instead, they’re using open-source hardware and software to build their own towers, set things up on their own. There’s a link to a video on my website. It’s beautiful.

Watch video of Srinivasan’s fieldwork from Oaxaca and around the world at ramenshsrinivasan.org

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