Thankfully, some folks are doing more with digital technology than just scrolling mindlessly thru social media – which is what most of us do. Ramesh Srinivasan not only studies but is directly involved in the interplay between technology, culture and politics. He brings his book Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Impacts Our World to the store next Saturday (4/8). Here is a preview of that progressive conversation.
Eric Larkin – Your work has taken you all over the world, and into a variety of cultural settings. Was there a particular moment or experience that initially motivated you to work in this area of technology and non-western culture?
Ramesh Srinivasan – What a great question! I was an engineer and was working in software and data mining after finishing my undergrad. And then I realized that the tools we were building were expanding in their reach to the corners of the world, or so it seemed. Yet I also recognized in graduate school at the MIT Media Lab, that while we were interested in building and designing systems to serve these communities, there was little that we did to include those people directly in the design process. Not only is it so rewarding to work with communities across the world, it is also a great teacher as we think about who has power over our ideas of design and engineering and how we can do better.
EL – When I think about algorithms, I think about the fact that if I go on Facebook and click on a news article about the Dakota Access Pipeline, for instance, I’ll start seeing similar articles – both about DAPL and other stories from the same news source. Or say I google “spark plug”, I’ll start seeing ads for car parts or racing. How is that experience different for a non-Westerner?
RS – This is really about how “similarity” is biased based on what these systems, especially Facebook and Google, each with 1.8 billion users, know “about” us. We know of one another through how systems know ourselves. And in a way that biases our experiences to serve myopic rather than more grassroots interests. I describe this in my piece with Quartz recently around search and social media experiences and how they reinforce cultural and political biases. Here’s the piece!
EL – You talk about re-imagining technology to better reflect the diversity of culture around the world. Why? What is at stake?
RS – I describe this quite a bit in the book – with the loss of linguistic, cultural and biodiversity in our world so much is at stake: ultimately, what makes us human and what makes the world richer. In biodiversity lies answers to climate change problems we face. In linguistic diversity lies the differences between us that allow us to solve problems and learn from one another across space and time. If the Internet is going to serve as a space to counter this then we need to re-think “Whose Global Village” it serves. I give some proposals on how we may start to do so in the book throughout!
EL – How can I remove or reduce the biases that seem built in to technology I use everyday?
RS – This is something I just discussed with Fusion! On a video that can be seen here.
We must think about what data is being collected about us, who our ‘friends’ and ‘likes’ are on Facebook or who we follow on Twitter. Our search histories and the data we give out influences on so many levels what our digital experience is. That is something we must think past if we are to realize the incredible possibility of the Internet to bring us into deeper understandings of one another rather than the shallow, commercially-biased ways in which it shapes our experiences today.
EL – Any other projects you’re working on right now?
RS – I can’t wait to share them with all of you at the Last Bookstore. Please come! As a teaser – I’m going to show examples from around the world where diverse user communities have built and designed their own versions of the Internet and mobile telephony : )
This is the doorway to a better future. You can buy Whose Global Village from our on-line store.