Whose Global Village?: An Interview with Ramesh Srinivasan (Part One)

Whose Global Village?: Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World, an important new book, raises fundamental questions about the ethics and politics of digital design and implementation. Its author,  Ramesh Srinivasan, brings more than 15 years of experience in developing collaborative media design project with indigenous peoples of the American Southwest, Latin America, the Middle East, India and Eurasia, among other locations. I was lucky enough to know the author when he was a master student at the MIT Media Lab and it has been a great pleasure to watch him develop into an essential thinker about media and globalization.

In this book, he shares what is learned across these many years of practice and uses these experiences, sometimes painful, sometimes rewarding, to reflect on what goes wrong when Western technologist import culturally-specific paradigms and technologies into other people’s  worlds. In this highly reflective book, he questions much of the established wisdom about so-called global villages, insisting that local particularity needs to guide and govern such  projects. Digital archives require different interfaces depending on the degree of protectiveness that local communities feel is necessary as they guard their traditional practices and knowledge from outside interference. What could be seen as democratization or participatory culture in the West may disrupt important hierarchical distinctions that enable these cultures to survive in the face of genocide and disruption. Cross-cultural collaborations offer powerful opportunities to question established wisdom and ill considered thinking but only if the participants are modest enough to actively listen to each other and respond in an ethically thoughtful manner.

I was asked provide a blurb for the book at the time of its release. Here’s what I have to say:

Whose Global Village? invites us to question some of the sacred narratives that have grown up around digital and networked technologies in the west—first among them, the idea that digital technologies follow some universal path of development. This book is a powerful corrective to various forms of cyberutopianism, even as it reimagines core concepts—from agency and voice to participation and appropriation.”

This interview will provide some glimpse into his thinking process as he represents a soft-spoken and insistent conscience for the digital design realm.

For those of you who would like to meet him, come to the upcoming Transforming Hollywood Conference, which will be held at UCLA on May 5. For more details, see this blog post.

Your book begins with a provocative sentence, “The new technology revolution is neither global nor cross-cultural.” Here, you are challenging several decades of writers who saw new media as perhaps transcending old geographic divides, from the concept of the “global village” a la McCluhan to the more recent argument that the “world is flat.”  What did these earlier writers misunderstand about the ways that digital media and networked communications might relate to core inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power?

There is some robust research out there that shows that mere access to the tools and systems of Silicon Valley does little to combat the inequalities we face within our nation and across the world. This is because the wealthier and more powerful are better equipped to exploit these systems given their already existing resources. It is also because the building-blocks of technology, from interfaces to algorithms, often reflect the opaque perspectives of a corporation rather than the multiplicity of publics that may use their systems. Expanding naive access to technologies produced by Western corporations merely expands their user bases, adding powerful information that they can monetize. For us to start to confront the profound inequalities we face we must start by first thinking about the concerns, voices, and agendas of grassroots user communities and then consider how to design, adapt, or innovate with technology. My book is full of examples where we attempt to do exactly that.

You write, “My goal is to reimagine the concept of “global village” so that technologies can support a range of practices, visions, priorities, and belief systems of indigenous and non-Western cultures across the world.” So drill down into that “global village” metaphor — what are its limitations and why has it been such a persistent part of the ways we imagine media change?  What does it mean to move from an abstract concept of a global village back to a focus on particular villages, the people who live there, their traditional ways of life? Can we hold onto this metaphor’s emphasis on interconnectivity across dispersed peoples while still respecting local knowledge and traditions and seeing the potential conflict zones between diverse “villages” all over the planet?

It’s easy to give into the myth of digital universality, the mistaken sense that our experiences and interactions with the Internet and new technologies in the West are mirrored by people across the world. What we don’t take for granted however is first, that access to technology is hardly uniform or straightforward, and second that what whose systems, networks and platforms we use may reflect the perspectives of a far more limited number of voices than its global users. So in that sense, not only is the notion of the global village epistemologically problematic, in that is presumes that the world wishes to be a village connected via the tools of the West, but it blocks us from an alternative way of thinking about technology, as created for and by diverse peoples and communities to support their visions, belief systems, and knowledge traditions. We can do better – we can think about how platforms and systems can be authored, owned, and designed by local communities and cultures otherwise left marginalized by top-down digital-divide projects.

 

Much of this book draws on your own personal experiences doing collaborations around the development and deployment of new information technologies in a range of different local contexts. Can you share with us some of your personal journey across these projects? What has led you to this focus on indigenous communities? How do you situate yourself as a media designer and scholar in relation to these distinctive communities where you have worked?

 

I learned the hard way while in graduate school that innovation does not occur in our laboratories when we have seemingly infinite resources, but instead when people and communities face conditions of constraint. Viewing the incredibly different perspectives on how a designer in a laboratory sees a system versus a user in a rural or indigenous community forced me to reckon with the reality that there is great distance between most places and institutions of privilege where Internet technologies are developed versus the realities faced by many of its users across the world. In that process, I also became concerned with the presumptions, values, and ethics that went into the design of technology.

We know that technologies reflect the world-views of their creators. Yet when these technologies are designed with particular assumptions around how data is collected or information is retrieved, they may come into tension with the cultural values of their diverse users. This really comes to a head with indigenous communities, with which whom I have collaborated for over 15 years. Many of our assumptions around what information is made available to whom and in what manners are at tension with how these communities operate. For example we have a myth that ‘information wants to be free’ that comes out of Western liberal circles yet may be at tension with the perspectives of people whose stories I share who believe in guarding access to information to not only preserve their traditions but also spread blessings to the world.

As a scholar and designer, I am committed to a digital world that respects and supports the multiplicity of its diverse user communities rather than the opposite. With the well-founded concerns we have today around the black-boxes of technology, from echo chambers to filter bubbles, it is time for the cultures of the world to exert more power and voice over how technologies are developed and deployed.

 

Ramesh Srinivasan studies the relationship between technology, politics and societies across the world. He has been a faculty member at UCLA since 2005 in the Information Studies and Design|Media Arts departments. He is the founder of the UC-wide Digital Cultures Lab, exploring the meaning of technology worldwide as it spreads to the far reaches of our world. He is also the author of the book “Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Impacts Our World” with NYU Press.

Srinivasan earned his Ph.D. in design studies at Harvard; his master’s degree in media arts and science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering at Stanford. He has served fellowships in MIT’s Media Laboratory in Cambridge and the MIT Media Lab Asia. He has also been a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Design and Department of Visual and Environmental Design at Harvard.