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

You return to some core concepts, such as appropriation and participation, which have been foundational to contemporary cultural studies work on new media communities and practices, but which get redefined and reimagined through your collaborations with more diverse communities. Can you say something of what you see as the limits of western conceptions of these concepts? How did you modify your understandings of these processes as a result of your engagements with people in the Middle East, in India, or in Native American communities in the American west?

Work on appropriation, subversion, and participation is very important in media and cultural studies and certainly relevant to the many stories I share within the book from across the world. That said, we need not think of the technology user as inherently detached from the systems and tools that are provided to them. I make the argument in the book that we can start to re-think the very ‘codes’ of how technology is designed and developed to start with the voices, values, and knowledge practices, or ontologies, of grassroots users. Thus, the book tells stories of how grassroots digital storytelling can shape development and mobilization in Southern India (chapter 2), and how social network and cultural heritage systems can be directly designed by diverse indigenous and user communities (chapters 3-5).

As native Americans and First Nation people in Canada work to build digital archives which preserve and protect their own cultural heritage,  what new approaches are they embracing? What assumptions are they questioning? Do these different assumptions about knowledge, pedagogy, cultural authority, tradition, etc., these different ontologies and epistemologies, mean that there can not be shared archives between people with different cultural backgrounds or do we need to design archives that reflect multiple ways of knowing and help us to think about compromises that might allow diverse communities to coexist in an ever more interconnected world?

There is fantastic work underway, described both in my book and across scholarly and activist research, whereby indigenous technology users have begun to assemble their own technology networks and systems in line with the values and beliefs they hold. I describe many examples of this in the book and am currently working with the wonderful Rhizomatica project located in the Oaxaca, Mexico region where indigenous communities have begun to develop, design, and own their own cell-phone networks. These networks and systems are designed with a different type of logic, one that at times may be at tension with Western frameworks. For example, the Oaxacan case is powerful because it empowers the sharing of knowledge orally through indigenous languages that have rarely if at all been written. I also describe in chapter 4 the power of a system that is not a container of knowledge but instead a catalyst for traditional, non-digital ways of coming together to share, reflect, and learn.

There is a deep loss in our world of linguistic and cultural diversity, with nearly half of the world’s 7000 languages to vanish within the next century. I am interested in how we think of connectivity while acknowledging and supporting the very different ontologies that are fundamental to diversity. There are powerful times when we need to come together around global issues such as climate change or human rights. But we cannot govern, collect, or connect diversity through systems that are written according the voices of the few.

You note that researchers and designers partnering with groups outside their own cultural background can justly expect to encounter deep distrust about their motives and how they may be profiting from such cross-cultural encounters. You offer some brutally honest accounts here of how you confronted and worked through some of this distrust. As you moved into the field, what are some of the ways that you found your own preconceptions tested, questioned, challenged by the communities you worked with?What advice might you have for other designers who want to do work across cultures and in particular with groups around the world whose cultural contributions have often been marginalized or dismissed by other westerners?

Perhaps the most powerful lesson I have learned over the course of the partnerships and projects this book describes is the importance of thinking about design as a process of listening, learning, and giving up power. I describe the importance of collaborating with a spirit of losing one’s ego as a ‘master designer and instead seeing our efforts in line with the ethic of praxis. Part of that has involved putting the timelines that I had around research deadlines to the side and instead following an intuitive path that trusted those with whom I worked to teach me how to best develop our initiative together. It is so important for me also to only work with communities where I am directly invited for collaboration and also to have the academic and public outputs of our project to be shared in authorship, if of interest to my partners. It also recognizes that what we create together will hopefully long outlive the limited time-scale of a funded research ‘project’, and that understanding the meaning of our collaborations may only come over time.

The book underscores the power of starting collaboration by acknowledging our differences rather than flattening them via shallow participation into existing systems. In the respect of difference can come an opportunity for a shared space to emerge, one where what is created is greater than the sum of its parts. Instead of simply accepting Internet technologies that opaquely monetize our data, we can remember that online communities from Facebook to the WELL started as just that: communities. It is time to get back to that understanding now.

 

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.

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