Ramesh Srinivasan: An Internet for All

New book for MIT Press examines the possibilities for a more equitable digital landscape worldwide.

Updated 10.28.19

A renowned scholar of media and the internet, Ramesh Srinivasan has explored how society, politics, and culture across the world interact through technology, and its impact on workers, economic security, democracy and politics, AI and ethics, and more. His research has included looking at revolutions such as the Arab Spring, fieldwork in Native American reservations, and studies in South America and Mexico, and examinations of at how new media technologies impact political revolutions, economic development and poverty reduction, and the future of cultural heritage. 

Srinivasan has worked with bloggers who have overthrown the authoritarian Kyrgyz regime, non-literate tribal populations in India to study how literacy emerges through uses of technology, and traditional Native American communities to study how non-Western understandings of the world can introduce new ways of looking at cultural heritage and the future of the internet and networked technologies. Throughout, Srinivasan’s work has impacted contemporary understandings of media studies, anthropology and sociology, design, and economic and political development studies.

In his new book, “Beyond the Valley: How Innovators around the World are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow,” Srinivasan, a professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies and director of the UC Digital Cultures Lab, shares the possibility of bridging the disconnect between between designers and users, producers and consumers, and tech elites in order to create a more democratic internet worldwide. Chapters in the book provide a look at the work done in the “design labs” of rural, low-income, and indigenous people around the world. The book also includes the perspectives of high-profile public figures as well as community organizers, labor leaders, and human rights activists and their collective vision of a new ethic of digital diversity, openness, and inclusivity.

Professor Srinivasan has served as a faculty member in the UCLA Department of Information Studies and UCLA Design Media Arts since 2005. He is the founder of the University of California-wide Digital Cultures Lab http://digitalcultures.net/people/, which explores the meaning of technology as it spreads to the far reaches of the world. 

Srinivasan is also the author of “Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Impacts Our World,” published by NYU Press, and “After the Internet” (with Adam Fish), published by Amazon for Kindle. Srinivasan also writes extensively about issues associated with AI and ethics.

Professor Srinivasan earned his doctorate in design studies at Harvard; his master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering at Stanford. He is a regular speaker for TEDx Talks, and makes media appearances on MSNBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, “The Young Turks,” National Geographic, Radio Pacifica, the Atlantic, and Public Radio International, and his writings have been widely published by Al Jazeera English, CNN, Wired, The Washington Post, Forbes, and The Huffington Post. (To read Srinivasan’s commentary in Salon, “How Aldous Huxley prophesied the Big Data nightmare,” visit this link.)

Ampersand discussed the potential of a more democratic and inclusive internet with Professor Srinivasan, with a look at the position of trillion-dollar corporations that often – sometimes unwittingly – exploit vulnerable populations; the promise of digital technology as a means to improve economic conditions in developing nations; and the ability of technology to help uncover and prevent human rights violations.

Ampersand: How does looking “Beyond the Valley” uncover the impact of technology on the world’s constantly growing inequality?

Ramesh Srinivasan: This book is focused on technology’s role in all of our lives across the world. Its focus is on how internet technologies are impacting economics, the future of labor, elections and democracy, and the cultural realities experienced by people across the world. It is written for a general public and is written so that anybody no matter where they are or who they are, could have interest in this book because all of our lives are being affected by the astonishing spread of technology. 

A main point I make in the book is that it’s not just about technology [but] about whose voices and whose agendas drive the development of technology, the ways in which technologies are monetized and essentially, who profits from technology. We are at a moment where a few trillion-plus dollar Western corporations and a couple of Chinese companies dominate the internet experience for pretty much everybody across the world. 

As a result, those technological experiences for people across the world might be beneficial to them as users – we have about four to five billion people on the internet right now. But it is also creating incredible profit and value in ways that we don’t understand. Nor do these companies, who are not obligated to be accountable to the public or even necessarily to their users. They’re obligated to be accountable to only one thing and one thing only, which is their shareholders. They are private companies, completely [profiting] off a public experience.

&: How have populations outside of the tech elite been able to harness the internet’s potential to create inclusivity and opportunity?

Srinivasan:I give several examples in the book of how different cultures and communities across the world are paving a new path forward, one where they are actually shaping their own destiny associated with technology. Some of those examples are in chapters related to Latin America, where communities have built their own cell phone networks. I’ve also given some examples from Africa and South America, where they are building their own wi-fi networks. Why are they doing that? So that they can design networks that benefit them rather than a company located thousands of miles away.

&: Along with the financial benefits, is the perspective of these channels more aligned with the cultural mores of these societies?

Srinivasan: That’s a good question. It’s partly about ownership. When one owns a network, you can profit from that network, like an isp or a mobile phone network, or even a platform – imagine a community-run Uber or a community-run AirBNB. Or a collectively-owned [platform], where the workers get a share of the profits that the technology generates. Ownership and monetization and different models of collective ownership and equity are a big part of the story. But another big part of the story are cultural values shaping and impacting design. 

One interesting chapter in the book describes work I’ve done in Southern Mexico in the Oaxaca region. Those communities are indigenous communities. Their languages are oral languages, meaning they are rarely written down. They have actually built cell phone networks so that they can keep their language alive, much like the way that a community radio station might operate.

So, why are they doing that? Well, they are using the network to speak with one another in their own languages, first of all. Second of all, they’re using the network to communicate with relatives that might be here in Los Angeles, for example – a lot of people from that part of the world are living in the L.A. area or the Central Valley. They’re also using that network to establish language revitalization courses and indigenous knowledge courses. They’re sharing these not just through the cell phone network but also through the wi-fi network they are building. They’re building an intranet, which is like a local network that helps you share content across different machines in your own community, just for your own community.

I’ll give you another example of how a cultural value or you might say, an environment might impact the design of a technology at work. There’s a couple of chapters discussing incredible experiments with technology occurring in East Africa and in Uganda as well. In Uganda, they’ve created their own artificial intelligence lab. The purpose to which they developed the AI, the data sets they feed into the AI system – those are all determined by the community or by the local people, the users themselves. So, the users have power in shaping how the AI system is designed and who it serves.

In Kenya, they have been building free wi-fi networks – free internet and intranet networks – and they’re putting them on their local minibuses. So, people are actually engaging with the digital network while they’re doing the things that they always do, which is communicate with one another, socialize with one another, and travel the way people do in that part of the world, which is going to a street corner and getting on a moving vehicle.

A third example is also in Kenya. When we throw our iPhones away, you think they just disappear. But often these things go into landfills and turn into e-waste. In Kenya, they actually take recycled junk and garbage and discarded electronics and they’re building 3-D printers and establishing local businesses out of those parts. It’s a whole alternative cultural and environmental logic by which we think about how technologies might be built, who they serve, and the economics of technology.

&: How about the human rights aspects of technology? How do you address the privacy and protection of vulnerable populations?

Srinivasan: It’s definitely a human rights issue. Technologies, if designed and monetized by the powerful, always systematically harm vulnerable people – that is always true. That doesn’t just mean indigenous people, but also people of color and other vulnerable communities. And the reason why is because technology is designed based on who [the designers] are. The major employers and executives of these companies tend to be upper middle class, highly educated in a formal way, and generally White or maybe Asian. And male – that’s very important.

People of color and women tend to be harmed by those technologies, not even because of intentional malice but just because of the reality of it. I give several examples in the book of how AI systems have been used by the LAPD to police Black and Brown communities and making predictions that they are gang communities. I also give examples of how AI systems are used in courtrooms and making decisions that Black and Brown people – especially Black people who have never committed a felony –  are more likely to commit future felonies… than White people who have committed felonies. So, African American people are getting harsher sentences.

If we don’t interrupt and transform the pattern of who builds, monetizes, owns, and drives the digital revolution, it is going to systematically harm vulnerable people and in that sense, become a huge human rights issue. However, technologies can also be used to support human rights [and] to bring people together and allow them to monitor corruption and abuses.

One example I mention in the book is WITNESS, an organization [co-founded] by Peter Gabriel. What WITNESS does is provide people with cameras [and equipment] so they can document human rights abuses so that they can submit that documentation and advance their own claims and causes. That is an excellent example of technology being used by the people to actually push their own agendas. 

Another technology that was used recently in the Ecuardorian and also the Brazilian Amazon by indigenous communities was a mapping tool that they were able to use how the oil and mining companies have threatened their land and their lives. They were able to use that tool to document these abuses and they won some court cases and millions of dollars in settlements as a result.

&: How do you reconcile the advancements of digital technology and the need for a more equitable digital landscape?

Srinivasan: Sure, these companies deserve to be very wealthy and make a lot of money off the amazing achievements and efficiencies. But should it come at the cost of creating and shaping these profound engines of economic, political, and global inequality?

The book is unique because I’m not only giving and describing examples that are economic, political, and cultural from across the world; describing how we got to this point, what we can do about it, and what the issues are. I also spoke to a lot of very well-known thinkers and leaders in to get their thoughts on where things are going.

There’s a brief interview with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and a chapter in the book about the Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016 and how they were able to use the internet to bring working people together by just [donating] $24. Working and middle-class people became a political and  mobilizing force, through the use of the internet.

I also interviewed Noam Chomsky, a leading political philosopher and linguist, and David Axelrod, the guy behind the Obama campaign and a CNN analyst. I interviewed Eric Holder, the former attorney general, and congressmembers and people in the business world like the CEO of Reddit. 

I spoke to leaders in our country and across the world to get their thoughts on where they think technology is heading, because it’s not just about technology, it’s about how technology shapes our realities – maybe even how we might be [affected] psychologically because there is some evidence that technology, when used or designed in certain ways, can contribute to depression and ADHD. 

My point in the book is if we think “Beyond the Valley,” if we look at examples beyond the [Silicon] Valley, we can overcome this moment where we see the concentration of power around the internet on a global level where it’s just a few trillion-plus dollar companies dominating everything, determining and dictating our future, and in many ways, shaping our behavior and what we think, what we buy, how we vote – all of these issues are impacting us.

It’s all about the values that shape and impact technology’s destiny and moving past the black box that is dictated by private corporate power, and to work with technologies that are truly owned and created in the image of all of us in the 99 percent.

Courtesy of USI Events