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How equal is the Internet?

Ramesh Srinivasan believes that these are problematic times for the digital world. It’s in the loss of sovereignty or control of data that users of major platforms such as Facebook and Google face.

An IT activist and Associate Professor at UCLA, Srinivasan explores the relationship between technologies—Internet, mobile telephony, social media—and the diverse cultures of the world. He has worked extensively with Native American communities in Bolivia, New Mexico and the US, with revolutionaries in Egypt and tribal communities in India. These communities can introduce a new way forward, he believes, whereby the Internet can better serve and support diverse cultures as well as grassroot politics.

His activism, he says, is more about justice, equality and human rights. In his recently-launched book, Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World, to be published in India by SAGE Publications India in the coming months and already out globally via NYU Press, Srinivasan writes about the concentration of IT in the hands of a few Silicon Valley companies, the pushing down of curated information and of the marginalisation of non-users of technology. Excerpts from an interview:

In Whose Global Village... you write about the technological revolution not being global. What do you mean?

The book makes the argument that the new technology revolution is not cross-cultural, and hence not global in a fundamentally democratic manner that respects equality and diversity. Out of 6-7 billion people in the world, about 4 billion have Internet access. Out of this, half, that is roughly 1.8 billion, use Facebook and Google. These platforms come from Silicon Valley, and therefore reflect the biases of western thinking. Companies and technologies developed in a very small part of the world become the face of the Internet, so do the biases of those designers and knowledge traditions. In the process, other cultural voices, particularly those with less power over technology design, are completely sidelined.

I was recently invited by UNESCO to Cameroon, and before proceeding I searched for Cameroon on Google. The page I found was a CIA world fact book. I could not find how people in Cameroon talk about themselves.

Twenty years ago, we used to browse the Net, and even called it ‘surfing’, but now information is pushed down to you. We see examples in the US and worldwide, of how data gathered about people, including online, can manipulate ‘fake news’ and political content that diffuses on Facebook. Yet, some of us may not even be aware of this, since we are trapped in our own ‘filter bubbles’ and ‘echo chambers’.

Are you saying the voices of the Silicon Valley companies are biased?

I am saying the world right now is facing a loss of cultural diversity and language. We have to think of an Internet that is not complicit with this, of a technology that supports the diversity of our world rather than flatten it.

The cover of Whose Global Village

The cover of Whose Global Village   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

 

The second problem, as I said, is data. Data is the oil of the new economy. So much data is being collected and in so many capacities. Almost anything one does has a digital trace. This data can be sold. Data is on your credit or Aadhar card, sometimes you are tracked by sensors, by surveillance cameras, and sometimes you just give up your data wilfully online. All of this can be gathered, retained, aggregated and used to shape your experience, which can then influence political identity. Edward Snowden made a point—even when you are offline, data can be sent. Why are people being forced on these systems? It is simple; because it makes a lot of money for the companies involved. It empowers the state and corporate gatekeepers to have power over the individual and the community.

You work with communities around the globe. Do you think they would be better off if they were digitally mainstream?

Currently, I am working with the Zapotec communities in the Cloud forest area in South Mexico, who are creating their own technology networks to support their languages and economic and political values. The community has a diversity of dozens of languages. They want digital connectivity on their own terms. I think on some level, the world can learn from projects like this.

But the Internet is architecturally decentralised?

It is decentralised but politically hierarchical. WhatsApp is encrypted, but from whom? Facebook bought WhatsApp. One can say the same about Instagram, for example, which was sold for over a billion US dollars with just 13 employees, while many other companies, such as Kodak, that hired thousands, were going bankrupt.

This is a huge macroeconomic and labour issue, compounded by the emergence of AIs (artificial intelligence systems) that are going to displace even further human labour. We need new progressive models for ethical and just labour in the digital economy.

Do you offer any solutions?

My conservative proposal is that online platforms must be more communicative with users. They are very opaque; they can tell us how these algorithms function. We can ask Silicon Valley to offer us a social contract, in line with human values, around how they will work with us with these platforms.

A radical proposal, if you will, is to think of how different cultures and societies can connect through their own Intranets, like my example from Southern Mexico.

We should all have global conversations, but not sacrifice our local diverse grassroot voices.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 12:35:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/how-equal-is-the-internet/article18409531.ece

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