Traversing an emerging field

Digital anthropologist Payal Arora explains the process of tech innovation, its applications in education and how it can address the needs of next billion users

Published - December 05, 2019 05:53 pm IST

Payal Arora

Payal Arora

What has prompted technological innovation in the past? And, what should be prompting it today? Is technology apolitical? Posing similar questions to the audience at DesignUp, a technology and design conference, digital anthropologist, Payal Arora discussed how user interaction with technology forms the core of innovation and why it should be studied.

Currently Professor of Technology, Values, and Global Media Cultures at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Arora’s recent book is The Next Billion Users which focuses on the role of technology in addressing the needs and aspirations of ‘marginalised majority’.

In a detailed interview after her talk, she explained the relevance of digital anthropology, one of the growing fields of importance in the world of technological innovation and her work in digitization of education and more. Excerpts:

What role does technology play in the higher education sector?

Today, the higher education sector is leveraging technology in interesting ways. For instance, I designed a massive open online course (MOOC) on ‘Emerging art markets in the digital age’ in partnership with Art Review, UK. The course was centred around internet and global art markets, and how new media technologies serve as game changers in a rapidly changing art world.

Through this MOOC, we connected art professionals and students from across the world including students at Erasmus University. This serves as an example of how academia can design online courses that are fairly affordable and accessible and thereby sustainable in the higher education system. It also offers a template to other programmes on how to go about instilling interdisciplinary learning and engagement with real-world practitioners.

How can digital storytelling technique be applied in the classroom?

Students in my class create storytelling videos as part of their core assignments to explain their arguments in ways that are accessible and engaging to the public. For my innovations in higher education, I was awarded the Erasmus University Education prize in 2017.

What is 'Digital Anthropology' and why is it relevant today?

Basically, it is a fancy way of saying that this approach focuses on how people make sense of and use technology in their everyday lives. This has manifested in entire new areas of study such as UX (user experience), user centered design, and user behaviour analytics and more. The essential point here is that however well developed a technology is, if you do not understand what motivates people to adopt these innovations, you are bound to fail.

There is an equal or perhaps more need of digital anthropology than innovation then.

Absolutely. A digital anthropologist understands the usage of tech on the internet. That enables us to know how the architecture/design of technology is shaping interactions.

Big data analytics is one of the most sought-after fields today. But how do you ensure the data set is free of errors in the presence of bogus accounts, unfair assumptions and parallel economies? Therefore data investigation and understanding human interactions on the digital front becomes critical.

You have integrated global south and feminist thoughts into your works on technology.

The idea of development in the last century has mostly been paternalistic -- policies designed for a ‘lesser other’. Such policies do not work any more in a world where people from African to the South-Asian countries claim themselves to be global citizens. They no more want a second rate service.

For developing technology that suits the new aspirational needs of a nation, the State needs to extend support -- like China did for its tech sector. As a result of this, you see, the country now stands as the sole contender to the silicon valley.

The problem is we are glorifying the poor today so much that we have almost made them asexual beings. They too have desires and aspirations, in fact, may be more as they live in degraded conditions.

Technology has become their only source of entertainment.

Therefore, first we need to understand the spectrum of desires and then see which of these are natural and legitimate without being vigilante.

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