‘Imagine a future where everyone could express himself…’

Deb Roy in a January, 2014 photo. Photo: Joi Ito via Wikimedia commons  

Deb Roy founded and leads the Laboratory for Social Machines at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which studies human interaction online to create more responsive governments and systems. He is also Chief Media Scientist at Twitter. He spoke to Rukmini S. in New Delhi about the lab’s plans in India

For the laboratory’s work on governance change, I believe that two of the main issues you’re looking at are gender inequality and literacy?

Yes. My view from the outside is there is a lot of attention these days in India to gender inequality in general and safety for girls and women in particular, and to the degree to which there is an intersection between those issues and the public sphere, we may have relevant work.

To give you a very simple example: look at the share of men versus women in the public sphere. Take the elections in India and all the conversation on Twitter, of which I know there was a significant scale — tens of millions of tweets reaching far more people. One could ask the question — whose voices are being heard in an important event like that and what’s the share of voice?

Let’s say you believe that the share of voice should match the share of feet on the ground, then maybe there are things that can be done to start moving that. Our little lab at MIT is not going to move share of voice of India, but we may be able to analyse and shed some light on what it looks like and why and there might be interesting, actionable insights for people who do have their hands on levers.

When you talk about effecting governance change through the internet, the most marginalised Indians are also the ones without access. In addition to connectivity, you’ve talked of alternatives to text to bring in these people.

Yes, definitely. Say you set the goal of universal access to the internet for every person in India. Then you work backwards: what are all the barriers to having universal access? There’s a set of technological and economic barriers, and then there’s a set of human skill barriers.

On the technology side, it is things like connectivity. What I’ve been learning over my last week here is that there are massive changes in the works for the footprint of 3G and 4G connectivity.

That still leaves standing the economics of what it would take to access that data. From what I’m learning of the shifts in the government in India with the Narendra Modi transition, there’s probably going to be a lot of support to have universal access so that may help with the economics. So that’s connectivity.

Then there’s the actual device that you connecting with. The good news there is you can now get a smartphone that runs apps on a serious operating system that connects to the internet for under Rs.2,000 and we all know which direction those prices will move and the speed. On the technological barriers, you can see the right direction for change for both data and hardware.

On the human side, there are two kinds of literacy blockers. There’s literacy in being able to understand the information, and then there’s computer or digital literacy challenge. First of all, both of them are clearly bridgeable — it requires the person to have the time and support to learn.

I think digital literacy is very easy to learn, even for grown-ups, let alone children. And then it comes to the literacy of dealing with letters. “Literacy versus letteracy” is a wonderful turn of phrase that one of the founders of MIT’s Media Lab, Seymour Papert taught me years ago. He said: why is literacy equated with ‘letteracy’? From a technology point of view, what that suggests is that there might be alternative paths to knowledge.

I’m actually ‘pro-letteracy’. But I think there’s interesting technology that can in the short term create bridges. If you are a 40-year-old woman with four children in rural Uttar Pradesh and trying to bootstrap your own savings account, maybe you’re not going to sit back and learn ‘letteracy’. It’s kind of a luxury because every day you’ve got priorities that are immediate.

However if there was an app on your smartphone that helped you do that thing you’re trying to do today and you could just speak or listen and use it, you probably would get over the digital literacy gap that much easier.

Then if every time you interacted with the information in spoken form, there was a textual version next to it, maybe that would become an en route to ‘letteracy’ without having to create all this learning time and space separately which is a luxury a lot of people don’t have. So for those reasons I see the work on spoken interfaces as highly relevant particularly in India because of the scale of impact that it could have.

You’ve worked on creating response loops between people and governments — but is the problem really one of bringing people’s voices to governments, or what governments choose to do or not do with it?

Totally agree. I think there’s huge amount of work ahead to get towards workable responsive systems for a feedback loop….The kind of social action today that you see enabled by social media, especially real-time and fast and at-scale digital networks, is best characterised as ad hoc and disruptive. It’s easier to protest, easier to have suddenly in a moment a big voice and suddenly to have big impact in the moment.

There’s a lot of theory on paper, legal structures, governance structures that are supposed to work like that — they just don’t work, because of the friction in the system that buries information.

If you are a high-ranking person in the government of India, just imagine looking down at a picture of the country you serve and the billion-plus people. Or let’s say you’re in some ministry and you are supposed to be doing something for your ministry — beyond knowing that there’s this couple of million people, this mass out there and you can slowly broadcast some policies, you’re in the dark; you’re staring into the darkness. You don’t know where they are, what they’re doing and the feeling is mutual.

The internet opens up this mutual visibility which sets a new set of possibilities in motion. Lots of work to be done, but I’m a technology optimist — it is technology that is opening up this set of possibilities but it is raw right now.

What work are you going to be doing in India?

We don’t know yet. My purpose here for these two weeks was to in various settings explain ourselves and explain what we’re interested in doing here. I have had some conversation with high-level folks in the government to get an understanding of the issues.

It is clear that there is a serious embrace of digital technology. I think the Prime Minister’s personal embrace of Twitter is symbolic of a much bigger embrace of the government’s leveraging Twitter specifically and the internet more generally. So lots of interesting areas where I think my lab at MIT could be helpful.

Imagine a future where everyone could express himself and you had a way to coalesce and map the conversations down to children in every village — it is hard to comprehend how that can change this country. There is something about literacy and language in particular in rural India that I find personally very interesting.

Likewise with gender equality, I think that a lot of issues around gender equality have such deep-rooted origins in culture, in what happens privately in the homes which are not areas that we’re trying to go into. I think that we’re very interested in the public sphere and at the interface of the private and public.

For example, in a public setting in a street in Delhi, what happens if people do adopt a behaviour of publicly reporting things in the moment on a smartphone?

What if police could be responsive to that? What if journalists had access to the same data and analytics? Now, there are citizens on the streets of Delhi who think it’s worth taking personal action, because there’s a system. That system doesn’t exist today on the streets of Delhi, but technologically we can make it happen.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 8:30:14 PM |

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