In his study of the connections among technology, politics and society across the globe, Ramesh Srinivasan, an associate professor of information studies at UCLA, has explored revolutions in Egypt and Kyrgyzstan and the role of digital media in supporting indigenous and non-western communities. He has done fieldwork on Native American reservations, in Bolivia and in the Oaxacan region of Mexico.
As one of the foremost critics of top-down, black-box technology, Srinivasan, the founder of UC Digital Cultures Lab, has voiced concern about Facebook’s emergence as a space for news, given the cultural and political biases of our networks, and algorithms. In sharing his findings with the likes of the Washington Post, CNN, Fusion, MSNBC, TED Talks, Al Jazeera and National Public Radio, Srinivasan has envisioned a new future for the internet more in line with the experiences and agendas of its diverse users.
In his new book, “Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Impacts Our World” (New York: NYU Press, 2017), Srinivasan points to a way forward past the echo chambers, filter bubbles and black boxes of today to an environment where companies like Facebook and Google better serve the public interest.
Before joining the UCLA departments of Information Studies and Design Media Arts in 2015, Srinivasan earned his Ph.D. in design studies at Harvard; his master’s degree in media arts and science at MIT; and his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering at Stanford. He has served fellowships in MIT’s Media Laboratory in Cambridge and Media Lab Asia in India. Srinivasan has also been a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Design and Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard.
Joanie Harmon, editor of Ampersand, talked to him about technology, new media, and their tenuous relationship with access, information and, ultimately, democracy.
How has the digital landscape evolved over the years?
We’re at the point where the promise of the internet as a fundamentally democratic space is endangered. It’s important to remember that the internet first started as a community network. The first online communities were actual counterculture communities — generally in Northern California — of people who shared a culture, identity and values.
As the scale of the internet expanded — there are now 3-4 billion people on the internet, connected mostly through their mobile phones — the challenge [became] how to develop technologies to connect people on that incredible scale, with an eye toward economic gain. In so doing, organizations — from search engines to social network companies — started to recognize that the best thing they could do is develop various sources and systems to analyze and connect people across their data.
How did this distort the original “grassroots” origins of online communities?
The notion of community where people are speaking to and learning from one another has increasingly been replaced by an invisible, out-of-touch manner through which users are engaging with the larger world. We don’t always know how the information that comes from our fingertips is curated or selected, how it’s chosen, or what data are being collected about us. All of these are mechanisms over which users have no control.
How does this play out in today’s political climate?
There is an incredibly important democratic challenge to the way the internet has been co-opted by a limited number of political and commercial forces. Our social network systems are generally made up of people with whom we have political similarities. We confirm our own biases through those systems and algorithms. Social media provide the perfect conduit to actually divide the American public and engage with the sorts of sound-bite comments that Trump and his administration are making.
Increasingly throughout the world, people are experiencing the internet through platforms that are black boxes, specifically, Facebook and Google. Those platforms have become our gateways not only to the larger digital world, but to the world of news itself.
There are over 1.8 billion users of Facebook and about the same for Google. People are under the impression — although now less so after the 2016 presidential election — that those systems are allowing them to connect to the wider world. And, on some level, it is. But on a lot of other levels, those systems are actually locking us down and blocking us from understanding one another.
How can the internet be restored to its original purpose of providing access and information to diverse audiences?
My book looks at positive and, I hope, inspiring examples by which technology, new media and the internet have worked together successfully. I’ve done collaborations with a number of diverse communities, from political activists and movements like Black Lives Matter to villages and rural communities around the world that are rarely thought of when we think of the internet, because they’re so often misunderstood.
The largest internet in terms of language is totally disconnected from the English language. There’s a whole Chinese internet existing in parallel. I’m not saying that it needs to be connected to the English-language internet, but our assumptions of what the digital world is come from a Western perspective and are challenged by what is happening in China. This adds to the complications I’m describing.
There has always been this tension about whether [social media] are a public space and/or utility or whether they are being co-opted by private organizations or companies. I’m not asking companies like Facebook or Google to actually publish their software codes for how they are connecting or not connecting us, but I am asking them to give us some choices as we experience the digital world.
Google and Facebook provide incredibly valuable services. But those services shouldn’t be a contract where we have no power over the experiences they provide for us. The internet needs a revolution so that we can think about how it’s designed, whose agendas are being served, and how potentially it empowers us to have better, more humane conversations with one another.
This Q&A is posted on Ampersand, an online magazine of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.