In his study of the digital activism that surfaced within the Arab Spring movement, Ramesh Srinivasan has examined the way new media technologies influence — and are influenced — by social, cultural, economic and political dynamics. He’s also looked at how technologies like social media can support economic and political mobilization for people in rural India, the indigenous populations of Bolivia and Native Americans in the United States.
Realizing that many other scholars across the UC system also want to know more about the role that digital technology plays in a global context, Srinivasan, an associate professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, established the UCLA Center for Global Digital Cultures this spring to create a focal point for a myriad of experts with diverse interests from across the UC system to work together in this expanding field for the first time.
“There are a number of fantastic people across the UC system who are doing work that explores technologies from a cultural perspective,” said Srinivasan. “They are interested in thinking about how these tools can serve people from different cultures. This question connects with issues around politics, design, cultural heritage, economic development, democracy and government, and the environment.”
The mission of the new UCLA Center for Global Digital Cultures, he explained, is not just to serve as another think tank for scholars, but to foster collaboration with community-based groups to gain a better understanding of the role that digital technology plays in these communities and to present research.
“Bringing together a number of eminent scholars and graduate students who do this type of work was really the charge of my idea to start the center,” Srinivasan said. “There was no space for these individuals to come together to think about our world today, where six billion people own mobile phones, what that means and how that can be understood relative to people’s values, aspirations and priorities.”
Plans are being made to collaborate with Native-American communities around conversations focused on the environment and climate change, and for an event to be held in collaboration with at least three high schools in South Los Angeles.
“There are two major distinctions between the center and many others that exist,” Srinivasan explained. “One is that we are interested in culture first [before] digital technology. The center will explore every theme of the human experience today, including labor, politics, citizenship and identity.
"Secondly, we intend to put together events in collaboration with the types of communities that we, as scholars, work with, and we claim to serve. We are bringing people together to do work that is meaningful and outward,” he said.
In his own research, Srinivasan examines “[digital] tools in the hands of people … who are at the margins of political and economic power.” He said that the mission of UCLA’s Center for Global Digital Cultures is to create a better understanding of on-the-ground use of digital media within these populations.
“Our goal is to look at technology and media practices that already exist in these communities to see how we can learn from them and support them in various ways,” he said. “The model we’re attempting to establish is less about talking and lecturing, and more about collaborative workshopping, where, in many cases, we will learn more from the communities with which we partner than vice versa. Our idea is to learn from them, rather than to teach them, and to understand the challenges and opportunities around digital learning and inequality, to positively influence the various types of barriers that these communities and students have historically faced.”
Srinivasan said that a possible collaboration with the UCLA history department to study the legacy of digital technology in the Arab Spring movement is in the talking stages currently. He is also at work on a book that examines power, voice and identity in this era where digital media technologies are omnipresent. The book — with a working title of “Whose Global Village?” — is slated for release on NYU Press next year.
“It’s exciting that the UCLA Center for Digital Global Cultures exists,” said Srinivasan. “There is a need for us to understand the distribution of technology that is respectful of the cultural, political and social realities that people are facing around the world. At the end of the day, these devices are not transcendent or magical. They are tools, and tools are always dependent upon what people do with them.”
Before arriving at UCLA in 2005, Srinivasan was a lecturer at UC San Diego in the College of Art, Culture and Technology. In his academic career, he also served as a visiting professor at Stanford in the Freeman-Spoegli Institute, and at UC Santa Cruz in the departments of Anthropology and Digital Arts/New Media.
Professor Srinivasan earned a Ph.D. in design studies at Harvard; a master’s degree in media arts and science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering at Stanford. He has served fellowships in MIT’s media laboratories in Cambridge and in Asia. He has also been a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Design and Department of Visual and Environmental Design at Harvard.
Srinivasan is a regular speaker for TEDx Talks and contributes frequently to NPR, Al Jazeera, “The Young Turks” and Public Radio International. His writings have been widely published by Al Jazeera English, the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.
This story first appeared in Ampersand, an online magazine of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.