A renowned scholar of media and the internet, Ramesh Srinivasan explores how society, politics and culture across the world interact through technology. He studies its impact on workers, economic security, democracy and politics, artificial intelligence and ethics, and more. His research has covered revolutions like the Arab Spring, fieldwork in Native American reservations, studies in South America and Mexico and examinations of new media technologies’ impact on political revolutions, economic development, poverty reduction and the future of cultural heritage.
Srinivasan has worked with bloggers who have overthrown the authoritarian Kyrgyz regime, non-literate tribal populations in India and traditional Native American communities to study how non-Western understandings of the world can introduce new ways of looking at cultural heritage, how literacy emerges through uses of technology and the future of the internet and networked technologies. Srinivasan’s work has impacted contemporary understandings of media studies, anthropology and sociology, design and economic and political development studies.
In his new book, “Beyond the Valley: How Innovators Around the World Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow,” (MIT Press, 2019) Srinivasan shares the possibility of bridging the disconnect between designers and users, producers and consumers and tech elites in order to create a more democratic internet worldwide. The book provides a look at the work done in the “design labs” of rural, low-income and indigenous people around the world. It also includes the perspectives of high-profile public figures like community organizers, labor leaders and human rights activists and their collective vision of a new ethic of digital diversity, openness and inclusivity.
Srinivasan has served as a faculty member in the UCLA Department of Information Studies and UCLA Design Media Arts since 2005. He is the founder and current director of the University of California-wide Digital Cultures Lab, which explores the meaning of technology as it spreads to the far reaches of the world.
Ampersand discussed the potential of a more democratic and inclusive internet with Srinivasan, with a look at the position of trillion-dollar corporations that often — sometimes unwittingly — exploit vulnerable populations; the promise of digital technology as a means to improve economic conditions in developing nations; and the ability of technology to help uncover and prevent human rights violations.
How does looking “Beyond the Valley” uncover the impact of technology on the world’s constantly growing inequality?
This book is focused on technology’s role in all of our lives across the world. Its focus is on how internet technologies are impacting economics, the future of labor, elections and democracy and the cultural realities experienced by people across the world. It is written for a general public and is written so that anybody, no matter where they are or who they are, could have interest in this book because all of our lives are being affected by the astonishing spread of technology.
A main point I make in the book is that it’s not just about technology [but] about whose voices and whose agendas drive the development of technology, the ways in which technologies are monetized and essentially, who profits from technology. We are at a moment where a few trillion-plus dollar Western corporations and a couple of Chinese companies dominate the internet experience for pretty much everybody across the world.
As a result, those technological experiences for people across the world might be beneficial to them as users — we have about 4 to 5 billion people on the internet right now. But it is also creating incredible profit and value in ways that we don’t understand. Nor do these companies, who are not obligated to be accountable to the public or even necessarily to their users. They’re obligated to be accountable to only one thing and one thing only, which is their shareholders. They are private companies, completely [profiting] off a public experience.
How have populations outside of the tech elite been able to harness the internet’s potential to create inclusivity and opportunity?
I give several examples in the book of how different cultures and communities across the world are paving a new path forward, one where they are actually shaping their own destiny associated with technology. Some of those examples are in chapters related to Latin America, where communities have built their own cell phone networks. I’ve also given some examples from Africa and South America, where they are building their own wi-fi networks. Why are they doing that? So that they can design networks that benefit them rather than a company located thousands of miles away.
Click here to read the full Q&A in Ampersand, the magazine of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.