Telling a Different Story about Technology, with Ramesh Srinivasan

I first met Ramesh Srinivasan at a conference in 2018, when we bonded over asking difficult questions during a discussion about supporting frontline environmental defenders. Ramesh is a technologist who grounds his work in human experiences. He has traveled the world to report on innovative ways that local communities are making technology their own. Since our first meeting, I’ve followed his work and writing closely, from his groundbreaking book Whose Global Village? Rethinking how Technology Shapes our World to his most recent book, Beyond the Valley: How Innovators Around the World are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow. When we launched our Technology Solidarity series, I knew I wanted to speak with him.

The following is a shortened transcript of a conversation we had in May.

Emily: I always like to begin with the question, “Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?”

Ramesh: I’ve been teaching at UCLA for 15 years. I have a pretty diverse background in the sense that I have training in engineering and applied math, and I’ve also trained in cultural studies, ethnic studies, and visual anthropology. The question of humanizing technology is at the core of who I am. Outside of that I consider myself a humanist and an activist. I’ve stood with movements, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to Stop LAPD Spying. I was an informal advisor and a national surrogate for Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign.

My core comes from a very spiritual basis. I’m an engaged Buddhist and meditation practitioner. What really drives me is a sense of justice and love. I believe in service to others and it brings so much joy to oneself as well.

Emily: Thank you for that beautiful introduction. When you hear “technology solidarity” or “data solidarity,” what does that mean to you?

Ramesh: Solidarity is an explicitly political term. For some people when they hear that term, it reminds them of all the intense amounts of polarization that we feel politically today, especially with the rise of Neo-fascism all over the world. But to me solidarity is about love.

It is a recognition of our interconnectedness. When we boil down solidarity outside of its political meaning, we can imagine technology that lifts all of us up, rather than elevating some at the cost of others. Let’s experiment with these efforts rather than live dominated by the myth that another’s gain is my loss. So for me solidarity is rooted in that principle of community connectedness. We are at the core social beings and it’s time we recognize that with our technology.

Emily: Something that you’ve written about and that we’ve also been thinking about is the fact that technology is not neutral. Can you speak more about the concept of neutrality and what values are being embedded in the technologies we’re using?

Ramesh: Technology, just like science itself, doesn’t come out of a vacuum. We decide to study certain phenomena on a scientific level based on what we’re interested in. Every aspect of human expression is built upon bias and subjectivity. There’s nothing wrong with that — that’s actually part of what makes us human.

The first node of the internet, the ARPANET, was started here at UCLA and connected to Stanford. It was publicly funded; it is an example of how innovations were funded and supported thanks to social and public investments. But what occurs, again and again — we’ve seen it with the internet and we’ve seen it with other industries — is that the investments are socialized, the costs are socialized, but everything later becomes privatized.

I wrote a piece for The Guardian after my last book came out called, “Why Americans Need a Digital Bill of Rights,” where I said that we can’t have this model any longer. The private, for-profit internet has created so many profound costs, from disinformation gone bananas, to the gig economy, which is exploitative of working people, to AI systems that are racist and homophobic and sexist, to massive swaths of surveillance capitalism. None of that is going to serve 99.9% of us and it’s not going to serve our future. All it’s going to do is pull us further apart and extend the gross inequalities that we are witnessing in our world today.

Emily: Absolutely. In Beyond the Valley you discuss how certain technology companies have positioned themselves as liberators who allow us to “speak freely and connect with people all over the world.” You write, “Behind the spectacle of expression, data is captured, attention is monetized and surveillance is legitimated.” I’ve been thinking about this in regards to this moment of Coronavirus Pandemic, as more and more of our civic life is being moved into virtual spaces. What is your perspective on the current moment with our dependency on these tools? Are there any opportunities for changing our relationship with them?

Ramesh: I’m very troubled, but there’s an opportunity in moments like this for a real reckoning, for a full scale transformation of our political and economic system. We see more than ever why universal health care and universal basic income, or even a completely different kind of economy run on cooperatives, collectivity and worker power are all so important right now, because we see the disparity. That is why I am so heartened by the brave and powerful wave of protests we see fighting for Black lives and justice all over the nation and the world.

Whether in a period of pandemic or outside of it, we often turn to use technologies without understanding what transaction costs are associated with their use. As we can see now it’s important for us to understand what is at stake when we use Zoom versus, for example, an open source tool. As increasingly our ways of communicating with one another, building with one another and economically transacting with one another, as all of these things are mediated through the internet and digital technology because we now have less choice than ever. We are repeating a very common theme, which is just using tools because they’re there, rather than understanding the potential hidden costs, and that is not necessarily our fault. That is the business model that has dominated the so-called Digital Economy. It’s the fact that every industry, and even politics itself is increasingly technologically mediated whether it’s insurance, banking, housing or the so-called criminal justice system. Everything is digitally mediated, and we just continue to presume that all these things are neutral.

These hidden shadowy parties that are digitally mediating all of our experiences continue to do so without disclosing to us what is at stake, and giving us actual choice. Even in a capitalist economy, consumers are supposed to have open choice in a so-called free market. It’s not just a socialist or progressive kind of approach that is critical of what’s going on. It’s anybody who believes in a society where people have some rights and voice.

Naomi Klein has written very cogently about what she calls disaster capitalism and the Shock Doctrine. What we’re seeing again here is what she calls Coronavirus Capitalism. Decisions during the pandemic are being shoved down people’s throats by these systems of power. I have so much admiration for the workers and now citizens that have been striking, these forms of civil disobedience. The problem is, even though we are the masses, we have very little economic security and we live in a precarious state. Americans live paycheck to paycheck. So many are homeless and on the streets. This is the first generation in the history of this country to make less than their parents income-wise, even when you adjust for inflation. The life expectancy in this country is dropping for the first time in its history. These are signs of a society experiencing sickness and decay. And the only way to transform it is to completely invert the way power functions. I think this is honestly what’s at stake.

Emily: I know you’ve studied extensively the ways in which Indigenous people all over the world are making technologies for themselves. Can you talk about your field research in Oaxaca and the work that Rhizomatica is doing?

Ramesh: What we see across the world are experiments that reveal a different story about technology outside of manipulation and exploitation. We see communities building, reimagining, creating and deploying technologies they’re designing, engineering and conceiving of themselves. They’re even developing metaphorical and cosmological understandings of technology from the perspective of being part of a community. This is solidarity from feeling a sense of identity related to an indigenous history or language, in an ontological way, like the way you see or express the world.

People have to hustle because they don’t have so many of the things that we all take for granted, in parts of the so-called developed or post-industrial world. That includes basic stuff like cell phone access. They’re interested in having access to a mobile phone, not to get on Facebook per se, but to keep in touch with their relatives who might have migrated to the United States from Oaxaca.

This model of innovation is one where brilliant ingenuity and creativity can come as a product of scarcity and constraints. What we see occurring in Oaxaca and so many other regions of the world are communities saying, “Hey, we want connectivity via technology. We want to use cell phones, but on our terms.”

In Oaxaca, people living in remote regions and cloud forests saw that the power structures were not providing them with cell phones because they are not wealthy, so they said, “We can build it ourselves.”

That is what’s happening in southern Mexico. We’ve seen this in Chiapas as well, which is a neighboring state of Oaxaca. They are building their own cell phone networks, their own mesh networks. How are these people doing this? The networks are collectively owned, designed and created. And often it’s the women who are in charge.

There are networks like this sprouting up all over the world—in Argentina, South Africa, even in Detroit with Allied Media’s Community Technology Project. A resilient network in Red Hook helped in Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy hit. We see these efforts occurring all over the world and they reflect a completely different direction for technology. Technology rooted in the equity of people, where everybody gains from the effort.

The majority of the world’s population — about six or so billion people — have some form of internet connectivity, mainly through mobile phones. We see people in so many cases creating their own experiences of technology. In Beyond the Valley, I discuss these kinds of efforts. And that’s not confined to building networks — you also see things like solar powered internet routers, or people taking electronic waste and fabricating new devices, repairing technologies, recycling technologies, even building 3d printers. Something like 60% of electronic waste in Kenya is being recycled. If you shift your lens and actually look at what people do with respect, rather than thinking you know the world or can command it like an empire, you see a lot that warms your heart and inspires you. That’s why I have such a level of optimism around what could happen.

Emily: We’ve both seen different disasters spark innovation at the community level versus the top-down approach. It does make me feel hopeful about what can happen in this moment, as we see that our current systems are failing people.

Ramesh: There is that possibility but we are in an attentional vacuum, where we really need political and movement-based leaders to show us the way. However, with the wave of civil rights protests we now see across the country and the world, hope is being revealed; a moment of reckoning is giving way to transformation.

Otherwise, we are going to get stuck in that disaster capitalist model where things are just going to continue to be shut down. Look at the so-called stimulus bills that have passed, how much they’re just compensating corporate buybacks and stock options. This is not the way to care for a society or live in a society where everybody can grow and benefit moving forward. It’s anti-democratic.

Emily: What are your recommendations on who is leading the way? Where can people learn more?

Ramesh: We need mechanisms for all of us to come together and figure out ways to build together in a more explicit manner. We need to build off the power of these global protests with new models of how to live and organize - politically, economically, and technologically. There’s a new initiative called Progressive International, which is organized by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister who is an interesting economist and thinker. This is an initiative that is bringing together scholars, writers, technologists, activists and organizers, from all over the world, from the Sunrise Movement to Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky to Naomi Klein. We’ll be convening virtually.

Emily: Many people who might read this either work with technology for social good, in the nonprofit space or may even fund nonprofit technology projects. What advice do you have for those folks?

Ramesh: I think the key is to not overly focus on the challenges. It’s important to build alternatives on whatever scale is achievable and sustainable. It’s going to take a concerted campaign and effort on different levels to actually rein in a lot of what we see occurring, on a monopolistic level, a regulatory level and on a disinformation level. Economically we’re all going to be increasingly disenfranchised thanks to the ways in which the gig economy is extending itself and even the onset of automation. It’s important for people who are interested in transformations of technology to do what they can. It’s not easy to confront such a massive consolidation of power.

Building these local networks like we discussed, in Oaxaca, or what we’ve seen occur with the Detroit Community Technology Project. They might not supplant the scale-based dominance of Facebook or Amazon, but they are extremely meaningful in their own right since they operate with a completely different logic - supportive and collective rather than extractive and manipulative. More and more people now know that there’s another way of engaging with digital technology. You don’t have to bow down to companies like AT&T and Verizon that provide us terrible internet service at higher costs than almost any other country in the world. We don’t have to accept these terms, we can build our own alternatives.

You might say, how’s that actually going to happen? Well we’ve seen suburbs right here in Los Angeles, even wealthy suburbs like Palos Verdes, they’re building their own ISP right now. Why are they doing that? Because they realize that they can provide their citizens better internet service and access at a far lower cost. All sorts of different actors can get involved to transform this and it’s just going to have to occur, because we are the 99.9% — not even the 99%. We can look for third spaces, and we can have power over transforming our own lives.

Do what you can do to enact positive transformational change in that spirit of solidarity. Don’t feel like you have to take on the entire behemoth of the current situation and problem, and know that just by doing what you can, that is actually part of this transformation. We’re talking about the short-term game and the long, long-term game. Someone might ask, why does it matter that a village in Oaxaca built its own DIY network in the cell phone era? Well it matters not only because it transformed their lives in a really incredible way, but it also matters because it reflects a very different direction for technology. It matters because now all of us know that we can do it.