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Ramesh Srinivasan on Digital Diversity at Center for Civic Media

Ramesh Srinivasan is a designer who’s found himself pulled into cultural anthropology by his fascination with “digital diversity”. Some of the lessons he’s learned from this work found articulation in a piece in the Washington Post this weekend, which address the role of social media in the Arab Spring. More broadly, Srinivasan is intrigued by two questions:

– How do new networked technologies impact cultures and communities worldwide? Politically? In terms of economic development? Cultural history and memory?

– From a cultural perspective, how do we design and build new technologies? How do the ways we talk about the world, our ethics and cultures engage with technological construction?

One of the key tools in Srinivasan’s toolkit is the ontology, which he describes as a structured way to examine “theories of what exist”. Describing the world in terms of hierarchies (i.e., a plant is an example of a living thing, has characteristics including leaves, roots and flowers, requires light and water to produce food, etc.) is, Srinivasan, a western construct that’s not always how a community considers local knowledge. But Srinivasan believes we can learn a great deal about how communities think about knowledge both by trying to structure their knowledge into ontologies and by understanding how they traditionally structure their knowledge.

To illustrate this idea, Srinivasan shows us some alternative ways to map physical space. A map from the Qiche tribe in Peru is radial, not Cartesian. The image of a crocodile is an Aboriginal map, a visualization of the song lines that criss-cross an area in rural Australia, a drawing of a God as well as a practical map of the landscape. Srinivasan wonders if we’re creating technologies that are this diverse, or whether we’re facing a world where most technologies are produced within one conceptual and value system and exported.

Documenting the diversity of technological development and conceptualization is one way to answer this complex question. He shows us some “surprising” images of mobile phones, which have become surprisingly familiar to those of us who work in international development: the Indian sadhu talking on a phone, the fisherman who called from offshore to warn villagers living on the beach of a tidal wave. We can either see these as exciting examples of how western technology has diffused to India, or disappointing indications that local alternatives haven’t been well developed. As Srinivasan points out, these examples aren’t disappointing to Nokia, which has dispatched ethnographers like Jan Chipchase to understand local use and appropriation of technologies.

But to study technological diversity, we may need to look at how cultures create, mobilize and design technologies, and how we might engage in codesign with them. One of Srinivasan’s early experiments brought video cameras into Andhra Pradesh to see how people would use the equipment to tell their own stories. He notes that stories are important – Amartya Sen has described poverty as a “ritual”, a circumstance that’s repeated fatalistically, limiting people’s ability to escape from their circumstances. Given a way of telling stories differently, would communities find different solutions and escape existing paradigms? Would they increase consensus around controversial issues? The main discovery he made was that media usage expanded far beyond the few people he trained to use the cameras. They were used to document wrongdoings, to start debates about local change, to screen videos on the side of local temples. He sees the work as confirmation of the theories of Henry Jenkins and Mimi Ito about the importance of self-representation through creation of media.

A similar project designed to document agricultural knowledge in rural Kyrgyzstan started along parallel lines, though fueled with significantly more vodka. (Pro tip: when it requires drinking 17 shots of vodka with your research subjects to get them to participate in your research, as it did for Srinivasan, it’s wise to throw at least a few glasses over your shoulder. Trust me on this one.) But his explorations in rural Kyrgyzstan led him to become interested in the urban elites who were blogging (and drinking cognac instead of vodka.) The bloggers he met were intensely political, involved with the ouster of Bakiev last year, and had reason to believe they would be arrested had they met in person. Srinivasan sees the Kyrgyz example as a counterpoint to Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that social media is used by people connected via weak ties. In Kyrgyzstan, there were strong ties between people involved with blogging – they simply interacted online because it was so dangerous to interact offline.

In Kyrgyzstan, Srinivasan became fascinated by the ways online and offline networks interconnected. Bridge figures made links between networks of labor activists and online activists – most of the former were offline, but a single figure who understood labor activism and the online space could connect the disparate networks and help coordinate their actions. Recently Srinivasan has been studying the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution and questioning those who’ve evangelized the role of social media in the protests. He notes that the people being followed by journalists and aggregators like Andy Carvin and Mona ElTawahy are not necessarily representative of the people organizing on the street. He’s engaged in a debate with (my friend and colleague) Zeynep Tufekçi, who is examining synergies and common ground between some of the groups represented in Tahrir Square. Srinivasan believes that there’s less overlap between disparate groups who briefly united in Tahrir and is more intrigued by the idea that different groups (Salafists, liberal reformists) have separate, bridged networks that include offline and online activists. Understanding how those networks work, and how they interact online would offer a richer understanding of the forces that shaped the Egyptian revolution that concluding that social media is a common ground for all protest. In fact, he argues, some of his friends in Egypt told him they were insulted that non-Egyptians were positing the idea that technology had made this complex bridging possible – the magic of Tahrir was human, not technological connection.

How does all this inform design? Srinivasan has an ongoing project working with Native communities in southern California, who live in a series of reservations east of San Diego. The reservations are physically separated, and it’s hard to get from one to another, even if they’re only a few dozen miles apart, as there’s no infrastructure to connect them. Srinivasan has been interested in the idea that you could create a digital village through wireless infrastructure that could somehow provide some coherence in the face of pressing problems like crime and alcoholism.

One of the problems his communities face is a loss of collective memory. The people in these communities come from the coast and have traditions of fishing and farming. They now live in arid desert hills where neither is possible. In the wake of separation and dislocation, how do we document and remember? Srinivasan has used digital cameras to help document physical objects and “fluid ontologies”, semantic maps to understand local knowledge. A surprising number of people – roughly 10% of the population of the reservations – have been involved with proposing pieces of local knowledge that belong in an ontology.

These ontologies can have practical implications to address community problems. In Mysore, India, Srinivasan is helping build a government public grievance system, which accepts input from paper, phone or web. One of the major problems with the system is that ordinary people describe their problems using different language than governments use. The government describes a flooded street as “water-logging”, a term no one in the community knew or understood. Through interview, Srinivasan found 65 other terms and phrases used to describe the condition and built an ontological map that “translated” from the state’s worldview to the people’s. The idea is to build systems around the language and ontologies people actually use and map that into the government’s language and reality.

This same idea comes into play in trying to bridge gaps between a Zuni community and the museums who hold many Zuni artifacts. As museums digitize collections (part of a process of returning ritual objects to their rightful owners), whose ontologies do they use? The language of geologists, where a pot is “a lump of concretion”? An art object with date, origin and maker? An object with a ritual purpose? Something that reminds you of your grandmother’s pot?

For inspiration (and, I sense, a bit of desire for adventure), Srinivasan traveled to Papua New Guinea in the hopes of getting to Bosavi Crater, an extremely isolated spot that features odd species like fanged frogs, 5 foot long rats (rodents of unusual size?) and tree kangaroos. The incredible ecological diversity of PNG is complemented by linguistic diversity, where over 700 languages coexist. Diversity seems to thrive in isolation – connection can lead to the elimination of diversity. How do we build systems that bridge between networks and respect sovereignty? How do we respect emergent diversity and learn by bridging local ecosystems? Can we avoid the problems of echo chambers and isolation, without sacrificing diversity to unitary systems and algorithms?

It’s a hell of a set of questions, and Srinivasan does a great job of concretizing the challenges through his examples. Most useful to me in his talk was the observation that you can look for bridges between networks by looking for “incommensurability”. Look at how one group of people maps and understand a space and layer it atop another ontology and look for where they differ. Those differences are opportunities to bridge, not the similarities. People who are straddling the networks and helping people resolve the incommensurabilities are the ones doing the hard work of bridging. It’s a fantastic observation, and a clue for me that ontologies may be a powerful tool for understanding some of the questions I’m most interested in.