Saturday, June 29, 2019

Brainstorming at the AI & Democracy CIFAR Workshop at Microsoft Research Montreal

I was invited to participate in the 'AI Powered Information Ecosystems & Democracy' workshop held at the Microsoft Research Lab in Montreal and sponsored by CIFAR

The premise of this workshop was to engage a "diverse groups of researchers from academia and industry with practitioners and civil society representatives, to encourage collaborations between those involved in the research and development of computations tools with those with focused expertise in policy, journalism, civil rights, and democratic values."

The basis of this workshop was to outline all the opportunities and challenges that AI-powered information ecosystems (like social media, search engines, or content-sharing platforms) have brought upon in recent years and in particular to the strengthening of our democratic institutions around the world.

It was an intense workshop where we worked in core groups on topics such as communities, elections, misinformation, and regulation and when in there, we wrote up proposals that pushed us to outline the problems in each segment, the stakeholders, their roles and responsibilities, creative initiatives, and more. It felt like I was back in school but with some damn smart pupils.

I learnt a lot and also was confronted by a number of different approaches and worldviews, that is humbling as if we as a collective can recognize ongoing tensions among ourselves in how to approach these issues, then indeed this will take far more than just a workshop. But this is still an amazing start.



Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Talking to Tech: Keynote at EMERCE Next in Amsterdam


Wonderful experience speaking as one of the few academics in a room full of young tech entrepreneurs at the EMERCE Next event in Amsterdam. I gave a talk based on my new book 'The Next Billion Users' published by Harvard Press earlier this year. I spoke about the myths that aid agencies and tech industries perpetuate about these new user groups based on their biased understandings of them and rooted in little empirical evidence. Worse yet, even in the face of vast evidence that contradicts these worldviews, this thinking still persists so I hope I was able to disrupt a little bit these conventional approaches. I got questions on Article 13 on copyright policies under the new GDPR which indeed is so far from the world of media piracy in developing countries. I emphasized how we need to look also at why these policies are barely enforced based on historical and unfair media business models in the global south. Other questions grappled with the ways the "West" and the "Rest" are the same and yet different and so how can we build tech going forward?

I learnt a lot from this conference that "brings the technology from tomorrow to today" and how "pioneers and experts, innovators and early adopters talk about the success of ML, VR, AI, IoT, AR, Blockchain and Quantum in marketing and business."

1. Academia has a Pessimism Bias while the Tech world has a Hyper-Optimism bias.

2. When asked how do you know you’re "doing good," Jip Samhoud of Samhoud Media said that it’s about writing down your values and knowing in your heart you are making the world better. Clearly academic discussions on Ethics and Tech have NOT made inroads with young tech peeps.

3. A big part of the blame falls on the shoulders of academia. We urgently need to find common ground/ language with the tech world that speaks about "growth hacking" instead of "surveillance capitalism"; that looks at the future through data maximization instead of data justice.

4. Academia and the Tech industry can be mutually beneficial: Scholars work slow and steady; thereby offer critical/ ethical guidelines. Tech peeps move fast and disruptive; thereby they offer insight on customer desires, needs, demands that scholars should give weight to in their theorizing. We can help them be more reflective while they can help us be more empathetic to the market.

5. Learnt that EU H2020 are funding data analytic entrepreneurs who are innovating and solving problems for the car industry (e.g. Media Distillery) on the taxpayers dime. We should use EU money to pioneer solutions to bridge the growing data inequality that corporations would never fund. I start to wonder what the market of venture capitalism looks like and if taxpayers are indeed subsidizing innovation, what kind of shares and benefits do the tax payers receive when these innovations get adopted and monetized by the private sector?

Anyway, was enlightening...

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Motivational Speaker for Gemeente Amsterdam Diversity Program

I cannot emphasize enough how much I love Amsterdam. It really feels like home for me and that's saying a lot given that I have moved so much since I was a teenager. From India to the United States (San Francisco, New York and Boston), I finally came to the Netherlands about a decade ago. So, was really happy to get an invite from the Gemeente Amsterdam (the Amsterdam municipality) to give a motivational talk for a program they have initiated a few years ago to improve diversity and support those less represented in positions of power.

Of course, usually I associate the municipality with paying my taxes and water bills and all the tedium of city governance. Had to block that Pavlovian training temporarily as I went about participating and speaking about my life story to this wonderful group of young mentees and mentors of this diversity program.

This mentoring program is in partnership with a wonderful organization called ECHO which is an expert organization on diversity policy. It links students/fresh graduates of color to professionals in the public and private sector. It’s a two way street where mentees learn from the professional experience of their mentors and the mentors learn from the challenges mentees face and hopefully reflect on their own blind spots. The idea is this process will hopefully contribute to more diversity and inclusion in the participating organizations.

My motivational speech was part of the closing session. It was good to not speak about academia for a change and focus more on how I got to where I got through the numerous experiments, failures with careers, hopping careers and countries and through this whole process, discovering myself. I spoke about the pressures of being a "token" as an Indian woman in the Netherlands and the responsibilities, privileges, and roles we play to represent entire communities whether we like it or not.

This kind of talk really keeps me grounded and am glad I got an opportunity to do it. 


The Economist coverage of my Next Billion Users book

I have been a loyal subscriber of The Economist for more than a decade. I first got introduced to it during my Masters program in International Policy at Harvard University where everyone pretty much cited it to make their argument. I am well aware of their neo-liberal bias but am always appreciative of their strong voice, international perspective, and innovative lens to very different and often hidden trends in the current societies. 

So, of course I was absolutely thrilled to see an article grounded in my new book 'The Next Billion Users" with Harvard Press titled, How the pursuit of leisure drives internet use.

Some of their quotes from the article are as follows. 

"According to Payal Arora, a professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the internet is the leisure economy of the world’s poor. Until recently, talk of connectivity in the poor world has almost invariably been clothed in the pragmatic and well-meaning language of development. Aid agencies, international bodies and big tech companies told themselves and their funders that poor people needed an internet connection to lift themselves out of misery. They extolled farmers looking up grain prices, women seeking information on maternal health or pupils diligently signing up for online courses. The website for Facebook’s internet.org, an arm of the company focused on bringing unconnected people online, is a classic of the genre: “Imagine the difference an accurate weather report could make for a farmer planting crops, or the power of an encyclopedia for a child without textbooks…The more we connect, the better it gets.”

"In her book “The Next Billion Users”, Ms Arora finds that Westerners assume that poverty “is a compelling enough reason for the poor to choose work over play when they go online.” The poor do not see it that way. Years of fieldwork across the globe have led Ms Arora to conclude that when it comes to getting online, “play dominates work, and leisure overtakes labour.”Where people planning development strategies imagined, metaphorically at least, Blackberries providing new efficiencies and productivity, consumers wanted the chat, apps and games of the iPhone. Worthier uses tend to follow. But they are the cart not the horse."

It feels very validating considering there was much push back from some of my mentors and peers over these years on the usage of "leisure" in development studies - I was told its too peripheral a topic to focus on, I was told to be careful to be associated with such a trivial theme in research and other such warnings. Glad to have not listened to them. 

Keynote for the Digital Inclusion Policy Conference in London

What a wonderful and diverse audience for this keynote for the Digital Inclusion Policy conference held in London by the University of Liverpool. It emerged from some very critical and timely questions such as - What type of skills do people need to ‘be digital’? Do different people from different ages and abilities need different types of skills and training? And how can we foresee what skills will be needed for future work? The conference brought together researchers, civic activists, government think-tanks, policy practitioners, tech entrepreneurs and more from very different contexts and countries which made these conversations more challenging and rewarding. 

My keynote was about Inclusion with the emergence of the Next Billion Users and what that means for equity and justice at a global level in this data-driven age. 

The basis of my talk was as follows:

The mobile phone has been a global game-changer. There are more cellphones than people in China. India is the biggest market for WhatsApp, and Brazil ranks second after the United States as the top Twitter user group worldwide. By 2020, majority of data will come from the Global South. With cheap phones and a vast array of affordable data plans, the next billion users will emerge from outside the West. They are, for the most part, young, low-income but upwardly mobile and extremely enthusiastic users of social media. While this is good news for digital divide policy-makers and practitioners, this talk grapples with how this digital inclusion confronts current concerns on user commodification and tracking in this data-driven society. Is inclusion intrinsically empowering? How do we negotiate the optimism of these new users towards these life changing digital interventions with the growing pessimism of ‘surveillance capitalism’ that signals a dystopic future? Can media literacy, digital activism, and free will serve as a counter force to the bleak visions of ‘algorithmic oppression’? By unpacking some of these questions through the perspective of these next billion users, we may be able to move forward in our joint aspirations for the common good.

6 marathon presentations at the ICA-Washington

It was one of my busiest times I have had at the International Communication Association, the largest annual gathering of communication and media scholars. This year it was held in Washington DC. I presented a diverse set of papers at the main and pre-conference and also landed up having a pre-launch for the new University of California Press journal Global Perspectives where I will serve as the Section Editor for the media and communication section.

It kick-started with me speaking alongside a wonderful panel of speakers - Frank Pasquale and Thomas Poell on 'The Moral order of Datafied Publics' at the Justice and Order in the Datafied Society Pre-conference.  My talk was drawn from the recently published paper with First Monday on Benign Dataveillance? Examining novel data-driven governance systems in India and China. Additionally, did some intellectual judo with Joseph Turow as we clearly had different perspectives on how we viewed the datafication systems in developing countries. While I critiqued the Western-centrism and moral righteousness of the West towards these countries on their approach to democracy and the inherent pessimism bias embedded in Western media studies scholarship, Turow had a far darker and deterministic perspective of this "surveillance capitalism" regime.

Other presentations involved me speaking about my upcoming chapter on Oromo activism and social media for the Sage Handbook of Media and Migration due to come out in 2020. Another paper I was very proud to present on was driven by a very smart student of mine Saskia Muhlbach on Platformization of Cultural Production. Our work was chosen out of more than a 100 paper submissions for their Special Issue. Lastly, I presented on my recently published work Decolonizing privacy studies where I push for a rethinking of the field and re-examining the embedded biases in the approaches to this topic. 

Overall pretty crazy time changing gears from one topic to another but worked out well in the end. Was glad to engage with such a variety of disciplinary experts on topics of datafication and democracy, cultural platformization, digital privacy and surveillance and activism and rights.