Downloading the ‘Social Justice’ App: Rebooting the emerging technologies conversation

Technology is aspirational as well as embedded in the micro practice of everyday life.  Technology has enveloped and ensconced us in its bear hug embrace. Technology has inherent values of its founders which drive its proliferation and its outreach of this sociotechnical construct. Apple, the maker of the now less than iconic iPhone, with its repeated ‘static’ variations believes in the working philosophy of dishing out the cutting edge even if the consumer is not ready, as it creates a white space and then waits for the audience to pick up the tab, such as the headless jack in its latest variant. The product managers at Apple are not the biggest fans of user centric ethnography certainly.

Smart Phones are getting more sophisticated by the day with AR/VR (Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality for the uninitiated such as the latest Samsung Device) external add ons, which redefine the user experience. The digital revolution is the outcome of the twin drivers of a ‘Flat World’ and Globalization (although due to Brexit, the reverse de-globalization is now fashionable), which a less than USD 50 smartphone available in the global south. Prices of data packages have hit rock bottom, due to telecom price wars such as in India with Reliance Jio triggering a market consolidation. As venture capitalist Marc Andreessen had quipped in a lengthy narrative journalistic article in The New Yorker, which Uber happened due to ecosystem effects of GPS, market demand and the smart phone, all of which was not Uber’s contribution [1]. Uber was simply at the right time, at the right place as a transportation technology company. ICT4D or leveraging the power of Information and Communication Technology for Development for bridging the digital divide or for bringing the power of Web 2.0 to the unserved communities in the global south, is carried out as a Bottom of the Pyramid market expansion strategy as the developed markets are not rendering the right margins on the NYSE. Profits are the cornerstone for unleashing the tamed spirits of neoliberal capitalism (pun intended).

As Phillip Mirowski states, neoliberalism is a constructivist political project as it needs the government to actively curate the market space (Mirowski, 2009 in Davies, 2016).

The purpose of this article is not to sing uncritical paeans to the myth and magic of unfettered Silicon Valley style techno capitalism but to breathe back the spirit of social justice into this testosterone fueled paradigm (think about the film Social Network about the founding of Facebook for a cultural analogue). Emerging technologies as a cognitive framework is driving the conversation on ‘Smart Cities’ to ‘Digital India’ in its namesake India to the ‘Smart Nation’ narrative in Singapore. Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan writes eloquently that an idea of a smart city amputates the idea of a city in to an amputated grid of IT technologies without integrating the informal sector of the economy such as the migrants and the scavengers [2].

Prof Visvanathan captures the pulse of the narrative that frames ‘aggressive’ emerging technologies paradigm as a silver bullet to the issues of the day. When political solutions to governance problems dry up, the emerging technologies messaging comes in handy as a smoke screen. Emerging Technology as a concept ties in the growth mindset of neoliberal thought which weaves in with modernity and profit motive very well. The angel investor behind a technology would not share the same egalitarian values as a principal investigator of a National Research Foundation research project. The values of solidarity, liberty and equity are in contradiction with emerging technologies that find resonance in the valuation imperative. The unicorns are the stuff of legends while millions struggle to drink clean water. The market is an exceptional adopter of good ideas whose time has arrived such as financial inclusion through digital resources such as blockchain as physical retail banking assets shall not be required to serve the unbanked consumer, but digital healthcare would still need to be aligned with incumbent public health systems with real doctors to heal the sick.

The context is critical for emerging technologies to be mapped as a social good with embedded values of social inclusion. Science is a social institution and the mainstreaming of an ‘emerging technology’ in the marketplace would require the ethic of social justice, as the consumer who pays for the product or service is ultimately as much a member of the socioeconomic community as the startup founder.

References:

[1] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/18/tomorrows-advance-man (information retrieved on 28th September 2016)

[2]          http://www.dailyo.in/politics/indian-media-cities-sewage-chikungunya-swachh-bharat-dalits-demolition/story/1/12971.html (information retrieved on 28th September 2016)

 

Identity and Migration

Long before the refugee and the humanitarian crisis of the post Arab Spring countries demasking the so called empowered politics of the EU nations and the U.S.; the Indian Subcontinent had one in 1947, where millions died and mass migration occurred due to region based partition- Punjab and Bengal was severed. Identities were fortified into the refugee class ‘Bangal’ and the untouched landed ‘Ghoti’ in West Bengal.

This useless binary is still used to map ones antecedents. In short, migrants and their generations have to bear its scars long after the survival, as the identity affair is subconscious. Identity is used as a weapon to demoralize the migrant.

Ground Zero: Sacred Ground no more

Fifteen years back, the world as we know changed; in rhetoric and reality, binaries were created and institutionalized between ‘with us or against us’ Last one and a half decades of wars, revolutions, springs, summers and ultimately the winter of 2016 resulting in post truth Trump and War Hawk Hillary and millions of deaths. Refugee crisis is a symptom of that process. It all started on this fateful day. Ground Zero is now a memorial and a shopping mall plus office space once again, as sacred ground is not enough as there is money to be made from memorial tours and otherwise. Hope seems a sales pitch. #911

Ola Bola : A cool sports film

Ola Bola is a terrific sports film! Had to watch it after the film festival controversy and PM Najib’s mention during the Merdeka Day address. Saw elements of Chak De India including ego clashes, non enthusiastic parents towards sports and an inspiring pep talk before the end of the match. Some flights can be very cool as watched this film on the in flight entertainment system chewing on pandan cake at 36000 feet. #MH1091

AAP: A Political Project gone awry

In 2013, during my first stint in Delhi, I was surprised and delighted to observe a new urban politics in the AAP emerging from the India Against Corruption platform. Then, after a period of hibernation, they came back with a bang. AAP as an intellectual project floundered when Prof YY and Prashant Bhushan left. In the past few days, AAP as a political project is floundering in Punjab and Delhi. In politics as in life you cannot please all. I hope for the sake of left of centre politics in India, that it is not back to business as usual. Trinamool Congress took almost two decades to have its National Party Status yesterday. Even now, it’s grassroots are former left workers. It takes time to build institutions and processes. Do not be in a hurry.

Media Response and Labor action in a deregulated economy?

I am aware that labor strikes are contrary to middle class sensibilities in India, and take them as relics of a pre 1991 India which everyone in the media is keen to relegate to the confines of history as if Reliance Jio launch is the stuff of history rather than an archaic national strike. Welfare protection in a deregulated economy where credit card is cool rather than a non existent medical insurance.

In an era where labor bargaining and protection is akin to foul language in our media and every day discourse, we have something a miss. In the papers and on the TV, the strike was dismissed as a failure in which unions that are a relic of the past were defeated. If we do not get paid for three months, like Kingfisher, or if a TV channel shuts down, where will these corporate EMI slaves run to for redressal ? Understand the politics behind the discourse, do not buy it at face value.