Ramesh Srinivasan occupies an interesting space in the technology landscape. The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) professor of Information Studies and Design Media Arts and the Director of the UC Digital Cultures Lab is an engineer and a social scientist. He notes that in order to analyze the future of the Internet, this combination is essential.
Srinivasan recently released his latest book, Beyond the Valley, which encourages people to think beyond Silicon Valley to understand how the broader world is innovating. He draws from the time he has spent in places such as Mexico, Uganda, and Kenya. He is particularly optimistic as he cites many examples of innovations and innovators across the continent of Africa. He also hopes that his book and his work influences tech companies in Silicon Valley to think about the broader world as they develop products and services of the future. Although he believes it is unintentional, he notes that some in Silicon Valley exhibit unintentional biases in their solutions for a lack of broader inclusion of the world’s population in developing the technologies of tomorrow.
Srinivasan posits that a new digital bill of rights is necessary. He hopes that it will provide a better mechanism for tech companies and the rest of us to work together. He believes it is especially necessary given the number of jobs that will go away due to automation. We discuss all of the above and more in this interview.
Peter High: You are a professor of Information Studies and Design Media Arts at UCLA and the Director of the UC Digital Cultures Lab. Could you describe your work in both cases?
Author and UCLA Professor Ramesh Srinivasan
Ramesh Srinivasan: I have been a faculty member at UCLA since 2005, and I am both an engineer and a social scientist. Being trained as an engineer with both undergraduate and graduate degrees and being interested in the future of technology and its impact on our country and our world, you quickly realize you also have to be a social scientist to understand those issues. This is because it is not simply limited to engineering and better and faster computer systems. My work at UCLA has explored technology’s meaning and impact across the world relating to our economic and political realities.
As I was publishing journal papers and applying for National Science Foundation grants, I realized that it was extremely important for me to get my learnings out to the public so people could understand what is happening with technology. I wanted the public to be able to make decisions around their own relationships with the internet, mobile, and digital technology and understand its impact on our lives in quite profound ways. Some years ago, I realized that it was not just about me. We are all in communities, and journalists such as yourself are friends and colleagues to me. I wanted to apply that same model toward thinking about collaborations between academics and graduate students. Being part of UCLA means we are part of the University of California, which is a wonderful perk. There are great people across the University of California system, including economists, lawyers, people in business schools, computer scientists, and social scientists who are all thinking about technology in quite multidisciplinary and complementary ways. That lab attempts to bring many scholars and researchers into contact with one another to share what we are learning with the wider public through workshops, engaging with journalists, and writing books.
High: You have written several books, such as After the Internet, Whose Global Village?, and most recently, Beyond the Valley, which is about how innovators from around the world are overcoming inequality and creating the technologies of tomorrow. Could you give your diagnosis of the inequality and the rationale for the book itself? What do you diagnose as the issues today that need to be overcome or where change is necessary?
Srinivasan: The Internet is fantastic. All of us are connected to the Internet in various ways, and the Internet is the vocabulary by which our lives are increasingly being expressed and defined. Beyond the Valley is my attempt to explain and illustrate that in many ways, the future of the Internet and the future for the technology does not just lie in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Shanghai, or Beijing. Instead, it is defined by the majority of its users. The future likewise includes places such as Latin America, South America, South Asia, and across the continent of Africa, which is where the Internet is most rapidly expanding. Further, Africa is the fastest growing and youngest population in the world. Overall, I was trying to give a holistic image of where we are with technology. Some of the challenges include the gaps that emerge between good intentions in many cases. This includes engineers working for private companies who are building technologies for the simple outcome of getting and keeping more users on their platforms and services. There is a gap between their worlds and the worlds of the people who may be six to eight thousand miles away. They might be from completely different demographic realities racially, culturally, environmentally, and in the infrastructure they take for granted.
We take many ideas for granted here in the United States around what connectivity means and what it does and does not support. Those premises can be challenged when we start looking at examples across the world. That is why the book is critical of some of the disconnections that the technologists have with the wider world. However, it is likewise an optimistic book. As per the title, it is asking us to think past the Valley and learn from examples beyond the Valley. Innovations and technology are not simply limited to a design cubicle at Apple or an engineering workforce in Shanghai. Instead, there are all sorts of innovations involving technology that we can learn from different communities across the world. In a larger sense, these are the people who represent the majority of internet users and the places where the Internet is most rapidly expanding right now.
High: You hoped to find diverse stories that run counter to the inherited wisdom as to where innovation is taking place. In seeking out those stories, you went to places such as Detroit and Brooklyn, as well as places such as Mexico, Uganda, and Kenya. How did you determine where to go? How did you find the stories that you wanted to tell in such a diverse array of places?
Srinivasan: I am from Silicon Valley, and I went to Stanford in the late ‘90s, so much of this is my own story. Many of the transformations in Silicon Valley are ones that are quite closely connected to my own life and the worlds of my friends and parents. I quickly realized while I was in graduate school at MIT that we were building technologies for global wide-scale use by millions if not billions of people. We did not know or understand the realities of people living across the world nor should we have been expected to. However, that did not mean that it is not an issue. Our entire goal was to build technologies to support them and get them digitally engaged, and at the time, we used the term “digital divide.” We have moved past this term because we have realized that it is not just about access to my technology, but it is about what type of technology designed by whom impacts what aspects of people’s lives. I have been exploring those themes in different parts of the world. For example, in the Oaxaca [Mexico] case, I became extremely interested in the idea of open-source and free software technology. I was not just interested in this as some sort of hacker response to private technology, but more about what people are doing and how they are innovating with open-source technologies in parts of the world that you could never imagine they would be doing that.
While I was a Ph.D. student, I spent a great deal of time building systems and networks with Native American communities. Simply by starting to do that type of work, I was introduced to folks in the Oaxaca region. [Former] Mexican President Vincente Fox and others have been big supporters of my work because in a place such as Oaxaca, I am trying to learn how one of the most diverse places in the world on a cultural, biodiversity, and linguist level can be a site of technological innovation. I was blown away to discover that communities that were not provided with cell phone access were indigenous communities that said, “We truly want connectivity. We want cell phones for a range of reasons, such as getting crop prices, communicating with our relatives, organizing aspects a little more smoothly, and even speaking our own languages. However, we want to do it on our own terms.” Instead of simply complaining or waiting for the time where the government or corporations would provide them services, they said, “We can just build it ourselves.” Doing more with less and being resourceful is innovating with constraints, rather than feeling as if economic or infrastructural constraints are restricting your ability to act. That example was incredible to me.
I was extremely interested in places such as Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania because these are the places where the Internet expanded, and there are all sorts of interesting examples of grassroots entrepreneurial innovation, civil society, and nonprofit innovation there. Further, there are examples of artificial intelligence [AI] labs that were founded from African universities. Google itself has set up an AI lab in Accra, Ghana. I got over that way because I initially heard of a project that was quite famous some years ago called Ushahidi, and even President Obama had visited Ushahidi offices. Ushahidi came out of Nairobi, Kenya, and Kenya is one of the most technologically innovative places I have found in the world. There was a great deal of election corruption, and even some violence had occurred. This led to crowdsourcing. People said, “There is all this corruption occurring. How about we allow all the voters to map where problems are happening and where the good stuff is taking place.” This was an open-source technology where people could map events, describe what was occurring, deploy their own observations, and create a real-time open-source map that all the voters could monitor. This would enable them to know what was going on thanks to the power of the crowd. This is a model of African technological innovation, and there are many others. I was introduced to and on panels with multiple members from Ushahidi. While that is an old project, it allowed me to be introduced to many people doing all sorts of new forms of technological innovation.
One of the examples I give in Beyond the Valley is this interesting business that is also a social entrepreneurship space. This business is democratizing Wi-Fi access across the country, partly through solar power, which is incredible. It has built Wi-Fi hotspots for anyone to access on the moving vehicles that you see everywhere in the cities of East Africa, which are called matatus. I give all these examples of technological entrepreneurship, such as people building 3D printers, design labs, among other technologies. Much of this can happen because there is an internet access point such as a fiber optic cable landing in Mombasa, which is in East Africa. The infrastructure supports people doing this type of innovative entrepreneurship. The infrastructures of having connectivity can mean a great deal when they are combined with human creativity and entrepreneurship, and Africa is the site of so much innovation.
One of the classic cases is M-Pesa, which is similar to a mobile money type of approach. As people were not provided with banking services, instead of just being upset about it, they worked with the mobile telecom companies to build a way to exchange mobile phone credits peer-to-peer. That has allowed people to engage in all forms of decentralized and even in a sense, free-market exchanges, not just in Kenya, but all over Africa. Even a country such as Somalia, which has been plagued with many issues, is almost completely a cashless society. It is almost all digital currencies, and the people there are simply trading credits on their phones. These are workarounds people find where they face constraints, and they can innovate in light of that.
The book tells these stories from all over the world, and it looks at similar examples in the States and Europe. Further, it features interviews with well-known political and economic people, such as Elizabeth Warren, Lawrence Lessig, and David Axelrod. I tried to call together the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of people who were influential in shaping what technology means in our country and to some extent, around the world. There is bipartisan concern around big technology in this country, which is incredible. Republicans, Democrats, and other parties all want to do something about this. It is not just a crisis moment. There are all sorts of opportunities if we open up our thinking beyond the Valley, both metaphorically and literally.
High: As you mentioned, you spoke with several people on the left who are crafting visions for how a post-Trump administration world may look. You talked about the implications of politics and what the different scenarios might be depending upon who is elected in the next presidential election cycle. What is your own analysis of this?
Srinivasan: There is currently bipartisan concern around big tech for somewhat different reasons. A few months ago, President Trump tweeted out that there was a study that shows that Google and Google Search results contributed to several million votes being taken away from him in 2016 and even more votes being taken away from the Republican party in 2018. There are concerns that there may be liberal bias influencing algorithmic systems. I spoke mainly with progressives and liberals, and full disclosure, I identify in that camp.
I am interested in these issues and looking beyond the Valley more generally for all of us as Americans and human beings across our differences. I do not want our political differences to divide us from being a common people. That is the key point. There is a range of different opinions and perspectives on what is going on here. Elizabeth Warren has come out and said, “Let’s break up big tech.” It is a bit of a brand slogan, but she believes that companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and even Google operate as monopolies or monopolies in the making because they are horizontally integrated. For example, Amazon is dominant in the e-commerce space. Further, it controls Amazon Web Services to a significant extent, which means cloud-based computing systems. It is extending into other domains, such as facial recognition, grocery, and journalism. To me, Warren’s point is that if you have a leg up in one area, you should not be able to use that to have a leg up in every other area. That is sort of a market dominance strategy. She makes similar statements about WhatsApp and Instagram, both owned by Facebook and then Facebook as a social media platform itself. I do not push hard on those aspects.
We should put all hands on deck. With my book, I am advocating for us to ensure that everything is balanced. I want workers to have opportunities to access jobs in the future, and I do not want the economic inequalities that we currently see across the world to become amplified by technological innovations that are only defined within the Valley, rather than beyond the Valley. These concerns are around the gig economy, automation, and even AI systems. We have to make sure we get these right because it is a win-win for people in the Valley and outside the Valley. Folks at Facebook and Google do not want to build technologies that are racist, homophobic, or xenophobic. That is not their intention, but they are building systems that are turning out to have those sorts of outcomes because the voices beyond the Valley are not part of the design or auditing process.
I am getting at what I call a digital bill of rights, which is to say, “Here are ways in which tech companies and the rest of us can work together. With all the jobs that are going to be taken away through automated technologies, here are the ways we are going to take care of you through those transitions. Here might be jobs for the future. Here is the data that we have about you.” In good faith, we might tell people why you see what you see when you log on to Facebook or do a Google search result. Hopefully, we can do something about data brokers, which are wealthy third-party companies where your credit card records can be purchased.
As I said, although I am critical, I am optimistic because I have come out of this tech world. I am friends with many of the executives in these companies, and in many cases, they think they are engineering for society. They do not realize that in many cases, they are mistakenly engaging in social engineering. We need to put all hands on deck and all the cards on the table. We need to think about it as a design palette and a great engineering and humanist challenge. As human beings, we need to decide what type of world we want and how we ensure it provides these companies with the appropriate return for the efficient and excellent services they provide. However, this should not come at a zero-sum cost for the rest of us. If you think about it on a game-theoretic level, you do not want one person to stay on the boat and everybody else to be thrown off the boat. You want everybody to gain. We want an internet that lifts all of us up because that benefits the companies, too. They do not want to be creating businesses in a world where almost no one but them is worth anything economically.
I see us arriving at an interesting inflection point when it comes to the Internet. We have an opportunity to get this right. It is going to require transparency and collaboration and even some forms of regulation. We need to be smart about this and think about it in a win-win view. That is what I am pushing for in my book and in the digital bill of rights piece. I have written a couple of op-eds summarizing some of this as well.
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy , a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book is Implementing World Class IT Strategy . He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs . Peter moderates the Technovation podcast series. He speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.