The world of apps is increasingly beginning to envelop us. And with this palpable sense of a new data-driven epoch, there is also a slight sense of foreboding. As data seems to be leading the way, human intelligence seems to be following, in a spirit of what Étienne de La Boétie, 16th century French political philosopher, called ‘voluntary servitude’.
The marvels of data-based algorithms that make the new world are indeed game changing. They testify to the potential that data holds for discovering new connections between things and places, people and spaces; connections about social phenomena that fundamentally transform the business of social organization.
The nagging unease however, is because, the story of data as we have come to understand it, is the terrifying story of surveillance. To use a shorthand, apps represent the digital intelligence that tracks human behavior to gather and process data, harvesting through algorithms the intelligence that is at the base of social control.
The political motivations in data that impel the state apparatus are well acknowledged. But in the past couple of years, what is evident is that data-based intelligence is not just the means of governmentality. Intelligence, derived from data, is also the new means of production. Google’s parent company Alphabet, has launched two pharma companies. Alibaba Cloud’s AI offering has a special agriculture program that is set to change the way farming is done. Data is indeed the capital that spurs the new age corporation. And it is the very wealth on which people’s development and well-being can be built. The possibility that data as a resource can be used for private enclosure or as a public good is at the heart of the contestation, best exemplified in Facebook’s ardent appeal to India’s policymakers – that data is not a finite resource akin to oil that should be hoarded; it is more like water, the borderless oceans and tides that must flow ‘freely’ [emphasis Facebook’s].
The bedrock of innovation in the fourth industrial revolution is the intelligence prowess that can be harnessed from perennially flowing and ever-expanding data. The question then is, what kind of society do we wish to see ushering in this transition into the age of digital intelligence? Social norms that direct the path of technology need to arise out of a new social contract rooted in social justice and equity. There are political choices to be made in this regard: How do we set limits to data extractivism? Who should own the data about people and phenomena, the physical world and its objects? Who should own the algorithms that are now patented by tech giants? How should governments of the developing world respond to the monolithic discourse of ‘free data flows’? What should the global community do when the greed for data propels a ruthless exploitation of workers and a virulent culture of sexism and misogyny? How do the human rights of citizens and the development rights of communities inhere in data? What are the democratic global-to-local arrangements for a new data constitutionalism?
IT for Change’s research and advocacy has primarily been guided by this frame in the past year. We have argued how digital and data rights pertain to an indivisible whole comprising the cherished freedom from surveillance we seek as individuals and societies and the economic sovereignty of groups, communities and nations to rightfully embark on a new social organization that is just and equitable.
Towards unpacking the digital economy and society, we have done pioneering multi-country research, contributed to theoretical frameworks, and built strong evidence in emerging areas such as gender-based cyberviolence. Contributing to feminist advocacy, we have worked through a variety of national, regional and global partnerships, establishing the Digital Justice Project with DAWN as a key global south initiative. We continue to remain one of the few organizations able to straddle feminist political economy analysis with a cultural ethnography lens in interpreting and responding to the digital paradigm.
The political arena in the digital domain, we continue to believe, goes beyond discursive battles, extending into community appropriation of digital technologies. From rural Mysuru where our IVR based audio serials challenge retrograde gender scripts and embolden women to call out domestic violence, to urban Bengaluru where we have equipped young men and women from a low income neighborhood to run a GIS-enabled grievance redressal system, we have enabled grassroots communities to claim their access to and participation in the digital realm.
In the domain of education, we note a distressing turn towards new big data models that are rapidly converting schools into surveilled spaces, directly transferring data about teachers and students to centralized data bases. Our attempt has been to put teacher professional development at the centre and enable collaboration among teachers through the use of free and open technologies.
An exciting development this year is the launch of Bot Populi, a media space dedicated to a global South perspective on digital and data rights. In partnership with the Just Net Coalition which we co-founded, and five other organizations spread across the world, we have embarked on this project, hoping to build a knowledge space that stays ahead of the curve in framing the debate.
Our circles of influence have extended across diverse spaces. We were invited to contribute to UNCTAD’s 2019 benchmark report on the Digital Economy; we have been able to shape the Government of India’s thinking on the governance of ‘community’ data (for eg. anonymized data of commuting behavior of Bangloreans or soil data of small growers in the Nilgiri coffee estates) that accrues to Big Tech by default; and we have created a new buzz around digital and data public goods. From labor movements to traders’ platforms, trade justice coalitions, southern feminist groups and global justice networks, civil society actors who care about social transformation are routinely seeking us out for being better informed about the emerging data aspects of their long standing struggles. Forging partnerships and building new strategic alliances, we have enabled cross-movement dialogues and executed advocacy actions that activists, scholars, progressive foundations, technologists and the student community have found timely and relevant.
Our committed team continues to write, teach, make submissions to policy processes, engage with media, participate in policy forums and make a difference to community based social change processes.
As we usher in another year, our actions will continue to challenge the dominant digital paradigm, pointing to alternative visions of digital sociality. Data-based intelligence must be continuously held up against the human ideals that it must serve.
IT for Change