FemLab, the Feminist Futures of Work initiative I co-founded with Usha Raman kickstarted 2023 with the book launch at Spui25 in Amsterdam. This was followed with a retreat on Building Labor futures to engage deeper with the essays in this book. We are absolutely thrilled to see this book out and its final digital version will be released in April. The gorgeous illustrations are done by Siddhi Gupta, from Justice Adda, our long standing partner law and design organization. Below is a brief on the book. Please check it out and let us know what you think!
The future of work is at the centre of debates related to the emerging digital society. Concerns range from the inclusion, equity, and dignity of those at the far end of the value chain, who participate on and off platforms, often in the shadows, invisible to policymakers, designers, and consumers. Precarity and informality characterize this largely female workforce, across sectors ranging from artisanal work to salon services to ride hailing and construction. A feminist reimagining of the futures of work—what we term as “FemWork” —is the need of the day and should manifest in multiple and various forms, placing the worker at the core and drawing on her experiences, aspirations, and realities. This volume offers grounded insights from academic, activist, legal, development and design perspectives that can help us think through these inclusive futures and possibly create digital, social, and governance infrastructures of work that are fairer and more meaningful.
Am incredibly excited to share the big news on my new book, ‘Next Billion Ready: Designing systems to include the world,’ in contract with two fabulous publishers – The MIT Press & Harper Collins India . This comes at a perfect time as I have been awarded the residency fellowship at Bellagio, Italy by Rockefeller Foundation which will give me the time to think, write & connect with amazing thinkers and doers. My book will draw from my last 3 years of fieldwork with the next billion user groups and engagements with diverse organizations invested in AI innovations in the Global South.
Tech Trend reports indicate that the next big trend in digital won’t emerge from a Western market. There is pressure on governments and corporations to capture data in the AI arms race for the future of innovation. India and China already account for most of the users in the world without having reached market saturation. A typical user in the Global South is twice as active online than their Northern counterpart. Major tech companies have got on the bandwagon, setting up next billion user labs to gain insights on this vast user base. Inclusive design is less altruistic and more consumer centric, attuned to the potential of diversity to foster innovation. UX researchers, media startups, aid agencies, and business folks are eager to unpack the blackbox on this user group.
In The Next Billion Ready book, I propose ways in which we can envision new digital systems, and thinking to include the world. Drawing from fieldwork insights on young creators in diverse contexts such as Brazil, India, and Bangladesh, I reveal how their understandings of metrics shape their creativity, trust, identity, and political action. In my engagements with numerous public and private sector organizations, I share my learnings on what keeps UX designers, policy makers, digital startups, and aid agencies up at night as they struggle with tensions between risk and opportunity, and localization and scalability in design.
With rising geopolitical tensions, it is tempting to revert to old approaches to design and outreach. It would be a serious mistake to go back to viewing the next billion users as mere data sources to be extracted. Instead, I make the case that they are at the forefront to help us reimagine the future of work, creativity, finance, banking, and even the fate of our planet. My new book is targeted at UX researchers, designers, tech entrepreneurs/investors, media companies, & other orgs that focus on designing systems, products, & services to genuinely include the world. Really looking forward to getting this book out soon!
So much has happened since the start of this year. I have that feeling of running to stand still. Beautiful experiences, powerful conversations, ah ha moments, deep discussion and yet, have not been able to fully digest these times, to appreciate their full impact on me as work has exponentially increased. And yet we do what we do, move by the forces that are out of our control. I need to keep flagging for myself that passion is not good enough reason to speed this fast as it takes its toll on one’s mental and physical health. I cling to my sabbatical that kicks off this summer and promises quiet time for me to write my new book. Cannot contain my excitement as the full book is in my head, ready to be out on paper. And so I wait for that summer, glancing at the clock once in a while, marking the calendar boldly, promising myself that I will bring everything else to a standstill – become the writer again -first and foremost.
In the meantime, FemLab, the organization I co-founded has found a kindrid spirit in MICA-the School of Ideas in Ahmedabad. We organized a roundtable on the platform economy, gendered informality and the future of work in January where our team got to engage with the MICA staff and audience and share their findings from over two years of research during the pandemic. I also will be their Distinguished Visiting professor this April and am looking forward to being there and meeting their team face to face, a precious novelty these days.
Gave a keynote on Decolonising Approaches to Users and Audiences in the Global South at CAMRI- Westminster with such a wonderful group of thought leaders including Tanja Bosch, Cape Town University, South Africa on decolonising digital media research methods, Prof. Guobin Yang, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania on How Not to Theorize a Pandemic from Afar, Prof. Claudia Magallanes Blanco, Universidad Iberoamericana Puebla, Mexico on decolonizing through self-representation, and Prof. Marwan Kraidy, Northwestern University, Qatar on Entangled Modernities. It was a packed house and the energy was amazing. Also was part of the Geomedia speaker series on Spatial Justice and Data Justice where we really dug deep into these topics with some of my favorite people – Emiliano Trere, Senior Lecturer in Media Ecologies and Social Transformation, Cardiff University and Anne Kaun, Professor in Media and Communication Studies, Södertörn University.
In line with this decolonial wave, got to also discuss data colonialism, with another anthropologist Philip McKenzie, the host of Deep Dive. He is considered one of the “75 Leaders of Tomorrow” by Capture Your Flag and his podcast has hit some charts and no wonder- he knows how to get you talking!
We touched on crypto, on the gig economy, on the datafied ‘us’..Who are the arbiters of doing good and why? How can history inform our socio-digital future? Can we speak in global terms as we immerse in particular cultures? What is unsustainable in the way we organize work and play in this datafied era, and how do we speak about these issues and more. Got to also do a number of interviews with WeContent and related media groups like a top Romanian media magazine –AList Magazine on cross-cultural content marketing, how culture shapes communication, what to make of an audience with the rise of Squid Games and other such shows which tells us that we are on the brink of opening up to what audiences are actually receptive to – bold new worlds, new ideas, fresh stories, and language is not a barrier but may add context and flavor to immersive storytelling.
On the academic front, Kiran Bhatia, this kick ass brilliant PhD and upcoming Assistant Professor at Tulane university and I partnered on this article called Discursive Toolkits of Anti-Muslim Disinformation on Twitter. In this article, we investigate the socio-technical ecology of Twitter, including the technological affordances of the platform and the user-generated discursive strategies used to create and circulate anti-Muslim disinformation online. During the first wave of Covid-19, right-wing followers claimed that Muslims were spreading the virus to perform Jihad. We analyzed a sample of 7000 tweets using Critical Discourse Analysis to examine how the online disinformation accusing Muslims in India was initiated and sustained. We identify three critical discourse strategies used on Twitter to spread and sustain the anti-Muslim (dis)information: (1) creating mediatized hate solidarities, (2) appropriating instruments of legitimacy, and (3) practicing Internet Hindu vigilantism. Each strategy consists of a subset of discursive toolkits, highlighting the central routes of discursive engagement to produce disinformation online. We argue that understanding how the technical affordances of Social Networking Sites are leveraged in quotidian online practices to produce and sustain the phenomenon of online disinformation will prove to be a novel contribution to the field of disinformation studies and Internet research.
Of course, what was super special in February was my first in person teaching with my students for two courses after 2 years of teaching them online! It was so surreal, so beautiful to just walk into the classroom and erase the last two years, as if nothing had happened. Felt natural, felt easy and felt at home. So that’s in a nutshell the crazy few months that has passed me by.
The end of 2021 was different and yet the same. I wrapped up the year with some amazing experiences, from a wonderful launch podcast on Fragile Futures to finally the in person COP26 conference on Design for Planet. Here I spoke about the challenges of pitting digital inclusivity of the next billion users against the rise of data centers and its impact on the planet. Also, got to talk about diversity and inclusion with EUROPOL, AI and Creativity with Adobe, and feminist design with the NGO Sudwind .
I am incredibly grateful to have found my calling. I love the intellectual life. I love the thrill of unpacking an idea, engaging with different people and organizations to critically engage on the future of society, and share this with my students on an ongoing basis. Yet, beneath it all, I remain angry. It’s this slow burn anger that comes from an ongoing impotence against the toxic culture of academia.
Academic life, although having moved online during the pandemic, remains the same in terms of its toxic culture of overwork, and undervalue of its workers. For a profession that centers critical thinking, innovation, and societal impact at it’s core, it has shown remarkably little imagination in the reshaping of this field. It is astounding how tone deaf this system has been with the onset of the pandemic, channeling more energies in the rhetoric of inclusiveness, diversity, and societal impact and little towards their workers and the structures that perpetuate precarity, fear, stress, depression, and worthlessness.
The system consumes its workers and thrives on the honor culture which translates to basically free labor. This year was no exception as I was asked to be on numerous boards, to review reports and articles, to serve on external PhD and advisory committees and more – pro bono of course in the name of duty and care. Why do it then? Collegiality, curiosity, and camaraderie – the gift culture in academia which serves as perfect fodder for institutions to appropriate and exploit. Teaching, while being constantly evaluated by a minority of students, means little in terms of the bottom line of promotions. Academics in this neoliberal enterprise called higher education are meant for one primary purpose – to be fund raisers and project managers. The chase of grants equate value and nothing else. There is little room to define value outside of this scope.
I do not deny the worth of activism in academia over the years but it is unfair to burden an already overburdened staff to fight for the basics of being treated humanely. Change must come from above and in a collective and global fashion. We need to let go of academic rankings as equivalent to quality education and scholarship, recognize the deep Anglo-saxon bias in academic scholarship and citation politics and gender bias in management policies, and instead rethink our place in society and the role we must play to change society for the better.
In the meantime, much like many academics I know, I cocoon myself in my own networks and with my own people, the little bubbles I have nurtured with craft and care over these years. I navigate with detachment, estrangement, and angry silence, holding onto my deep passion for ideas and communities and moving forward by reminding myself that my mind and body needs protecting as covid is here to stay with us for much longer than we would like to admit.
I am delivering a keynote for NetHope’s 20th Anniversary Global Summit on Digital Now /Future of Work with a feminist view of the rising Next Billion Users, their world of work, and the responsibilities by vested stakeholders. I will shed light on the burgeoning industry of femtech and what this means for inclusive design.
This talk will draw from the FemLab.co field research and insights our team has been generating in the last two years. The keynote will be delivered alongside a fantastic line up of speakers from the humanitarian and the tech sector including Microsoft, Cisco, Save the Children, CARE, Twilio, Salesforce and many more. Am glad to get this opportunity to speak to tech philanthropists and other corporate sector clientele and hope that these discussions can shift thinking on how they invest, what kinds of evaluative measures are needed, and the nature of sustainable and ethical investing for global fair work conditions.
Am delighted to announce the launch of the ‘Digital Leisure and Displaced populations in Brazil’ project with John Warnes and Erika Perez Iglesias from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency Innovation Services.
“Bringing to light the divide in access to digital leisure challenges the sacred tenet on which the global digital project has been built upon over decades — the belief that a good digital life for the poor would be based in work and inherently utilitarian.”
Alongside my colleague Amanda Paz , we have brought together a brilliant team including Daniela Jaramillo-Dent, Julia Camargo and Paula Wittenburg to execute this project and generate impact on policy and practice. It is particularly uplifting to see my Next Billion User book impact real world practice in shifting approaches in connectivity and the understanding of the full media life of refugees. While the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has pursued an agenda of enhanced connectivity and digital inclusion for the forcibly displaced for a number of years, many of the interventions have been tied to specific developmental goals, such as education, the use of digital financial services, and greater access to information. For a decade, I have been challenging the notion that those targeted with such interventions prioritise connectivity for these purposes. Rather, the agenda highlights leisure as a key driver for adoption of digital technologies, and a key use case for such technologies that bring indirect benefits beyond the ‘virtuous’ aims of humanitarian aid and development programmes globally. This has been the key arguments I have been making throughout my research career and am happy to see that finally I get to see my ideas translated to practice.
In the coming months ahead, UNHCR and our Erasmus University team along with those in Brazil will join forces on this new project and undertake primary research with displaced communities in Brazil to hear directly from them about how leisure and entertainment impact their use of digital technology. Read the rest of our proposition here.
What a journey it has been with FemLab.Co, an IDRC funded initiative that Usha Raman and I kick started in January 2020, right before the pandemic. Our work involves the very people who have been the most affected by covid19 – marginalized and precarious women workers in the Global South struggling to make a living and now with the added burdens of health risks, domestic violence, and loss of all kinds – social, financial, and economic. It has been a challenge to say the least to capture their voices and do justice to them. Unless you have a superb and dedicated team like we have! We have been fortunate to bring together a real collective of sorts – junior and senior scholars in India, Bangladesh and the Netherlands taking the lead on examining how specific sectors like salon services, sanitation, ride-hailing, garments, artisanal, and construction have been impacted across different stakeholders and how diverse digital platforms and media technologies have been used to collectively bargain, push back and shape the future of work that is more justice-driven.
As I look back in the last six months, we have succeeded in doing a lot! FemLab.co members contributed to the launch of the Global Forum Colabora.Lat 2021 a collaborative governance initiative in Latin America.
It will study and make recommendations about the governance models of the public policies and social initiatives implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Colabora.Lat Implementation Council is made up of Asuntos del Sur (Argentina), National University of San Martín of Argentina, Universidad ICESI (Colombia) Faculty of Humanities of the University of Santiago de Chile, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (Bolivia), Diálogos Organization of Guatemala and Nosotrx_s (Mexico). Check our team video pitch here.
In the last year, we have attracted passionate interns, and external affiliates from different fields such as Meeshu, Ola Mobility Institute, Web Foundation, Harambee Youth, Zyenika Inclusive Fashion, and many more organizations and leaders who have contributed their thoughts to our weekly blog series.
We engaged with Urban Companyand their staff to gain insights into the Salon Services sector. This resulted in an article spearheaded by Sai Amulya Komarraju, research lead of the Salon Services sector. The paper ‘Agency & Servitude in Platform Labour’ has been published in a top media journal Media, Culture & Societythat has been trending and has been requested by diverse organizations such as UNDP (inclusive innovation lab focus), East-West Seed company (smallholder women farmers and digital platforms focus), and several UX designers focused on the next billion market.
This issue features feminist practitioners like Charlotte Webb – founder of the Feminist Internet, Design Beku – a feminist design initiative in India, Galit Ariel- AR feminist, Whose Knowledge, and other such cutting edge organizations and scholars invested in feminist approaches to digital design and deployment for social change.
Speaking across the aisle
I have been very fortunate to find a dream collaborator and co-leader in Usha Raman. She is such an incredibly nuanced thinker, kind and generous person and scholar and empathetic leader. We have both been using our platforms to promote the exciting work emerging from our team and affiliates.
She was nominated as the Vice-President of IAMCR, a preeminent worldwide professional organization in the field of media and communication research. She was instrumental in the organizing of their annual conference in July 2021 where feminism, media and labour panels were organized. She also presented at another eminent conference International Communication Association on ‘Platform work and the planetary economy: global design, local experience’.
I also gave a keynote on feminist directions for sustainable change for The Hague Humanity Hub and panel dialogue with directors at Asser Institute, Clingendael Institute, and Leiden’s Center of Innovation.
Productivity and mental health
Clearly, our team has been deeply productive despite these challenges as reflected in the numerous talks, media articles, publications in the pipeline, and collaborations we have managed to churn out (check our FemLab site for more updates ! ). Yet, this makes me nervous as life becomes stripped of much of its complex and beautiful engagements through travel, social gatherings, and physical contacts, much needed to nurture our souls. So we divert much of our creative energies into our work, resulting perhaps in high productivity but at the cost of an impending mental health crisis. It does take its toll on our body too as I have personally experienced in the last year and a half. I am unable to stop. Unable to take time off. If I pause, I think of the family I have not seen since the start of the pandemic, the silence of empathy for international scholars like myself who are away from family and friends and often isolated, like a cog in the machine, churning out and being the stellar academic and practitioner at the cost of a personal life. There is much lip service to supporting employees but the game remains the same- a slave to global rankings and metrics, of chasing after grants, of teaching and publicizing and networking and well, the list goes on. What does give me comfort are the kind and generous people I work with in this team and those I have come across through such projects that reminds me that it still is worth it.
As the second wave in India unfolds with disastrous consequences and with my continued distance from family, colleagues, and friends in India, I am grateful that the design community has come up with a small way for me to contribute! The organization DesignUp has stepped up and has succeeded in getting an online event #DesignUpForACause going for June 2021 where all the proceeds go to charities in India. Please register or donate if you can and become part of this vibrant design collective.
Intel Corporation’s AI for Social Good project is implementing a tech solution to the crisis of illegal poaching: TrailGuard artificial intelligence (AI) captures images of suspected poachers and alerts park rangers. This system is one of several, including the Microsoft-supported Elephant Listening Project, Google’s Wildlife Insights AI, and Alibaba’s cloud computing for conservation, created by tech giants. These computational networks are designed to process significant amounts of incoming security data at extraordinary speed and accuracy. Where humans fail, there is renewed faith in AI to save our planet. Click hereto read the rest.
Is this the ‘Book of the Century’ or a dangerously seductive tale?
Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is a bible for this divisive era. By offering a dangerously seductive narrative to explain systemic racism in place of a complex truth, this book guarantees to fuel the ongoing American race wars and comes at the price of rewriting other nation’s histories and contemporary politics.
Wilkerson has revived the decades-old refuted scholarship of framing race relations through the lens of a four-thousand-year history of the Indian caste system to make sense of American racism. Caste, she argues, is a social construct pioneered by the upper caste group that has become “the infrastructure of our divisions” (P17). It is leveraged to justify human hierarchy and provides the “subconscious code of instructions” for maintaining the ongoing social order. She insists on the rigidity of this oppressive system, where a “fixed and embedded ranking of human value” demarcates the upper caste group (Whites) as inherently superior to those of the middle caste (Asian, Hispanic) and the lowest caste (Blacks). Physical attributes such as our skin color are arbitrarily coded with value to sustain this system.
If the reader were to mistake her standing as the Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times and Pulitzer prize winner as privilege, Wilkerson argues in her book that she is not, as she is trapped in the lowest caste assigned to her, enforced by the color of her skin. She dismisses how race intersects with other tribes of power accumulation and legitimation such as through employment, education, class, to the colonial and contemporary geopolitics that dictate power asymmetries.
To negate the confluence of these factors that have long served as potent instruments to shape systemic injustice is the single most damaging aspect of this book’s argument. As Charisse Burden-Stelly from Boston Review points out, “Wilkerson’s emphasis on caste makes no mention, let alone critique, of capitalism; the word does not appear once in the text.” Worse yet, through her flurry of personal anecdotes of being slighted by a waiter at a restaurant, by a flight attendant on one of her numerous business flight trips, to a plumber at her house, she chooses to tell the story more around Black elite grievances over that of the plight of millions of ordinary African-Americans.
Authoring of a global fiction
Here’s the problem with Wilkerson’s caste as metaphor. The caste system in India, while undoubtedly alive and embedded in reproducing social injustice in its society, is far from rigid. This is equivalent to saying that India remains unchanged in the last 4000 years. The caste divisions in India are by no means binary and have witnessed the complex maneuverings of people and institutions through changes in labor and status, legal reform, intermarriage, religious conversions, quota systems, electoral arrangements between caste groups, and urbanization. These have been fueled by generations of social movements and Dalit (lowest caste group in India) activism that have reached across global borders, accelerated in recent times by the advent of social media. Moreover, it is impossible to assess caste without the lens of the market economy. David Mosse, Professor of social anthropology at SOAS University of London argues that, [upper] caste identities and networks persist because of their advantages” as people compete for scarce resources.
Not only does Wilkerson succeed to write a book about caste without much engagement with this rich repository of caste capitalism, politics and culture, she proudly shares her acute development of a “caste radar” (P274) through her brief few visits to India. In a cringe-worthy account of her newly developed sensibilities, she explains to the reader how she “learnt to recognize almost immediately the differences between dominant-caste Indians and Dalits, even without the starker physical cues of dominant and subordinated castes in America” (P273). One assessment variable of hers includes upper caste people being “lighter in complexion and sharper in features,” when in fact this has much to do with the geographical and historically migratory patterns in India. Another variable is the proficiency of English with British diction, which is clearly not an inherited but an acquired trait and has much to do with colonialism and class as she herself notes in her text elsewhere, undermining her own radar principles. Worst yet, her last variable is the “bearing and demeanor, in accord with the universal script of caste,” where she explains how subservient the Dalits are in the presence of the upper caste, a dead give away according to her even in an educated environment. Her variables freeze people into stereotypes, trapping two cultures with one stroke.
If the reductionism of India’s structures and historical context wasn’t enough of an affront, she ventures to compare “Nazi Germany’s caste system” to American racism and how Hitler was inspired by Madison Grant, a leading eugenicist in his master design to exterminate the Jews. Wilkerson doesn’t burden the reader with historical analysis of how this fascism was a long project in the making of centuries old European anti-Semitism and the Church’s complicity in rooting distrust, disdain and in the end, demonization of the Jewish people. Wilkerson laments that while Germany has “officially vanquished the caste system” (P17), it has shape shifted in United States as a “race-based caste pyramid” and continues to linger in India, where “caste defines everything” (P175). The reader is expected to swallow this bizarre comparative proposition with little heed to evidence or everyday reality.
Hierarchy of caste is about power, “not about feelings or morality.”
Much of Wilkerson’s almost four-hundred-page book is woven with gut-wrenching archival stories of slavery and its aftermath in the United States – of torture, of brute dehumanization, of deep indignities, and astounding violence that leaves a lump in your throat, and tears in your eyes. It confronts the reader with an alarming ugliness of humanity as we read about the “terror mechanisms of an unnatural institution” (P154) that made its way into the everyday moments of for instance, a black tenant farmer in Mississippi being severely beaten by whites because he dared to ask for a receipt after paying his water bill (P163). We learn of the barbaric legacies of the founding father of gynecology as he built his medical accomplishments by conducting experimental surgeries on enslaved women in Alabama without anesthesia (P148). Page after page, these stories come punching at you, building emotional outrage, and soul searching for the moral fiber of humanity.
It is surprising then that Wilkerson, the master storyteller, claims at the very start that this book is “not about feelings or morality” but about power.
Her work has undoubtedly touched a nerve. The book was released around the time where the black lives matter movement went global, with thousands of people from around the world, in Korea to The Netherlands taking to the streets to protest against the death of George Floyd. This went beyond race as we saw the global public outraged by chronic injustice such as police brutality, for instance with the Nigerian youth demanding the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit as their notoriety reached its peak with years of extortion, kidnappings, violence and illegal arrests. This movement came to mean so much more – about growing income inequality, the crumbling of public institutions like healthcare and education, the unfair market, and the lack of employment.
Wilkerson’s answer to these troubling times is to demand we build “radical empathy” if we are to break out of the shackles of caste. Instead of leveraging on her public platform to offer a vision of redistributing power through the reimagining and restructuring of public institutions and the global market economy and building mechanisms of accountability, readers are instructed to be “pro-African-American, pro-woman, pro-Latino, pro-Asian, pro-indigenous, pro-humanity in all its manifestations.” (P387). Instead of interracial dialogue, she recommends that Whites, with their dominance already “assured by the inherited advantages of the dominant caste in most every sphere of life” should “listen, and not speak” (P386).
Nothing has changed, nothing ever will
Wilkerson recounts of her conversation with her friend Taylor Branch, a historian of the civil rights movement in 2018, a time of Trumpism peak, of Muslim bans and Mexican children in cages. She asks him whether he believed the United States had regressed, “Are you still thinking 1950s? I’m thinking 1880s.” (P351) Her friend responds, “well, that’s awfully bleak…there was a total exclusion of the black vote, total exclusion from political life. People were being lynched openly. That is not happening now.” While she tells the reader she sees his point, she continues to insist that “we’re seeing the twenty-first-century version of the backlash.” Different and yet the same, recasting of the caste system.
We get a hopeless message that nothing has changed, and nothing may ever will as “some pathogens can never be killed, only contained, perhaps at best managed” .