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” .
What a month! I have to say with all the craziness and intense work pressure, it is rewarding to be acknowledged in the media, in my adopted homeland, The Netherlands, and my prior homeland, the United States.
A journalist at the Financial Times in the Netherlands contacted me after reading my article in the NRC critiquing the global utopia celebrity Rutger Bregman. He wanted to just chat with me about my life and work, in an open and free flow conversation. This was surprising to me given what is going on with journalism these days with budget cuts, thin margins and reactive reporting. Two meetings, almost five hours later, and much coffee at the balcony with respectable social distancing, we covered a lot of territory – my move from India to the United States to the Netherlands, my experiences with companies especially after my Next billion Users book came out in 2019, my take on Dutch innovation, European values, design approaches to global users, and more.
After the first meeting, I got inspired and when I usually do, I spar with my dad on Whatsapp about these conversations, that clearly then made its way to the second meeting and formed the crux of the interview. So basically, it landed up being an article that was at once personal and professional, well woven into a fabric that I see as representative of my life. It made me aware of how much my dad shapes my worldview, and how ideas are birthed through these rich interpersonal communications, far from the myth of the aha individual genius moments that typical media loves to perpetuate. It also highlights how us immigrants who come to new countries bring with us these valuable networks, facilitated by digital media tools, enabling for a global approach to what is often seen as local problems.
While this was going on, I was trying to relax with my all time favorite podcast, 99%Invisible. I am such a fan of Roman Mars , the host of this podcast. I listen to the show regularly and it so happened that I was in bed, in the midst of listening to one of his episodes on ‘Freedom house Ambulance Service’ about how paramedics as a profession came to be, when I got an email from him asking me to be on his show. He read my book he said and would love to chat more for his Google sponsored episode on the ‘Next billion Users.’ In our call, he was exactly how I pictured him to be, thoughtful, a wonderful and kind listener and intellectually engaging and full of humor. What a pleasure and an honor it was and not just made my day, but marked this difficult time with a positive halo.
Since the pandemic kicked in and confined us all to the screen, I have been doing a marathon of webinars with a spectrum of people from academics, product designers, internal tech teams in corporations, public festivals to policy summits. I even did a book talk via Instagram with an influencer which was itself quite an experience. It was impressive to see the multitasking of the host while comments, remarks, and emoticons continued to fly across the split screen. I experimented also with a few YouTube show hosts from Pakistan talking about business and innovation and education to hosts in India on more women leadership stories. In short, let’s just say that covid was a nudge to get me to experiment with diverse platforms, formats and hosts and institutions across the world and that has surely expanded my horizons.
That said, I miss people. I miss a real audience. I miss the excitement of getting on stage, the bright lights blinding you a bit before you start to perform. A live audience energizes me in my talks and this has been an element that I have sorely missed. So it was quite a novelty to get on stage after 6 months at the Hofpleintheater in Rotterdam for an event called ‘No Place to Hide – Digital Sovereignty and Surveillance in the Data Economy.’ It was organized by de Dependance, a platform for City Culture and Public Debate that does some very cool events.
The questions up for debate was on how the rise of the data economy transforms our democracies, societies and cities? What are the mechanisms, interests and power dynamics behind modern day surveillance capitalism? And how do issues of online privacy, digital tracking and data governance manifest themselves beyond the West?
They put me up against a Dutch celebrity, the Waag founder and internet pioneer Marleen Stikkerwho is also the author of ‘Het Internet is Stuk’ (The Internet is Bust), a book on how we lost our digital sovereignty and what we can do to reclaim it. We each got to do our TED-like talk and after which, we had a discussion and debate about these issues. While we both clearly want the same things in terms of having genuine alternatives, breaking up tech, better governance that is not driven by market values but on common values, we did diverge in our views on how consumers around the world experienced these technologies. I took a stand on how surveillance has become a dirty word and while indeed there are some seriously urgent issues around corporate and state surveillance, we need to see the positive of certain kinds of social surveillance in terms of watching out for each other and generating visibility of people and causes that have long been invisible. Also, capitalism has played out in different ways in different contexts especially in post communist regimes and that these ideologies gain nuanced meanings as they intersect with local histories and politics – a case in point being “capitalistic China.”
Anyway, it was a good and healthy debate to be had especially in these black and white times of polarized discourses. And I for one, was glad to be among human beings again.
On June 14 2020, my article in the NRC (Dutch newspaper) critiqued Rutger Bregman, the historian and author celebrity on his "new" story in The Guardian 'The real lord of the Flies' that got much attention in these recent weeks and has resulted in a movie deal.
What really provoked me to write this article was that Bregman touts himself as the architect for a more humane, more kind and more compassionate future for society. Instead, in his visions for a more hopeful Humankind which rests on "friendship and loyalty," he perpetuates the white savior narrative. His story comes with an alarming myopic worldview of race relations, decontextualized from the colonial past. Sadly, with him at the helm of scripting this narrative for the New Regency film company, we have on hand yet another GreenBook movie.
In a nutshell, he romanticizes a real world incident between some Tongan boys and a rich Australian sailor in the 1960s and frames it as evidence of how people are innately good. While I look at the same story that he celebrates and see astounding levels of naivety on power relations, with an unconscionable criminalizing of boys for petty crime. This comes at a time where the world is experiencing global protests on institutionalized racism. So the stakes are high as leaders are looking to be guided on how to reform these systems. With Bregman at the helm, this worries me tremendously as he continues to demonstrate a complete inability to comprehend the colonial underpinnings of such systems of control, and this coming from a historian unable to process history written not by the victors.
So at this point, it is worth reading my NRC article in dutch or in English to get the context here. When the articles got released, there was much discussion on the NRC website and on twitter. What was interesting is how Bregman engaged me on that platform. He was obsessed with me being careless about the "facts" of the story, that I haven't done my own research and that I did not know the relationship between the Tongan boys and the Australian savior. It is ironic that for a man who is obsessed about getting the "facts" right, he was completely oblivious of the colonial history in this region. For instance, he did not see any connect with the missionaries in Tonga and the power dynamics in the Tongan society. He is baffled that I even link the two as he stated in one of his tweets to me - "so you think the influence of the church caused the Tongan boys to be arrested by Tongan agents for stealing the boat?"
There is a violent history of missionaries going off to the "savage lands" to civilize the people and this was a moral justification for the highly profitable slave trade and colonial project of empire building in Tonga. I myself am a product of missionary schooling in India which was deeply traumatizing; so imagine what it was like then for these Tongan boys in the 1960s. Bregman further remarked in another tweet that the Tongan boys were put under lock and key by the Tongan police and not by white police, arguing that clearly then its not about race. And moreover, he argues, there were few white people there at that time,implying that surely its not a race-relation story. I responded with the following tweets:
Please stop simplifying institutionalized racism. If you read the colonial history, the role of the missionary, the common framing of the times of non-white people as animals, sub-humans, barbarians & more, its a composite that make a resilient racist system
This is exactly the argument about colonialism. The Wesleyan Mission (very much an extension of the colonial ideology and indoctrination) was well established in Tonga. I am from India & it was ruled by a small lot of British folk over 2 centuries in spite of our vast population.
I'm not talking about the persons but the systems. When a black cop arrests a black person it still is about a racially biased system.
Bregman's other tirades on twitter was rather bizarre as he defended himself by saying how he had signed a movie deal where he, the Tongan survivors, and the rich Australian sailor share the profits equally (so celebrate him for treating the Tongans equally?) or that he acknowledged and shared the critique by the Tongans of him with me (so thereby again celebrate him for being able to acknowledge his mistakes?) Him overlooking the entire Tongan history, culture and politics is not a "mistake" but rather the default practice and approach that gets reproduced. Institutionalized racism persists because we are unable to move from mistakes to reform.
Anyway, this has been a learning moment for me as I realize the kind of uphill battle we have in reforming institutions by questioning the very logic that structures them. If our utopian man Bregman can be so tone deaf to the long standing power dynamics that have shaped such systems of control in society, it is no wonder that people have taken to the streets, refusing to be filtered through the likes of Bregman.
Looks like I have over-committed to my speaking gigs in June. As my travel like everyone else has been restricted, the fervor to be connected has dramatically increased across the world to share our ideas and visions on the redesign of systems in light of COVID. This global solidarity has compelled me to agree to a whole host of connections across different groups from education to product design. And before you know it, I have found myself with an insane schedule this month. So for those who want to tune in to the diverse webinars this month, here goes. This is before I head off to recuperate in July/Aug!
Feminist Labour Collectives website has just been launched -check it out! FemLab.Co
It is a project funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) that builds on an understanding of communicative ecologies of women in specific sites of informal labour to explore how digital platforms can be leveraged by them to share grievances and communicate directly to the top of the global supply chain, allowing their voices to contribute to the governance of the future of work and ethical/responsible design. Usha Raman and I received funding as Principal Investigators for this initiative and have a got together a wonderful and diverse team across four countries: India, Bangladesh, Netherlands and Germany that will work on the fieldwork, digital storytelling and stakeholder policy analysis in the upcoming years.
I was invited to speak at a webinar on “The digital economy in Asia: feminist perspectives” organized by the Women and future of work working group of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Asia, in cooperation with WIDE+ on 22nd April. This webinar provided an interesting and much-needed discussion on how feminism in the Fourth Industrial Revolution is impacting the present and future of women’s work in Asian economies. The kinds of issues we discussed was about the gender digital divide and implications of platformisation and automation of value chains on women’s work and livelihoods, to reflect on future priorities for feminist action in the region. I enjoyed the back and forth discussion mediated by Farzana Nawaz, at Laudes Foundation in Bangkok, between myself, Anita Gurumurthy, IT for Change, India, Nadine Siregard, Gojek, Indonesia and Verna Dinah Viajar, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of the Philippines Diliman studying labour issues and the future of work.
In my opening statement, I tried to steer away from the gender-divide framing, reminding the audience of the age of problematization of the divide discourse that implicates an evolutionary and deterministic direction. I also spoke about the feminist data dilemmas along the lines of misrepresentation as deliberate vs imposed obfuscation where women’s dominance in sectors such as agriculture, construction, and other such markets are masked as the popular trope of these fields being masculine circulate in the media and policy reports. This is partly due to the subsistence and collective/cooperative models of sustainability that women choose over that of market driven. In the COVID times, this makes them invisible and ineligible for bailouts, creating further inequality between the sexes. I also talk about the value of privacy versus the amplification of voice being the perennial and hard to resolve tensions that women grapple with especially in this datafication age. Overall, I advocate for shifting focus from the user to the design of socio-technical systems if we are to move forward towards a more just society.
At the Techfestival in Copenhagen, I got to chat with Severin Matusek of the Co-Matter Podcast on why Pornhub continues to be a powerful hook for people in the global south to adopt the internet and get hooked on it, when does culture actually matter in the scaling of tech and more.