Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Mikki Kressbach reviews Whose Global Village?

Ramesh Srinivasan. Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World. New York: New York University Press, 2017. 272 pp.

Review by Mikki Kressbach

Ramesh Srinivasan begins Whose Global Village? by dismissing a utopian vision of technology. He calls, instead, for an acknowledgment of the asymmetric distribution of digital technologies and theorizations that have lead to the systemic erasure of minority voices and communities. Facebook and Twitter did not create the Arab Spring; technology does not produce a democratic space of freedom for all, nor does it necessarily unite disparate voices and cultures. The internet, cell phones, algorithms, and other digital technologies are not neutral or universally adaptable; however, neither are they the cause of this erasure. Amassing fifteen years of ethnographic research on digital media design projects across Southeast Asia, North America, and the Middle East, Whose Global Village? questions the myths, assumptions, demographics, and possibilities for digital culture today. It is not Srinivasan’s intent to condemn or celebrate technology, but to find a way to give voice and agency to the individuals and communities currently occluded by both the technological infrastructures of global technology, and its surrounding rhetoric. 

Srinivasan proves to be one of the few media scholars capable of coupling shrewd criticism of modern technologies with possible solutions to seemingly totalizing structures that rearticulate inequality. He does so by first rejecting determinist accounts of technology in favor of conceiving of technology as “socially constructed—created by people within organizations, who in turn approach the design process based on a set of values and presumptions” (p. 2). Drawing upon scholarship from science and technology studies and gender studies that has examined the way our social relations condition perceptions of seemingly neutral scientific categories and technologies, Srinivasan avoids placing blame on the objects, algorithms, and systems themselves. Like work in software studies that reminds us that people are the authors of algorithms and code emerges through historically conditioned mathematical systems, Whose Global Village? focuses on how relationships between people and technology impact our understanding of digital communication systems like social media and internet access.

This account helps shift focus from technology to specific practices, peoples, and communities. Unlike determinist accounts of technology, which often remain focused on the technological systems and objects, Srinivasan focuses on the social dimensions of technology to address the minority populations currently effaced by the distribution of and rhetoric around emerging technologies and communication systems. Srinivasan rejects the term user, which he claims implies a stable, rational, and transparent relationship between humans and technology. In an effort to avoid the rhetorical abstraction of terms like user, he attends to the specific practices and interactions of individuals and communities to reveal how inequity is produced through assemblages of technologies and people. Only by considering these relationships can we locate the structures of power in contemporary networked culture. 

Indeed, his method is what allows Srinivasan to see the possibility of enacting change through technology. Each chapter of the book carefully traces the theoretical and material structures of Western technological hegemony, demonstrating how social media, databases, altruistic technology programs, and curation practices tend to reinforce top-down figurations of power. The way current technologies are distributed essentially seeks to bring Western practices to marginalized communities in an effort to integrate them into global marketplace. The first half of the book provides an extensive historical and theoretical discussion of how technological distribution often forces local communities and individuals to either ascribe to a universal system or opt out and thus lose access to the political, economic, and social power of technological networks. Instead, he argues, by respecting ontologies, or the way knowledge is culturally expressed, and developing technologies alongside individual and community ontologies, we may be able to find a way to respect “grassroots aspirations, values, and cultures” (p. 9). 

This vision is supported by accounts from Srinivasan’s ethnographic research, where he encountered the problems and possibilities of integrating and developing technologies within marginalized communities such as rural villages in South India, Native American populations of southern California, Zapatista activist efforts in Chiapas, Mexico, and the Zuni Native American community. Using these ethnographies as form of “reflective practice” (p. 81), he offers strategies to promote collaboration between scholars, organizations, and technology developers so they might design systems that support local communities and individuals without forcing them to subscribe to Western standards and values. The fourth chapter, for example, chronicles his work with the Zuni Native American Museum in New Mexico, where he collaborated with locals and programmers to design an online museum that sought to respect the community’s relationship to time and memory. The first step, he claims, was to dismiss the possibility that a culture can be fully “represented” or “captured” through curation (p. 15). Instead, he details an online museum that combines photographs of artifacts with histories collected from Zuni locals and comment threads that allow individuals to continually participate in the curation and narration of the museum archives. While it would be easy to see many of the projects included in the book as minor efforts, perhaps incapable of upending global inequality, there is a refreshing practicality to the proposed methods: something as simple as a museum website can be a step in the right direction. Srinivasan appears to be entirely aware that intervening in dominant power structures and shrinking the local and global divide is a slow process that requires flexibility. He concludes by arguing that the goal isn’t to produce harmony, or reach some perfect form of equity, but to embrace and “ ‘work . . . with [rather than ignore] incommensurability’” (p. 121). Technology is capable of supporting that incommensurability and providing a way to open up conversations across these disparate ontologies.

Whose Global Village? often reads as a manifesto, a call to action against the major camps of technoutopianism and technophobia. This rhetorical style works both for and against Srinivasan’s central argument. While his ethnographies are often used to express broader strategies, there remains a question as to who will incite these efforts. One doubts whether major tech corporations—Facebook, or a global nonprofit effort like One Laptop for Every Child (which Srinivasan critiques)—would adopt reflective practices that respect “community ontologies” (p. 114, my emphasis). This is not to say that Srinivasan believes these major organizations or companies will fix the problem. But it does point to a broader economic issue at the center of this book: how do we amass the necessary capital and resources to enact change? That being said, if we can, Srinivasan offers us a set of tools to begin the process of dismantling the dominant myths and systems of power, tools that can help us decolonize our understanding of technology.