New Summer, New Internship, New Language

This summer I am interning with Microsoft’s India Development Center in Hyderabad. To recap, since the past year’s failed efforts at procuring funding (NSF and other) to do an oral histories’ study of South Asian migrants in Silicon Valley, I have completely shifted gears to looking at technology and productivity. Building on earlier ridesharing work, especially the stuff in India (yes, I am yet to publish it argh), I’ve been increasingly interested in futures of work for India. It aligns somewhat with corporate and government initiatives to connect the next 500 million people (further segmented into low-income, low-literacy, mobile-only, deskless, field-working, urban educated mass, depending on where you talk about them). So, here’s the thing you should know. As a South Asian scholar in US academia, if you are lucky, fellow brown academics will immediately alert you to the pitfalls of doing area studies and ICT4D research (area studies limits you as a “native expert” and you could spend a lifetime reporting on facts; ICT4D of course has a problematic developmental agenda and patronizing poor uneducated people to compute them as market opportunities). But, if like me, you began as skeptical of these and a lover of all things STS (“why this” and “do we even” being central questions), then doing research on technologies transforming work in India can be very troubling. It’s sort of hard to reconcile the two worlds and my personal opinion is that it’s harder if you’re a native researcher. I cannot or don’t have the anthropologist’s alienation – these are my people, I am them, I myself do jugaad (rolls eyes) and I have always known of infrastructure as broken and pace/promises as tentative. So, to report on these facts or to report on the failure of techno-governance (for instance Aadhaar as oppressive panoptic surveillance) feels like a low-hanging fruit and a strawman to me. I’ll tell you why. I’ve done this exercise for a fair bit and I appreciate the critical commentary on any techno-developmental initiative but then, especially in India where our research cultures are not so well-aligned with implementation and again product and policy development happen elsewhere (in places you wouldn’t always suspect, not “systemetically” by researchers – I mean there’s a different ecosystem), a lot of critical research and journalism can both be informing an international audience but also not be “consumable” (a word I learned this summer 😛 ) by those who make change happen. So, I was curious, I wanted to finally do research for large-scale deployment, I wanted to see who in a tech corporate setting is really empowered to make the “change” decisions (designer, product manager, engineer – who leads it?) and there’s so much I’ve learned already! There’s also that continuing thread about how do we (as non-Western researcher/citizens who (must) have political stakes in their countries’ growth) think, write and build for the future of work that isn’t latching onto received dystopian and utopian visions of AI/ML/whatever other buzzword. More on this later.

Lesson of the first month in a product-driven tech team: PPTs work and now I see why (haha). Mind you my confessions here are for those like me (those who like to pee on every optimist designer and “maker”‘s parade). I can totally see why and how whiteboard-writing, presentations and post-it notes work as organizational communication, the kind of audiences they circulate between (think of words like lean, design thinking, verticals, opportunities) and of course, the temporal rhythms they manage. Again, without saying too much, ain’t nobody got time for weeks worth of deep-dives, iterative research or even “rigor” the way we signal and understand it in academia. A lot of this might be obvious to anyone who’s done design research but as someone who’s moved from semi-archival cinema studies to ethnography and then some more to walkthroughs across a diverse class of respondents, there’s a lot of impostor feeling to work through on a daily basis.

If you’re wondering what project I am working on, here’s a short publicly available clip of ‘Project Sangam’, a learning and job discovery platform for blue-collar workers.

I’ll try to make this a monthly thing.