Beyond Silicon Valley: Ramesh Srinivasan on Reclaiming Technology to Serve the People

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Social media, like most technologies, is a double-edged sword. It can shrink distance, but it can also manipulate our behavior and help disinformation spread like wildfire. It can help us feel connected but keeps us doom scrolling well past our bedtimes. 

Ramesh Srinivasan suggests other possibilities in his latest book, “Beyond the Valley: How Innovators around the World are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow.” 

Ramesh Srinivasan | Courtesy of UCLA
Ramesh Srinivasan | Courtesy of UCLA

Srinivasan is a professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies and director of the UC Digital Cultures Lab. He was an advisor to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and to the Biden/Harris campaign. And he’s a panelist for the UCLA Arts discussion series “10 Questions: Reckoning” on Nov. 2, responding to the question, “What Is Hope?” 

In this interview with the UCLA Arts podcast “Works In Progress,” he looks at efforts around the world and in the U.S. to reclaim technology to serve people’s needs, and not unaccountable corporate interests.

Less than a week before Election Day, the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google were called before Congress to address the problem of deceptive advertising on their platforms in the final days of the 2020 election season.

Senators on the Commerce Committee grilled the executives over how certain content is removed or labeled by platforms. A crucial part of the Communication Decency Act known as Section 230 protects the companies from liability over content posted on their platforms. Reforming that law is just one goal that Srinivasan has outlined in a digital bill of rights that would include privacy and anti-surveillance measures, as well as limits on AI and facial recognition technologies.

Crucial to this effort is greater digital literacy. Srinivasan points out that the language over the Internet as a public good — whether it’s Google’s motto “don’t be evil” or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg calling his platform “the world’s social infrastructure” — is all part of “a branding campaign that claims publicness, claims universality, while in reality is just suited to support private interests.”

As many scholars have observed, and as documentaries like “The Great Hack” and “The Social Dilemma” illustrate, the algorithms that drive social media and online behavior are engineered to boost inflammatory and divisive content in order to maximize engagement. 

“What we are experiencing is a filtered version of reality that is computationally designed to lock our attention in,” he said.

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Watch Srinivasan discuss "The Internet of Tomorrow" in this video.

Srinivasan says asking Silicon Valley for transparency is the minimum we can do. He also calls for greater amounts of disclosure, a crackdown on data brokers that buy and sell personal information, and greater regulation over how tech companies can use and store personal data. He’s also urging lawmakers to support antitrust actions that target the largest tech companies.

“Regulatory action doesn’t mean the ends of these businesses,” Srinivasan said. “Research has shown again and again and again that antitrust action in cases that are legitimate can actually support greater competitive market activity and support the growth of innovation.”

Srinivasan points to the democratic possibilities of social media and technology, including in the Arab Spring of 2011 to 2013, the Occupy Wall Street movement and Black Lives Matter. In other places in the world, Srinivasan has seen incredible innovation — from people hacking their electronic devices to prolong their lifespans, to Indigenous Mexican communities building their own collectively-owned and operated cell phone networks and intranet networks.

Srinivasan isn’t calling on us to delete all our social media accounts. But he does want users of technology to be aware of the privacy and surveillance concerns. In addition, he says, social media cannot be the only way that social movements form and organize.

“We often talk about the term social network and forgets that social networks existed throughout human history or civilizational history, long before Friendster or Myspace,” Srinivasan said. “We need to realize that people come together to enact change, as they have in revolutions and political movements throughout history, in all sorts of ways and all sorts of choreographies.”

Ramesh Srinivasan will be a panelist on the “10 Questions: Reckoning” discussion responding to the question, “What Is Hope?” on November 2nd at 7 pm. Joining him will be musician and composer Herbie Hancock; and author, screenwriter, and producer Tananarive Due. RSVP and find more information here. 


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