Ramesh Srinivasan, UCLA professor, and media activist/scholar polymath, spent a few weeks in Cairo last month to test the wildly divergent theories of internet activism and revolution. He is going to be on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition tomorrow, August 10, 2011, at various times throughout the day. I asked him three questions.
Where did you go, for how long, and what did do there?
Having done work in the past exploring how technologies impact and interact with cultures and communities, I became interested (with you!) in looking at how the deregulated internet shaped citizen journalism and dissident blogging in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan. I was energized and sent into something of a frenzy by the overstated binaries of Malcolm Gladwell’s beautifully written and painfully wrong New Yorker Article and the wonderful black and white Soviet world painted by Evgeny Morozov in his Net Delusion. Why would these brilliant thinkers privilege technology in their explanations over social and cultural context? So given the ‘Facebook Revolution’ of the Arab Spring and specifically in Egypt, I spent nearly one month this last June-July in and around Egypt speaking with scholars, politicians, journalists, activists, and others about how political networks form and function from the January revolution onward. I also spoke with laborers and taxi drivers about their perspectives and unsurprisingly found that they were not actively connected to networked technologies but still impacted by the ways in which these shaped journalism that they were exposed to.
I noticed you are doing NPR and Al Jazeera English. Why are you branching out of typical academic scenes?
I care, like all of us on Savage Minds, about the importance of taking our tools of critically analyzing, distilling, narrating, and in my case designing, to the public. We’re all dismayed by how mainstream media is fraught with soundbytes, lack of deliberative discourse, and lack of bridging. This pattern has replicated itself with internet activity, unfortunately, as Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out. How can we take a step together past this? To me, there’s a place for stories to be told that are critical, that deeply respect cultural context, yet also present what we see as patterns, in captivating language. My recent appearances on Al Jazeera English, and upcoming National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, and Washington Post are all attempts for me to find common ground between soundbyte cultures that speak to publics and stories that are reflective and critical.
Why is technoutopianism so prevalent?
It’s interesting because almost anyone you speak to after some reflection concludes that technologies rarely cause or create anything in and of themselves. But I feel we’re still in a stage of infancy where we marvel so easily at the incredible pace of innovation around new media, and particularly can only dream when trying to comprehend what that might mean in a village without electricity, or a mass mobilization in a part of the world like the Middle East that many claim to know little of. So it’s easy to think that technologies in and of themselves radically shape these global locations because they have worked with organizations, cultures, and institutions to shape our own. When I was a graduate student at the MIT Media Laboratory, we developed, for example, wonderful technologies for rural poverty eradication that we thought we could easily export to India, especially in the hands of Indian graduate students like myself. But we realized immediately that the tools were at best bizarre and at worst alienating to the people we met in villages when we arrived. So I believe it’s important to remember is that unevenness of access, literacy, infrastructure, and power over these networks is the other common pattern without the West and the rest of the world. That thought may complicate but it presents opportunities to develop greater insight and respect of the power of culture.