TEDxUCLA 2012: Open

How culture and technology create one another


About Ramesh

Ramesh Srinivasan (born 1976) studies the relationship between technology, politics and society. He is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has been a faculty member at UCLA since 2005 in the Information Studies and Design Media Arts departments. He is the founder of the UC-wide Digital Cultures Lab, exploring the meaning of technology worldwide as it spreads to the far reaches of our world.


We live in a world today with approximately 7 billion people in our world today. And astonishingly, about 5 billion out of those 7 billion people now have mobile phones. And something between 2 and 3 billion out of those 7 billion people have some form of access to the Internet, though that’s very diverse and very different in different circumstances, in different contexts around the world.

But what this creates are very uncanny, interesting, fascinating, and surprising intersections. So we see, for example, this man here, an Indian guru, not necessarily your first order consideration of who a mobile phone user would be. He’s got his big cilam in his hand, but the mobile phone somehow is providing some utility for him. And then on the left-hand side we see this fisherman, and this is a great story because this is a fisherman in southern India who is out at sea when the tsunami hit. All of us remember the tsunami when it hit. He was out there with his mobile phone and he was calling his family and texting his family on the shore in these huts on the beach, saying, “I see these terrible waves coming, get off of the shore.” And that did save some lives, though the tsunami was ultimately highly disastrous for for all.

But that story doesn’t just end in India. That also concerns my friend Sebi Mai. Does everybody see the fascinating crocodile tattoos he has on the, on his back? So Sebi Mai is part of a shamanic cult where they worship the crocodile spirits. But part of worshipping a crocodile spirit doesn’t necessarily mean not touching the crocodile, but actually hunting it in the middle of the night.

So I spent time on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea trying to understand how these people are living their lives and how technology might be influencing their lives in different ways. And what I found was in the middle of the night, we would go out in these large dug-out wooden canoes and try to hunt crocodiles together. And I’m really bad at hunting crocodiles. I don’t know if any of you have expertise in that, but that’s pretty hard to do.

But what you always try to do when you try to hunt a crocodile is look for the eyes of the crocodile in the middle of the night. So I thought we would try to do this using a flashlight, or something along those lines, right? But these guys didn’t have any flashlights because they couldn’t afford any batteries because there was hardly any supply of batteries out in this extremely remote region of the world.

How do we find these crocodiles? They’re using their mobile phones, the lights emitted from their mobile phones, to look for the eyes of the crocodile. And that creates this situation, this enclosure, these crocodiles in this enclosure, and that big guy on the back charged me. Luckily, Papua New Guineans know how to build fences.

So that got me really interested in thinking about how is culture changing thanks to the diffusion of technology around the world, and I study these questions in very different contexts with very different communities. And today, I’m just going to give you a bit of a sample of some of those stories.

So this is in Andhra Pradesh, which is kind of southeastern India here. And I was interested in communities that are sort of on the margins of society in rural parts of India who have very fatalistic sorts of perspectives about their lives and their abilities to generate economy, development, social and political power in various ways.

And what was interesting here is I would hang out with a group in these different villages. And generally what happens is when people have meetings in these different villages, they sit around and talk about their dreams, their visions, and so on. But usually what comes out of those meetings is there is nothing we can really do about the process.

Well, is there a way to change that dynamic? And can technology somehow facilitate the changing of that dynamic?

So this is kind of what I was looking at here. People taking video cameras, using video cameras to try to document different traditions, different stories, different issues, different realities that they were experiencing collectively. And together, sitting and watching the videos that one another were creating in such a way to actually inspire collective action.

And we saw fascinating effects start to happen. People were using video cameras to document abuses by the government. People were using video cameras to document their trades and their capacities. And by creating these videos, they were able to collectively rally around the content produced by that technology to actually try to generate some forms of what we call in social sciences “collective action from below.”

So we see various forms of mobilization that can occur. But if you trust communities, if you trust cultures, if you trust people to have the power with technology rather than presuming what technology does or does not mean for people. And that got me thinking about a lot of interesting questions.

So far, I’ve only talked about uses of technology and creative uses of technology. But what are the codes of technology? What’s behind those databases? What’s behind those algorithms? What’s behind what Eli Pariser in a huge TED talk called “the filter bubble?” What are the assumptions that codes that make technology possible?

Well, it turns out that new technologies, like many forms of science that come in our world today, come out of a particular moment in the history of science, that come out of Descartes and the Enlightenment and those days where you try to separate knowledge, create structural ways of mapping the world.

So you see an example here of what one might call Western knowledge, parent-child relationships between different concepts. But these concepts are neatly separated from one another in such a way that knowledge is structured. And if you look at the databases and the algorithms that structure our world today, they follow similar sorts of logics.

But now, with 5 billion people having access to mobile phones and us really starting to be increasingly concerned with the voices of diverse people, we have to rethink these codes that underlie technology. That’s why I say it’s not just technology creating and shaping culture. It’s also culture creating and shaping technology.

As an example, look at this. This is an Aboriginal map. This is an Aboriginal way of telling a story about the world. It’s actually a very similar form to that which we just saw, except it represents an alternative way of knowing the world. This is an ancestral being, a crocodile spirit.

And when you look at this map, it may not make sense to most of us, but when Aboriginal people look at this map, they are able to navigate their landscape because it’s all based on stories, traditions and performances. Is there a way to rethink technology from the perspective of this map?

So this is something I was thinking about as I was assigned to do different projects in different parts of the world. I worked quite a bit with Native American populations and I was actually brought out to work with 19 Native American reservations in east of San Diego County, in the deserts on the sides of mountains, trying to think about how I could design and build a technology, because these guys had Internet access, that actually it could empower their sovereign indigenous local traditions.

And so we ended up building the system, which we called Tribal Peace. And this was grafted on a beautiful image of a manzanita tree, which is a symbol of rebirth across the populations. But what’s interesting is not just the creation of the technology, but the codes behind the technology.

And that works by talking to people like Jane Dumas here on the left, a woman who is impacted and shaped my life, a woman who I actually had a dream about just two nights ago. Jane, I came to Jane with sage and tobacco, shared my own stories, told her about my own traditions as someone who’s from southern India, and got her blessing to actually help me design and endorse and articulate this system to work across these very geographically dispersed reservations east of San Diego County.

And what we were able to create was an alternate mapping of the different knowledges that these different communities had. So they were able to actually structure their world around different categories that are highly non-Western, like visual metaphors, like oceans, like deserts. So we basically created a system around the knowledges and categories and concepts that were at the core of these communities.

And to me, that was very fascinating to think about how such a system could be designed from the bottom up, not just based on metaphors, but based on concepts and ways of knowing the world that are important to these communities.

So I really started thinking about these questions more and more. Now I’m here as an associate professor at UCLA. This is my team that we work at at Zuni, which is a Native American reservation in New Mexico, quite remote. And we’re trying to think about these questions in the context of museums, because museums now are increasingly digitizing their objects. And we’re trying to think about what is the Zuni way of knowing the world and how could that become empowered in the digital world more largely, especially when it comes to objects such as this.

So this is a bunch of Zuni elders. They’re looking at objects that are sitting in museums and they’re trying to analyze what these things mean to them versus what museums usually say about that, right? So how do we introduce this alternate way of telling a story about the world and rebuild technologies from such a perspective?

Or this piece of pottery here. This pottery was taken about six hundred years ago, excavated from Zuni, sitting in a museum in England. And the way the museum in England describes this piece of pottery is radically different than the ways the Zuni themselves understand this piece of pottery.

And it’s primarily around these dramatic differences. In this, in this image here you can see on the right-hand side, the way the museum describes this piece of pottery: “ZX34215” or “Plains Indians” or “lump of concretion.”

But what do the Zuni say when they see these objects from their history, from their traditions? They tell stories, because it’s all about stories at the end of the day. That’s how people locate their experiences, locate their histories, think about themselves and articulate their dreams.

And the Zuni talk about, “Oh, when my grandmother had a birthing ceremony, this piece of pottery reminded me of a pottery that was used in that ceremony.” Examples like that. So there’s some intersections around names, but there’s dramatic differences that we can see on the left-hand side.

So what would it be like to rethink systems from such a perspective where the Zuni way of knowing and the Western way of knowing could both exist in parallel and could inform a radically new way of rethinking everything from a Google algorithm to a Facebook filter feed to the ways we create databases that order and structure the world we live in?

And this might be a little off the shelf here, but I think it creates this. These are two extremely rare, beautiful, and unique animals that are in Papua New Guinea today. This is a frog. Everyone’s seen a frog, right? What, what does this frog have? It has giant fangs. This is a kangaroo, one might say. But it’s sort of a strange type of kangaroo. It’s a tree kangaroo.

So what happens when different forms of knowledge meet one another? It creates what biologists call emergence. But in the digital world, this can also be possible. And the reason these animals exist in Papua New Guinea is simply because all these different species have been able to exist in parallel and occasionally meet and mingle with one another.

To me, the truth of really empowering cultural voices around technology is allowing those different voices to exist in parallel and speak to and inform one another.

I like sometimes drawing different graphics to try to, you know, sort of intuit my ideas and bring them into reality. And I think it looks something like this. You know, we’ve all talked about fractals and chaos theory and complexity theory, so on and so forth. But these are different ecosystems, just like the Zuni knowledge system, that exist in parallel. But they inform one another, they have weak ties within one another.

And what comes out of those links between those nodes in those networks are frogs with fangs. Because we really need to think about the world in which we live and assume and understand that not every person in the world engages with technology in the same way, and that most of those technologies are locked into black boxes or white iPods.

How do we rethink the codes? How do we hack out new meanings? How do we empower those diverse people that are coming to the digital table? How do we empower the digital revolution to fulfill the early grassroots promises that were part of what we thought about when we invoked the Internet to begin with? This came out of a countercultural movement. How do we think diversely and globally about these questions?

So these are the questions at the core of my heart. It’s an honor to get to share them with you today. And thank you very much for your time.