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Questions to Nishant Shah

by Prasad Krishna last modified Mar 06, 2014 08:54 AM
Dr. Nishant Shah had a text interview with the Hybrid Publishing Lab around questions on Digital Humanities.

The interview was published on the website of Leuphana University in February 2014.

Nis­hant Shah is the co-foun­der and Di­rec­tor-Re­se­arch at the Cent­re for In­ter­net and So­cie­ty, Ban­ga­lo­re, In­dia. He re­se­ar­ches at Leu­pha­na and in The Nether­lands. His to­pics are cy­borgs and cy­ber­spaces.

  1. Why do you think we are all cy­borgs?
    Shah: Ge­ne­ral­ly, when we think of cy­borgs we think of fu­tu­ris­tic beings – things that we want to be­co­me. But that ima­gi­na­ti­on pre­ten­ds that we don't have an in­ti­ma­te and in­tri­ca­te re­la­ti­ons­hip with dif­fe­rent tech­no­lo­gies. When we look at the world that we live in, we can im­me­dia­te­ly re­co­gni­ze that we con­ti­nu­al­ly live with tech­no­lo­gies that help us live and to live to­ge­ther. The­se tech­no­lo­gies are so na­tu­ral a part of our life that we have for­got­ten to think of them as tech­no­lo­gies – like electri­ci­ty or think of tech­no­lo­gi­cal pro­ducts – like clo­thes. It is good to re­mind our­sel­ves, when we think of our­sel­ves as 'al­re­a­dy cy­borgs', that our li­ves are in­tert­wi­ned with tech­no­lo­gies of dif­fe­rent kinds, and that we need to think of our hu­man, so­ci­al and po­li­ti­cal con­di­ti­ons as me­dia­ted by the tech­no­lo­gi­cal.
  2. What does this know­ledge mean to our society?
    Shah: Thin­king of our­sel­ves as cy­borgs li­ving in cy­borg so­cie­ties helps us look at the role of tech­no­lo­gies dif­fer­ent­ly. We come to rea­li­ze that tech­no­lo­gies are not just so­me­thing that we use in or­der to achie­ve a task. Our usa­ge of tech­no­lo­gies chan­ges who we are, in­di­vi­dual­ly and as a so­cie­ty. So we need to take the po­li­tics of tech­no­lo­gy in­fra­struc­tu­re and re­gu­la­ti­on se­rious­ly. For ex­amp­le, the pri­va­tiza­t­i­on of know­ledge in­dus­tries, clo­sed and pro­prieta­ry pu­blis­hing of re­se­arch that is pro­du­ced through pu­blic fun­ding, pro­du­ces so­cie­ties whe­re only a pri­vi­le­ged eli­te can ac­cess this know­ledge. We will have to look at ques­ti­ons of open ac­cess, open sour­ce, open know­ledge, etc. as a part of our lar­ger so­ci­al pro­blems ins­tead of thin­king of them as 'tech­no­lo­gy' ques­ti­ons. Si­mi­lar­ly, tech­no­lo­gies of ac­cess de­fi­ne how dif­fe­rent iden­ti­ties and groups are shaped and con­su­med and we need to now start loo­king at in­ter­sec­tions of tech­no­lo­gy and so­cie­ty ra­ther than ima­gi­ning them as se­pa­ra­ted do­mains.
  3. Does the Di­gi­tal Chan­ge bring about ad­van­ta­ges or di­sad­van­ta­ges for our society?
    Shah: I feel that this is a wrong ques­ti­on to ask. It pre­su­mes that we ac­tual­ly have only the­se two op­ti­ons, and that the­re is a nor­ma­ti­ve, uni­ver­sal truth that de­ter­mi­nes what the ad­van­ta­ges and di­sad­van­ta­ges are. Every shift in tech­no­lo­gi­cal de­ve­lop­ment co­mes with a bunch of pos­si­bi­li­ties. Some of the­se pos­si­bi­li­ties might of­fer us the pro­mi­se of a just, open, in­clu­si­ve and fair so­cie­ty. Some of them might port­ent a com­pro­mi­se of our ba­sic hu­man and so­ci­al rights. The pro­ces­ses used for both are the same. In that case, the ques­ti­ons of power, or ow­nership, of ac­coun­ta­bi­li­ty and trans­pa­ren­cy will need to be built into the con­ver­sa­ti­ons around di­gi­tal. So the ques­ti­on is not to ask whe­ther the di­gi­tal in its­elf is good or bad. Howe­ver, the di­gi­tal does pro­vi­de us with al­ter­na­ti­ves to some of the most en­de­mic pro­blems around power im­ba­lan­ce, abu­se and dis­cri­mi­na­ti­on. And it re­mains for us to see, how we are go­ing to shape our so­cie­ties to ful­fill the­se pro­mi­ses. If we don't take the­se ques­ti­ons se­rious­ly, we might end up am­pli­fy­ing our pro­blems through the very tech­no­lo­gies that can other­wi­se be used to achie­ve the­se dreams.
  4. Which ad­van­ta­ges do you see, es­pe­cial­ly for students?
    Stu­dents, for me, are the peop­le who are go­ing to live the sci­ence fic­tion fu­tures that we ima­gi­ne in the pre­sent. So whi­le we can make a list of all the dif­fe­rent tools and prac­tices that stu­dents can use right now, for edu­ca­ti­on, for col­la­bo­ra­ti­on, for sharing and for re­se­arch, what is more im­portant is to rea­li­ze what the­se tech­no­lo­gies help stu­dents in thin­king about their fu­tures. One of the big­gest things that the di­gi­tal pro­du­ces for stu­dents, or any young peop­le, is that it ma­kes them think of them­sel­ves as agents of chan­ge. With the di­gi­tal, with the abili­ty to mo­bi­li­ze and con­nect re­sour­ces and peop­le to­ge­ther, the young are of­ten able to make stra­te­gic in­ter­ven­ti­ons to cor­rect pro­blems in their im­me­dia­te en­vi­ron­ments. And that is the fu­ture of our so­cie­ties – to build an ac­tive ci­vil so­cie­ty that is go­ing to cont­ri­bu­te to sustainable, re­le­vant and nu­an­ced so­lu­ti­ons for the worlds that we want to live in.
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