Interviews

"We can't let large corporations be the only ones who can talk and argue about big data"

  Photo: UOC

Photo: UOC

01/08/2018
Roser Reyner
Anita Say Chan, a science and technology historian and anthropologist with a PhD from the MIT

 

Anita Say Chan is a science and technology historian and anthropologist with a PhD from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She found a moment to talk via Skype just after her return to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she now works, following a frantic European trip on which she discovered local innovation initiatives that work as alternatives to the major social media networks or the world's most powerful online corporations. During the trip she visited Barcelona, where she took part in a seminar organized by the UOC's IN3. In this interview she's both sombre and optimistic, and emphasizes that we need to look up from our screens, go into the street and promote local tech initiatives. This, she says, is how the internet and social media will enable ordinary people to build real democracies.

 

Would it be right to say that your work focuses on ensuring that the internet and big data lead us towards a better humanity?

I study how the internet is transforming politics, business and culture. When I talk about culture, I'm referring to civil society, to any group of people doing something together, from scientists or government workers to a tribe in the Amazon rainforest. I make a distinction between the private sector, large corporations, and the cultural sphere, which would be ordinary people, civil society.

In terms of ordinary people, I've read that you're interested in what data creates from the bottom up and is unpredictable, such as the Arab Spring, or the 15M movement in Spain. But many of these movements have ended in repression of freedom of expression, civil wars, coups or even the emergence of the Islamic State. How do you see it?

We cannot expect instant change, because no revolution is instantaneous. How long have we been living in modern democracies? And we don't have a perfect democracy yet, but rather a political experiment that's a few hundred years old. And we thought that the internet would change things right away. Everything is a process. But look at what just happened in Mexico: the elections were won by a candidate who had been standing for office for more than a decade. In 2018, public pressure and the resistance and resilience of citizens organized in a network made their voice heard and the candidate won. In 2016 no one would have believed it. What we are witnessing in Europe and the USA is horrifying: in the digital sphere, certain political powers, together with companies that are digital power centres, are joining forces. Look at the case of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and the elections in the USA. They are experimenting with people and manipulating populist trends. But there are also cases where public opinion has taken another direction, and I think that Spain is one of these. The response of Barcelona and Spain in general to the big problem of migration is very interesting: we haven't seen trends as racist as in other European countries, such as Italy, England, Germany and Austria, where feelings about migrants are being manipulated.

Here or there, perhaps we have not yet assimilated all the changes the internet and social media can bring to how we live...

It's slow. The struggle is about how to give civil society its own time to learn in this area, to share it and showcase its successes. It's very, very difficult. But there are success stories in the local sphere. In Barcelona I found the case of hangar.org, a research initiative on culture and digital art that is not based in any university or the private sector. But few people know it exists, even though what's happening there is far more interesting than what's happening on Google or Facebook. But hangar.org does not have access to the kind of money these companies have for promoting themselves, which is a pity. People only pay attention to the advertising in front of them, on the screen, instead of looking in another direction and seeing what is in their city. And, I repeat, this is the struggle: to invest in how to recognize local cases, experiments in innovation around us. This demands patience, but it's difficult when we're getting used to today's consumerism and fast-paced lifestyle. But real democracy doesn't work on the same timeframe as online sales. We have to stop thinking that Silicon Valley is the only model that determines how changes occur.

Silicon Valley would be the centre, but you study how they innovate in what you define as the periphery. Is that right?

Silicon Valley was not always the centre: until the 1970s they grew oranges there. The first “Silicon Valley" in the USA was in Minnesota, before the 1970s, when there were no personal computers. These companies manufactured enormous computers, which cost over a million dollars. Basically they worked on censuses and calculations for banks and the US military during the Cold War and had to keep it secret to avoid attacks. Venice and Constantinople were also centres of innovation in their time. But these centres change. How can we get people to pay attention to experiments on the periphery? I've studied the case of Peru extensively and wrote a book about it. Peru was one of the first countries in the world to pass a law to promote free software in the government. It was surprising, because everyone saw it as the periphery. And it was promoted by an indigenous senator, who spoke Quechua. Laboratoria was also born in Peru, which is a social enterprise that trains young women with few resources as programmers and web developers to help them join the labour market, and this has been spreading to other Latin American countries.

One of your talks in Barcelona was called De los medios a las mediaciones, de la datificacin al activismo de datos (From Media to Mediations, from Datafication to Data Activism). So is it about humanizing technologies?

It is simply about humanizing. We mustn't allow large corporations to be the only ones that can talk and argue about big data. It seems as though only Facebook, Amazon or Google can talk about big data, whereas the rest of us are not experts, as we don't have access to big servers, we're not empowered. And this is wrong. The public sector, civil society, has a lot to say. We must feel empowered. Not only because it is our data but also because we have the tools to know how this data affects us. And large corporations will never question this in the same way.

Can cases like Wikipedia, even though they are global, be an example of humanization of the digital world?

I suppose so, although the culture networks are far more innovative. But Wikipedia, which began in the USA, is based on a definition of objective knowledge from a liberal perspective.

And what would the alternative be?

I repeat: it's about the experiments that are successful locally and on which you, as a citizen, can decide. Democracy means becoming part of these innovation processes.

...

It's a long process, real democracy means staying alert, being vigilant, and not waiting for Google to save us. Initiatives at a municipal level are important. And I go back to the example of Barcelona. It's a city that embraces its identity and has been able to maintain it, even in terms of Catalan identity. Having your own identity that fights for what is local but does not reject what comes from abroad is a case of success. We have a lot to learn. And you yourselves should emphasize this. Spain has a worse employment record but as a society it is more open to differences.

Besides Barcelona, you have visited several other European cities and countries. What has surprised you most?

There are many innovative experiments in civil society and we should have more outlets to protect cases of local successes. No one talks about them. It's a pity, especially when it's happening in your own city and you don't realize it.