Ramesh Srinivasan is one of those rare thinkers who straddles the worlds of technology and culture.
On the one hand he's a typical first-generation Indian American whose parents STEMed him hard, resulting in a place at Stanford studying industrial engineering. However, "Even as an undergraduate I was taking courses across the board, such as in Chinese religious philosophy," he told me by phone from Oaxaca, where he was investigating Rhizomatica, a non-profit that aids indigenous people in establishing their own cell phone networks.
After engineering, he went on to get a master's in media arts and science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Ph.D. in design studies at Harvard College.
"I've always been split-brained, and somewhat dysfunctional," he says. "I write with my left hand, but in sports I favor my right side."
He adds, "It's hard to think of technology without thinking about what it does to society. I think in the engineering field that perception tends to be sidelined."
Srinivasan's book, Whose Global Village, (New York University Press) is an ambitious look at who are the winners and losers in the online revolution. The web may be a quarter of a century old, but in some parts of the developing world it didn't really arrive until the cheap smart phone five years ago.
Shocking facts he recounts include that ad revenue at Facebook recently exceeded that at every radio station in the world — combined. With more people going to Alphabet/Google-owned YouTube than cable and broadcast TV for their viewing pleasure, he says, "Google is close to doing the same with television."
Data is the oil of the new economy
He reproduces in the book a chart by Tom Goodwin of Havas Media, which shows how "having power over the infrastructures of sharing presents incredibly lucrative opportunities for sharing economy corporations." Thus Uber, is the world's biggest taxi company but owns no vehicles. Facebook is the world's most popular media company (2 billion viewers!) and creates no content. Alibaba, most valuable retail, no inventory. And Airbnb, the world's largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.
On the prospect of the federal government (in the shape of President Trump's Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity) collecting voter data from the states, Srinivasan drops another slogan:
"Data is for sale. It's the oil of the new economy."
On the contemporary technological business model, he says "The whole game is to get as much data as possible," so you can use it for advertising. "Big data is great on some levels, but it runs into issues on ethics and morals when we talk about civil liberties."
For example, if someone gets busted for a minor offense at 16, should that be used against them when they apply for a job age 41?
"Do I know what's happening? When is it appropriate to forget?"
He can pass between different worlds, for example from the engineers of Silicon Valley to the cultural theorists of academia. He joined the University of California at Los Angeles at age 28 and is now Associate Professor at the Department of Information Studies & Design, and the Director of the UC-Wide Digital Cultures Lab.
But as a brown skinned member of the educated elite and an avid traveler he can also pass between continents without kicking up a cloud of white privilege around him. He was in Egypt six months after the Arab Spring, which western media breathlessly attributed to Facebook and Twitter. When he talked to locals in Cairo however, he found they themselves had not used it very much. The Facebook Revolution happened in 2011 when only 10 percent of the homes in Cairo had access to Twitter and Facebook. He calls foul on the western assumption that the Egyptians couldn't have a revolution without the west's fabulous technological tools.
"Egypt woke me up. It was my main focus. It took my work to a more explicit level: what is the Internet doing to shape our realities?"
It's for you
Returning to phones, he points out that cell networks in rural parts of the developing world can be so limited that while six out of seven billion of the world's population may have telephony access, often it is not 4G or even 3G. So they use their phone to talk to each other. Prepaid plans are more common than monthly subscriptions, so the "missed call" method is often used: the caller hangs up before the call is picked up, to send a message.
"I often get missed calls like that from Papua New Guinea," he says of his global Rolodex which includes subsistence fishermen as well as potential supreme court justices. (Google his big brother Sri Srinivasan.)
"It speaks to how people innovate with technology, based on the constraints they face. The world is unequal. Innovation isn't iPhone 8 versus 7, it is this, rooted in everyday lives, and at times the need to survive,"
He sees a lot of shallow thinking around the trendy topic of corporate diversity.
"Diversity in its purest form is being equal but different. If your understanding is 'We want to get people in the room so they can support our interests,' you're not there. That's not being equal or different."
"The promise of free global trade and economy has led to greater amounts of inequality, and there's a backlash, a populist backlash."
He remembers as a kid he'd go to India and there were two TV channels. Now there are hundreds. It's pleasurable and it seems like it creates freedom. But if you peer behind the curtain, those channels are owned by a couple of companies, like Disney, Viacom and News Corp. Is this really a system of freedom, or is it a mechanism of extracting more money for the elites? I'd say more the latter."
He says the US now has incredible distrust for the media. "That's something Donald Trump has intelligently taken advantage of."
Srinivasan said the real media now are Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and they can be taken advantage of by political campaigns. Even more so recently with the constant skirmishes between the U.S. President and CNN and the Morning Joe hosts.
"For fake news, Facebook was the platform like no other platform, for blatantly fake stories, like Pizzagate. Facebook is not telling us the mechanics by which these stories accrue. "
Bill of Data
On the aggregation of data, he asks, "We have no idea what is being gathered. What we buy at the drugstore, should a politician or a political campaign know that? We need a New Deal on date, like a Bill of Data.
He is writing a book called After the Internet, not to predict its demise, but to show how to negotiate the power this network of networks has over us.
He studies Iceland, admitting it is not representative of the larger world but perhaps a harbinger. In Iceland, the main plank of the governing Piratar (Pirate) Party's platform was to protect people's data.
On Oaxaca he says, "The telecommunications companies don't care. There are not enough customers here or they're not rich enough. But it's hard to know how they might challenge the mainstream."
He adds that Facebook has been trying to purchase the Rhizomatica project.
"They say they would keep it open, but all the data would be Facebook's data. Facebook tends to want to have as much data as it can, and figure out what to do with it later. It has two billion users worldwide, and they're not in China. They're operating on over 50 percent of non-China-based Internet users in the world. That's an incredible trough of data."
Yes, he sues Google products, and his next talk is a Google Talk, which is done at Google but shared like a TED Talk (which he's also done.)
"I'm not going to watch myself. I'm going to have a great time being critical. I know how to be critical but also be gracious."
Bite this Apple
Avid readers of this column may recall Verizon Wireless sent me a loaner unit of the Samsung S8 phone. On about day four I dropped it and broke the screen — not a part of my usual rigorous testing routine, I promise — and they promptly sent me another. Which I hardly used, because I couldn't just swap out my SIM card and carry on as normal. This may be a Samsung thing, (they are desperate to prove there are no mechanical problems with the S8, after the flammable battery fiasco of the S7) but also it may be a Verizon Wireless thing. I have had unlimited data for a decade, and can remain on it so long as I don't change my plan. Last month I gobbled up 97 gigabytes, most of it through "tethering" otherwise known as websurfing and watching TV. They want me off, back to paying cafeteria style for every two gigs.
If data is the new oil — and data means both the bandwidth I need, and my personal information which is sold to advertisers — who sets the price of gas?