The Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC) of the General Anthropology Division (GAD) and The Society for the Anthropology of Work (SAW), announce Lilly Irani as the winner of the 2019 Diana Forsythe Prize for her book, Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India (Princeton University Press 2019).
From the award committee citation:
“Chasing Innovation is a fearlessly ambitious work of scholarship that weaves together history, ethnography, and critique of a seductive vision of entrepreneurial citizenship. Through its pages, Lilly Irani illustrates how discourses of innovation were articulated with the distinctive context of a liberalized India hungry to climb global chains of value. Marked, at times, by a raw and searching reflexivity as its author reflects on the failures of imagination produced by her own socialization as a tech worker, the book pushes back against the “subsumption of hope” by innovation and points to mass politics—for all its inefficiencies—as the true locus of democratic futures.
Irani is a careful ethnographer who gets inside the optimistic dreams of entrepreneurs, whose impetus to “move fast and break things” in their speculative world-making betrays a certain innocence about the violence of the market economy. Her work brings us into a high-end design studio where the free will of innovators relies on unfree labors of devalued service staff and on the extraction of solutions from subaltern subjects who are framed as improvisers rather than as innovators. The key actors in Chasing Innovation “attempt to stabilize, manage, and profit from uncertainties and futurities” even as they themselves are constrained by the design thinking through which innovation for the developing world is increasingly channeled.”
CS Soong, host of Against the Grain, hosted me for a one-hour conversation on innovation, democracy, autocracy, and development. The show is called “Innovation and its Discontents” and it broadcast Aug 20. You can listen here or through your favorite podcast app.
Abstract: This paper investigates a hidden dimension of research with real world stakes: research subjects who care — sometimes deeply — about the topic of the research in which they participate. They manifest this care, we show, by managing how they are represented in the research process, by exercising politics in shaping knowledge production, and sometimes in experiencing trauma in the process. We draw first-hand reflections on participation in diversity research on Wikipedia, transforming participants from objects of study to active negotiators of research process. We depict how care, vulnerability, harm, and emotions shape ethnographic and qualitative data. We argue that, especially in reflexive cultures, research subjects are active agents with agendas, accountabilities, and political projects of their own. We propose ethics of care and collaboration to open up new possibilities for knowledge production and socio-technical intervention in HCI.
“The hype of inevitable AI and total automation immobilizes AMT workers from demanding better wages or improvement to their work conditions. Like the threat of workers made available cheaply in other parts of the world, public assumptions about AI and automation immobilize grassroots, democratic participation in shaping the future of work. This hype and the broader narratives of novelty and disjuncture that often accompanies it can prematurely disarm existing ethical and justice frameworks by which citizens can make claims about technological futures.”
New Scientist invited me to comment on the activism of Google workers around military contracts, sexual harassment in the work place, and contractor rights. I argue for coalitions between tech workers and those communities already surviving what Safiya Noble calls “algorithms of oppression.” See the short piece here
Tariq Ghani and Katherine Sacco of UCI Anthropology interviewed me for the American Anthropological Association’s podcast Anthropod. On the 25 minute interview podcast: “Lilly Irani discusses the human labor behind artificial intelligence technology. Irani helped create a platform called Turkopticon to support workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk, a website that outsources micro data processing work. Irani also talks about her current book project on entrepreneurialism and national development in India.”
In 2017, I spoke at the conference of the UC Collaboratory for Ethnographic Design on Turkopticon and the politics of writing labor as an ethnographer. Ghani and Sacco interviewed as part of a 3 part series on the intersections between ethnography and design.
In addition to saving lives and conquering chaos, algorithms “can also put too much control in the hands of corporations and governments, perpetuate bias, create filter bubbles, cut choices, creativity and serendipity, and could result in greater unemployment,” finds a Pew report surveying experts. I was one of the experts surveyed and quoted. Download the full report here
I was invited to give a lightning talk on my research at a White House Office of Technology Policy summit on AI: Social and Economic Impacts in the Near Term. I gave this five minute talk distilling key parts of my research that challenge some dominant assumptions by economists and policy makers — particularly The Second Machine Age by Brynjolfsson and McAfee. People have told me that the talk was helpful to them and pushed points they had missed in my work before, so I’m reposting it here despite hating the video thumbnail facial expression!
Antonio Cassilli drew out these points in a recent post:
1) “Automation doesn’t replace labor, it displaces it”: computers learns to recognize texts, images, sounds via human computation workers who fuel AI by performing micro-paid & unpaid #digitallabor on platforms like Amazon MTurk (and many more). These workers “bridge the gap between AI and changing human culture”.
2) Micro-workers face a race to the bottom in an ever-expanding, largely unregulated labor market. (Personal addendum: We cannot think AI regulatory policies without also thinking about regulating these labor markets. So next time someone asks you “what should the government do to regulate artificial intelligence to keep it ethical?”, you might wanna answer: “Let’s talk about working conditions, modes of remuneration, health care of people that do AI”.)