We ushered in our twentieth year in the midst of a civilizational crisis. Writing this note to reflect upon another year of work, therefore, cannot be a simple routine. The annual reporting cycle for 2019-2020 ended with the unprecedented chaos that the coronavirus wrought – not just to systems on a planetary scale, but also to the lifeworlds of organizations and to the inner spaces of our private lives.
The past months have been a veritable roller coaster ride. The virus cannot be merely seen as a force majeure situation – an ‘Act of God’ predicament. The aftermath of this crisis has unpeeled its roots in a global socio-economic order built on exploitation of nature, corporate greed, and political expediency. Its social consequences are also an indication of how digital technological progress has failed the majority and allowed the powers that be to consolidate their control through business more than as usual.
The President of our Governing Body, Srilatha Batliwala, remarked at our annual general body meeting in 2019 that climate justice and digital justice would be the two vital agendas in reinterpreting human rights for the twenty-first century. That was remarkably prescient. The new normal we find ourselves pushed into is unequivocal proof that our efforts to construct a ‘just normal’ cannot ignore the rise of a post-mechanical, digital society in which corporate power has multiplied infinitely and state actions reflect the panoptic instinct to aggrandize power.
The first two industrial revolutions saw the advent of a new social organization with far-reaching impacts for how humanity constructed ideas of self and society through post-feudal codes and norms. Technological progress, as the raison d’être of these transformative historical moments, enabled the emergence of the modern era and its distinctive hallmarks — individualism, capitalism, democracy, and as post-colonial scholars would strongly underline, a global society where the project of development created and legitimated global structures of inequality. Modernity at the throes of the third industrial revolution – the coming together of electronics, telecommunications, and computing – was already rooted in a neo-liberal market. Its technological markers did carry the potential for the multitude to self-organize and for the laboring classes to remagine emancipatory labor. Yet, this potential has remained just that. Life under digital capitalism has not precluded the vital, even if rare, instances of direct democracy, experiments in collaborative consumption, a rich public domain of alternative media, and global cross-movement formations and their collective actions. But it cannot be denied that many of these are embedded in digital capitalism’s modes of appropriation (think Instagram stories and Facebook campaigns), while some others remain tenacious enclaves of a distant possibility.
The force with which the fourth industrial revolution upended the third in a short time span is crucial to our thinking and action in the development sector. Even as the digital capitalist class took control over the circuits of global capital in the latter parts of the twentieth century, a new trajectory was opening up in the shift to a data-enabled paradigm. With Artificial Intelligence, cloud computing, robotics, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, and advanced wireless technologies coming together to define the new epoch of post-human cognition, digital capitalists – through their network-data power – have been best positioned to assert dominion over physical and biological resources.
The change enveloping us is blinding. Its velocity, scale, and pervasiveness are unique. Its systemic impact has a survive-or-perish immediacy. No wonder we feel we are in the middle of the rapids. It is not just about Alexa or AlphaGo – deeply disconcerting as they are despite their everyday awesomeness. It is equally about how science and technology, as the handmaidens of capitalism, can go astray.
Big Tech and Big Philanthropy have embarked on a mindboggling number of data projects in the name of development. The Earth Bank of Codes seeks to provide “a sustainable bio-based economic development path for developing countries anchored on their unique biological assets that is globally competitive”. This, when there is no international normative framework on data resources. There is also a done-deal presumption in all of this. That governments and citizens from the Global South will provide access to the data, while US and, to some extent, Chinese corporations will create the innovation for an enterprising tomorrow. The global discourse rides on a self-valorizing nervous energy that has seen many governments quickly hop on to the path of datafication and indexing of aggregate anonymized data for providing ready-to-use software interfaces for commercial use – across the board. In the UK, the NHS has data sharing contracts with Big Pharma, shrouded in secrecy; deals that invite the abuse of public goods and erosion of individual privacy for private profit. From genomic data, agricultural data, deep sea data, to electoral data and behavioral data, data sets are being channeled into corporate lockers, with often no hunch about what intelligence this data will yield for the market, let alone for human well-being. The race is for grabbing the data pipes.
Those of us able to discern the profound systemicness of the shifts, even if clueless about where it is all headed, have reason to sit up and take notice. The business span that data-based cognitive control bestows upon digital first movers or Big Tech (known variously as FAANG, GAFAA, GAFAM, etc.) is immense. In 2019, Amazon had already acquired online pharmacy PillPack in the US. Closer home, in August 2020, the company launched Amazon Pharmacy, offering Indian herbal products and all.
While the net worth of digital capitalists seems to be going up even in these times of recession, what is more alarming is the story of labor. Economic organization, predicated on automation, is moving towards a planetary scale labor displacement in many sectors (small traders losing to new e-commerce retail), a corporate capture of value chains in traditional sectors like agriculture (integration of input and output markets by monopoly platforms), and a hollowing out of local capital and enterprise (through remote, centralized corporate reorganization).
As things stand, this trend is likely to accentuate the risk of premature de-industrialization, where developing countries may leap-frog into service-based economies without first developing a manufacturing base. Low skilled workers – as cheap labor – will find place in the emerging economy, but only as the powerless subjects of ruthless algorithmic optimization.
Algorithms are also implicated centrally in the twenty-first century public sphere. Cognitive control based on data extends into the public sphere where misogyny, casteism, minority religious bigotry (Islamophobia, in particular), homophobia, and other violent and toxic behaviors play out on an infinite loop that serves surveillance capitalism and its political masters well. With disgruntled employees and civil society pressure, the emperors of social media are on tenterhooks. They cannot afford to imperil their global market power and have resorted to many tricks in the bag – coming up with ethical AI standards, offering special features for women, setting up an oversight board etc. – hoping that their gesture politics will buy them immunity from political governance.
The costs of this dilapidated normative architecture of social discourse are huge. Unbridled virality that feeds capitalism’s data machine is the only norm, and any critical debate on grasping new meanings of democratic participation stands completely preempted.
The institutions of democracy need to measure up to the economic and socio-political challenges of the new technological paradigm – globally and nationally. How digital corporations must be governed, how data value can be commonsified, how the public sphere can be democratized, and how people-centric governance can be reimagined are vital questions confronting humanity at this juncture. They have deep implications for human well-being, planetary health, economic self-determination, individual liberty, pluralistic sociality, and collaborative civility. The governance of the digital paradigm is core to how war, violence, hate, or harm will be defined and dealt with through contextual meanings cohering in a new reality. It is untenable that the future of labor is sacrificed at the altar of corporate innovation and outdated ideas of productivity or that the born-digital generations are socialized through a sexism that is seen as the natural order of things.
Oftentimes in the global discourse we hear of an inclusion challenge. This is but a depoliticized vision. The change we must seek is a citizenship imperative. Unfortunately, it comes with a more-than-evident Catch 22. The state under surveillance capitalism is happy for the largesse of digital corporations. It is determined to be distrustful of citizens, especially marginalized citizens. It is, as we see the world over, brutal with its misinformation propaganda.
The crisis we face is as existential as it is systemic. Challenging it will need a civic power that is exogenously vigorous and endogenously deliberative, galvanizing a vision and practice of political stewardship adequate to our historical moment. The terms of the new discourse on digital justice and its institutional organization must construe human freedom as the many rights that make us social, economic, and political citizens, all at once. The pandemic has forced us to embrace the global-local duality intrinsic to our existence. Institutional redesign must be alive to this truth, reclaiming data-based cognitive power for a just world economy, a diverse global public sphere, a radical national constitutionalism, healthy local markets, and resilient local democracies.
Our work against this backdrop
It is towards this task of systemic transformation that we have sought to design our strategies. In the reporting period, our actions have ranged from strategic advocacy, conceptual leadership, capacity building, forging networks, catalyzing new connections, and deepening public discourse through media publications.
We contributed to the idea of data value chains in UNCTAD’s Digital Economy Report 2019 – a document that paved the way for an official, international acknowledgment of the new economic paradigm and what it means for our understanding of global inequalities. WTO Ambassadors of two major developing countries have since sought IT for Change’s (ITfC) support in helping their ministries develop a framework for economic governance of data. The contributions we have made on the data commons and on data-centred competition frameworks have been important conceptual directions in the field. In the coming years, focusing on Big Tech power in the emerging platform economy will be a vital area of work. Our new project on Unskewing the Data Value Chain will lay the foundations to systematically continue this work on a global canvas.
There is also a need to develop expertise in specific domains, as the data juggernaut changes the governance rules in different sectors. We are already engaging on health data governance, and have made a submission to the central government in response to the draft National Health Data Management Policy this month.
We believe our engagement with the government in these times of datafication must straddle a critical outside-in approach, which includes participation in policy making spaces with commensurate accountability to the civil society constituencies we represent. From MeitY’s Committee on Non-personal Data Governance (a draft report was released in July 2020), to Government of Karnataka’s SDG committees and the NITI Aayog’s post-Covid gender strategy input process, we have been able to intervene in a timely way to set agendas on digital justice.
In a feminist intervention on the digital, a changing context presents considerable challenges for appropriating law as an instrument for justice. There is also a need to grapple with the policies and practices of platform companies. This not only calls for a high degree of domain knowledge, but also the staying power necessary to influence agenda setting. Our research on misogynistic speech embraces these complex imperatives, and we hope to have the evidence and argumentation to empower feminist communities with a well-considered southern standpoint, in the coming year. Also, a new longer term research project focusing on women in India’s digitalising economy began this year that will create the knowledge base for systematic intervention in national and global policy spaces.
Our work in the education and technology space has extended to the much ignored, but most essential, area of gendering classroom interactions with adolescent school girls through our Hosa Hejje Hosa Dishe (New Step, New Pathways) project. To promote open educational resources, we have developed a Kannada interface for free software applications like Moodle and Geogebra, and translated articles from publications of Azim Premji University. Supporting schools and other teacher education institutions to offer online courses during these months has been a priority, especially to equipping public education institutions such as the Regional Institute of English, South India to offer courses in the blended mode.
Working with leading institutions in the country, including IIT-Bombay and Azim Premji University, we have been able to engage with students and faculty – bringing cutting edge concepts and critical framings on data and digital to the academic space. Internationally, members of the ITfC team have been invited to participate in classroom lectures, from as far as the Federal University of Pará in Brazil to Simon Fraser University in Canada.
The faith that national trade unions and international trade union federations have reposed in us in a short time span of a year is overwhelming. Worker movements across the board recognize the value we bring in providing ahead-of-time mandates to protect and promote labor rights in the digital economy. Our recent efforts to push back on the Labor Codes from platform workers’ standpoint through a coalition of digital rights NGOs, trade justice organizations, and workers’ unions was a phenomenally humbling learning experience.
In Mysuru, our Namma Maathu, Namma Jaaga (Our Discourse, Our Space) project has been an important platform for the most marginalized women and their collectives, providing first line support to victims of gender-based violence. Enabling collective action through digital-media-based learning and dialogues, the project has demonstrated a grounded, community approach to gender transformation. Jyothi, one of our para-counselors, received an award from the Government of Karnataka, in recognition of her work.
In times of data, what comprises community control over data becomes a pivotal question, one that the current scheme of the law is yet to answer in a people-centric way. Which is why, our urban data project Spoorthi – that set up a direct community managed grievance channel through an app-based interface with the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board – was a vital, hands-on experiment in data stewardship. Twenty young women and men from Association for Voluntary Action and Service’s community groups led the way and acquired an enviable digital fluency. We hope to take this work forward as our continuing bottom-up experiment on cities for all citizens.
In mid-2019, we launched Bot Populi, an alternative media space, in partnership with six global organizations. As the world grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic, we started work on two themed issues that can keep alive the conversations on data and power. Our May Day issue was a resounding success, bringing in new audiences. We are now working toward a Digital New Deal series – to be launched at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in early November – and expanding the repertoire of analysis from a feminist vantage point. A unique pitstop for digital justice discourses, Bot Populi is slowly coming into its own. Since its launch, we have published 60 articles including videos and interviews. Readership has been rising steadily, with more than 60,000 unique visitors since the launch.
Towards the end of March 2020 and the beginning of the new reporting cycle, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept across rural Mysuru, team members from Prakriye (our field unit) quickly mobilized to provide relief services to the most vulnerable households, as well as masks, gloves, and sanitizers to frontline workers in the region. Our village-based sakhis (infomediaries) and para-counselors provided heroic leadership in over 60 villages through these chaotic times. In association with the Melting Pot Food company and NGOs, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and Jamghat, we provided hot meals to daily wage migrant workers and their families in New Delhi, during the initial months of the pandemic. In Bengaluru, through Kaagaz Foundation, a community-based organization, we provided rations and essential items, including basic medicines.
These few months have seen the organization strive towards a new rhythm. We were able to steer the organization collectively, responsibly, and supportively, cashing in on the value-based leadership spanning multiple organizational spaces. Team members acted in concert to contribute to critical analysis, pedagogic input, policy and legal changes, alliance-building, and to restructuring of internal work process and content.
The administration team has been a bulwark, providing rock solid support, executing the often invisible tasks that must be accomplished for the organization to be functional and adaptive.
While we have done well in managing the transition, there is a need to revisit how the organic readjustment can be better calibrated for individual and collective well-being and accomplishment of organizational mandates in these times of flux. It does seem like we need to make sense of an uncertain situation that is not easy to plot and navigate, in order to retain coherence and community.
At the twentieth year milestone, if there is one thing we can identify as our contribution, it is the continuing endeavor to give meaning to the indivisible, integrated, and inalienable body of claims that make up the still-evolving idea of digital justice.
As we enter a new decade in our work, we are happy to report that we have successfully secured new grant awards to anchor research networks, undertake policy advocacy, and build action coalitions. Our ability to deliver quality research, lead meaningful regional and global collaborations, and engage various communities has allowed us to foster long-standing funding partnerships, including with Cognizant Foundation, EdelGive Foundation, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, IDRC, IBM, Kotak Mahindra Bank CSR, Omidyar Network, Web Foundation, and work with UN system agencies such as the UNESCAP, UNDEF, UN Women, UNCTAD, and the ILO. Newer partners such as Bread for the World, British Asian Trust, the European Commission, Foundation Botnar, Karibu Foundation, and the WACC have also underwritten new areas of our work. Many of our funding partners have gladly allowed us the flexibility to recaliberate our work in the post-Covid context.
‘Impact’, like every other measure, is relative. At twenty, we are grateful for the many organizations and people who have been part of our journey, and it emboldens us that they continue to walk with us. Our social media footprint also reveals that our actions resonate with people from across the world, who engage with us and help cross-pollinate our ideas.
We added about 700 new followers on Twitter in the reporting period and an additional 450 between April and September 2020. In March 2020, we launched an Instagram handle to disseminate ITfC’s research and advocacy work to a younger audience. Already, the engagement on this platform looks promising. In these months since Covid-19, we have been in over 30 webinars – some co-organized by us, but most by others. Global-to-local civil society organizations, transnational social movements, UN organizations, and academia continue to reach out to us for analytical and action perspectives on data and digital that they think are now integral to their work. While this is flattering, it also underscores the significance of internal preparedness and dynamism. There is no scope for complacency.
We are excited about a new phase of growth, and recognize that this calls for a practice of democracy within. A palpable team spirit and an ever-present willingness to go beyond the call of duty that characterizes our team is a tribute to how an idea called IT for Change is made and remade through a constant interaction between its vision and its everyday practice.
We look back with thankfulness at erstwhile team members, many of whom continue to engage with and support our work.
A celebration is certainly in order and we hope 2021 will be kind.
IT for Change