Three times invisibility

Today I was in three conversations about invisibility.

The first one took place in the formal conference room of an international development agency where three people find themselves talking about the B in LGBTQI. Whoever heard about B meetings or support for B people. Gay heteronormative men will tell you there is no such thing as B. Who wants to be a Beta when you can be an Alpha. B is for bridge that you can walk across to the other side. B for blanket under which different configurations of hands, knees and giggles coexist. Under the blanket there is no world outside. Poor invisible B. B is prey to Observer Effect and the Heisenberg Principle; no one is actively both all the time, who do you think you are, you think you can have it all?! [Goddamn fools]. Why are they equating desire with body? Erasures, everywhere.

Second, Jeremiah [name changed] pouts and says that I think he can’t see what I’m doing. He saw me bringing in a salad from the French cafe. I know you don’t want to eat my food any longer so you’re going elsewhere. Pout pout sniff. The thought bubble in my head says – Jeremiah, you aren’t my Indian husband. Jeremiah’s food is so-so. I want to introduce lentils to Jeremiah. LENTILS ARE INVISIBLE HERE.

A third this morning inside my headheart. Smart, lovely Western-born women of colour talking about claiming space and resisting otherness and all I can think is that this is not my fight. I support your rights but I’m not a WOC, really. Where I come from we are all coloured anyway. I have incredible privilege where I’m from; but it’s true I’m not there enjoying it and I’m here negotiating something else and because of what those things are, I’m just behind, not invisible. I’m not invisible  – I can’t claim your histories of oppression and I don’t really have (m)any of my own (except all those terrible things Indian girls get told growing up). In fact, here, I’m so painfully visible; to the little old lady at the tram stop who stops (in her walker) to gawk at me top to bottom, and the 9 year olds who stare and giggle – I spit and say: not migrant, I’m a gentrifying expat, motherfucker. Deal with it.


Biting off the big data beast

So it has happened: I’m registering for a PhD. I’ve bitten off the big data beast and decided to focus  on ethics and big data. I’m going to turn this blog into a place to start documenting some of my writing along the way. I haven’t formally registered for the degree yet and when I do, I’m sure I’ll post information about it. This post summarises some of the reading I did in exploring ethics and technology.

Ethical Apps

An interest in big data was always on the sidelines given my work at Tactical Tech. It was sometime  in early 2014 when I came across ethical apps (there isn’t actually a Wikipedia page about ethical apps but here’s a list of them) and was horrified and amused to discover that apps giving users shopping and ‘sustainable consumption’ advice are labeled ‘ethical’. I was instantly intrigued and decided to look into ethical apps. (Ethical apps are not the site of my research though they present an interesting case to look at how a mainstream discourse about ethics is being shaped)

‘Ethical apps’ use publicly available data to present evidence of how consumer choices contribute to the  destruction of natural resources and the environment. The rationale goes like this: if individuals are given information about the political and material implications of their choices, they will be inspired to make different consumer choices. Ethical apps work to help users either avoid certain choices and make different ones; to rethink their need to consume by substituting it with actions such as swapping and up-cycling; or by directly contributing donations to charities every time a particular browser plugin or app is used, whether or not the customer actually makes an ‘ethical choice’. There is scant qualitative research into the efficacy of these apps. They have however been  neatly  criticised .

Interestingly, a google search reveals that this is not what data-driven ethics are, though it could be. In the context of ethical apps, ‘data-driven ethics’ could mean that data about something results in an awareness of the ethical implications.  However, ‘data-driven ethics’  refers to ethical issues raised by the implications of big data for privacy and the law, journalism, research etc etc. What’s worth looking at here is that big data determines the approach to ethics; what has resonance for me is that what is actually the object, big data, becomes the subject. Said more provocatively, big data studies you, instead of you studying big data. (The idea that big data, comprised as it is of billions of users’ subjectivities, is not a specific event or object and is itself a sort of subjectivity, is another thing but I’m not going there).

Ethical apps show that at one level, access to information is seen as a basis for positive or progressive action. The rationale goes like this: if you know about (i.e have information about) <insert issue> and still do not act on that information to do something different, then does that mean you don’t care about <insert issue>  (The construction of ‘care’ for the environment and the emotional manipulation-by-disaster-scenario that the climate change movement has deployed is another post for another time). The co-optation of ‘ethics’ here, then, is that access to and use of information to do the ‘right’ thing is also the ethical thing to do.

Ethical apps also intrigued me because of the different ways in which the quantified self takes shape; in this case, a quantified self that isn’t about tracking physiological states or fitness levels, but is about morality, reasoning and choice-making. Imagine, a version of the self that relies on feedback loops and public data to make reasoned choices. For me this quickly slid into a conversation about AI, or at least something capable of more complex functions than that narrow AI we live with. But more on that later.

Machine fantasies

Some of the other stuff I came across in reading up about ethical apps was about the connection between the climate change movement and the use of information to understand it and manage it.  At the time I was reading about ethical apps and the climate change movement, a colleague serendipitously posted a link to Adam Curtis’ excellent documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (three episodes over an hour;  watch them here) . Some of what follows is based on ideas in the second documentary in that series, ‘the use and abuse of vegetational concepts’. This particular episode provides a fascinating insight into where some of the discursive ideas girding the climate change movement have come from.


There is a ‘machine fantasy’ of nature that scholars and researchers came to believe: that natural environments are comprised of self-regulating feedback loops; that by communicating with all parts of itself, nature will arrive at an ‘understanding’ of its state and based on that, revert back to balance; that nature is, in effect, a machine.

This is an early idea in the trajectory of how machine logic has been applied to supposing how nature functions, and of ecology studies, promoted by Arthur Tansley and other in the interwar years.  Cyberneticians and systems theorists from MIT in the 1970s took this further. They were instrumental in arriving at ‘scientific’ evidence of impending ecological disaster by applying systems dynamics theories and computer modeling to hundreds of complex variables about the environment assembled within a program. ‘Nature as a system of stability and balance’ discourse was thus generated by cybernetics theorists.

(A very fascinating, completely digressive thread is about how the postwar years in the science departments on the American east and west coasts saw the promotion of specific areas of work, which are linked:  cybernetics and systems theories, operant conditioning, game theory.)

Jay Forrester‘s book The Limits of Growth was seminal in using computer generated modeling in forecasting how natural resources could not sustain the predicted growth of human societies.  This gained traction at a time when the earth as our ‘home’ was also gaining currency and a growing environmental movement (some more on that here by @tattinot and myself for a work project). However, according to the film, more recently updated versions of ecology studies based on empirical evidence, suggest that nature is actually unpredictable, constantly changing and resetting the norms by which it functions. Yet, it appears to be very difficult to let go of the idea of the natural environment as a self-regulating mechanism that seeks ‘balance’.

There is also a connection between the development of cybernetics and AI and this has implications for discussions of ethics; however, we’re not anywhere near being ‘taken over by the machines’, no matter what sort of loud chest-beating the campaign against killer robots does.

Ethics, ethical apps, quantified self, AI…. a PhD is mostly an exercise (it seems to me at this point in time) in being very focused and knowing how to ask and answer a single question. So, sadly, while I probably won’t have a question that covers all of these areas, at least I get to dabble in all of them to some extent over the next few years.

Here’s a random picture of trees to end this, because trees are wonderful and there were some references to nature in this post. This was taken in my aunt’s (tea) garden where I have spent many happy summers.


Trees in the monsoon in the Nilgiris.
Trees in the monsoon in the Nilgiris.





Love, law, war. [Writing]

It took a long time to write this.

It took an even longer time to live it. I remember that some day in that time of living it, I went out and bought three pairs of shoes in South Extension II market: there was a maroon pair, with vertigo-inducing high, block-y, heels that I wore, most likely, twice. I regretted buying the other two almost immediately after  did.  Since then I’ve learned, pleasantly, that I’m best in flat, hard-coloured shoes with just one distinctive detail.  The idea that I bought three pairs of shoes in a lunch break induced a weird head-rush. That this is how I would deal with eye-popping anger. It was either that or three cigarettes on a barsati in South Extension II.

Seeing/ Not seeing

Socialization is "the lifelong process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs and ideologies provide an 
individual with the skills and habits necessary for participating within his or her own society. Socialization is
thus ‘the means by which social and cultural continuity are attained." The social internet socialises us, its users. 
It, us, teaches us new ways to be. 

Here is a somewhat new practice on social media, which has been written about: encouraging fellow 
social media users to not see something violent/violating because the act of sourcing and 
seeing is acknowledged as perpetuating that violence. After James Foley's and Steven Sotloff's murders,
internet users were saying of the videos circulating online: 'don't see it, don't look at it'; and, 
there were pictures of the journalists with their families, shared, possibly, to counter these videos. Their families, 
understandably, wanted their loved one to be remembered in a certain way, not as a headless body or as the victim of a
gruesome crime. Even as fact is being ruthlessly documented, there is a reactive counter-pressure to erase the facts. 

The same thing played out as personal photos of the actor Jennifer Lawrence were stolen and revealed. Social media saw some specific kinds 
of struggles over seeing and not seeing:
"this is the internet and this is how it works, so just deal with it… and take a look at how hot she is"; 
"seeing those pictures is abusive so be part of the solution, not the problem"; and another version of this:
"if she sent them to you, then you were meant to see those pictures, not otherwise"

How does this relate to the work of images in politics? It is a little like the visual equivalent of the right to be forgotten, 
or the peekaboo games that delight babies: if you can't see it, the violence isn't there any more, the violations 
don't hurt, it has been neutralised.

We perfect robots

fritz_woman(Fritz Kahn’s Mechanical Woman)

“As computing machines gradually took over, mathematicians often measured its computing time in “girl-hours” and computing power in “kilo-girls.” The computer itself is a feminized item. The history of the computer is the history of unappreciated female labor hidden behind “technology,” a screen (a literal screen) erected by boy geniuses.”

When I sat down to my weekly crawl through The New Inquiry, I came across an article that was eerily in sync with the last  two weeks of reading Haraway and revisiting the relationship between women and technology. (I was also just thinking about starting to watch Buffy again.) One of my resolutions for 2015 is that I’m going to focus all my reading on non-fiction, except the bits that are about science/speculative fiction. So here are some discoveries stitched together, which resulted in this resolution.

So the New Inquiry article starts with the story of a Google employee who was fired for interacting with ‘a different class of workers’. These workers, mostly women of colour (unusual on Google’s mostly white, mostly male campus), had restricted access to buildings on campus, started work at 4am and left at 2pm. He tried to talk to them and he was eventually fired for it. They’re the women who scan the books in for Google Books.  I was instantly intrigued and had to read on. Trying to do independent research and projects outside of academia or any other institutional setting in India, and getting access to books and journals, is pretty much impossible without Google Books (not that existing institutions have very good access to books and journals for anything outside of the sciences and professions). The article goes on to talk about the different ways in which two passionate lovers, capitalism and the internet, have obscured the labour of the humans who make it all actually work, what they call ‘the human API’.

These ‘microworkers’ manage forums, scan books, turk for Amazon and do all things we believe the click of a button is doing. Interestingly, a lot of work that human scientists and programmers cannot program a computer to do are done by people: identifying the tone in a piece of writing; transcribing audio to text; facial recognition; capturing the layers in a photograph. For a short time when money was tight, my sister supplemented her income by ‘creating content’ for a website that supplied answers to a popular search query many of us have used: ‘the difference between except and accept’ or ‘the difference between effect and affect’.

A lot of this casual, invisibilised labour happens within a legal gray zone. Companies love it because they don’t have the same legal responsibilities for workers  they are ‘independent contractors’. : “Press a button and lunch is ready, flowers are sent out, laundry gets done, the house is cleaned. It’s like magic… Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is merely the most literal and obvious manifestation of this trend. The actual magic trick is making the worker disappear.”

((Another connection: the New School in New York has played host this past weekend to a conference called Digital Labour .))

Many of these mechanical human workers are women, and the TNI piece goes on to explore how a chasm has been created between women and technology, a chasm, one that calls on gender essentialisms like “women aren’t naturally inclined to work with tech”;or  that obscures the labour that women are constantly doing, from mining the coltan to making the micro-chips to programming the chips to digital janitor-ing online.

Haraway mentions this in the Cyborg Manifesto as Gordon’s ‘home work economy’:  “work is being redefined as both literally female and feminized, whether performed by men or women. To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labour force; seen less as workers than as servers; subjected to arrangements on and off the paid job that make a mockery of a limited work day; leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out of place, and reducible to sex.”

Then last week in London, as part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi programme ‘Days of Fear and Wonder‘, I listened to the entertaining and happily nerdy Sophie Mayer talk about cyborgs and science fiction cinema’s history of female robots and programmed women from Fritz Lang and Margaret Atwood to Joss Whedon and beyond.There were some really juicy new films to add to the 2015 list, like Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ‘Conceiving Ada’, Peter Wollen’s 1970 film Friendship’s Death, staring Tilda Swinton, about an alien that joins the PLO, Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames ,the Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, to closer readings of pop culture favourites like Buffy, the Alien series, Bjork etc.

Starting with Maya Deren’s early work, Mayer talked about the recurring theme of women in early sci-fi as dolls, robots or statues, as mechanical objects,  reproduction/replication farms that have to be controlled. Later, there is a shift to  ‘hard-body’ warriors a la Sarah Connor, heedless Thelma-Louises who disrupt the patriarchal project and stick it to the system. But first not without  films like Demon Seed where an artificial intelligence tries to have sex with a woman and impregnate her. We will resist the twin evils  of God and the Father, the forces of family, religion, psychoanalysis that insist on telling us that we aren’t doing it right, what we lack, that our bodies hold us back, the boys are better at it. But first, we must run fast and far from rapacious artificial intelligences. Good grief.

“Though both are bound in a spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” is a way out and a way in; to think about how not to have a grand theory of everything, to accept that we are already-hybrid, already a synthesis of social taxonomies and personal aspirations, and also, as women and as workers, dominated by the industrialisation of the technologies we enjoy.

Can’t end any other way except with Bjork’s brilliant track (and video by Chris Cunningham featuring lesbian robots) All is full of love. And this final line from Haraway again: ” However, there is no ‘place’ for women in these networks, only geometries of difference and contradiction crucial to women’s cyborg identities. If we learn how to read these webs of power and social life, we might learn new couplings, new coalitions.”



Hot Flash

A dwarf called Warren runs the Internet of Things facility and I am in love with him. You can never really rationally explain why you love someone, you just do. Warren is in trouble with his refrigerator.  The refrigerator started messaging HOMELYNX about how the cucumber supply was going down faster than usual. For one thing, there shouldn’t even be cucumbers in the refrigerator, and while the most recent supply could be rationalised by the tubs of hummus, labneh and borani – guests – it was still going down very fast. Had anything else reported something irregular about the cucumbers?  It turns out that the waste disposal unit could verify that cucumber peels had been identified and the toilet could detect traces of it; so we know they hadn’t been thrown out of the window at an unsuspecting passerby. That would have been funny, actually, especially if there was such a thing as a window or a passerby around here. No, all you have here is the hum and rinse of electricity through your hair.

The thing is, Warren doesn’t even eat cucumbers, they were left over from the crudite plate at the farewell party for the Chief. Not wanting to waste them, and knowing I love cucumbers, Warren just put the extras in the fridge. Some things are perfectly rational and explain-able but the problem with rationality is that everyone has their own version of it.

Warren maintains a section of the main server farm, MEM046Z where the Internet of Things is made, and he isn’t supposed to fall in love. He certainly isn’t supposed to fall in love with someone he met online who can only stand to eat cucumbers and yoghurt all summer and thinks she is a Timurid’s Wife. The Internet of Things is a high security facility and no one is allowed to enter except authorised personnel and certainly not any Central Asian types – real or imaginary.

The irony doesn’t escape us that it all started with the very same tattling refrigerator having a Twitter exchange with @thetimuridswife. I also love melons and ice-cream and the refrigerator was telling me about the history of ice-cream making, and kulfis in particular, long before modern refrigeration.  (Kulfi has been appropriated by the Indians but it actually came from Central Asia.) If you pulled up the logs you’d see Twitter exchanges about flavours and their pairings, tweets that made sense to no one else but the two of us. It started with the refrigerator tweeting ‘beetroots & mustard’. Then, I tweeted

@thetimuridswife parmesan and chocolate

hesitantly, and waited to see what would happen. And then it came:

@coolhuntings23 blue cheese and pear

@thetimuridswife chocolate and onions

@coolhuntings23 green beans and oranges

There are no secrets with a dwarf. The dwarf had hacked into the refrigerator’s Twitter ID and was tweeting as it, without the refrigerator realising it had been compromised. It had always been him, and me;  the refrigerator was just a.. Trojan horse.

Over a series of Twitter exchanges I told Warren all about my travels and reincarnation. I am a Timurid’s wife and the fleshy concubine to a Sassanid warlord in ancient Samarqand, “a city so steeped in poetry that even medical doctors wrote their treatises in verse.” As a result I am something of a secret agent with very high levels of security clearance. Uzbek, in those days, far outstripped Persian as a language. Persian had one word for crying; Uzbek had over a hundred. Crying like a baby hiccuping, crying as if you have lost your keys, crying as if your parents have died, crying over beautiful poetry, crying for the way you used to love someone and don’t anymore. Samarqand was so far advanced in the sciences, art, architecture, medicine, astronomy, poetics… . Warren thinks that sometimes I’m doing other people’s share of make believe as well.

He lied about there being another person in the house eating cucumbers. He said he had changed his diet but it turns out the feeds from the heat sensors revealed a second person in the house. Once they all started pooling all their data and looking at everything that wasn’t Warren, they found me.  I couldn’t help it, I’m menopausal, and all that seems to keep me cool is a diet of cucumbers and yoghurt. (Dill and garlic in the mix never hurt)

It wasn’t easy to hide from a house; it’s like being 12 again and all the girls are whispering about you behind your back and you absolutely know they are but can’t seem to get even the smallest piece of information from anyone about it or make them stop. It is like the time your best friend found and read your secret diary.

Warren said we should just continue as normal – quietly, he going about his work and me reading, studying and writing. In the evenings we would eat and cheat at cards and giggle over other people’s data streams. It was only a matter of time before they came for us. Till then he told me to play with his hair and tell him about the siege on Samarqand.


Two for Friday

Here are two pieces I came across today on the subject of violence against women.

It’s Your Fault is a short video that directly confronts myths about rape with a healthy dose of dark humour and irony.

And Project Unbreakable uses a fairly tired and over-used method but does something interesting; in a sea of statistics, hashtags, shoulds and musts, the project reveals a detail you never really hear about: the words the attacker said during the act of abuse. I found this surprisingly hard to go through; it was uncomfortable to look at the eyes of those women and read the words. This campaign uses information that is private, uncomfortable, and opens it up to you as a way of engaging with the issue; it may put some people off (or trigger quite serious discomfort), but here’s the thing: I think we’re actually drawn in by the awkward, heartbreaking, sick details of something so terrible.

Just another post about the Abused Goddesses Campaign

The Abused Goddesses Campaign is creating waves ,  raising hackles (best exemplified by recent posts from Nisha Susan, Brinda Bose and Sayantani Dasgupta). Created by an advertising agency, Taproot, the campaign uses the images of (models dressed as) popular and much-loved Indian goddesses bearing the most telling signs of mortality – pain and hurt – and urges the viewer to consider that the only kind of woman free from the threat of violence is the divine kind and possibly not even them.

enhanced-buzz-26844-1378409278-4 enhanced-buzz-6833-1378409613-36

The conversation this campaign has generated is polarised; on the one hand you have Buzzfeed breathlessly declaring it ‘powerful’ and many agree; the viral sharing of the images on Twitter and Facebook are one indication of this. On the other, smaller, side, you have  people raising questions like:

– Why Hindu Goddesses? Not everyone in India relates to these images. We shouldn’t be using these images in a diverse and multicultural country

– Why must we be likened to goddesses in order to earn our rights as humans?

– Why these goddesses, we already have the image of the terrifying and terrible Kali who is violent and invincible.

– Hinduism has been interpreted to have practices and rituals that discriminate against women (this of course greatly upsets the Hindu Right and a champion, an academic, comes to the defense of Hinduism and the Right)

As you know, I’m the questioning kind, so you know where I sit. I’m writing this post in order to raise something that hasn’t so far in all the deconstruction: the visual itself. The Delhi Gang Rape has revealed some things about middle class, social media-enabled Indian: we’re data-illiterate, and don’t understand how government works and laws get made. I’m going to add another one: we are visually illiterate and don’t know how to read the visual. In particular, in this context, I don’t think the critics of this campaign have approached it as a visual campaign. This is the subject of this post.

Tactical Tech, where I work (there’s the disclaimer/plug) is going to officially launch our newest publication, Visualising Information for Advocacy which is all about how the visual works in advocacy, on October 1st, 2013.  The Abused Goddesses Campaign is a good example of what we would refer to as a ‘Get the Idea’ sort of campaign – one that uses strong and provocative imagery to inspire extreme emotions such as shock, suprise and anger or humour and laughter. These sorts of campaigns typically feature captivating and arresting images, very little data or nuance. As we say:

“If badly conceived or executed, it can alienate or insult an audience. But when it works, the effect of such a campaign can be significant: it can spread quickly across media, be talked about and rapidly bring attention to an issue. These kinds of images pass on tiny packets of information about the issue, referring only obliquely to what people commonly think of as evidence, rather than presenting it directly. As provocations, such images mostly work as routes leading into a wider campaign where further information about the issue can be found. They are often designed to appeal to people who have not yet been exposed to the issue or who don’t have a clear position.”

In this respect, I think the Abused Goddesses campaign works very well. I think it has got a lot of people’s attention because the creators of the campaign have very smartly chosen a provocative set of symbols to work with. In the print at the bottom of the poster (really have to zoom in online to see it) the designers say they intend to send out a strong message and I think they have. Whether I agree with the use of particular symbols is another matter, and I’m not the person tasked with creating an arresting campaign. This isn’t to challenge what people like Nisha and Brinda are saying – I think their deconstructions and critiques are much-needed and we only need to continue to challenge our readings and use of the visual. I think their analyses focus on the politics of representation rather than the deployment of the visual in advertising. There is a difference. Personally, I think that in a plural society we only need more kinds of visuals – annoying, bad ones and really great ones – and more conversations about why they work or don’t.







Sharing the Urban by Gautam Bhan

“Sexual violence then becomes one particular expression of a broader structure of violence, amplified by other entitlements of class, wealth, institutional authority, religion, caste, ability, sexuality and gender. In such a context, our understanding of and responses to sexual violence must broaden. The lack of safety for women on a city bus must not be separated from the devaluing of public transport in general—the insufficient number of buses at night being one sign of poor investment in the most commonly used means of mobility in the city. We must also remember that the idea of being “unsafe” takes different forms across our different identities and bodies.” Gautam Bhan on new perspectives on rape.

New writing

I’m asking friends, peers and others to contribute new writing. Some themes include:

Shadowboxing: the struggle with language

How to write about violence / writing about violence

The minotaur in the maze : looking inside the law

The feminists go swimming: notes on living politics

On masculinities.

Watch this space! And let me know if you’d like to write.