Though the word “technology" first conjures images of silicon transistors and chic laptops, the formal definition is much broader. Marshal McLuhan called it a direct “extension of man.” Economists see it as the sum total of knowledge and information that society has acquired. I see technology as the evolution of means, the constantly changing methods, to do what collective groups have always done: make meaning of the world around us. I want to spend the Watson year traveling to societies that are transitioning routine tasks (talking to their relatives, relaxing after a day of work, or just paying bills) to new technologies.
Does it matter which platform Scandinavian teenagers use to watch TV? How SIM cards are distributed in Myanmar/Burma? What kind of math is needed for Maltese medical records to be verified? Or what forms of ID Indian citizens must produce to obtain government services? I want to convince you that the answer to these questions—and increasingly common ones just like them—is yes. In these subtle processes, we actually construct our world. I’ve spent the majority of my academic career studying politics. Every month, the field seems less about how a bill becomes a law, and more about our fundamental relationships to the individuals ideas, and institutions that construct the narratives of our lives.
I will start my Watson year in India. I am going to investigate Aadhaar, India’s biometric-based unique ID system. In Hindi, the word means “base” or “foundation.” Less than a decade old, the system is currently used by 1.2 billion Indian citizens, making it the largest (and surely the quickest built) biometric database in the world. The best city to learn about Aadhaar is Bengaluru, often considered the “Silicon Valley of India.” Home to a number of the nation’s largest information technology companies, it also harbors some of the organizations most critical of technology’s dominance in the modern era.
Aadhaar was implemented in part to alleviate India’s long-standing iniquities of class and caste by increasing the government's fiscal efficiency and minimizing chances for corruption. The execution has fallen far from the ideal. Citizens’ data are stolen regularly, the biometrics have proven unreliable, and minor discrepancies in identifying information have left some Indians without the food rations they need to survive. In the eyes of the government, Aadhaar is now privileged over the real person. Those who are suffering are unable to find recourse.
To better understand how these consequences work on a macro-societal level, I have contacted the Bengaluru-based Center for Internet and Society, a non-profit research group whose aim is to “understand the reconfiguration of social processes and structures through the internet and digital media technologies.” I also plan to work with more loosely affiliated collectives that research and report on Aadhaar. These include the online publication Rethink Aadhaar, the volunteer based Internet Freedom Foundation, and the rural India- focused Digital Empowerment Foundation.
After a couple of months in Bengaluru, I aim to travel to neighboring provinces and cities and report on the real world effects the program has on Indian citizens. I have been in communication with the collaborative newspaper, The People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). Zahra Latif, their community manager, has said PARI would welcome my contributions, and I am currently in contact with multiple Indian journalists, such as Vindu Goel of the New York Times, about which effects of Aadhaar remain underreported.
I will then travel to Myanmar, a country that until recently was separated from the rest of the world by a digital blockade. One exception is The Irrawaddy. The Irrawaddy is an independent, pro-democratic newspaper dedicated to reporting on Burmese politics since its inception in 1993. At the beginning, the newspaper was published in exile in Thailand. Editors received stories by secret phone lines or even human runners connected to an underground network of hundreds of informants across the sealed state. The paper has since been allowed back into the country and now publishes exclusively online.
The internet itself is new to Myanmar in just the last decade, due to the explosive distribution of SIM cards after the country transitioned away from military rule in 2010. The Irrawaddy’s history is that of Myanmar's technological and political transition. If anyone were to know how the two are related, it would be the staff of The Irrawaddy. I admit they have been hard to reach, via email, phone, and even through Twitter direct message (which I activated for the sole purpose of trying to talk to them), but every Burmese scholar I have talked to cites their reporting as the best. The Irrawaddy staff are a contact worthy of continued pursuit
In comparison to accessing food rations in India or accurate information in Myanmar, Norwegian high school drama may seem remarkably unimportant, especially on social media. I’m not talking about classmates who channel their insecurities through Instagram, however. I am referring to a fictional world that exists solely online. It’s the Norwegian television show “SKAM.” A show that, without any promotion, advertisement, or even being on TV, broke viewership records across Norway.
Set at the Hartvig Nissen School, one of Olso’s oldest, wealthiest, and most prestigious prep schools, the content is rather typical of high school dramas. What makes “SKAM” so intriguing is the format. The show has no episodes, instead being released on social media alone. Each character has his or her own account. The characters post their own photos and videos of what is happening, all in real time. If a breakup happens at the end of a Friday night party, you’ll probably see the post when you are leaving one of your own. It is the anti- binge watch series. Instead of giving hours-long reprieves from daily life, “SKAM” is daily life, at least, life as so many of my generation have come to experience it: constantly connected, hyperaware, and always checking in. To learn how “SKAM” was made and its impact, I plan to go to Olso to interview members of NRK, the public media corporation that created SKAM. Although “SKAM” was prematurely cancelled due to high production stress, I am actively working to shadow one of the many sequels, “Blank,” also made by NRK.
Though I know that the Watson is not primarily concerned with output, I think my project would be well documented through the medium of a podcast. Audio sits in a funny realm between the digital and tangible. Podcasts can certainly be distributed like a webpage or a re-tweet, but the human voice demands a different kind of attention. It’s intimate in a way few other aspects of the digital world currently are. Using my experience at two public radio stations and from my podcast-based thesis, I hope to create a monthly podcast documenting my experience on the Watson year.
This project is not only specific to my interests and experiences but also to the current moment. It seems that the digital world is quickly reaching full saturation. But the way this new reality will manifest in specific communities is anything but a forgone conclusion. Someone needs to document these changes. With the Watson’s help, I am thrilled to have the opportunity.