The Current

There are ways out of the problems with Big Tech — and they already exist, says author

In a new book, Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor of Information Studies at UCLA, argues that the power that big Silicon Valley companies have over people's lives is not inevitable — and that examples of small, community-based tech worldwide show that other possibilities exist.

Ramesh Srinivasan says communities around the world are building alternative tech systems that work

Ramesh Srinivasan, author of Beyond the Valley. (Submitted by Ramesh Srinivasan)

Read Story Transcript

The argument that Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple have too much power over our lives is not a new one.

These tech behemoths have been criticized for their surveillance practices, algorithmic biases and — many argue —  virtual monopolies of large swathes of the technology sector.

But Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor of Information Studies at UCLA and an adviser to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, says that not only is it possible to imagine alternatives to "Big Tech" — they already exist around the world. 

In the U.S. and in many developing countries, says Srinivasan, "we can see all sorts of forms of innovation and creativity and humanity, and we can reimagine the tech world in the image of our collective humanity," he told The Current's guest host Rosemary Barton.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren has campaigned on breaking up and regulating big Silicon Valley companies. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer/Associated Press)

Those forms of innovation are the subject of Srinivasan's new book, Beyond the Valley: How Innovators Around the World are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow.

Srinivasan traveled around the world for his book researching what he calls digital "third spaces," where people are creating alternative technologies that are adapted to the needs of their communities. 

Here's part of Srinivasan and Barton's conversation.

You ... say in the book that instead of viewing these companies as intransigent and ourselves as powerless, we should fight for technology that better reflects our values, which ... sounds like a nice idea, but sounds so daunting to a regular person.

But you do have examples in your book of places where they're trying to create systems and technology companies or technology that works for them locally and espouses their values. Can you give us an example? I think in Oaxaca, Mexico, there is an example of that.

In Oaxaca, it's one of the most magical parts of the world. You'll love it if you go there. 

There's dozens of languages spoken, Indigenous languages spoken. This is in southern Mexico. These Indigenous communities have not been provided cell phone access, but they really need it for many different reasons —  their languages are oral, they have relatives right here in Los Angeles, in the Central Valley, that they want to communicate with, they want to get the correct prices for crops.

It really would help their lives in a great way. And the tech companies — and in this case I mean [internet service providers] and mobile service providers — said, "You guys aren't worth it. There are too few of you. You don't make enough money. You're in the middle of forests. It rains all the time, blah, blah, blah."

And these folks said, "Hey, we want this and we need this." 

And look what they did: they built their own networks. The largest set of community-owned cell phone networks in the world exist in the Oaxaca region. There's dozens of them. They're autonomous sovereign networks that are collectively invested in, where people built them themselves. 

And none of them are engineers. None of them have any degrees in engineering.

Srinivasan argues that bottom-up technology initiatives around the world show that alternatives to the "Big Tech" model are possible. (iStockphoto/Getty Images)

And these communities have collectively built their own networks ... and they are spreading like a rhizome. 

They're spreading like an underground network all over the world — in Brazil and Colombia and West Papua.

There are networks like this that are not just cell phone based, but also Internet based, in Catalonia, in New York City, in Detroit. 

So we just need to recognise that people are not even fighting with big tech, but they're creating third spaces. They're creating alternatives based on their own value systems that support their interests. 

And these networks are producing wealth and digital literacy and jobs for people in places, rather than extracting and manipulating everybody.

And it's really an example of what innovation actually is. 

(Submitted by MIT Press)

Can we talk a little bit about what you call "Silicon Savannah" in Kenya and another example of the way technology is developing, in a different way than maybe we're used to, in East Africa?

Yes. And so, again, this is another example there in Kenya and Tanzania and Uganda.

People are realizing in those parts of the world, much like in Oaxaca, that they can do more with less. 

And they have no choice because they don't have the infinite resources of a company like Apple who builds its phones in a way that's designed for them to die and then become electronic waste. You know, that's called planned obsolescence. That's Apple's business model. I mean, they themselves have admitted it. 

So what are these folks doing? They're saying, "Hey, we don't have that many resources. But here's the reality. Here's the cultural environment. Here's the political environment. Here's the economic environment. Here are ways we can innovate with these constraints." 

So I tell stories in Beyond The Valley of people, for example, building Wi-Fi networks that are intranet based, meaning they're local network based, using this crazy, amazing technology that is built upon solar power. 

Now they're trying to install these networks in refugee camps in northern Kenya, on the Somali border. 

I also tell stories of people re-purposing everything, recycling, repairing, et cetera. So people are literally creating new cell phones out of electronic waste. 

And the one example ... that truly blew my mind are of these folks who've been able to take electronic waste and create functional, and actually more advanced, 3D printers of about 50 percent e-waste in Kenya. They have built 3D printers that are a fraction of the cost of American or Chinese printers and perform much, much better. 

They did that all from the ground up.

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Alison Masemann.


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