The Internet is not a neutral space – on the contrary, tech expert Anasuya Sengupta, Robert Bosch Academy fellow, is researching how digital systems promote inequality and discrimination.
Free flow of information, decentralized and community-based - just a few decades ago, these were the guiding principles of the Internet. Yet things have worsened since then. Not only do a few corporations now dominate a large part of the internet, but the technologies used also reinforce unfairly concentrated power relations in increasingly violent ways. Anasuya Sengupta's research shows how this monopoly of power also promotes discrimination in the analogue world. She is a tech expert and founder of the feminist initiative "Whose Knowledge?". As a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy, she focuses on digital law and the representation of knowledge of marginalized groups. In this interview, she explains how exactly digital systems can lead to greater justice - and what "Decolonizing the Internet" means in practice.
Ms Sengupta, how would you describe your profession?
My work intersects knowledge and technological justice. I am part of the feminist collective "Whose Knowledge?", which focuses on the knowledge, history, and design of people who have been marginalized or “minoritized” by existing power structuresThe people and groups we often refer to as minorities are far superior in numbers; so-called “minorities” are actually the global majority. Yet they are discriminated against due to their gender, sexuality, race, ability, language, location (and many other axes of power and privilege) in academia and on the internet. So, my work is about focusing on these voices, bodies, and stories rather than supporting Silicon Valley, which is made up of a small group of people who think they know how to solve the world's problems.
What does your everyday life as a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy look like?
The nice thing about this fellowship is that you don't apply for it - you are selected. When I received the first email about it, I thought it was spam. I couldn't believe that I had been invited to spend six months in Berlin. Scholarship holders meet twice a week for lunch to discuss projects - these conversations are the best part. You bring together people from all over the world who are experts in their respective fields, and through discussions we develop a new perspective on our own work. We are inspired by each other and can make connections that would otherwise not be possible. It is a gift to be given this space.
You deal with the power structures of technology. What is problematic about the Internet as we use it today?
We often see the Internet as a liberating, emancipatory infrastructure of knowledge and communication. This is true in many respects. At the same time, we see the Internet as something fundamentally new that has nothing to do with our past. That is a mistake. All technologies contain the best and the worst of human imagination. The Internet not only helps to promote solidarity and connect people in different places, but also reinforces existing injustice, discrimination, and violence. Technology and algorithms are not neutral, they are political. Technology follows a certain architecture, which is why it reinforces discrimination and prejudice - depending on who designs it.
"Almost 70% of the world is connected via the internet, including almost half of all women. Two thirds are from the Global South… and yet, the Internet doesn't look like us, does it?"
What knowledge is not represented on the Internet, and how can this be changed?
Almost 70% of the world is currently digitally connected via the internet, including almost half of all women. Two thirds of them come from the Global South, and yet… the Internet doesn't look like us, does it? Most scientific articles are published in English, and most of the languages that are represented have their origins in Europe. So, the majority of the world is not represented on the Internet. I think we can only change this by scrutinizing who develops new technologies and how content is shared. The focus of digital systems needs to move away from a few large companies such as Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple, or Microsoft and towards community-orientated networks.
What exactly do you mean by decolonization as a practice?
Decolonization stems from world history and the knowledge of independence movements from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Most recently, the term has become relevant again, especially as a result of the student movements in South Africa from 2015 to 2017: South Africa may be politically independent, but the effects of the apartheid system continue to exist, including in the education system. There have been various campaigns against this system and the enormous economic and social inequalities. When we think about decolonizing the Internet, we need to recognize the connection between colonialism, capitalism, and the way the Internet works.
What can individuals do to decolonize the Internet?
Pay attention to who you follow on social media. Follow people who have different stories, different knowledge, come from different places, and speak different languages. The imagination and decisions that have led us into multiple crises will not get us out of them. We should ask ourselves: How can we be inspired by those people who were previously unknown to us?
How can the development of new tech systems become more inclusive?
We should design from the outside in - not the other way round. One example is the development of seatbelts: In the past, women had a 71% higher injury rate in car accidents because seatbelts were only developed with tests using male dummies. One possibility would be to involve women in the design, but with "Whose Knowledge?" we have a different approach: We want to ask a new question. Instead of asking, "How can you design a seatbelt?", we would ask, "What does safety mean in a car?". We then bring together a wide variety of experts and develop concepts and systems together. The result might not be a seatbelt at all, but something revolutionary.
"People have turned from consumers into data points - and therefore into products. We need autonomy and the ability to act, and the EU has an important role to play here."
The tech topic of the moment is artificial intelligence. What dangers do you recognize?
The term AI is misleading because it is neither artificial nor intelligent. We are talking about systems whose algorithms are trained with the help of huge databases. We think they are intelligent because they imitate human interaction and communication. Nevertheless, the data is based on human labor - it is also cleaned, repaired, and maintained by people. Workers in Nairobi and Bangalore, for example, are exploited under poor working conditions while we sit in Berlin or London and ask ChatGPT questions. We need to understand that human labor, which is invisible to us, does not simply disappear in algorithmic systems, but continues to be essential to their functionality.
What rules do we need when dealing with AI?
People have turned from consumers into data points - and therefore into products. We need autonomy and the ability to act, and the EU has an important role to play here. It is a relevant counterpart to Big Tech or Silicon Valley. The intentionality of technology also plays a role. We have to ask ourselves: What does the world we want to see in the future look like? What problem(s) are we trying to solve? How can digital technologies, including algorithmic systems, help with that? It often happens that a technology is flushed onto the market that feels exciting and fun to some of us, and only then do we ask ourselves what it can be used for. We should take the opposite approach.
The Robert Bosch Academy provides space for multilateral exchange and solution-oriented cooperation on global affairs. Through its fellowships the Academy offers distinguished individuals working residences in Berlin. In addition, the Academy organizes an extensive range of events and builds an international network of decision-makers, experts, and opinion leaders.
Do you remember a moment when you felt that your work was worthwhile?
The moment when I received the email from the Robert Bosch Stiftung showed me that my work was worthwhile. What we say carries weight, and I'm very happy about that. We at “Whose Knowledge?” were probably the first to use the term "Decolonizing the Internet", to honor the South African student movements and our decolonization histories. A lot of people have since started to use this term in different ways to address problems and challenges in technology.
When you look towards the future, what do you see in five years’ time?
I would like to see more organizations around the world led by marginalized communities, that are in exchange with technology stakeholders, and are at the center of the design, architecture, and governance of the Internet. Whether we will get to that point is another question, but that would be my wish.