Originally published on Data & Society: Points on 26th January 2021.
The possibilities of leveraging Big Data and AI-based interventions are often poised to flow as innovations emerging from the Global North to the rest of the world. Such flows tend to position the Global North as the active center and the Global South as the passive periphery of these innovations. Problematizing these flows, Data & Society is launching a new project to map the conceptual vocabulary of digital IDs and AI in the Global South, where we begin with the argument that the Global South is neither a passive recipient, nor is it the periphery of emerging developments in these data-driven technologies.
This project draws on and contributes to the following two ways of orienting towards the Global South: First, developments in the Global South need to be studied and addressed in their own right instead of treating them as derivative of the Global North. Second, focusing on the South is a method to understand, analyze, and build developmental, postcolonial, and decolonial computing practices. The South is a rich empirical site to think through the diffraction in ethics and politics of data-driven technologies, which can also contribute to new and useful framings for allied computational justice efforts in the North.
Data & Society is launching a new project to map the conceptual vocabulary of digital IDs and AI in the Global South.
Given the fractured data environments in Global South countries, building, maintaining, and appropriating data-driven technologies are infrastructural problems. In focusing on the sites and vocabularies of digital IDs and AI in the Global South, we hope to identify concepts, keywords, and ideas that underlie the meaning(s) and future(s) of these infrastructural problems and their solutions. Aligning with this infrastructural orientation, keywords from the Global South often illustrate the ways in which infrastructures configure everyday lives and desires and showcase experiences with data-driven technologies as emerging ways of life. They include, but are not limited to, keywords and concepts such as postcolonial computing, decolonial computing, data extractivism, human dignity as the bridge between AI and human rights, data colonialism, indigenous data sovereignty, feminist solidarity in design practices, and data justice. Quite predictably, they have a different tone and priorities than concerns around keywords from the Global North such as bias and fairness, accountability, transparency, explainable AI, and responsible AI, which often approach data-driven technologies as tools subject to human ingenuity.
One approach does not replace the other; they add further nuances to our ability as analysts to frame the emergent challenges of living with data-driven technologies. Mapping the similarities and differences between the approaches of different countries to these technologies opens a space for future comparative analysis. This project will contribute to and expand existing efforts (such as the global landscape of principles and guidelines for ethical AI and the AI governance landscape) by mapping the vocabulary of emergent concerns and principles for ethical use and governance of digital IDs and AI from the perspective of the Global South.
Mapping the similarities and differences between the approaches of different countries to these technologies opens a space for future comparative analysis.
Working out this vocabulary presents the challenge of describing commonalities between diverse meanings of umbrella terms. For example, “Global South” is used to address “third world countries,” which have their own specific cultures and infrastructural contexts that will shape what appropriation of data-driven technologies might mean for them. It has also been cast “as a place of (and a proxy for) alterity, resistance, subversion, and creativity.” “Digital IDs” have a variety of manifestations from mobile and biometrics-based IDs to user-controlled and blockchain-backed IDs. Similarly, “AI” stands for diverse computational technologies ranging from natural language processing to machine learning algorithms that have various implications for transforming specific industry sectors. Straddling these umbrella terms, the conversations on data-driven technologies in the Global South operate on a wide spectrum between optimism of leapfrogging and digital transformation of societies on one end and the pessimism of human suffering caused by new forms of data capitalism and colonialism on the other.
Set against this backdrop, this project will map the spectrum of conversations on digital IDs and AI in the Global South, based on an ongoing literature survey and interviews with experts, policymakers, practitioners, and activists. It will identify and articulate patterns in these conversations, which cut across various geographical contexts and industry sectors. Furthermore, these patterns will serve as initial resources towards building a common vocabulary of tensions that arise when building, appropriating, and governing data-driven technologies in different parts of the world. Our hope is that this project will contribute to the ongoing and emerging work of expert researcher, practitioner, policymaker, and activist communities, specifically (1) scholars and activists working on human rights and their relationship with the governance of data and AI-based interventions; (2) practitioners who design and build these systems and policymakers who must contend with regulating them; and (3) those who work on ethics and social implications of digital IDs and AI in their respective countries. This project is in broad alignment with the work of our friends at the AI Now Institute, who recently launched a project to commission a blog series on a new AI lexicon that maps responses and challenges to the critical AI discourse.
You can participate in this project in a variety of ways:
- First, you can join the mailing list on AI in the Global South hosted by Data & Society and AI Now.
- Second, if you would like to participate as an interviewee, you can send an email with a brief note on your interests and concerns in this space to Ranjit.
- Third, if you do not wish to be interviewed, we invite you to send a list of five resources to Ranjit that he should read and know when starting to explore socio-technical implications of data-driven technologies in the Global South. He will put together an evolving reading list based on your responses and our ongoing literature survey.
- Fourth, we are also looking for partners and collaborators to build a research network interested in mapping these sites and vocabularies with us. Please get in touch with Ranjit if you are a member of or have a suggestion for an organization that we should connect with on this project.