Digital Societies

Research in this area seeks to draw on trans-disciplinary insights. The strands of inquiry that have emerged for this research area are: political economy of development of a digital infrastructure (broadband access, protocols, algorithms and AI, blockchain, content and accreditation, privacy, scale of operations), the emergence of platforms and their organisational designs within a wide array of commercial activities, the role of media and social media, the intersections of the physical and digital spaces, information infrastructure and information commons, and emerging regulation and anti-trust policies.

The attempt will be to develop both a historical and contemporary critical perspective regarding how an increasingly digitalized society is responding to a rapidly changing digital landscape. The very basis, it appears, of ‘value creation’ within society is getting considerably disrupted.

Project

SPARC Project: Platform Economics in Digital India: Assessing Implementation Impact Infrastructure and Aptitude

Research Topics

Anupam Guha

Topic: What shapes the public and academic discourse around AI and its policy?

Description: Policymaking on AI is a topic of vital interest to all contemporary states as the economic and political consequences of AI development are not trivial. While this field is still small and developing there is enough literature and scholarly work to indicate that examination and criticism of AI itself has been happening in a few interesting ways, has taken certain patterns, and almost nonexistent in others. For example a large part of policy discourse around AI is fixated on the concept of normative ethics which has led to conundrums of whose ethics, lack of accountability, and ethics-washing. A lot of work with ethics councils etc has reached a dead end with seemingly no useful result. Another stream of AI examination/criticism uses the framework of fairness/accountability/transparency which while instrumental instead of normative has so far failed in resulting in any substantive change in AI development because in many senses AI cannot be transparent or fair and even when it can be it is not something the profit motive allows. Yet another way of looking at AI criticism looks at its relationship to power or alternatively its political economy but this direction of research is very sparse and has a dearth of literature. More interestingly, a lot of big tech criticism is based on priors which seem to be not based on evidence. The question this project asks is why is discourse around AI of a particular type and seems to avoid political and economic questions? Is the funding behind AI criticism favouring some acceptable types of criticism? Are the compositions of the fora engaging in policymaking around AI stacked with a particular kind of stakeholders? Is there an influence of the AI industry in shaping how its own criticism is done, and how is this connected to policymaking and politics? In this research project we will use various methods, and observe the technology, politics, economics, and tropes of consensus building of AI criticism and attempt to find how policymaking around AI can be made better.


Anurag Mehra

Topic: The Nature of Work and Employment in a Digital World: Employment Patterns & Career Trajectories of Graduates from Institutions of Higher Learning in India

Description: The relative stagnation in manufacturing world-wide, and a capture of a significant share of “hard” manufacture by China (and some other Asian nations) threatens initiatives like “Make in India”. In the digital context, the changes in the character of India’s large IT companies operating under conditions constrained by new age immigration restrictions also limits employment in IT industries. The overall rise of AI 2.0, automation and robotics provides the big-picture context in which work and employment are evolving.

In this study we propose to study how our institutions of higher learning, at different levels of “excellence”, are fitting into this larger picture. What are our graduates doing? Where do they find their first employment? How well does the work they do correlate with their core specializations? How long do they stick to these jobs? Are our institutions producing “relevant” experts?

We will frame and study many such questions about placements, jobs, wages, the relation of specialization to the nature of work, job fulfillment, the vagaries of the new employment markets, and so on.
This study requires significant field work, of surveying institutions and their graduates, and then situating this data in the larger context of contemporary capitalism.

Topic: Manufactured Narratives: The Degradation of Political Discourse in the era of Social Media
Or The Internet, Social Media and its Impact on Public Policy

Description: The internet and social media platforms provide an opportunity for millions of people to express their thoughts, indulge in endless hours of play and entertain themselves. A very significant section of the “connected” population is caught up in a never ending cycle of messaging, likes, and shares. While it is easy to see that a lot of these opportunities are liberating and “democratizing”, this new “technological culture”, of the constant intrusion of devices and software into our physical and mental spaces, produces subtle but profound “degrading” effects. These effects include how we deal with “real” people (e.g. family and “friends”); how we remain “distracted”, with terribly small attention spans; and most significantly, how the notions of rationality and truth are being altered (“post-truth”).

In this study, which will comprise an interdisciplinary mix of psychology, technology-culture and politics, we will explore some of these aspects, concentrating on:

(a) how, and to what extent in our own “cultures”, critical thinking and thoughtful (“deep”) expression are being replaced by these new “instant communication technologies”;

(b) how post truth narratives develop, based on the new belief systems that consider “truth” to be what is “liked”, challenging the meaning of facts and rationality;

(c) how this post-truth, accompanied by its armies of trolls and influencers, affects political discourse and policy formulations (e.g. nature of issues, economic priorities).

Some elements of this study will require field work and surveying to acquire data on the “digital habits” of people and their belief systems.


Prabhir Vishnu Poruthiyil

Topic: Misinformation, and Public Policy

Description: The problem of misinformation and its impact on democracy has been recognized, but governing it is proving to be far from easy. There is a unique problem when it comes to dealing with the problem of misinformation – powerful groups whether the platforms or the state rely on fake news for entrenching their power. In this illiberal scenario, curtailing hard-won rights of marginalized groups and restricting gender equality becomes more salient for the economically poor who may have rather benefited from a reduction in material inequalities. This research project focuses on revealing the mechanisms through contemporary policies weaken the institutions of democracy, for instance, through (1) the use of coercion and technology for concentration of powers, (2) legitimizing of religious vocabulary that polarize and mobilize, (3) suppressing the rights to dissent, and (4) invisibilization of religious, linguistic, and sexual minorities.


Shishir K Jha

Topic: Industry Structures, Institutions and Public Policy: Case of Information Economy

Description: An internet-enabled digital economy, led by technology firms with a global footprint, have had historically unprecedented growth in the last 20-25 years. What really has enabled the very steep rise of such digital ‘tech’ or digital ‘platform’ economies? How in particular have the (digital/info econ) industry specific circumstances contributed to this growth – for instance, the rapid assembling and iner-operability of technology, both at the hardware and software aspects, the creation of the data centres, etc.

The institutional support (in terms of policy or funding) has arguably played a significant or decisive role in creating the broader context within which many such firms have spectacularly flourished. This is a historical political economic approach that will attempt to place more critical scrutiny at both international and Indian development of this sector.

Relevance to Policy: Often the public policy responses to a rapidly growing industry, does not examine the deeper set of institutional elements that have shaped the specific industry contours. By such an exercise (as stated in the description above), one hopes to critically examine the strategic choices made both by industry players (large firms) as well as by governing regimes. The relative successes and failures of initiatives by both the former and the latter, will arguably provide a better understanding how public policy should respond to emerging challenges.

Topic: Tracing the contours of both personal and non-personal data-value chain

A crucial element of the information economy is the immense flow of data from users at one end, through several intermediaries

Description: Scarcity of literature that exists regarding a critical examination of the precise nature of information flow of both personal data and non-personal data. Without the deeper structural understanding of the volume of flows, the various intermediaries, the economic value that perhaps gets added at each step, the level of data aggregation that occurs at data centres, the various revenue and business models involved, we will be unable to provide a more compelling argument regarding the policy and regulatory interventions that may be required, at various stages of the data-value chain. In some ways this is analogous to understanding the supply-chain of commodities. The research interest is to carve out a political economic perspective of this domain and ask pertinent questions of a rapidly growing field.

Relevance to Policy: Understanding data value chains is arguably a central aspect of uncovering the deeper set of shifts and changes occurring within the broader information economy. How are such forms of data extraction, aggregation & monetisation helping to re-shape the economy? What forms of policy intervention can be expected or even anticipated?