Latest technology isn’t always best, most sustainable or adequate

Bart Barendregt has been appointed professor by special appointment per January 2020. ‘Anthropology of Digital Diversity has the potential to show that there are always multiple directions and different solutions to the challenges that come with digital transition. We try to answer questions like: How do people deal with fake news, hate speech, datasets or with emergent forms of digital (il)literacy and exclusion?’ Let’s get to know more about Barendregt’s research and this new chair.

What is the chair Anthropology of Digital Diversity?

‘The chair is entitled Anthropology of Digital Diversity, with a special focus on Muslim Southeast Asia. It’s part of the Global Vulnerabilities and Social Resilience programme and supported by the Leiden University Fund. The partner institutes I happen to work with are mostly from Southeast Asia and located in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan. In practice, research, teaching, and impact work won’t be restricted to the Asian region but will be truly comparative in scope looking at digitalising societies both in the global North and South.

The research, teaching and impact work will focus on three objectives. Investigating moral debates surrounding emergent digital technologies in particular the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI). Promote open, sustainable and community-friendly alternatives to the closed and proprietary technologies that currently prevail. And critically consider the potential of digital technology for various ‘traditions of teaching’ and contribute to educational and digital literacy programs that strive towards a fair, equal and inclusive knowledge society.’

Dr. Bart Barendregt

What is the programme Global Vulnerabilities and Social Resilience?

‘Global Vulnerabilities and Social Resilience engages with multiple forms of global challenges and societal responses on the ground. The program is aware of a world that is becoming more fragile -both economically and ecologically- with environments damaged by pollution or disaster and the rights of citizens eroded. However, despite growing vulnerability, people continue to survive and remain hopeful. Which strategies are they developing to maintain continuity while surrounded by uncertainty? How do they maintain the resilience to cope in a changing world and which are the most significant challenges to it? Global vulnerability is also a matter of challenges to the ability of local groups to ensure material sustainability (e.g. food, water, soil, energy, climate, transformations in livelihood) and socio-cultural sustainability. In the digitalisation cluster we ask ourselves questions such as: How do communities deal with (new) digital affordances? How does digitalisation help to continue cultural practice and shape new social relations? How do people deal with fake news, hate speech, datasets, or with emergent forms of digital (il)literacy and exclusion?’

What are you currently researching?

‘My current research looks at the ethical discussions surrounding the uptake of AI, not just here, but worldwide. For example: the design of the use of AI in non-secular societies of the global South can teach us about our own dilemmas of how much technology to let into our lives. In line with the mission of my chair -and taking my lead from Critical Algorithm Studies- we recognise that all forms of AI are written, programmed and maintained by people, and are ultimately based on people’s behavior. AI is consequently permeated with normativity, and these in turn shape our societies,a process often rendered invisible, but which needs to be critically exposed. Part of the chair also will be the exploration of alternatives, and how our research as anthropologists can promote viable alternatives such as Free and Open Source (FOSS), South-to-South software or how ‘data philanthropy’ (sharing big data sets with Lesser Developed Countries) can avoid that the full ‘lockdown’ we currently are witnessing in corona times also becomes a (vendor) ‘lock-in’. It also aims to investigate how we give such alternatives a prominent place in digital literacy programmmes. Elsewhere, but also in our own efforts to make educational programs that are accessible and free-to-all.’

What will be your biggest challenge as professor by special appointment?

‘I have been doing much of this for a long time, but obviously not on my own. The first mission of the chair will be mobilising colleagues both within the CADS Institute and elsewhere in Leiden to work with us on similar and related topics. For various research projects we are already working with good and reliable partner institutes in different parts of the world. It would be great if this network could be extended and tapped by others to use. The biggest challenge for me is in the area of impact. I do feel that we, anthropologists, have a lot to add, from realising some of UNESCO’s SDGs to the VSNU agenda on Digital Society. But especially in the public discourse we can contribute to what digitalisation is and could be. Anthropology of Digital Diversity has the potential to show that there are always multiple directions and different solutions to the challenges that come with digital transition.’

What will change in comparison with your previous position?

‘A lot of what the chair will be working on was part and parcel of what I previously did at CADS. But such an appointment makes you focus and rethink what are priorities and what truly matters. I have been working on emergent technologies and the process of meaning-making, what the digital does with our social relations, and the other way around, since the early 2000s. First by focusing on hard and software piracy, creole or cannibalising technologies that enable people and communities and especially the digital-have-less in the global South to partake in what is one of the biggest narratives of our time, digitalisation.

I have been interested in the role of ICT in Development (ICT4D) for a long time and for a couple of years we taught a very popular bachelor class on that topic. A few years back we have slowly transformed that course into one on Digital Anthropology, in which we teach students that the anthropology’s tool kit, the immersive ethnographic method, long term engagement, relativism, and holism are powerful tools in learning to understand what particular technologies come to mean for various communities, Who or what is included and excluded, and what it does to the social fabric of our societies now digitalisation is so pervasive. Much of my research in the last few years has focused on what social media do with spirituality and gender, for example.

With colleagues at CADS we have been working on the future making potential of new technologies, IoT, big data and artificial intelligence are very good examples. We tend to think about the future with and through such technologies. But we hardly realise that the future is made here and now and that a lot of the moral decisions we take now in digitalising societies have a huge impact on the generations to come.’

Why is research on digitalisation important?

‘Especially the work the chair in the field of digital literacy is of utmost importance I feel. The anthropology of digital diversity is a response to previous debates on the need to bridge digital divides showing that not in all cases the latest technology is necessarily the best, most sustainable or adequately building a sense of community. Local inventive, moral debates and the development of appropriate literacies are equally important as mere access. With our partners in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are doing great work to this extent, we hope to further develop tailor-made programs and see how local success may possibly be exported and upscaled elsewhere. Also here in the global North I feel there is much to learn about how other societies are discussing what is a fair, sustainable and inclusive information society.

A lot of scientists are working with these themes and topics. They help us mobile expertise on the problems of our era. Yet anthropology’s method may come not only with different answers but also different questions. Enabled by anthropology’s signature method like ethnography, long term fieldwork, holism and relativism it can show how such challenges are anticipated by different actors, communities and societies. Here in Leiden, we realise that multimodal approaches including documentary film, video installations but also digital products such as websites, animate clips, and infographics have become increasingly important for collaborating with research communities and expanding the range of scholarly outputs, highlighting the vital role anthropology plays in reaching out to the greater public.’

Leiden University Fund

LUF enables talented scientists, such as Bart Barendregt, to expand their field of expertise and in this way promotes the development of innovative fields of science.

A special chair is by definition temporary and includes a five-year appointment with LUF. The best proof that the chair meets a need is conversion to an ordinary chair. The chair then will have a structural place within Leiden University.

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