Lilly Irani on her book, Chasing Innovation

Lilly Irani, in conversation with Christopher Kelty

(Note: Interview was transcribed, unlike many other interviews on this site which are conducted by email).

Chris Kelty: Let’s start here, because we are in Torrance, CA at a Taiwanese bakery, halfway between where you and I respectively work. You, like me, are stuck across various disciplines. Anthropology, design, media studies, south asian studies…and so on. What’s your strategy for addressing the work you do beyond the disciplines?

Lilly Irani: There’s being between the disciplines and there is speaking to people beyond the academy— to participants or, in many cases, workers themselves. I don’t mean as a public intellectual speaking to civil society, but as an ex-technology worker writing to other workers. Some of my strategy has been to lead with the stories. While writing — especially a few years in — I would fantasize that I should instead write a graphic novel called “Design: A Tragedy.” Each of my chapters is really centered around some story where people are working with the skills that they have, the hopes that they have, the social know-how and the networks that they have. They’re all doing their best, and then they run into some kind of friction or contradiction. These were moments that, for me, revealed something about the structural or institutional forces silently conditioning the supposedly creative possibilities of design and entrepreneurship.

Sometimes that contradiction doesn’t become visible until years into the project. As an ethnographer, what I get to do is hang out with a set of projects and a group of people for 5 to 10 years, and say, “Hey, you’re doing projects every 3 months or every 2 years, I can see how this goes over a long time and I can use that slow attunement to draw out—to tell a story that shows the contradiction.” Then I can theorize it at the end of the chapter. For people who are interested in the theory, they get that laid out at the end of the chapter but for those who are not, they still see a story of friction or failure they are used to naturalizing or coping with. And they see it is not all their fault, but a product of the structures in which they are embedded.

The thing I love about anthropology and the empirical is not positivism but rather the chance to attune to the erasures, erosions, and what falls through the cracks socially or theoretically. We can draw those out into a more public way and invite wider publics – our readers and our fieldwork interlocutors – to ask, “Okay, what are we going to do now?”

Chris Kelty: Imagine for me what it will look like when people in Indian academia read your book as opposed to when those in Euro/American academia read it. What do you think or what do you hope would be a discussion there that would be different—or would it be the same?

Lilly Irani: That’s a good question. I’ll talk about my hopes, and I’ll talk about what I’ve seen happen so far. I think one of my hopes was that—I felt like, when I began to write up this project, one set of reactions that I would get from academics, policy people in South Asia would say, “Oh, yeah, this thing you’re writing about is happening everywhere actually.” Actually, this didn’t happen to me just in South Asia. I had that reaction from people also working in parts of Africa and the Middle East.

There was a lot of support and enthusiasm for having another person trying to unpack what’s going on there and understand where it’s coming from all of a sudden. Academics, however, sometimes reacted by saying “Well, this doesn’t fit the ways that we’ve been doing post-colonialism in media studies or South Asia studies so far. Go to a tier-two city, or study people in rural areas and how they share media in ‘real India.’” That’s super important. But the current moment in India is one where development has become a financial opportunity for the private sector. And all kinds of authoritarian management impulses or even violence are justified in the name of innovation and progress. If we want to understand how the state organizes its actions to stimulate private sector accumulation, and in the name of development and innovation no less, we need to study the work of relatively elite middle-classes who operate in these systems.

Chris Kelty: Your book has a great historical depth to it, but not as a history of something, right? The history is there in order to set up the story of the subjectivity of the people you worked with. How do you think about the role of establishing that kind of existing subjectivity with such historical detail? Why is that important to do, rather than, say, pointing to their speech or to the things that they make, and saying, “Look. See, this is how people are right now.” What’s the value that that brings for you?

Lilly Irani: The book was both engaging and questioning the usefulness of this narrative of, “Oh, these are people from India who are adopting Silicon Valley norms, and that’s what’s wrong with this whole situation.” And we can see many versions of that, “Oh, these are tech bros taking over the world,” or, “This is techno-solutionism,” or, “Everyone wants to be like Google.” Lisa Rofel writes about factory labor in China and if you look for modernity, you’ll find signs of it everywhere. But there are older histories also present in space, memory, and language. I did not want to replicate the Eurocentric diffusionist history of science as I tracked projects in the name of innovation.

Also, to understand language in the micro — to understand why the director of the studio does not want to call the festival a mela or a bazaar — you have to put his utterance to me in context of the background expectations we each bring to interpreting those words. That’s Garfinkel, but doing Garfinkel well here actually requires a deep knowledge of the historical experiences and references in the pasts of the scene. That’s why I pay attention to schools people studied at, the stuff their parents were reading, and varied strands of nationalist ideas still part of people’s memories.

Also, as an Iranian American I witnessed those histories and the fetish of technology first hand. My dad’s an engineer. My mom worked at IBM in the 70s when secretaries were writing computer programs because that wasn’t a prestigious occupation then. Back then we were living in California, and my dad took so much pride in engineering air conditioning systems. He wanted to get a license plate that said, “I COOL U.” Modernization’s love affair with technology, the gendered and racialized hierarchies of labor value, and economic theory’s complicity in all that – I lived in that. When I was doing the fieldwork, I concentrated on asking, “What are all the different ways that those histories have also been active and contested over the last hundred years, that are shaping the conversations in the room?”

You’re not going to understand techno-solutionism and how to deal with it if you don’t understand that techno-solutionism is actually built into how economic theory and modernization theory thinks about development as maximizing productivity through machines.

Chris Kelty: But the language of solutionism is right there with the people you studied. One question is how is it different in their case? But the other might be: how is the desire the same but the outcome different? Clearly your collaborators are driven by an ethos of “let’s make the world better”—how is that different than the one that’s driving people in the Silicon Valley or London or wherever?

Lilly Irani: So the constraints are different, the solutions that are imposed are different, and where the history becomes important is that the way the class imaginaries work out are a little bit different. I think it’s more of a spectrum. In the U.S., there is a history of everyone thinking they are middle class and expecting to participate through various institutions. I think in the U.S., you’d be harder pressed to find people saying, “Well, there’s a whole bunch of people who are not educated enough to make their own design decisions, and that’s why it’s important to have designers who can see the whole system.” Whereas, in a lot of developing countries, that’s precisely the history of development with elites saying, “Oh, the right people to steward this post-colonial country are the nationalist elites who have the education to lead the masses who have not yet gained the right to democratic full civilization.” Tania Li calls this trusteeship in The Will to Improve. Those dynamics can happen in the U.S. with Valley wunderkind thinking they’re the smartest ones in the room, but I think paying attention to that history in India means we can recognize them more sharply when they happen here. This happens much more in the openly, commonly, and in policy in India.

It is not so much that the subjects that I’m studying are producing those logics, but that they’re being called to those logics. Why do you need to scale up? Well, because venture capital wants to invest in things that have a high rate of return based on their limited upfront investment. The politics of scale here are the politics of finance, financing development as a profit-making entity.

Chris Kelty: This reminds me of Evan Osnos’s portrait of Mark Zuckerberg in the New Yorker from last September (2018); it’s an interesting portrait of Mark Zuckerberg, but the whole point of the thing at the end is that this is a guy who, even though he’s created this huge company that’s incredibly successful and which has created all of these horrible problems—for instance, inciting violence against Rohingya in Myanmar—he looks at it as like, “That’s really interesting, that’s another problem. I can solve that problem.” It’s basically a form of infinite deferral in the name of problem-solving. Is there a problem with problem-solving?

Lilly Irani: In India, people didn’t say “we’re going to solve this problem” that much, actually. I remember very specifically, the director of the design firm was like, “It would be very arrogant for us to say that we can solve the problem,” but people would talk a lot about “doing their bit.”

There’s this big nation-building project, and it’s 100 years old almost, and it’s about participating and doing your bit. Doing something for a community that’s larger than yourself. People know that it’s complicated, but they have to keep trying because that’s what it means to be a good national citizen. Whereas, with Zuckerberg and the Silicon Valley people that I’ve worked with personally, I really felt it was a lot more like, “We are the smartest people in the room.” And, yes, that’s a reference to the movie about the Enron people or the people that Karen Ho writes about in Liquidated. Those people are who say “We went to Princeton. We know stuff. We can apply our analytical skills, we can apply our data, we can see the stuff that other people can’t see, and we can build the infrastructure other people can’t build.”

Some of that was going on with the consultants who had MBAs, but for those studio people trained in design or liberal arts, it was much more a belief that adding empathy and an iterative process would improve upon both corporate profit drives and out-of-touch state schemes. Few wanted to replace the state. But they wished the state would integrate these design methods they had come to believe in. The state, however, was not so excited to integrate their hopeful labor, but instead the world of private sector and public-private partnership projects were — they needed to use these entrepreneurial citizens as sensors and tacit knowledge to map out speculative opportunity.

Chris Kelty: I was very excited when I read the book because I was finishing my own book on participation, and so much of it resonated with me. A big part of my book is about how participation is scaled up. Not just the objects in the sense of building something that could be scaled up and sent around the world but, in this case, the techniques of participation — especially in a development context. And India is very important in this story. There is a contradiction of the small-scale solution becoming something that, because it existed in this small, local context, it worked really well on the small scale, it should obviously work everywhere else, right?

Lilly Irani: There really actually was a recognition among the people that I was working with that just because a solution works in one place, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work in other places. One example—I don’t actually remember if this made it into the book—was a professor at the National Institute of Design who said something like: “if you’re going to try to work on toilets and sanitation, the way you do it is by moving to a village, design toilets for people, and then live there adjusting the design for 10 years” But that’s not what Acumen Fund wants, that’s not what Gates Foundation wants, that’s not what philanthro-capitalism needs. Their technologies of scaling include retail networks, apps, and sometimes NGO networks. The promise of private sector profit is up front investment and the scaling up of profit through replication and distribution. The Indian State on the other hand has a very different technology of scaling – a massive bureaucracy that has government workers in different areas who can take these things and then adjust them.

In the 90s, you had structural adjustment in a bunch of countries: Let’s privatize the water, let’s have the private sector do those services, let’s have private health care, private education, and then the World Bank starts putting out reports in 2004 that are like, “Oh, there’s all these protests against globalization, maybe the problem is that people have lost access to these public goods.” The Bank calls for the creation of these services that are actually useful to people. Decades of activism meant development agencies at least had to nod to participatory development practices for designing these services. Human-Centered Design, as I detail in chapter 6, became a way of promising participation but in forms that framed people as future consumers and repositories of knowledge rather than as political participants with whom control is shared.

The other piece of participation we need to pay more attention to is the role of social struggle, movements, and instability. Michael Goldman in Imperial Nature writes about the way that the World Bank became an organization that required environmental and cultural impacts assessments. It was because of social struggles, people refusing dams. In my book, I talk about a panel at Davos about India and one of the moderators says, “Well, you know, people are setting themselves on fire in the Middle East and there’s all this instability.” Elite documents like Planning Commission reports are also laced with that language haunted by the threat or reality of social struggle. Indian trade association policy rhetoric markedly shifted in 2004 when the incumbent party suffered a surprise defeat in the elections. These are moments of subaltern agency that shape the epistemologies, imaginaries, and everyday talk of experts and shapes why participation looks as it does.

Chris Kelty: Yes, but I think they’re also related to what we talked about earlier which is that they become problem and then these institutions and global elites turn their attention to them. But only as problems that we need to solve as opposed to what they are: an expression of some desire for a different set of social relations and for a lasting solution to economic inequality. You know, they don’t see it as a strong critique of contemporary social relations. They see it as a problem that needs to be solved. They are tied to problematization in a colloquial sense, not in a theoretical sense. Turning things into problems that could be solved by the existing industries. At one point, I found this quote from Andrea Cornwall about why people seem to keep wanting to solve these problems, with respect to participation in particular. Although, it wasn’t quite as explicit as I would have liked, but she basically said something like, “People need utopia.” That sentiment is important to take seriously, and not something to dismiss as a misrecognition.

I would say that my experience in studying free software taught me to see this desire for utopia as something that had concrete effects. Today free software is still a going thing and it’s still a utopia. But it’s been marginalized by the attempts to scale it up. Once it was very exciting: it looked like this concrete utopia could become part of the way the world should be… and it was very exciting for a lot of people, but then, it deflated. It was the experience of that concrete utopia, not the thing (software) that really matters. I would like a lot more people to have that experience.

Lilly Irani: I think that concrete experience of utopia, like you were saying, is really important. At a design education conference in Ahmedabad, there was a social worker who was teaching really poor kids in a city, and I was like, “So, are you finding this design thinking pedagogy useful for the kinds of kids that you’re teaching?” She’s like, “Oh, yeah, this is great because unlike regular design, this is just a way of thinking. You don’t need any materials, and anyone can do it. You just look around your world and you find something you want to make better.” Of course, this utopia is no place and design thinking erases the violence likely to be visited upon oppressed people – Dalits or women, say – who try to make their conditions better. People need utopia, but they also need solidarity. But this “anyone can do it” can’t even be said of free software.

Chris Kelty: Although it sounds exactly like what they say, right!? “All you have to do is download it and you can change the code, right?” The mistake that occurs is that people have an experience of being part of a collective—in this case, a collective that made something good, then gave it away for free to anyone. That experience is the important part, but people mistake the thing—the software, the designed practice, the toolkit, the laptop—as the source of that experience. Then they’re like, “Oh, well, it’s free software. It’s the software that does this. Not the process of producing it—and the rules around that collective, and the formation of those social bonds,” that was what was important. It’s a simple Marxist point at some level, right?

I think that experience can happen in design settings. I think it happens all the time in hack-a-thons. I think it even happens in coworking spaces which are bizarre neoliberal enclaves—that experience does happen, but then people mistake the experience for the coworking space itself. They’re like, “Oh, coworking spaces will save the world.” It’s like, no, no, no, no. You’re not making that collective permanent, you’re dismantling it as soon as you experience the power of it, right?

Lilly Irani: I feel like you—part of me wants to say it’s like a design thinking and entrepreneurialist social enterprise are effective at tapping people’s sense that community and creating collective relationships can build things together or even resist things together. It taps the sense people have, and that’s powerful, but then it channels this collectivity into the production of value. And what we’re not talking about is that when we have a particular form of collective life, the effervescence of collaboration is not just because of the sociality in the room, but the sociality produced by keeping other people and practices out of the room. The effervescence of hackathons need the Foxconn workers, data processing workers, and system administrators out of the room. The sociality of the design studio needs cooks, cleaners, and office workers to keep the lights on and the food coming but out of the creative discussions with people who “get it.” That desire to participate collectively is a desire that needs re-education so it can form solidarities rather than just collectivities.

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