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Digital Inequality – experiences and challenges from Brazil, India, Kenya

Digital Inequality – experiences and challenges from Brazil, India, Kenya

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This panel debate offers critical perspectives on the techno-optimist discourse surrounding the 'Digital Recovery' and 'Digital Recovery'.

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Digital recovery’ and ‘digital revolution’ are increasingly common expressions used in both government discourses and within international development organisations when discussing key development pathways to overcome the pandemic crisis in all its manifold dimensions. By drawing on empirically grounded insights from India, Kenya and Brazil, this panel debate offers critical perspectives on this techno-optimist discourse, exploring how citizens in these countries are overcoming the challenges to everyday life imposed by the pandemic, and how they negotiate digital solutions to these challenges.

This panel/seminar is part of a series of seminars Loughborough University is organising this semester in anticipation of the launch of two new postgraduate programmes in International Development and International Sustainable Development, both of which begin in September 2022. The objective of this series of seminars is to spark some debates around topics we will deal with on the new postgraduate programmes.

Abstracts

Leonardo Custodio: Digital inclusion and social inequalities in Brazil

As in other moments in history, international institutions headquartered in the North Hemisphere display excitement about the potential of digital technologies to overcome global crises and their everyday consequences of the world population. The Covid-19 pandemic was especially peculiar because it was experienced as a common problem from the richest to the poorest. In a recent blog post, the World Bank’s vice-president for infrastructure claimed that “Digital technologies have helped bridge divides that were insurmountable with brick-and-mortar development solutions and reach vulnerable populations that are often excluded […] Digital technologies can supercharge inclusive growth but we must accelerate investment, so they reach their full potential.” (Puliti, 2022) In my talk, I reflect about Riccardo Puliti’s text “Digital inclusion unlocks a more resilient recovery for all” by contrasting the author’s technological optimism with situations I observed in Magé, my peripheral, low-income hometown in Metropolitan Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. My objective is to indicate how the pandemic made inequalities even more explicit and, in some ways, uses of digital technologies seemed to reinforce – rather than eased – the gap between rich and poor.

Anita Gurumurthy: Platformisation as valorisation - a feminist stocktaking of India's digitalising economy

Unpacking the meta narrative of digital inclusion and associated discourses of flexibility, opportunity and mobility that dominate discussions of platform work in the South, I will use the Indian case to show the correlation between gigification and gendered dispossession. Bringing empirical evidence of women workers' experiences during the pandemic, I will draw attention to how the neoliberal platform economy generates a perpetual crisis of care. Contrary to breezy assertions of 'gender justice as design justice', the analysis will attempt to unpack how platformisation needs a new institutional order to be truly emancipatory. While the stark reality of the majority of women in the labour force in India reflects a failure of feminist social and economic policy, the presentation will also offer frames to question the valorisation of hegemonic, market-led digitisation discourses and models that obscure other egalitarian pathways.

Norbert Wildermuth: The promises of remote learning in the context of Covid-19: a grounded perspective from Kenya

The Covid-19 emergency has affected education systems worldwide. The ‘pivot’ to ‘online learning’ and ‘emergency remote teaching’ has positioned educational technology (edtech) as an integral component of education globally, bringing private sector and commercial organisations into the centre of essential educational services. That is, a ‘global education industry’ of private and commercial organisations has played a significant role in educational provision during the Covid-19 crisis, working at local, national and international scales to insert edtech into educational systems and practices. Offering technical solutions for government departments of education to follow, leading social media platforms, are actively pursuing long-term reforms whereby private technology companies would be embedded in public education systems during the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and beyond it in new models of ‘hybrid’ teaching and learning.

In my talk, I will question the resulting articulation and circulation of powerful ideas about Covid-19 conceptualised as a novel ‘opportunity’ to ‘reimagine’ education, treated home-based learning as a ‘microcosm’ of a digital future for blended forms of education, and encouraged ‘experimentation’ and ‘innovation’ to shape education systems for the future. I will do so, by mapping out some of the experiences made with remote learning during the pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa in general and Kenya in particular, as reflected upon in journalistic coverage and academic studies alike. Thus, I will critically engage global edtech narratives of the superiority of hybrid educational systems, a discursive formation that carries universal promises, while lacking empirical evidence to it.

Speaker Bios:

Leonardo Custódio is an Afro-Brazilian social scientist and educator currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at Åbo Akademi University in Finland. He is also a member of the board of directors of the NGO Witness.org. Custódio’s scientific, pedagogical and activist interests revolve around the uses of communication for human rights, justice and changes by people who suffer from inequalities and discrimination. Custódio is the author of Favela media activism: Counterpublics for human rights in Brazil (Lexington Books, 2017) and founder of the Anti-Racism Media Activism Alliance (www.armaalliance.com). Further information: www.leocustodio.com. Email: leonardo.custodio@abo.fi.

Anita Gurumurthy is a founding member and executive director of IT for Change, where she leads research on the platform economy, data and AI governance, democracy in the digital age, and feminist frameworks on digital justice. Anita actively engages in national and international advocacy on digital rights and contributes regularly to academic and media spaces. She serves as advisor and expert on various bodies including the United Nations Secretary-General’s 10-Member Group in support of the Technology Facilitation Mechanism, the Paris Peace Forum’s working group on algorithmic governance, Save the Children’s ICT4D Brain Trust, and Minderoo Tech & Policy Lab‘s Board. She also sits on Loughborough University’s International Advisory Board.

Norbert Wildermuth is Associate Professor at the Department of Communication and Arts at Roskilde University, Denmark. His fieldwork experience includes studies in Kenya, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Zambia, Vietnam and Brazil. In recent years, his qualitative research focus on young people and their everyday media uses has gone hand in hand with a core interest in questions of communication for social change, digital inclusion, online activism and ICT-facilitated social accountability.

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