Digital Anti-Politics: The ‘Voices Paradox’ and Innovative Resistance

Open to the Public
Nador u. 9, Monument Building
Thursday, March 19, 2015 - 5:30pm
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Thursday, March 19, 2015 - 5:30pm

Voice and shared experiences of meaning-making are at the essence of our humanity and must be integrally valued. Through coming together and communicating via speech we create our common world. Voice also embodies our enduring capacity for dissent and new collective beginnings. Now, these capabilities are increasingly dependent on and beholden to the material infrastructures of digital information and communication technologies. Digital technologies create new affordances for diverse and plural voices in social and public life but also allow for modes of data aggregation, computational analysis and knowledge assembling that may stifle those voices. As the proportion of human communication that is not digitally mediated decreases, the rendering of diverse human expression in binary code comes to dominate. Data not rendered and incorporated in this way – analog, non-networked voices – are invariably devalued and made more silent. Scale efficiencies also operate, flattening and stifling the uniqueness and particularity of individual voices.

Dr Srinivasan’s talk asks provocatively whether the communications mediums of a digital society are essentially anti-political, even coercive, and, if so, how a defence of the political should value voices in the digital public realm. The talk has two parts. The first part elaborates how the digital has transformed communicative arenas of politics in structural and processural ways that paradoxically amplify opportunities for voice and yet easily devalue those voices. Drawing upon the political theory of Hannah Arendt, this part examines how speech and action are both enabled and disabled in digital public realms. Digital communication technologies disintermediate and reintermediate the ‘in-between’ space between people when they speak and act, in troubling ways. The second part of the talk focuses on empirical and applied work in Africa that Dr Srinivasan has conducted with colleagues to better value voices in all their plurality in emerging digital public realms across the continent. Recently, this research has led to the spin-out of a non-profit social enterprise, Africa’s Voices Foundation, which combines social and computer science expertise to gather, analyse and represent dynamic public opinion in radically different ways.

Dr. Sharath Srinivasan directs Cambridge University’s multidisciplinary Centre of Governance and Human Rights, and is David and Elaine Potter Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies. He is also a Fellow of King’s College. He is a political scientist, specialising in political change in Africa, including its international dimensions. His current research follows two core themes, united by a theoretical interest in where the limits of politics lie and the conditions for political change: the politics of violence and external peace interventions in civil conflicts; digital communication technologies, the public realm and citizens’ political capability. The former theme focuses especially on his extensive research in Sudan and South Sudan over a decade. On the latter theme, focused on sub-Saharan Africa more widely, Dr Srinivasan coordinates a highly interdisciplinary research team in Cambridge (comprising social and natural scientists) and collaborates with a range of international practitioners and academics. He is also the founding Director and Trustee of Africa’s Voices Foundation Ltd, a non-profit registered charity recently spun out of this research.