Edges & Contours

If We Continue On Connecting.

A moment from www.unboxfestival.com

Unbox and this Lab were a week long behind the stage access to the making of what could be our new rituals and practices. A treasure chest of clues disguised as conversations about the efforts to understand and intervene. Here are a few of the so many that I have had a chance to engage with and be inspired by.

Water X Culture

Intricate river basins, buried water tables, snow capped peaks, moisture in clouds, and mammoth oceanic currents together form the internet of life. It is for agriculture that too much water causes floods and too little, droughts. The massive Indian river linking project aims to combat droughts and floods. There are questions to be asked: Why are there droughts in Maharashtra (where sugarcane drinks up a lot of water)? And why are there floods in Bihar? Siddharth walks along rivers collecting the stories of people living along it to find that sand-mining of rivers is rampant, to feed the construction industry. While Invisible Flock and Quicksand, through an installation, evoke the life around, above and within the Cauvery through it's "Invisible stories."

With Zenrainman at Cubbon park.

Bangalore is a city known for its lakes. Zenrainman finds that Mannu and Kallu vadars of the region (traditional well diggers by profession) look to mildew and termite mounds to recognise the proximity of the water table. In 8 out of 10 attempts, water is found using these techniques. Then boiled drumstick seeds are added to the water to function as alum and clean up the water. The wells are dug either in the south east corner according to vaastu or by identifying the best place. A well is dug with hands, up to 20 feet deep, typically in just a day! Jalakanteshwara, the water avatar of Shiva, is found not only in Bangalore but also as far away as Thailand! Why do the hydrologists not recognise this as a science?

Bhagu and Sheila take interest in the interconnected network of pipes carrying our water that are often broken. Sewage leaks mixing with the water table in the city. The soil can only purify water within a 10m radius of the leak, but it cannot purify the the nitrates. The traditional community of well diggers could track and rectify these failures using their age old techniques of tracking water. "Does Bangalore already have a technology to not only solve its own water woes but also be able to provide treated sewage water to the hinterland? Can we build a hundred thousand wells in Bangalore?" asks Zenrainman. Or do we prepare to vacate the city in more or less five years? This sounds so unfamiliar, because we've never known cities to die.

A fascinating read for seekers of alternative economies and sustainability.

Geoffrey West, whose work inspired many of my current inquiries, describes that cities scale differently from organisms. As an organism grows, the energy needed for maintenance grows faster than it's ability to create energy. This causes a slowing of growth and eventual death. Cities however, manage to grow their ability to create energy faster than the energy needed for it's maintenance. This is possible because cities enable an environment for creativity and innovation leading to newer and more efficient energy sources. This in turn leads to unbounded economic growth.

This one paragraph is a dramatic oversimplification of the ideas in the book. And there is an interesting catch. But what I realised and want to emphasise here is the awareness that while profound, a scientific narrative alone may reduce the complexity of plurality to a metric, a graph and a number. We need to be able to view these layered with the stories of people, our society, and culture.

Whose narrative is it anyway?

Ailie, peels the layers of the modern economy to find that it is founded on the pretext of household labour, swapping, and exchanges not being of value. This manifests itself not only in the majority of our scriptures, economy and pay but simultaneously in seemingly benign things as the shape of vessels, traditional recepies, and the design of houses. The care and consideration it takes to run a kitchen, and the number of hands it takes to keep a home clean and inviting. It takes me back to Nivedita Menon's Seeing Like a Feminist and the arbitrary narrative of patriarchy, and it's supporting roles. I wonder if a story needs only a (singular) storyteller.

What indeed is the relationship between centralisation and decentralisation? Is absolute decentralisation possible at all, so everyone's story is heard? What would invite participation? Can it be made tangible and experiential?

From these questions with Fletch, Akheela, Ailie, and Irma, came two of the many outcomes of the Edges and Contours Lab. One outcome invites participation and demonstrates consensus through an exhibit through electronics, light and sound. The other, does the same through a workshop with AIlie, and a computer simulation of the consensus mechanism used in blockchain technology. A shout out to Shravan for the lovely title:

Bits And Snowflakes: A playful and experimental look at how the blockchain works… Through games, computer simulation and discussion, we will explore the potentials for new tech like blockchain to disrupt systems of power create new networks.
Participants comparing ledgers made during the workshop using a peer to peer protocol of describing stamps.

The politics of technology.

We live in a time where famine is not an environmental catastrophe. More people now die of obesity than of hunger. Famine is a political catastrophe. Politics and power pervade everything. Take the politics of technology for example.

In being one with server farms far away, we have alienated our physical neighborhoods. We live in a world of interconnected databases and powerful information processing. Fletch discusses the joy in tinkering and making pedals for musical instruments and embracing the glitches that arise from imperfections in the hacked-together electronics. At Dreamswitch, Tarun and Auraleye put together a magnificent performance. Tarun had built an augmented drum kit that is able to simultaneously while being a drum, can be a much larger assortment of instruments and techniques. This rich audio is processed to generatively manipulate pixels on the screen by Auraleye.

Our daily objects and algorithms however, have been thoughtfully and intelligently designed to strongly discourage this kind of tinkering. Why though? Because Design began as a problem solving process for mass communication and manufacturing. What we have now as the unintended consequence is planned obsolescence feeding a twisted economy of scale.

In applying this technology of data and scale in the social impact sector, Tejesh notices how the app is seen as the one stop solution for every problem. This is because apps lend themselves to scaling up, even if at the cost of misdiagosing the context. Part of this due to the nature of technology, and the narratives they bring with them. A striking example is timelines of social impact projects in the order of decades versus timelines of software goals in the order of days!

Titled "We didn’t see this coming"

Bill and Melinda Gates, in their annual letter this year, describe their fourth surprise of how little data there is on women and girls. How much income did women in developing countries earn last year? How much property do they own? How many more hours do girls spend on household chores than boys? We just don't know!

This makes it even harder to empower women. Priya Nanda echos this at Unbox when she describes the institutional oppression around child birth. A natural position to give birth is to squat. Traditional methods embrace this. However, in hospitals, lying down is prescribed. Furthermore, this is for many women the only time they have contact with formalised healthcare, and so is measured as a success metric. This leads to further incentivisation of lying down for childbirth. Ultimately, it leads to more suffering for the mother.

When we train machine learning models on such biases of lack of data, or applying a model designed in one context in a very different context, it could lead to calamitous decisions. Vidushi Madra gives an example of algorithms designed to determine creditworthiness in the west. Of 30,000 odd factors used, one is how often the applicant calls their mother. But applying something like this in India wouldn’t work because many women don’t have access to mobile phones!

We did technically consent.

When did we do that? To put it simply, consent is an offer and an acceptance. How do we recognise consent? How do we ensure an understanding on the part of the one giving consent? Take the work of iSpirt for example, a think tank working with the Indian government institutions to build the technology in line with the spirit of the policies such as the Data Protection Bill. Siddharth Shetty describes their aim to develop an open platform called India Stack to enable Indians with presence-less, paperless, and cashless consent layers to their digital assets. To operationalise consent is the most challenging part. With the India Stack, the aim is to make consent open, revocable, granular, auditable, and secure. India is in a unique position to be leading this effort at scale!

Detail at https://anatomyof.ai/ and more at www.labs.rs

Has the act of not giving consent become a position of power and privilege? How do we include everyone? How do we create the new stories? It will need to begin with trying to understand the world we live in. Really unmask it. Vladan Joler peers inside an Amazon Echo to understand the economics of labour, and the engineering of extraction that goes behind it. He tries to unravel the complexity of the Facebook Algorithm (as far as he could get his hands on, because it is designed to be not shared). He looks at NSA and tries to investigate what is really possible with just the metadata in our emails. It is not only clear how interconnected and influenced and nuanced our systems are, but just how completely clueless we are about them!

The balance of power and wisdom.

Eventually everything does connect. Crafts, evolved over millennia, were maybe as intricately embedded in the complex ecosystems of nature and society as this MacBook I am typing on. But what is the nature and degree of these connections? The meaningfulness of the connections, and lack there of.

Garima was describing The Ant’s Cafe in Bangalore and the crafts on sale from all over India. It got me thinking of how crafts are connected to the geography that they are in. A lower degree and nature of global connect allowed a craft to evolve in harmony with the local sociological and ecological systems. They are deeply connected through our rituals, symbols and practices. They generatively created social capital and evolved in harmony with our weather, and our water tables.

For a moment, imagine the anatomy of an AI in comparison with an anatomy of a Kanchipuram Saree. What would be the similarities and differences? How did some mountains become gods, while others came to be exploded for resources? While we have the power to intervene in systems at every scale, do we have the wisdom to understand them?

If we continue on mesmerised by connections, and proceed to connect every thing down to the atoms and molecules in the system with each other, we would very likely end up with a black hole. And both an atom and a molecule will become meaningless.

If we continue on connecting, could a system collapse on itself? Could we just end up with noise?

Post written by:
Vishwanath Pasumarthi

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Sheila writes about her time spent in the labs, the UnBox festival and Bangalore.

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