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Decoloniality in computing

an interview with Dipto Das

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In this interview, Dipto Das, a Bengali researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, describes his research on computing and decolonialization. Using the example of Quora's (an online social question-and-answer website) Bengali version, he discusses how Bengali people across national borders use it for identity decolonization, despite the platform being designed in a way that it embeds colonial values. We end this interview with a discussion about the relationship between coloniality and computing research. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Jordan Taylor (JT): Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. And maybe to start, do you think you could maybe introduce yourself, however you'd like? And maybe describe your research a little bit?

Dipto Das (DD): My name is Dipto Das, I'm originally from Bangladesh. I got my undergraduate degree from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, in computer science and engineering. Then, I came to the United States to pursue a master's in computer science at Missouri State University. I went to the Information School at Syracuse University for my Ph.D., but recently I transferred to the Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. So that is my formal educational background. My research mostly focuses on human-computer interaction (HCI) within the broader field of computing. And within that, I primarily focus on social computing. Broadly speaking, I look at the relationship between race and technology. I'm working with a particular population in South Asia, the Bengali people, for my doctoral research. I want to understand how this particular group of people, who have been subjected to colonization for over 200 years, still retain some of the traces of their colonial histories, and how they're trying to decolonize their identities on information and communication technology (ICT) platforms. At the same time, I would also argue that these ICT platforms they use also bear colonial impulses within them. Therefore, I'm also interested in investigating how we can decolonize those platforms. In this way, my research takes a two-way direction.

JT: That sounds like such impactful work. This leads me to the next question, which is, for those who might not be aware, could you briefly describe what you're referring to when you talk about decolonization or decoloniality, and any other related critical theories?

DD: So, when we talk about decolonization, this leads us back to the root of the word colonization—"colony." The world that we are living in right now has a long history of colonization, which began from searching for lands and resources, starting in the center of Europe, and then steadily colonizing almost 70 to 80 percent of the world. When I say colonization, I mean, the imposition of the values, ways of living, and social structures by a foreign group of people on the native population of a particular region. Talking about the impact of colonization, in most parts of the colonial world—Asia, Africa, South America, Australia, and so on—the native or the aboriginal population were subjected to genocide, rape, and brutal extraction of their resources from their own lands. Therefore, when we think about colonization in plain sight, we tend to focus on these historical aspects. But I would argue that colonization is not just a historical process. It's also a kind of mentality that people go through, that people in our field call "coloniality." So, when I think about decolonization, I not only think about the establishment of nation-states or a particular population gaining independence, but the re-establishment of the social structure of the indigenous people, the reflection of their values on the society instead of their previous colonial rulers, is of critical importance. By doing so, we can challenge the colonially determined global structures and narratives which often do not correctly depict the populations that they describe. Let's take an example of India and Pakistan, we usually think of them as adversaries. But do we ever question where these depictions are coming from? These depictions either worked as a basis of colonization "we are going to a foreign land to civilize those people," or worked as a basis for reinforcing colonial rule in these regions. So, when I think about decolonization, I want to question how these world structures came into being, how colonial rule influenced those kinds of structure making, and how technology can actually influence the process of decolonization.

JT: You describe your work as going in two directions: how social computing technology can support decolonization, at the same time, these social computing platforms are technologies that have colonial roots as well. I was wondering if you could provide some concrete examples of both of these directions.

DD: I can draw examples from my two recent works [1, 2]. I looked at how people from Bangladesh, India, and some parts of Pakistan came together on a particular platform called Bengali Quora. Quora is an American company. Recently, over the past two or three years, they have tried to expand their platform in different regional languages. Since a large portion of their user base belong to the Indian subcontinent, they have included several Indic languages as well in this expansion. Bengali is one of them. Interestingly, Bengali is the sixth most natively spoken language in the world [3]. However, despite the large number of people who speak the language, it doesn't get as much attention as it should in most sociotechnical platforms. So, when Quora was made available in Bengali language, a lot of people from Bangladesh and India, started joining the Bengali Quora platform. The platform served as a medium to bring people from different countries together. Though you can write Bengali text on Facebook or Twitter, that is not the default language for these platforms. In my opinion, having their native language as the default language on Bengali Quora created a particular preference among the Bengali people towards it.

The western view of computing is still perceived as the normative view of computing or the universal knowledge in today's world.

These Bengali users of Quora live on the opposite sides of the border between Bangladesh and India—two countries which share a sizeable border and have very stringent border policies. People living in this particular border region were historically separated between two different countries during the Indio-Pakistan partition. These people usually have families on both sides of the border, and with Bengali Quora in place, a lot of them got an opportunity to [digitally] communicate with each other for the first time. They are talking about their lived experience as a part of a previously colonized population. For example, some users shared their observations about the preferential treatment given to English over their native language, Bengali, in many academic and bureaucratic institutions. In the process, they question the rationale behind prioritizing English over their mother language, when most of the people in their country don't understand it. But still, the people in the Indian subcontinent often see English as a notion of, let's say, aristocracy, or being modern [1]. They question "How such perceptions got embedded into our mindsets?" By having these conversations about their lived experience and everyday marginalization, they try to understand, why there are so many people in this region who still think that colonial rule was a good thing. In those kinds of conversations, the other group of people who understood the hard reality about colonial rule try to convince each other how colonial rule was bad for this particular region. Together, they speculate about what would have happened if the British never came to the subcontinent or what could have happened to the subcontinent if the British never left the region. Through speculative discussions they try to understand the reality of colonial impacts on their daily lives, and question the identities that got imposed upon themselves. The nationalities that these people bear today are, in many ways, an outcome of colonially determined geopolitical structure of the region.

As Bengali users continue to question different categories of their identities across multiple dimensions, they re-evaluate how colonial constructs have essentialized certain ways of perceiving each other. For instance, the continuation of colonial divide and rule policies still impact how a Bangladeshi Bengali is "supposed" to view an Indian Bengali or how a Bengali Hindu is "supposed" to view a Bengali Muslim. Though it is difficult, and perhaps, not possible for an online platform to bring changes at executive levels, it is giving space for creating some kind of public opinion—what they want to see being changed in the political structure of the region. For example, they're sharing their thoughts on Bengali Quora about reforming the border policies so that communication or travel to other neighboring countries could be facilitated more easily. They're also talking about increasing mutual cooperation for economical purposes, and about increasing cultural exchanges. Thus, they are thinking about objectives of decolonization going beyond the establishment of nation states which was usually perceived as the end goal for anti-colonial movement [4]. In effect, they're trying to reform and restructure their whole sociopolitical structures around pluriversal local and indigenous Bengali identities, and their beliefs, cultures, and views for the region. In this way, online platforms are helping people to decolonize their identities and their ways of living.

As the number of users increased on the Bengali Quora, several challenges have emerged. As I said earlier, Quora is an American platform, and only recently, they have started to expand in other regional languages. During these expansions, the only thing that got changed was the language of the interface, but not the structure of the newly created platforms. What I mean is that Bengali and English versions of Quora have the exact same structure except the language. Because of this, the platform misses the intersectionalities within the Bengali community, and therefore it might not be sufficient for facilitating communications among this diverse group of users. In our study, we found that while Bengali Quora was successful in fostering a sense of community among its users initially, however, as more users started to join the platform and the diversity in the user population increased, the moderation on the platform faced various challenges. For example, Bangladeshi Bengali and Muslim Bengali communities talked about their perception of Indian Bengali and Hindu Bengali identity being prioritized and normalized on the platform [2]. Such perception of discrimination increased because of the lack of transparency and explanation from the platform moderators. The users were also found talking about how Quora's recommendation system ends up promoting controversial question and answer threads around religion, nationalities, and cities, in an attempt to increase engagement on the platform. Since these kind of recommendation systems rely on modeling users' identity and preferences computationally, these can create reductionist representations of the users, miss the contextual nuances, and highlight the differences instead of similarities. Again, we talked about how a majority user group could influence moderation decisions, and algorithmic visibility of different users and their posts using platform features like upvotes and downvotes. These features can become tools of perpetuating existing societal biases and colonial divisions. We have described how the platform's attempt to increase engagement can come with the expense of creating controversies and marginalizing certain groups of users—a process that we called algorithmic coloniality. In our work, we also discussed the kinds of changes the users might want to see on this platform, which could promote more constructive discussions.

I would argue that colonization is not just a historical process. It's also a kind of mentality that people go through, that people in our field call "coloniality."

JT: Your research is incredibly interesting. And I'd love to chat with you more about it afterwards. We've talked a little bit about the relationship between online communities and decoloniality, and I'm kind of familiar with your work. I also know that you've published in venues, such as ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Computer-Supported Cooperative Work And Social Computing (CSCW), and International Conference on Information & Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD). I'm curious to know how you see these ideas related to computing and coloniality showing up in these academic communities.

DD: As I said earlier, coloniality not only impacted a particular group of people, but it also dictated the whole narrative through which people view the world structure. Academia, being a part of the world, has also been influenced by colonial narratives. For instance, if we think about how we see papers getting published at these different venues, we see a certain way papers from certain regions are prioritized as global or dominant knowledge [5]. How many times have you seen a paper where it says, study of something, let's say, in the northeastern United States? Have you often seen papers with titles like that?

JT: No, in fact, when papers don't mention any location; I assume they mean it's somewhere in the United States.

DD: Yeah, that is how we are implicitly made to believe that the knowledge produced in "the Global North" [3] is universal and generalized. On the contrary, when people from regions like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and others publish in these venues, they are expected to include additional information, even in their titles. In fact, prior study [6] in the field of HCI, showed that research papers from "the Global South" [7] are more likely to include location information in their titles in comparison to papers from the United States or Europe, per se. In search of some papers which actually convey this notion, as off May 22, 2022, I found that there were 13 papers in the Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction that contain the word "India" in their title, whereas, there were only four papers that had "United Kingdom" in their titles. To put that in context, there were 37 papers with authors' affiliations from India and 112 papers with authors affiliated with institutions in the United Kingdom. You can clearly see the difference in how people from a previous colony are representing their work in comparison to the people from a previous colonizer.

In a way, the western view of computing is still perceived as the normative view of computing or the universal knowledge in today's world. Whenever we think about research coming out of the Global South, we often see those as case studies. By perceiving these researches as merely case studies, we often limit their findings within particular locations and do not think about their broader applicability. For example, there are lots of discussion in our field about sustainability nowadays. The view that many indigenous cultures have towards nature—often considering it a part of their lives rather it being something to dominate over, can significantly contribute to those discussions by offering a fresh perspective. However, when we consider studies in different cultural contexts, i.e., outside of the normative Global North or the western view, as merely localized knowledge, we miss out on those opportunities.

Similar differentiations exist in how we view different research methods in the published works in these venues. For example, if you look at the teaser video that just came out for CHI 2022, ubiquitous computing and user modeling-based works seemed to have received more attention than qualitative or ethnographic works. Critiquing the implications of heavily relying on quantitative methods, Dourish and Mainwaring, in their paper from 2012, talked about how colonial impulses get embedded within the computing discipline [8]. Without being reflexive about the contexts and cultures where the technological platforms are designed and deployed, computing's reductionist approaches of representation, need for categorization, use of statistics for comparison and evaluation implicitly continue to enforce existing hierarchy and politics. I would also like to highlight a colonial practice in design research—oftentimes, after designing a piece of technology for a community or after collecting data from them, researchers get their work published and just leave the community without actually caring about its real-world deployment or following up on the limitations of their work. I believe that such extractive practices in research are not sustainable and wouldn't be good for our discipline in a long run.

We have to question who we are listening to and who are getting their voices heard. This is a crucial thing that we have to keep in mind.

Again, there are several practices that we observe from within the western societies and universities which we assume to be applicable for the academic field of computing at large. For example, while serving as a reviewer for one of these venues, sometimes I have seen other reviewers to ask for information about the institutional review board (IRB) approvals. While IRB is an academic way of maintaining ethical standard, we need to understand that IRB is predominantly a U.S.-based academic practice and not a universal standard for research ethics. Researchers from the Global South also have to experience similar "universal" expectations in participant recruitment. For example, discussions on gender representations can reinforce binary gender categories and heteronormative sexual identity and disregard cultural and contextual practices. For example, in a CSCW 2020 paper [9], the authors talked about their all-male participants group where they studied religious Islamic communities. While studying such communities, to be sensitive to the religious values and regulations of the community, an outsider male researcher can only know about the female perspectives through the male members in those families. If a reviewer who is unfamiliar with the values and regulations of this community asked for recruitment of female participants, it could have been difficult for the male authors to do so. Again, when it comes to sampling, computing researchers often have a preference towards probabilistic sampling approaches over the non-probabilistic ones. I remember my advisor talking about this challenge in his earlier work [10], that he faced a lot of issues when he used snowball sampling for his studies. Back then, the reviewers in the field of HCI did not welcome such sampling methods. However, practices and expectations in computing research are changing for the better now. That said, there is still room for improvement.

There are also issues around "citational justice" and reputational hierarchy of conferences that needs to be discussed [5]. While works published at more reputable venues like CHI, CSCW, etc. could be considered and expected to be influential, rigorous, and novel, we should not assume the opposite in case of the works published at lesser-known venues for there might be many reasons like travel expenses why the authors chose to submit their works at newer venues or localized conferences. So, when it comes to citing papers published at different venues, we should not extrapolate the potential of those works based on the venues' reputation. We should be careful that we don't limit our particular studies merit by the venue that it was published in. It is also disheartening to see that in 40 years, CHI has not been hosted in any Global South locale [11]. While I understand that there is a rigorous process behind how venues for CHI are selected, I think that it is important to take some affirmative action to bring different locations from the margin to the center of SIGCHI community, hence making it more equitable.

JT: You've brought up a lot of really important issues. Correct me if I'm wrong, would it be fair to say a lot of them relate to social structure of how research is published in academia, such as reviews, citations, titles and papers? I'm also curious what you think about the academic publication process in our field? And the reification of these colonial impulses? And examining the role of these institutions? Why does research look the way that it does?

DD: One of the reasons that, I think, is responsible for this kind of continuation of colonial impulses in our discipline, is how we view the context of a particular research. In relation to the titling issue that I was talking about earlier, it often happens that a paper published from a western academic institution, use some pop culture reference (e.g., [the] television sitcom "Friends"), let's say, as a metaphor or for some kind of example. In such a case, those pop culture references are often expected to be the established knowledge for the rest of the world, while people from Global South have to spend a whole section explaining the various contexts that they're writing about. Again, how we view the "Global South" also varies. If we think of the works that are published at ICTD and particular sessions at CSCW and CHI, we find that those works describe the Global South as a place where new ideas are coming to life. On the contrary, works at some other venues seem to adopt the idea that the Global South is a place to be studied by the researchers in the Global North, a place that needs help from the latter, a place that is trying to follow the latter's path. When we talk about the Global South and the Global North, we seem to interpret those as monolithic and geographic constructs. However, if we interpret these constructs based on their marginalization and privileges, we can find these communities not to be limited by any geographic locations. From that perspective, there can be marginalized Global South within the broader geographic Global North and there can be privileged Global North within the perceived Global South. So, we have to question who we are listening to and who are getting their voices heard. This is a crucial thing that we have to keep in mind.

That is how we are implicitly made to believe that the knowledge produced in "the Global North" is universal and generalized.

I understand that all the discussions that we are having today are not about an overnight change, and it needs time. But it is important that we keep questioning the structures before we get to fix those. If we want to understand how we can address the challenges that we are facing in our discipline right now, we must acknowledge and understand what those challenges are, in the first place. To address the embedded colonial impulses of computing as an academic discipline, postcolonial perspectives can show us the impacts of coloniality and decolonial perspectives can help us understand how we can address those harmful structures while foregrounding the marginalized indigenous and local communities.

JT: It's been such a lovely conversation. Before we wrap up, is there anything else you'd like to add?

DD: Since I'm talking about listening and being heard, I will go back to one of the scholars, whose works, I really cherish. Gayatri Spivak wrote a really influential essay asking the question "Can the Subaltern speak?" [12] She talked about the subaltern being a space where people don't have agency in constructing their own narratives. I don't think that for our discipline, the Global South being the subaltern can speak. We must ask ourselves that are we willing to hear what they're saying? Though a lot of studies are coming out of the Global South, at the same time, we need to actively ask whether the academics in our discipline are listening to those conversations that are being generated by and in the Global South.

back to top  References

[1] Das, D. and Semaan, B. Collaborative identity decolonization as reclaiming narrative agency: Identity work of Bengali communities on Quora. In CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '22). ACM, New York, 2002, Article 236, 1–23; https://doi.org/10.1145/3491102.3517600.

[2] Das, D., Østerlund, C., and Semaan, B. 2021. "Jol" or "Pani"?: How does governance shape a platform's identity? Proc. ACM Human Computer Interaction 5, CSCW2 (2021); https://doi.org/10.1145/3479860.

[3] Indexmundi.com. World Languages - Demographics. 2020; https://www.indexmundi.com/world/languages.html.

[4] Fanon, F. The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Atlantic, New York, 2007.

[5] Kumar, N. and Karusala, N. Braving citational justice in human-computer interaction. In Extended Abstracts of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI EA '21). ACM, New York, 2021, Article 11, 1–9; https://doi.org/10.1145/3411763.3450389.

[6] Kou, Y., Gray, C. M., Toombs, A., and Nardi, B. The politics of titling: The representation of countries in CHI papers. In Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI EA '18). ACM, New York, 2018, Paper alt16, 1–10; https://doi.org/10.1145/3170427.3188409.

[7] Willems, W. Beyond normative dewesternization: Examining media culture from the vantage point of the global south. The Global South 8, 1 (2014); https://doi.org/10.2979/globalsouth.8.1.7.

[8] Dourish, P. and Mainwaring, S. D. Ubicomp's colonial impulse. In Proceedings of the 2012 ACM Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp '12). ACM, New York, 2012, 133–142; https://doi.org/10.1145/2370216.2370238.

[9] Rifat, M. R. Toriq, T., and Ahmed, S. I. Religion and sustainability: Lessons of sustainable computing from Islamic religious communities. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 4, CSCW2 (2020); https://doi.org/10.1145/3415199.

[10] Semaan, B. C. Technology as a resource for reconstituting the social world: life in a war zone. In Proceedings of the 16th ACM International Conference on Supporting Group Work (GROUP '10). ACM, New York, 2010, 347–348; https://doi.org/10.1145/1880071.1880144.

[11] SIGCHI. Past CHI conferences; https://sigchi.org/conferences/conference-history/CHI.

[12] Spivak, G. C. Can the subaltern speak? Die Philosophin 14, 27 (2003), 42–58.

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Jordan Taylor is a Ph.D. student in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. His research focuses on how marginalized communities understand themselves and are understood by others, drawing from the fields of social computing, science and technology studies, and critical data studies. Taylor's most recent research focuses on how queer people use social media in their everyday lives.

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