Academic Research

Here are the abstracts to my most recent academic essays. If you would like to view the full version, just ask.

"Doubt" in News and Information Filtering:
The Human, the Media, the Algorithm

Today, more people, than ever before, have the opportunity to publish to a global audience. And I, in an attempt to digest the growing onslaught of content, inevitably rely on filterers in the hope of comprehension. In the Internet Age, one of these filterers are the information distributors who manage the visibility of voices as they deliver a stream of content to our so-called “personalized” feeds.

They perform an act, a task, which has carried philosophical import much before their introduction to today’s social fabric. How I, as an individual, filter through life is not just a question of which news I read. It is a process that I conduct every moment of my life, a process of organization and sensemaking through the infinite flux of my environment. How I conduct this process and how I should conduct this process is a question that has rattled the brains of philosophizing humans much before me. Never quite settled, many heralded the necessity of an elusive yet attainable quality: the capacity for doubt.

 

The unceasing questions about filtering and doubt have been reincarnated in the algorithmic dimension. As platforms and publishers debate and demur the techniques of online curation in the digital era, I champion a theoretical meditation on the concept of doubt, its integral place in human and social filtering frameworks, and its potential scaffolding in an age where deciding what comes first on our news feeds hold newfound power.

If you would like to read a full version of my academic dissertation or a more general-audience version of it, please just ask.

The sun and air are life's essentials,

And they are free.

Break a bone and your friends come rushing to see you,

And they are free.

Without the internet, life today is incomplete.

Why, then, is it not free?

 

This song, translated from Hindi, played in the background of video footage of children freely running through a field and friends freely joking with each other for an advertisement promoting a service for “free internet,” offered by Reliance Industries (an Indian conglomerate involved in telecommunications) and Facebook.

This seemingly conclusive link between the internet and freedom mystifies underlying truths about technology and politics for its viewers in India. It borrows language rooted in a story from half way across the world and decades ago — the birth of the Silicon Valley, where the word “free” (with its libre definition) exemplifies the industry’s libertarian and counterculture origins.

 

In this essay, I will show that the Silicon Valley façade as a political liberation movement leading to a technologically-driven, egalitarian future runs hollow. An examination of the tangible implementation of digital technologies — most notably internet access — contradicts the apolitical narratives spun by the Valley. Despite the industry’s imagination, the spread of information is not a sure route to freedom nor a foolproof antidote to the world’s problems. But more importantly, the supposedly anti-government technology industry is beginning to create its own social order, an inherently political affair.

I will define politics as power dynamics and their accompanying activities. Helen Nissenbaum and Langdon Winner’s frameworks regarding technology’s embodiment of politics will be the lens to analyze a relevant case study — Facebook’s “Free Basics” program in India — a recent controversial approach to spread supposedly-free Internet access.

This research article was published in the SOAS Postgraduate Research Journal here and here.

In response to: does digital technology offer continuity or change in news production?

 

In August 2016, an audience member asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg if he intended to be a news editor. Zuckerberg responded by saying that Facebook could not possibly be considered a media company. After all, it doesn’t produce any content.

Digital technology does offer a change as it has dethroned news production centers as the only locus of media control. In this essay, I will argue that a new gatekeeper in the sphere of media are the news distributors of today — technology companies, their algorithms, and their editorial practices. I will merge both literature about media (specifically gatekeeping theory) and literature about technology to expose how social network companies and their dissemination activities are powerful media actors in the construction of reality.

 

Previously quarantined off to a privileged few, content creation now errs on the side of a “human right” in the age of the “writing public” (Hartley, 2007). In awe of this mass explosion of content production agency, media researchers have revised gatekeeping theory to proclaim the mythic utopia of a completely connected digital world. Quick to romanticize the Internet, they believe agency has been restored to the empowered masses. These pronouncements fall prey to the historically-constructed concept of the technological utopia and its mystification of new powerful actors in the media-technological world. We must not be blind to how knowledge dissemination — now disassociated from the activities of production — on the Internet is controlled by content distributors, redactors, and selectors. The employees of these companies and their news feed algorithms are not objective, inculpable forces of nature. Specific to today’s current media moment, the social network companies that distribute media content have power over discourse and the capability to shape our realities — phenomena we have primarily attributed to news producers in the newsroom. My case study is an almost too-perfect archetype for this hybrid media-tech gatekeeper: Facebook, whose increasingly-exposed split personality is destabilizing its claims to a strictly “technology” company label. The company now faces a crossroads between Silicon Valley’s values of open and free technology with media’s constrictions of journalistic standards and obligations. Concurrent to these public debates, media studies research must begin to shift their definition of “media” and analyze the blurring lines between “media” and “tech.”

This research article was published in the Anthropos publication here.

The human has been gifted with a persistent dilemma. In our exposure to the world, a part of our learning stems from our desire to study the world around us as we perceive it, equipped with the tools of empiricism and rational thinking to examine our sensory experience. But we also feel the existence of a part of the world that is not explained by those tools. There are questions about the world that we can’t answer and knowledge that we can’t quite physically perceive but can intuitively or perhaps impulsively feel in an inner self. We perceive a world outside of us but we also perceive a self separate from that world. Somehow, in the search for knowledge within this dilemma, we have declared that these two sides are at conflict. Mind versus body. Internal versus external self. Subjective versus objective. Religion and spirituality and faith and the arts versus science. Spirit versus matter. At this moment in time in our particular society, we are clearly valuing the latter over the former, most prominently seen in higher education. But I argue, there is no dilemma when the human acknowledges the two domains, their values, their flaws, and their intersections. As the human perceives the world’s stimuli through their human body interfaces, they have the ability to also feel a true knowledge, a true message within them. I argue, they have the intellectual ability to believe both.

I have used a wide range of scientific philosophers to function as the base of my thesis. I have selected philosophers who have made it their life work to intertwine the two domains outlined above, whether it be on a cognitive science level, through the lens of medicine, or with the tools of physics. Each scholarly source has showcased my thesis through their work. First, I explore the realm of science — its definition and the criticisms against it while also detangling the inevitability and necessity of science. Then, I switch over to the other domain, with a definition that is clearly more amorphous and less tangible. This side, too, has its flaws and qualities worth exploring. However, I show through a historical analysis, academics has created a conflict between the two. I attempt to convey some of the numerous ways in which these two sides intersect, attempting to show how one can feel an allegiance to both sides to dismantle the constructed conflict between the two.

Decades have gone by since the Emancipation of the black race in America, and yet freedom still lingers in the distance, W. E. B. Du Bois decries (10). “The freedman has not yet found freedom in his promised land” (10). The ideals of physical freedom, of the ballot, and of book learning as a path towards this freedom are not false but rather simplified and incomplete; the escape requires the power of the combination of all the above ideals (Du Bois, 13). How do these methods of escape from the “Negro Problem” parallel and diverge from the “Dalit Problem”?

Borrowing some notions from black writers for juxtaposition, I examine several “escape routes” — or paths to freedom — that the Dalit community champions. I aim to detangle the way caste can be malleable and semi-permeable in some ways as well as imprisoning and impenetrable in others. In exploring the escape routes of modernity, passing, and consciousness, I find that the oppression of Dalits is marked by its persistently lingering stigma yet nuanced by moments of castelessness. Signs point towards the Dalit “potential for life and creativity” as well as “the restriction of that potential” (Pandey, Subaltern Citizens, 5). In our explorations of the structures of prejudice, this complex reality shines light on the multifaceted forces that fortify the oppression of Dalits over generations.