Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Revisiting the Fishers of Kerala with Janaki Srinivasan

In March of 2015 IMTFI arranged for a comprehensive visit to India to gather updates on four of their sponsored research projects, introduction can be found here. This final of four case studies takes a look at Kerala fishers with Janaki Srinivasan.

Janaki Srinivasan of the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore is interested in interrogating two major trends in digital culture today: "info-determinism" and "disintermediation." She had always been "interested in intermediaries, the importance of how the intermediary was introduced, and why he is always a villain. For example, why is the human auctioneer in the fish market perceived as an obstacle?" In our conversation, she also cited the work of Elisa Oreglia on the value of intermediaries and "how to re-embed them in market information systems" and grapple with "a sensible way to make them useful." She explained how just as technological determinism assumes that social development depends upon progress dictated by a history of novel inventions, informational determinism assumes that adopting new data paradigms (such as policies around transparency, open access or large-scale data mining) will necessarily transform society. 

The gradual removal of intermediaries in this schema is often understood as a part of this transformation. For example, even as the Indian online mega-store Flipkart puts many neighborhood merchants out of business, it is still lauded by enthusiasts for streamlining the labyrinthine supply chains of the country. In this regard, Srinivasan draws attention to the massive international Global Impact Study which has done the important work of documenting the role of so-called "infomediaries" around the world. In this study, the researchers found that many people did not prefer direct and unmediated access to information from personal computers. Whether it was information of interest about agriculture, health, or other topics citizens often preferred greater social transactions that involved local experts, authorities, and mediators serving as go-betweens. (The Global Impact Study was a groundbreaking and wide-reaching study funded by the sponsorship of Canada’s International Development Research Centre, and a grant to IDRC from the Global Libraries initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates FoundationThe Dean of IIIT Balaji Parthasarathy, who is also one of Srinivasan's colleagues was a co-Principal Investigator of the study). 

Srinivasan argues that technology sometimes may introduce hierarchies rather than level them and technological innovation may not necessarily deliver the promised efficiency, access, participation, and social good. Working with Jenna Burrell, Professor at Berkeley and Richa Kumar, Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, Srinivasan presented her initial findings in  2012 on "A Work Practice Approach to Understanding Actors in Agricultural Markets: Revisiting the Fishermen of Kerala, India." (blogged here, Kumar has also done research on eChoupals.) 

In this project, this core group of three scholars were interested in testing the hypothesis that access to price information via cell phones would simplify transactions at fish markets and make the operation of the market fairer, more transparent, and less wasteful for all participants. (Conference paper at ACM Digital library can be found here).

In the intervening years since the beginning of the project in 2012, Srinivasan and her Bangalore colleagues have been busy with launching a new M.S. program in Digital Society. This YouTube video explains how this novel degree program is intended to bring social scientists, technologists, and designers together to build research and analysis that would take into account caste and gender in tackling development, health, and sustainability issues. The faculty at IIIT plan to work with an interdisciplinary cohort that is "not only corporate nor only government."     

Srinivasan's initial doctoral research impetus to examine digital delivery systems came from her interest in how the "right to information" was imagined. "In my dissertation, I compared two information-focused initiatives: one a political Right to Information campaign, another an 'apolitical' village information centre project." She "was looking at this whole idea of information as a development tool" and the competing interests of "different political actors." She noted that "info-centre projects categorically state that they don’t want to be involved in politics," even though case studies indicate that in reality it is difficult for ICT (information and communication technologies) initiatives to remain completely politically neutral. (To learn more about ICT efforts go to the National Informatics Centre.) 

Srinivasan began her analysis of ideologies about information by examining the history of right to information campaign in India. She observed that unlike lobbying for the Freedom of Information Act in the United States, which was led largely by journalists, India's 2005 Right to Information Act was the result of fifteen years of grassroots struggles spurred by the efforts of minimum wage laborers who had not received their wages for their work on public works projects.

Srinivasan recounts how prior to the legislation, citizens' access to many such public works projects were ostensibly limited by official secrets acts. There were also times when officials could use distinctions between paper and electronic records to prevent public review. The 1996 rallies in Rajasthan were critical for spurring the legislation. These demonstrations called for the locks on government files to be opened, and villagers demanded access to "entire journals" that logged data. According to Srinivasan, organizations like the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) established in 1988, were intended to play an important role in raising consciousness by launching the Information Villages initiative. These organizations were, however more interested in the provision of information rather than conceptualizing it as a right. Although a supporter of such transparency initiatives, Srinivasan remains skeptical of the idea that digital transparency alone would be sufficient to level economic inequities. 

For this project, Srinivasan, Burrell, and Kumar decided to empirically analyze Robert Jensen's "The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance, and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector," a famous study on Kerala fishermen which argued that universal access to information could have transformative effects on bottom-of-the-pyramid workers. Jensen's study had focused specifically on the effects of the introduction of mobile phone service throughout Kerala from 1997-2001 on fishing communities. In the book, Jenson makes the claim that "Using microlevel survey data, we show that the adoption of mobile phones by fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion, the complete elimination of waste, and near-perfect adherence to the Law of One Price. Both consumer and producer welfare increased."

Srinivasan appreciated the fact that Jensen had done a good job of providing detail" in a study "done over time," and the research team decided to revisit and interrogate Jensen's paper written 15 years ago. Noting that social science research wasn't necessarily reproducible in the way that other kinds of scientific research might be, she emphasized that Vizhinjam was "not a place frozen in time" and "not a controlled experiment." Srinivasan was also interested questions that Jensen brought up in terms of "wastage." The team found themselves asking somewhat different questions based on their observations: "If you do eliminate waste, who are the people who get affected?  The fish are never wasted in terms of being thrown back into sea." Although they might not circulate in formal markets, the fish have an afterlife in "home-based drying, salting, or processing."

Being interested in "the thinking behind the project," the researchers found themselves with "similar questions" about phone use in fishing communities but different questions regarding the roles played by "class, caste, and gender" in the busy markets. They were also faced with the challenge of "how to operationalize" their questions in an in-depth study. The researchers revisiting Jensen did go to one of his three sites in northern Kerala, Chaliyam, but they thought it might be valuable to acknowledge the fact that Kerala has 500 kilometers of coastline and that there were significant differences "in fish, in vessels, in credit relations, and who they sold to" across the region.

Srinivasan was also curious about why there was "no mention of gender in Jensen." The team realized that "women did not participate in the North at all; in the South there were a lot of women." The economic importance of women in other ways was evident around Vizhinjam. There were a number of establishments that offered a credit market to those able to liquidate holdings in precious metals, especially gold accessories that were marriage gifts. (For research on gold loans and importance of wealth stored in women's jewelry see IMTFI researcher Joseph's work here). 

Srinivasan's team chose Vizhinjam to the south of the state of Kerala renowned for tourist beaches as well as fishing expertise. She added further that "Kerala has centuries of history with a long relation to migration, including movement to Gulf states. You acquire connections that make you cosmopolitan. I found it interesting because the older generation in the region had in reality traveled and had ties especially in the Middle East. This gap between perception and reality I found very telling."

Srinivasan described the initial challenge of making sense of the complex scene at "an auction where everyone was bidding for piles of fish" and it was difficult to track "fishermen’s movements." She chuckled about the "chaos on that first day" and at coping with the "decibel levels." She recalls how "monitoring digital platforms, the formation of identities, and caste groups proved to be much more challenging than generating abstract and elegant 'equations' divorced from the messiness of reality. There might be fifteen auctions at the same time, with people pushing and shoving."

Srinivasan described how the Vizhinjam field site differed from where she had worked in Pondicherry where the MSSRF information centers dispensed information about government schemes through kiosks, public address systems, or websites rather than text messages on mobile phones. There she had been struck by "how categorically they wanted to divorce their activities from politics," even though "everyday politics operating in the village" made the "universal idea of information being good" was complicated by the "facts that information was A) not just one thing and B) of course it is political."

The research team also reviewed existing literature about the economic behavior of farmers around price information even though fishermen who are landless by profession, face specific difficulties different from that of farmers especially with regards to access to credit. (For more on farmers, prices, and information, see our story about IMTFI researcher Nithya Joseph and her research on silk markets).

In mapping economic relations the team also realized that when working with "the category of producer and consumer" it was often assumed that the two parties "did not actually interact," despite the apparent disintermediation of their transactions by access to cell phone data. Hybrid characters like the invester/auctioneer proved to be "critical from a design perspective" in understanding "different actors, kinds of phones, where did the auctioneer come from, and at why price information would even matter."(As a case in point IMTFI researcher Mani Nandhi's study focussed on credit relations available to rickshaw pullers in Delhi which shows that gaining access to credit could involve coercive financial relationships as well).

In understanding how fish market transactions operated in the 60s through the 80s, "it might be easy to see these earlier relations as exploitative, because it was not a freely operating market; it was one that was structured in particular ways, and social campaigns and government interventions were not equally useful." But the introduction of cell phone technology didn't necessarily make the market more democratic, Srinivasan argues, because of distinctions between "large vendors vs. small vendors." In other words, according to Srinivasan, "the bigger you were as a player, the more important price information was. Huge volume was needed, when we represent something as regulating and operating by economic laws. What about its history allows the market to operate and mobile phones to be useful? For me it was a useful extension to my dissertation," which looked at how information worked as a development tool for a political movement and an NGO-based initiative, as a way to represent "a free market conception of development and how the world works" and apply it to a case in which "a free market conception of development used information as a development tool."

Srinivasan noted that in 2013 "the fisherman are not really literate, although the state has high literacy; many had learned to make use of the phone's calling function, or they would remember the last two digits" to pick out the right number from a contact list. Some kept notebooks, because even if they were not literate they were numerate. Cell phones weren't only used instrumentally for economic purposes but "they used mobile phones for music out on the sea." Their social connections between the fishers were also much more than merely transactional.  Srinivasan pointed out that even the youngest fisherman or auctioneers maintained traditional ties with the church tax collector, which were often enhanced by new technologies rather than weakened by them. A younger fishermen and the young church tax collector from a fisher family said that "Facebook was important as a way to connect with the world; it was different from their parents' generation, who were from a close set of people with no ties outside of village.

In their research the researchers have worked with local informants and translators in the field site to map a dense multiplicity of economic relations in which there were many types of producer, many types of consumer, many uses for cell phones, many different types of equipment for fishing. Among the many actors in the scene one would find auctioner/investor figures and export agents, wholesale agents, fish vendors, waste procurers, and even local religious leaders. 

For my visit, the researchers had provided me with images that were intended to map the dense network of participants in the harbor who were engaged in the buying and selling of fish as well as many other kinds of transactions. From the research team's photographs I recognized the mosque and church that shared the Vizhinjam skyline with tall palm trees. Vizhinjam is not very far from the regional capital of Thiruvananthapuram, which has a busy international airport and a vibrant political culture that had shut down the streets during my visit. Anticipating political disturbance on the street I waited to visit the docks until Sunday, a day when most of the activity focused on the maintenance of boats. On the quiet Sunday when I visited Vizhinjam, the main auction was closed and churches were holding services, there was plenty of activity around the marine food supply that ranged from managing family economics to the transactions of small roadside vendors selling meat who were doing brisk business. (Find IMTFI funded work on how small ruminants like goats function as a form of capital among those who live on less than a dollar a day here)

Srinivasan also pointed out that "whole idea of collaborating closely on ethnographic research" involved a lot of coordination among the three researchers who were in different work environments. For instance Burrell was yet to visit the field site at the time of the interview. Nonetheless the group was able to have what Srinivasan described as a deep and lasting conversation about methodology as they stayed in touch through frequent Skype calls. "There were things we wanted to discuss throughout the process and recent things that emerged from the nature of the collaboration." Each saw the field site from her side through "disparate pictures and field notes" but also supplemented the research with new expertise. "Richa had worked with farmers in India and had seen how information circulates in that context, which was tremendously useful." Of course, she admitted that there was sometimes "ethnographic confusion" and many challenges in trying to get "a complete picture in three months" even as each of them would "jump in with questions." Srinivasan said "as a methodological path, it very useful, even if the connectivity was not always ideal. We started with plan of Skyping two times a week, and Jenna would read our notes and come up with set of questions. Jenna did a fantastic job on figuring out the political economy of the region."

In conclusion, Srinivasan shared her interest to work on mobile payments and exploring questions regarding gender, particularly as she has personally encountered stories of women and the work of Lilly Irani about what counts as computing. As the MSc Digital Society program gets underway, she continues to pursue multiple collaborations, including "putting our students in touch with CIS," the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society. Srinivasan has also begun thinking about the possible repercussions of the AADHAAR biometric identity card as another case study for exploring info-determinism, "it's interesting to think about biometrics as an ideology, about agents and enrollments, about the nationwide rollout of standardized numbers, who will come up to enroll, what documents of identity will be accepted, and how intermediaries will function."AADHAAR promotes what she calls "the idea of a stable identity" while overlooking "people’s desire to negotiate their visibility to the state." She is also enthusiastic about working with other collaborators, as she develops her ideas about info-determinism, which might be "even bigger than technological determinism as a bias, because it ignores social structures, ignores the agencies of people who do something with the information."

Srinivasan, along with Elisa Oreglia, will be joining the next cohort at IMTFI Fellows to develop new research in,  "Intermediaries, Cash Economies, and Technological Change in Myanmar and India." Initial findings will be presented at the IMTFI Annual Conference, coming to UC Irvine in April 2016~stay tuned!

[Photo Credits: Janaki Srinivasan and Elizabeth Losh]

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