Guest Lecture on Hacking Politics in India: Understanding Design Methods as a Cultural Process

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lilly IraniHacking Politics in India: Understanding Design Methods as a Cultural Process

Speaker: Lilly Irani, University of California, Irvine

9:30 AM, Friday, February 22, 2013
Allen Auditorium, Allen Library
University of Washington, Seattle campus


Today, the halls of TED and Davos reverberate with optimism that hacking, brainstorming, and crowdsourcing can transform citizenship, poverty alleviation, and education alike. When, how, and for whom are these approaches effective?

Drawing on one year of participant-observation in an Indian design studio, I will discuss the case of a hackathon convened to build software for participatory governance. The hackathon brought me together software engineers, designers, and a legal anthropologist for an intense, interdisciplinary week-long collaboration. On the third day, however, the hackathon partially dissolved as the anthropologist departed in frustration. In this talk, I argue that key to the dissolution was the social organization of time. As an outgrowth of software peer-production, hackathon’s drive towards demos supported by fast trust and ready-to-use modules of software code. In India, where most people do not access the web directly or often, we needed not only software but also partnerships with activists to engender participation. The hackathon’s style of fast technology production proved incompatible with these slower partnering processes.

This case is drawn from a broader ethnographic project examining how middle-class values and social positions shaped how designers chose and solved problems in India. The project addresses outstanding questions of how cultural dynamics shape the practice of design by expanding the lens from the things designers make to how designers understand and organize social life.

About the Speaker

Lilly Irani is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Her work examines design practices in situ to understand their relationships with broader cultural, political, and social processes. To date, she has investigated these issues through ethnographic fieldwork of a design studio in India, as well as through ethnography and activism in the crowdsourcing platform Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Her work has been supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, a Fulbright-Nehru Scholarship, Intel Corporation, and the NSF Virtual Organizations as Sociotechnical Systems program. Prior to the PhD, she spent four years as a User Experience Designer at Google. She received a BS and MS in Computer Science, both from Stanford University.