March 11, 2021
Dr. Sucheta Ghoshal joined the faculty of the University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering as an assistant professor in February 2021.
Dr. Sucheta Ghoshal
Professor Ghoshal came to HCDE from the Georgia Tech College of Computing, where she recently completed a PhD in Human-Centered Computing. HCDE’s communications manager Leah Pistorius met with Professor Ghoshal, calling in from her home in North Carolina, to talk about her background and what she is looking forward to in her new role.
HCDE: Can you give us an overview of your recent doctoral work at Georgia Tech?
Sucheta Ghoshal: At Georgia Tech, I worked closely with grassroots social movements led by Black, indigenous, people of color situated in the US South. My work focused on understanding how these movements used technology, and what can we learn about the design of popular technologies from these movements’ interaction with technology.
I was working with a regional social movement called the Southern Movement Assembly to understand the technologies they used and study those experiences. With all of my work, I work really closely with the community I am studying and supporting, and that relationship is my top priority. In addition to researching what it means for a movement working in the US South to be using technology, I looked at what insights I can contribute to similar research questions emerging from social movements in the global south. So, I try to make sure my findings are speaking to larger socio-political movements around the world.
HCDE: How did you get interested in this area, and what makes it meaningful for you?
SG: I had a very political upbringing. My grandfather was in politics for 60 years as a school teacher who served his local community and stayed involved in politics. My father was active in social movements, focused on questioning power at a local and national scale. And so I grew up watching that, and the vocabulary of activism kind of comes naturally to me.
In my teenage years, I started getting involved in the community of Wikipedia. That was a different kind of social movement, but it was still emerging as a movement, and I was starting to contribute to free and open-source software in different ways. That was around the first time I realized, oh, I can be an Engineer of my own kind! Or, at least, I can have computing as one of the skill sets I can work on and still be meaningfully contributing to social movements.
I worked at Wikipedia as a software engineer for five years. In general, the community at Wikipedia was people who were already comfortable with technology because these were also the people who due to their race, class, or gender status were more likely to be able to afford new technologies. Technological revolution was very much getting defined by a select class of a society. My experiences with Wikipedia as sort of a rare identity in the mid-2000s, as a person of color in the community, made me wonder what technological development means to people who have been historically marginalized by the expert culture of technology? Are these technologies actually serving the people on the ground? And by people on the ground I mean people I was already surrounded by in my community — like my family, and myself personally. A desire to investigate those questions led me to first pursuing community organizing full time, and then to applying to a PhD program on human-centered computing at Georgia Tech.
So, this work is meaningful to me because I feel like I am speaking to my people. It has always felt like that.
HCDE: What attracted you to HCDE?
SG: Three things attracted me to HCDE right away. The first was when I saw the specific mention of systemic injustices in the job description. Seeing that stated in the job description communicated to me that the department is not looking for a "diversity fix," they are acknowledging the problem of systemic injustice and systemic racism in this country and beyond, and they want a person who focuses their research on that broader view of the world. And I thought, okay, this sounds like home.
The second reason was that I already knew and admired several HCDE faculty members. These are people who think critically about social infrastructure issues and sociotechnical systems, who are doing the critical work that I was citing all the time in my research.
And the third reason was that I am fascinated by Seattle. I truly think that Seattle can be a very important city for investigating what I am trying to study. In Seattle, major corporations exist alongside community organizations that have been critically questioning those corporations. Many union organizations have headquarters in Seattle, as well as different tech collectives that are trying to see whether cooperative economies can be used to build technology. So, I think Seattle is the very best place for me to continue my research.
HCDE: What are your future research plans?
SG: One of the things I'm focusing on now is what I'm calling radical accountability. What it means for people to become conscious of the technologies that are governing their lives currently. So I'm looking at a few things, including what it means for communities to resist, refuse, or dismantle technologies of the culture associated with them; what it means to imagine alternative technologies and build those for their communities; and what would technology look like if it was produced within cooperative social economies. And I want to note that these aren't my new ideas; these are things that Black and Indigenous people in the US have been asking for years and years. I'm learning from these folks about how to ask those questions in the technology space.
Like my previous research, my future research will start from those communities in and around Seattle. I can't do this work without that close community engagement, nor would I want to do it without that.
HCDE: Are there any HCDE or UW colleagues you are looking forward to collaborating with?
SG: I am super excited to collaborate with Professor Charlotte Lee. I think the nuance that she looks at technology with is so brilliant and rare in the field of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, a field that she is one of the pioneers of. Many people may look at technology as a tool, but with Charlotte's work, you actually get to see technology as not just a tool, but you see the social practices, the organizational practices, all the different things that make technology what it is. I don't think I could really understand technology critically without Charlotte Lee and her work.
Professor Daniela Rosner is another person I look forward to collaborating with. The kind of feminist commitment that she brings to tech work is fantastic, and her book, Critical Fabulations, is a major inspiration for me.
Outside of HCDE, I am excited to collaborate with many other folks across the University, including from departments like architecture and urban planning. I look forward to working with people who deeply understand Seattle as a city.
HCDE: What kind of classes do you hope to teach?
SG: I will teach my first class in Spring; I'm calling it critical technology practice. I hope to introduce a combination of theoretical foundations and methodological foundations to do liberatory, community-centered research. The course will look at what it means to exercise a commitment to that kind of research, and students will get some ideas of the critical theory on race, class, gender, disability etc. that community work draws from. We will also look at other academic methods that align with that theoretical foundation. Additionally, I am excited to teach more technical and introductory courses since there is no one pathway to critical questioning of technology.
HCDE: What's one thing that you hope your students who take your classes come away with?
SG: I like to encourage students to question things even when they know that there won't be a straightforward answer. I hope I can help them be comfortable with complex answers to questions, especially when they are about social problems and problems caused by technology. These problems have history, and history is long and complicated. So I try to push the understanding of social and technical problems in a historical way. People have been experiencing technology in various ways for a long time now, and nothing that you build or discover now will be detached from that history.
HCDE: Where are you finding inspiration right now?
SG: I usually find inspiration from books and poetry in particular. Recently I've been reading poetry written by academic authors. Joshua Bennett is one scholar/poet who I'm deeply inspired by right now. Julietta Singh is another. I don't even know if this is a thing, but I have just found several academics who are writing poetry, and I find them to be very beautiful and written with so much energy.
HCDE: What do you like to do in your free time?
SG: I have always liked reading, so I do a lot of that. But I also like watching YouTube videos and watching mindless TV, to try to switch off my intellectual side. During my PhD years, I picked up cross stitching and embroidery, and those are very meditative exercises that I really like. I try to keep those very simple — I'm not trying to express my art here — I just like the activity as stress relief. I have also gotten really into cooking this year, kind of due to the pandemic and a desire to have good food at home. I do love to eat!
HCDE: Your visa was delayed, keeping you from starting in HCDE in January as we had all hoped. Can you describe that experience?
SG: This is an issue that many people share, and it's an equity issue for US Universities as a whole. For the visa to be delayed and for our lives to be on hold, it takes a toll on you. Any time a person is going through immigration issues it's not just about a visa not working out, it's a series of immigration issues coming together. I was fortunate that the HCDE administration and the immigration lawyer I was working with were very supportive. But it was a highly stressful time for me to basically be stuck with no insurance, no income, in the middle of a pandemic. I want to share my visa experience because these things don't really make the news — they're boring bureaucracy stories — but immigration issues are very real things happening to a lot of people in this country right now. Universities should fully commit to doing anything they can do as a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
Join HCDE in welcoming Professor Ghoshal to the faculty. We look forward to helping her settle into her new office in Sieg Building when we all return to campus.