Informatics Seminar Series
Winter Quarter 2020

Friday, March 13, 2020

“At Once Comprehensive and Minute: South Asian Data’s Long Twentieth Century”

Kavita Philip
Professor of History and Affiliated Faculty in Informatics
UC Irvine

South Asian economic and political history since the late eighteenth century has hinged on the collection of data. South Asian historians such as Ranajit Guha, David Arnold, and David Ludden have each deployed very different narratives about technological data and scientific knowledge. We have rich, but contradictory, materials with which to start piecing together a history of data collection from the late eighteenth century to the present. This paper suggests, however, that we need a new way of approaching the history of data. Rather than take data at face value, as an externalized, objective recounting of the land and its resources, we might pay attention to the ways in which the rise of new techniques produced, and was necessitated by, the rise of different kinds of subjects. Technological data and human subjects constituted each other in historically-specific ways, through colonialism and de-colonization. The response to the unspoken afterlives and continuities in colonial data, however, should not, I suggest, be simply the production of more accurate, adequate, comprehensive or neutral data. Rather, this history requires us to pay more attention to the processes by which data and human subjects are co-constituted. Such an interdisciplinary task requires attention to both data structures and human histories – this is a history of technology that must be “at once comprehensive and minute.”

Any historic transition from one technological system to the next allows an unusual period of reflection on the design of systems. Indian social and cultural history have, for a couple of centuries, turned on events in the history of science and technology. But because science and technology — from race-science to reproduction, from colonial improvement to population demography, and from craniometry to computation — have, by definition, appeared to stand outside of politics, South Asian policy-makers and activists have too often taken this construction literally, leaving the internal practices of science and technology outside the ambit of political agitation. As a bio-political system in emergence, an interlocking set of data-collection systems in twenty first century India (e.g., the Census, the State-ID system Aadhaar, and corporate forms of biometric identification) will allow for a range of possible governmental moves, each shaping the possibilities of life itself. Given this scope, this paper seeks to open up this history towards a conversation about the shaping of modes of public participation in this knowledge system, asking how one might forge an ongoing political conversation about its design and use.

Kavita Philip is Professor of History & affiliate faculty in Informatics at UCI. She is author of Civilizing Natures (Rutgers University Press 2004), and co-editor of four volumes curating interdisciplinary work in radical history, political science, art, activism, gender, and public policy. Books in the pipeline include Studies in Unauthorized Reproduction: The Pirate Function and Decolonization (Philip, forthcoming, MIT Press) and Your Computer is on Fire! (eds. Mullaney, Hicks, Peters, Philip; forthcoming, MIT Press). In addition, her articles and public writing address colonial history, postcolonial studies, histories of environment and technology, and science fiction. She has a Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell, an M.S. in Physics from the University of Iowa, and a B.Sc. in Physics (with Chemistry and Mathematics minors) from India.

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