#rp24 speaker Payal Arora: Why it is not naive to imagine a positive digital future

18.04.2024 - The researcher and digital anthropologist calls for inspiration from the Global South in the development of new digital systems.
Payal Arora trägt ein dunkelrotes Kleid und lächelt in die Kamera. Sie steht in einem Treppenhaus.

„Mainstream media often declares AI will destroy democracy, creativity, and our social relationships. Algorithms are designed to oppress and control”, says Payal Arora. Contrary to this assumption, the digital anthropologist has noticed a contagious optimism towards all things digital outside the West, where the majority of the world’s youth reside. Particularly in marginalised contexts, she noticed that Gen Z are full of hope for new tech. Young people in the Global South in precarious and resource constrained environments, with access to cheap data and mobile phones, are betting on new tech over institutional and cultural change to shape their futures. Moreover, Payal pivots us towards their indigenous cultures which have found ways to balance social and planetary wellbeing.

In her upcoming book "From Pessimism to Promise: Lessons from the Global South on Designing Inclusive Tech", about which she will be speaking at re:publica 24, Payal explains that the West is suffering from pessimism paralysis – a fatalistic view towards AI innovations – that can derail the drive to change the status quo. It is not naïve to be optimistic about our digital future, because, in her view, pessimism is for those who can afford to live with despair. In this book, Payal calls for the West to take inspiration from the Global South and break away from their pessimistic mindset when building new digital systems. She underlines the urgency to forge ahead with hope as we reimagine the future of work, creativity, governance, and the fate of our planet.

Payal Arora is a Professor of Inclusive AI Cultures at Utrecht University and Co-founder of FemLab, a feminist futures of work initiative. She is a consultant with 20 years of user experiences among low-income communities worldwide to shape inclusive design and policies, and an author of award-winning books, including "The Next Billion Users". Her work has been featured in over 150 international media outlets, including The Economist, Quartz, F.A.Z., Tech Crunch, and CBC. Payal has delivered more than 350+ talks alongside notable figures like Jimmy Wales and Steve Wozniak, focusing on the future of the internet and innovation

At #rp24, we look forward to Payal's inspiring insights on how we can design new digital systems with hope.


#WhoCares: An interview with Payal Arora.

The Motto of re:publica 24 is „Who Cares?“. Whom or what are you currently caring about?

I care about the pessimism paralysis we are currently experiencing in the West, that creates an impotence in our thinking and doing. If we scan mainstream Western media headlines on the rise of AI, they loudly declare the end is near. The future with these new tools is framed as depressing, oppressive, terrifying, and essentially doomed. There are few spaces of solace to ground us to cope with such pessimism. While legitimate concerns drive these fears, we need to equally account for young people’s aspirations and actions to ensure we do not inadvertently destroy that which they value the most—rare spaces for self-actualization. Anyone who has ventured outside the West will feel the contagion of optimism from the ‘next billion users,’ 90 percent of the world’s youths who reside in the Global South. They hunger for being digital, despite the tremendous socio-political challenges they face. This is survival in its fullest sense. Finding humour when at war has helped people cope. Sharing something beautiful from a place of devastation sustains human dignity. Creating moments of joy, inspiration, and entertainment with digital media feeds into hope for the future. I care about pivoting the negative bias towards all things digital into a more positive force that can fuel our drive to change the status quo. Negativity does not inspire change. We need to reimagine the future with AI which can infuse us with hope.

What do we care about too little as a society?

We take for granted what we have in Western liberal democracies despite the flaws – the relative freedoms to move through public space, exercise our voice, contest power, and engage with the opportunities around us. The fact is that the majority of the world lives in societies that are authoritarian, non-liberal, and patriarchal. Their citizens yearn for freedoms that we take for granted. If we don’t recognize this privilege, we will become seriously out of touch with the rest of the world and may use our platforms and power to advocate for systems of change that are intrinsically with double standards and do not align with the aspirations of the rest of the world.

Is there a person, movement or institution that inspires you in their care for a particular issue?

I have been deeply moved by ongoing women’s movements in places like Afghanistan and Iran and the courage that it takes to protest for what we consider as mundane – the right to wear what we want to wear, how we love, talk, engage, and work and everything in between. Being in a salon or a park is considered a deviant act. Choosing to kiss in public can result in physical harm. And yet, despite these formidable forces, they plough ahead through imaginative tactics of solidarity which we all can learn from.