Associate Professor Dr. Lilly Irani recently published her first book Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India from Princeton University Press (2019). We sat down with Dr. Irani this last Spring quarter to talk about how she approached the fieldwork and analysis that led to this book and the ways in which she sees her work impacting those in related fields as well as those whose labor she references in her research. This book is part of a broader body of research that draws on as well as contributes to Science and Technology Studies, Human-Computer Interaction, and South Asian Studies. She uses her extensive experience as a computer scientist to inform her research on how technical practices are shaped by hierarchies of value, gender, race, and the cultural economic project called ‘modernity.’
“At this moment in time one of the reasons why I am really excited and hopeful for people to read my book is that we see innovation as this category and a set of practices that are really hard to put your finger on why hacker spaces, engineering departments, and designers seem to reproduce inclusion for certain kinds of people and seem to regularly keep out other kinds of people…even while it’s putatively open to, “all ideas,” “let’s brainstorm,” and “difference and diversity is good and makes for better creativity”
I think this is a conversation with people from different disciplines and institutions need to be having. My book tries to lay out how – in those micro-details of in the design studio, at the design festival, in educational spaces, and in policy making – how is this thing that is supposed to include everyone’s creativity and make it into value, how is it also subtlety and durably keeping certain kinds of people or keeping certain kinds of change-making practices out? And if so, can we see more clearly what is being reproduced when we talk about innovation?
I think people from a lot of different walks of life also can more clearly inoculate themselves and ourselves to developing the kinds of counter-practices and counter-networks that can produce a more durable form of equity and justice in the world. That’s really ambitious! [laughs] But this is a teeny, tiny kind of contribution to see what we need to do more clearly by not being distracted by what we shouldn’t be doing.
I’m hoping that this book is written in a way that doesn’t speak only to scholars but also speaks to people who have worked in places where innovation is being privileged, whether they are working as the kinds of people who are privileged in those spaces (designers and engineers), or they’re working as community managers, customer support workers…people who are considered less valuable. Because I think one of the ways innovation works is that we’re called upon as people to imagine what our unique selling points are to society but in a form that’s economically legible and authentic to us. Also in some cases a form that’s not only economically legible and authentic to us but one that can also create some kind of social change that manages other people. There’s something a little bit anti-democratic about the entrepreneurial innovation imaginary. I’m hoping that people can come to this book as workers, as citizens, as non-profit activists, as well as people who are trying to analyze how labor and politics come through in media technologies. This is a conversation that we’re seeing in the United States if you consider Silicon Valley, as people in India are debating universal ID systems, and the ways that private middle class entrepreneurs are being asked to reimagine welfare as these new ID efforts are being disseminated around the world through institutions like the World Bank and Gates Foundation. We have to ask serious questions about what kinds of political power structures that are being setting up when talking about entrepreneurs changing the world.
Dr. Irani has a Ph.D. in Informatics with an emphasis in Feminist Studies from th
e University of California, Irvine, a both a Master’s of Science in Human-Computer Interaction and Bachelor’s of Science from Stanford University. She collaboratively designs, builds, and maintains Turkopticon, Dynamo software that “intervenes, resists, or demonstrates alternatives to existing platforms” as well as sitting on the , the editorial advisory boards of Design and Culture, New Technology, Work, and Employment, and Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience.
Dr. Irani teaches a number of courses not only within the Department of Communication but many of which are also cross-listed with related disciplines. Recently she taught Internet Industries (COMM106I), Critical Design Practice (COMM 124A)the Science Studies graduate seminar Colonalities, Circulations, and Technoscience (cross listed as COGR 225B, HIGR 239, PHIL 209B, and SOCG 255B) as well as the graduate seminar Design and Politics (COGR 275).
To contact Dr. Irani about her work, future courses, or about potential collaborations you can visit her website. Congratulations Dr. Irani on this substantial contribution to these fields!