Wed 24 Mar 2021 13:00 - 14:00 at Virtual Space A - Keynote I Chair(s): Luke Church

Technology, it is often said, is ‘neither good, nor bad. But nor is it neutral’. Technology does not of itself determine political outcomes in the world. Yet, like anything made or built, that is guided by designs aimed towards ends or purposes, technology has particular intentions and directions embedded within it. Does that mean technology is political? I propose that computer technology is political, and it is political all the way down … to programming languages.

In this talk, I seek to explain the role that societal power plays in shaping the possibilities of technology, and how this technology in turn shapes the possibilities of societal power. To argue that technology is political all the way down to programming languages is to pay credence to the fact that the control and use of language, any language including what we might call natural language, has always been at the heart of political power. With examples such as notational systems encoded in cuneiform tablets by the Sumerians to the control of papyrus enabling the reach of the Roman empire and the standardisation of writing for administrative record in the reformist Qin dynasty in China, this talk brings a historical gaze to our understanding of language as a technology of power closely connected to the materiality of language in technical artefact. By historicising the role of language in politics, and the role of politics in language, I seek to help us rethink and resituate programming languages in the politics of our digital age.

Sharath Srinivasan is Co-Director of the University of Cambridge’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights the David and Elaine Potter Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies, and a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge.

Sharath is an interdisciplinary and applied researcher currently working on issues at the intersection of digital technology and politics in Africa. This research has been awarded funding by UK-DFID, ESRC, Wellcome Trust, Isaac Newton Trust, university-related research funds and private foundations. Grounded in political theory on civic republicanism, democracy and constitutionalism, his long-term research interest lies in unravelling how political ideas, values and interests that are embedded in the ‘built’ world – for example in digital technology but also in political institutions built by peacemakers – enable or constrain political action and the public realm.

From this research, he co-founded Africa’s Voices Foundation, a non-profit based in Kenya that utilises digital communications and social and data science methods to engage citizens in largescale discussions and feed insights to decision-makers. Most recently, he co-founded Katikati with Cambridge technologist, Luke Church, as a new initiative for enabling transformative 1-to-1 text conversations in local languages at scale.

Sharath also lived in Sudan and worked for the International Rescue Committee in the early 2000s, and has researched on Sudan ever since. He is a member of Governing Council for the British Institute in Eastern Africa and a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He is the author of the book, When Peace Kills Politics: International intervention and unending war in the Sudans (Hurst & Co), and co-editor of the volume, Making and Breaking Peace in Sudan and South Sudan (Oxford University Press).

Wed 24 Mar

Displayed time zone: Belfast change

13:00 - 14:00
Keynote IKeynotes at Virtual Space A
Chair(s): Luke Church University of Cambridge | Lund University | Lark Systems
Opening Keynote: Sharath Srinivasan: Politics in Language and Language in Politics‹Programming› Keynote