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Tapan Parikh: Creating Human Technology

--Bela Shah, on Apr 18, 2013

On our Awakin call, we spoke with Tapan Parikh, a nonconventional professor of Information Communication Technology at the University of California at Berkeley. Winner of the MIT Technology Review Humanitarian of the Year award, Tapan is committed to stretching the minds of his brilliant students, challenging them to ask how technology can empower the underserved in developing countries.

Human-centered design principles lie at the core of Tapan’s work. To the people that he and his students are aiming to serve, they ask, “What kind of technology will support your own empowerment and how can this technology be made accessible to you?”

Working in close partnership with these marginalized communities, Tapan and his team leverage the skills that people already have in order to reach them where they are instead of requiring expensive equipment and infrastructure that is often inaccessible. Their inventions have equipped rural agricultural workers with mobile technology that informs them of changing weather patterns and the market rates of various produce so that farmers in remote areas are empowered to make informed decisions.

What sparked Tapan’s journey to serve others through accessible technology was a serendipitous meeting years ago with a professor from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India. Although the professor lectured in Hindi, a language unfamiliar to Tapan, he was able to catch bits and pieces that seeded a lifelong inquiry.

Soon after the lecture, he found himself traveling to the rural villages of Gujarat, meeting farmers and learning their stories.  Although their life trajectories were quite different, their conversations and discussions reflected a common understanding of each other’s humanness.

“When I set out to these villages, I had no agenda other than to wonder around with a purpose- to meet people, to understand different life stories, and to learn from their experiences. It was awesome to realize that no matter how different someone looks, how different their language or culture or perspective may be, people are really similar at heart. We are motivated by similar aspirations and we ultimately care about the same things….and in that way, our stories are very similar.”

Honoring this human to human connection is a subtler design principle that influences Tapan’s work. He asks difficult questions about the use of technology that mainstream technology experts don’t even think about. He wants to know, “When does technology support our need and desire to be human and when does it make us less human?”

“The kinds of boundaries and distinctions between our own personal lives as human beings and social beings in relation to infrastructure and technology is getting more nebulous. Everyone is on social media; we’re substituting off line communication with on line communication. What does that mean for our ability to understand ourselves as being human and understanding other people as being human when what we’re sharing is being mediated by a technological artifact?”

Understanding the power of technology from this perspective has motivated Tapan to build products that reflect the richness and diversity of human beings and that resist quantification and efficiency. Compare this with the Singularity Movement and its many followers like Google. They hold the belief that at some point in the very near future humans and machines will effortlessly merge into each other in order to obtain exponential growth in intelligence and productivity. This means that technology will become embedded into every single human interaction! How can this become seriously problematic?

“I’m not against symbolic manipulation or quantification but in thinking of things as abstract, we often forget that they’re only abstractions and capture a small percentage of what it means to be human. When you think about the Singularity and asymptotic growth, you often forget to reinterpret from the perspective of what it means to be alive, to have beliefs and hopes and aspirations.”

What it means to be alive.  Compared to the mainstream herd, Tapan’s emphasis on the human element in the context of development and social justice seems radical. He engages at a very human level with the population that he is serving and believes that change is not assessed by the speed at which it occurs, but instead, by the long-term transformation of the individual at the internal and external levels.

“Service requires a deep understanding of people. We don’t spend enough time talking with people and being with them before we decide how best to serve them. In the technologies that we build, I believe that it’s essential not to distill the essence of being human to just numbers or graphics. The technologies have to represent who those people are and give people the ability to construct their own identity so that they can provide us the opportunity to really see them.”