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Get to Know CDT’s Fellows: Shobita Parthasarathy

Shobita Parthasarathy is the Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies – and Director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program – at the University of Michigan. She is also one of CDT’s non-resident Fellows, engaging with our policy teams to provide valuable insight from her research. In this Q & A we get to learn more about Shobita and her current work.

Why did you become a CDT fellow?

I am enthusiastic about its mission and the broad goal of ensuring that technology serves the public interest.

What is your current research focus?

I’m investigating the politics of innovation in international development, with a focus in India. Technology has long been central to efforts to develop the “global South” and alleviate global poverty. But in recent years there has been a growing emphasis on innovation, including through special initiatives like USAID’s Global Development Lab and social enterprise incubators. In my research, I seek to understand how and why innovation has become an international development solution. I’ll be comparing a variety of cases, from mobile phone apps to sanitary pads.

What is the most pressing internet policy question of today?

I’m going to cheat and mention two concerns: 1) data ownership, and specifically citizen control over what data is taken and how it is used; 2) the use of algorithms and machine learning to hide responsibility and seemingly produce more objective decisions when it is invariably reproducing social and political biases and problems.

On what issues should policymakers seek more input from academics?

The social, ethical, and socioeconomic dimensions of emerging technologies. Policymakers tend to get super excited about new technologies and rely on technical experts to discuss the implications of technologies. But there are so many social scientists, historians, and ethicists who have done important research on these issues, and have really useful insights, that can really help to guide policymakers. We can really offer unique and important expertise, but the problem is that policymakers often don’t realize that we exist.

What issues do you think more students should be studying?

I think in this day and age, ALL students should know more about the interactions between science, technology, and society. Scientists and engineers need to be more literate about the social, moral, political, and economic dimensions of their work, and social science, humanities, policy, and other students need to understand how integral science and technology are to society and policy. This is why I developed the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the University of Michigan.

What is your favorite topic to teach?

It changes, but at the moment I really enjoy teaching qualitative research methods.

What advice do you have for aspiring tech & internet academics?

Take the ethical, social, socioeconomic, and political dimensions of your work seriously! It doesn’t matter how cool the technology is, it’s being produced within, and will have to make its way among, complex social environments.

What passion or hobby do you have outside of tech & the internet?

I have a long background in the performing arts: I almost became an opera singer! These days I just dabble, trying to sing and act a bit on the side while keeping my day job.