An image of Evani Radiya-Dixit
Credit: Evani Radiya-Dixit

Visiting Fellow, Evani Radiya-Dixit, reflects on their learnings from their first months at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, at the University of Cambridge.

Greeted by the hustle and bustle of students at Cambridge, I joined the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy in October 2021. This interdisciplinary hub has pushed me to think more radically, where “radical simply means grasping things at the root,” as Angela Davis once said. 

Here, I am conducting research on accountability for police use of facial recognition technology. Navigating a new field in a new place with new people, I have found this journey to be exciting and challenging, and below I share a few lessons learned.

1)  No research is untainted by social issues, yet I have the agency to strive for collective liberation.

Much academic research has been and remains extractive and exclusive. Fieldwork can sometimes hurt communities more than it helps them. Borders are drawn within this very university, for example, with the right to walk on some lawns reserved for fellows. Many halls are filled with portraits of ​​straight, white, wealthy, able-bodied, cis men, straying not far from the demographics of the people sitting in them. These are visible symptoms of deeper issues. Understanding the oppression embedded within institutions is critical to dismantling it.

I am inspired by efforts in this direction at Cambridge such as the Critical Borders conference where Professor Ruha Benjamin commented on how when we are excluded from a category, we often desire to be included rather than questioning the category itself. Students have also led movements such as No Tech for Tyrants, which works to sever the ties between higher education and violent technology. Through engaging with such initiatives, I want to hold this institution and myself to a high standard.

2)  I can derive strength from not belonging.

As a brown woman, as a foreigner, as a technologist and an artist, I have felt like an outsider at times, but not belonging offers me a unique perspective. It allows me to learn about myself and others. Sometimes, feeling lost (such as when reading a paper on the neo-Weberian state or defining my research question!) means I am in the right place and there is much room for growth.

3)  I want to challenge the boundaries of what academic research looks like.

While often inaccessible and inundated with jargon, academic work can manifest in innumerable forms ranging from creative writing to even satire. For example, in their book Blockchain Chicken Farm, Xiaowei Wang masterfully moves between personal stories, Chinese history, and political theory, inviting us to confront questions about power that are inextricable from questions about technology. 

This learning arose from watching the play Pass Over at the ADC Theatre, where humor was interwoven into commentary on institutional racism. I contemplated how art has long been a form of critique and how critique (in academia) can also manifest in the form of art.

4)  My norms and values influence my worldview, and I can imagine different ones.

Simply what I am accustomed to shapes how I view things that are different. Sometimes, I can assume my norms are better because they are all I have seen. I reflected on this upon seeing cars on the other side of the road here compared to the States, but this extends far beyond norms on the road. 

What new norms and values do we imagine for ourselves? Can we imagine how technology, police, the state, etc. might play a different role in our lives? Imagination and reality go hand in hand. To quote Derrick Bell, “To see things as they really are, you must imagine what they might be.”

5)  I am a piece of a larger puzzle.

Collective action is crucial especially when tackling pressing issues, and individualism itself can perpetuate systemic oppression. As Dr. Zoe Todd writes in the context of ethical scholarship, “Rather than try to position oneself as the first to say something, I know from my learning in Métis contexts that it’s ok (in fact usually more honest) to place yourself in rivers of thought.”

Thank you to everyone who helped make this post, including Alina Utrata for conversations that spurred many learnings and those who kindly read drafts.