Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Q&A with Payal Arora


Describe your keynote in less than 10 words.

I will debunk common myths about users in the Global South and share insights on the future digital creatives.

Without giving too much away, can you give us a bit of provocation or inspiration to anticipate your talk?

In the last few years, many tech companies have set up ‘next billion user’ labs within their organizations with a focus on the vast young users coming online for the first time in the Global South. What these new users have in common are that they are from low-income, precarious, and often restrictive socio-political environments. These labs though are not altruistic initiatives but potential business opportunities for future market growth. According to the 2021 We Are Social and Hootsuite Digital Report, “the ‘next big trend’ in digital won’t emerge from a Western market.” Yet, we have some serious barriers to overcome, in mindsets, in organizational cultures, and in funding politics. In this talk, I will debunk common myths about these users and highlight existing extractive design models. Moreover, I will make the case that these “next billion users” are at the forefront of digital creativity and innovation, and why we must treat them with respect and support as we jointly forge ahead to carve novel and resilient design approaches in these precarious times.

Why did you say ‘yes’ to delivering a keynote to the EPIC community?

EPIC has been a vital home for ethnographers such as myself, who have long worked with public and private stakeholders to shape design and society. I am excited to build momentum and hopefully a critical force across disciplines and sectors to push the interests and concerns of the next billion users in the Global South, especially as we strive for inclusive design practices.

The theme of the conference is ‘resilience’. What does this concept mean to you…and what does it NOT mean

Resilience to me is dignified survival. At a micro level, this translates to human ingenuity and improvisation in problem-solving despite socio-economic and political barriers, and at a macro level, reimagining the design of systems as ethical, sustainable, and inclusive. What it does not mean is something to romanticize over – for example, women are resilient despite misogynistic design features and policies (e.g. the abortion ban in the US) but ideally, we should foster a scenario where women do not need to hack their way through the system by subverting tracking, deleting menstruation apps, and the like.

What do you see as the value of ethnography in the tech industry? How do you describe it to people in business, engineering, and design?

I would love to see us at a place where we don’t need to describe, and frankly justify, what ethnography means to the world of design, business, and engineering, but sadly we need to keep doing so. So here’s what I say when people ask me, “what is digital ethnography”? It’s studying how diverse people use and make meaning with digital tools. Ethnographers answer the core question of why people do what they do. We now have vast evidence that data mining techniques from social media platforms can generate false insights, given the skewed representation and participation on these platforms. We recognize that much of our existing design had in mind typically middle-class, white males as the user base, despite existing global diversity in markets and societies. So, much can be learnt from ‘thick data’, especially given the limited and misleading understandings of digital cultures outside the West.

In your work, you describe how people in the Global South create empowering—and fun—engagements with digital technology even within disempowering systems and infrastructures. What’s an example that’s exciting to you right now?

I have been working with some major design/tech companies on digital creativity in the Global South this year. We have already unpacked a treasure trove of astounding creativity among young people in India as they carve ways to monetize their content to make a living, to feel part of a global community, to escape interpersonal surveillance, to game the algorithm, and to self-actualize. A good example is the rise of village influencers in India on Instagram – they disrupt stereotypes of rural culture and in fact, are taking ownership of their representation and voice on such platforms.

What book/article/podcast would you recommend as we get ready to tackle ‘resilience’ at EPIC2022 in October?

I’m a big fan of the 99% Invisible podcast. Much of what we ethnographers do is vivid storytelling, and they are masters at it. Also, do check out Rest of World for what good global journalism ought to be, which is deep investigative work on tech, community, and public good beyond the West.

What are the top three things an ethnographer should do/see/eat while visiting Amsterdam?

Go to NDSM Wharf for urban visual ethnography—like a Dutch version of Brooklyn. Eat bitterballen—but don’t think, just do. And of course, cycle/boat along Amstel—it’s got a story to tell.

About EPIC2022
EPIC2022 explores resilience, the ability to learn, adapt and evolve with adversity and changing conditions. Who should flex, resist, or adapt? What should be restored, abandoned, or reinvented? Resilience highlights the systemic, interconnected nature of disruption and survival—how organizations, products, services, communities, and our own work can be designed to learn, adapt and evolve.



Payal Arora, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Payal Arora is a Professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Co-founder of FemLab, and author of award-winning books, including ‘The Next Billion Users’ with Harvard Press. She is a Keynote Speaker at EPIC2022.