Hidden in Plain Sight: Decoding Inscriptions of Caste and Gender in Indian Computing

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Despite claims of meritocracy, modernity, and progress, ascriptive social hierarchies like caste continue to prevail in the worlds of science and technology. This thesis explains how they are reconfigured in the modern context of computing, how they are sustained and kept hidden, how are they challenged by the oppressed, and the implications of understanding them for a future of equitable computing. Caste is a system of graded inequality that organizes social, cultural and economic life in South Asia. Modern, urban South Asian society understands itself as moving away from caste. Legal protections against untouchability and affirmative action policies are often cited as examples of how the caste system is no longer a problem. Specifically, the Information Technology industry in India is seen as a site of modernity, innovation, and a post-colonial model of excellence built on merit and accomplishment, unencumbered by “old” forms of hierarchy and privilege. Narratives of meritocracy frames caste as an ancient relic that is irrelevant to the modern, progressive and caste-blind worlds of computing and technology in India and in the growing Indian diasporic communities in countries like the US. Despite these claims, a number of stories of caste discrimination have recently emerged from the computing industry. These stories and marginalized caste communities have moved advocacy efforts and policies in the computing workplace and universities in the US to protect against caste discrimination. The debate on the existence and relevance of caste in the computing industry points to deeper tensions between ascriptive inequalities and the worlds of technology that are mutually shaped by long intertwined historical and contemporary processes. This thesis takes up a study of these tensions by exploring how relations of caste and gender manifest in worlds of computing. It is an ethnographic and a Dalit (formerly 'untouchable' in the caste system) feminist enquiry of the myth of castelessness and how it is manufactured, maintained, broken, and worked around in computing. This dissertation does three things: 1.) It offers a Dalit methodology of studying caste in nominally casteless worlds of computing, 2.) It explains how the myth of castelessnesss is produced and maintained with a recursive erasure of caste achieved through processes of preclusion, elision, codification and displacement in worlds of computing by upper castes, specifically in diversity and inclusion efforts. 3.) It analyzes how the myth of castelessness affects Dalit engineers and how they interrupt, subvert and navigate these nominally casteless, but in practice caste-laden, worlds of computing. This work argues that the lack of understanding and attention to caste has not meant that it is absent from worlds of technology but that the fraught nature of caste produces a challenge of legibility. This work offers a resolution of this challenge through careful consideration of historical and contemporary conditions of both groups - those who are most vulnerable to casteism as well as those who benefit the most from it. It shows that caste is a dynamic social relation that organizes the political economy of computing. It continues to shape relationships, cultures and understandings of computing with a particular tenacity and flexibility in the modern and global context. It explores how caste is inscribed as codes, markers, subjectivities and vocabulary in worlds of computing and how its naturalized, common-sense understanding produces the myth of castelessness while keeping caste alive in hiding in plain sight. It concludes with key takeaways for readers that show how a study of caste and gender in computing offers important insights and a new framework to understand power and inequality in computing.

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245 pages


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Caste; Computing; Dalit Method; Ethnography; Gender; Technology and Inequality


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Union Local


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Sengers, Phoebe

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Jackson, Steven
Ramberg, Lucinda

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Information Science

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Ph. D., Information Science

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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