The Caste Fabric of Interface : Or Americanised Brahmin's Sacred Thread

Pichai's birth in the upper-caste family may be called a coincidence, but his silence is strategic.

Credit : Indie Journal

Hrishikesh Arvikar | The show The Good Wife (season 7, episode 9) deals with a black hotel owner who accuses Chumhum (a Google-like) search engine is racist towards her business. When investigating this case, the lawyers enter a room full of white 20-something coders. One employee mentions the infamous 'animal incident,' where the algorithm identified a black woman 'tagged' as an 'animal.' The employee quickly adds, 

Three years ago, the system really struggled with light and shadow, which led to it not being able to tell the difference between an animal and a black person. (...) He wants to be clear that it got a lot of other stuff wrong too, just nothing that ever involved mistaking a white person for an animal. He keeps saying he didn't give it enough examples (to the system) 

In season 5, episode 9, Zayeed, a professor and a previous client of the primary law firm in the series, faces a CIA investigation. Zayeed is called a bomber on a Scabbit(a Reddit-like forum) by Dante Pryor. It turns out Dante Pryor is a bot. 

Dante's online presence as a socialbot was created by Scabbit and designed to appear human and drive Internet traffic to Scabbit. And since it was built by Scabbit, they would be responsible for damages.

Online platforms have built biases that Virginia Eubanks calls 'automating inequality.' When inequality is automated, it needs active participation on the front of coders to alter the code that requires awareness of what the said inequality means. So Thenmozhi Soundararajan from Equality Labs was called by Tanuja Gupta, a project manager at Google/Alphabet, to understand the online caste bias and social inequality. But Indian employees retorted by noting that such a talk would be 'Hinduphobic' or 'Anti-Hindu.' Soundararajan reached out to Pichai and since then, Gupta has resigned. 


Casteism is a construction, not a coincidence.


Casteism is a construction, not a coincidence.2 First, birth is seen as a coincidence, but then the caste construction of 'immediate identity' (Vemula's term) takes place. So Pichai's birth in the upper-caste family may be called a coincidence by his supporters, but his silence afterward, in this case, is strategic. How he got, where he got, and what he did to get there quickly swept as a success story of merit. Meritocracy is an old Brahminical tool for denying caste biases of access to privilege and social standing, which play a significant role in the Indian education system. It is essential to state what Clare Wilkinson says about Americans imbibing casteism - 'Caste is bones, the race is the skin.'



Is it a coincidence that Gupta's goodbye letter shows that she was at four degrees of separation in Google's hierarchy from where she stood/sat? (Gupta → Sr. Director → VP → SVP → CEO). She was still in a considerably good position where she could voice her opinion and cause a significant uproar, and that would not qualify as deep-rooted as the Fabric of Four-Varna System. Yet there is an overlap. 

People's personalities are the raw material for 'data' processing. Many platforms go back to the idea that data is the new oil. In 1944, a political economist- Polanyi's work A Great Transformation3, noted that land, labour, and money are 'fictitious commodities.' Moreover, natural resources are converted into fictitious ones to capitalize on them. Identity in the social media world is a fictitious commodity that can be sold and resold endlessly. A new object and meaning are attributed to each platform. This allows differential identity products to be placed in front of the prosumer. Calling out each other is a rhetorical strategy. Retaliation is consumed endlessly, whether it is the Depp-Heard trial in America or the recent backlash over comments of a BJP spokesperson (since removed from the position) regarding Prophet Mohammad. But these strategies are not just online ones on the interface of a website. They are internal to the casteist algorithmic construction of Google. In her 'goodbye' letter, Gupta writes that - a) Retaliation is a normalized Google practice. b) Google is woefully and willfully ill-equipped to deal with matters of caste discrimination. 


Pichai or others do not answer Soundararajan's question because he is privileged enough not to answer.


Caste biases online discriminate equally amongst those who are equals. To those who are not equal, there is little to no standing for their opinion. Pichai or others do not answer Soundararajan's question because he is privileged enough not to answer. It is the same problem as the Uniform Civil Code or deployment of CAA in India.  Some humans are more equal than others.  The algorithm has its roots in Al-Khwarizmi, an Uzbekistani scholar who wrote the text- Concerning The Hindu Art of Reckoning (Counting, i.e., Ganana). When rediscovered by Latin scholars, Al-Khwarizmi became algoritmi, as this video on etymological roots shows. There are so many projects of excavation that the current BJP dispensation allows. Recently, such attempts have been aplenty. If it wants to dig deep and claim authority over anthropological layers of how Al-Khwarizmi's text is ultimately Hindu counting, (and be boastful about it), then it would have to admit that segregation is at the heart of Hindu counting.

At least a few more layers can be noted herein gest since such a task would require considerable space. Dirks, a historian, pointed to how colonial administration layer conducting census in India that gravitated to caste as a category for quantifying people. Another historian Kaviraj shows that a Census would perform an enumerative and descriptive function in segregating people. Add another global layer to the journey of the algorithm of a mathematical step-by-step approach to solving problems by Alan Turing, leaving behind Hinduness of its counting. The numbers can then be abstract and given value and meaning through a system called an algorithm. They turn fictitious! Caste and algorithms are that they are both systems! Systems segregate!



The algorithm later attempted to reduce distances as found in what is known as the travelling salesman problem here—covering distances from point A to B. However, speeding up to today, distances in caste-biased coding are not translated as a mathematical problem. They can be covered through an understanding of an implicit bias unless the world's Pichai's and Nadella's take it up sitting in their higher positions. They can be covered but not erased. Then there would have to be the Americanised Brahmin saviors like in the film Article 15, going through the data dump to filter the filth of caste bias on the one hand. The problem is that they keep securing their sacred thread on the other hand. They know Silicon Valley has a caste problem, as noted here in Vice. But their refusal to do anything regarding it makes it clear that algorithm and caste are tied together. 

J.G.Ballard1, the science fiction writer, pre-empted this behaviour of Silicon Valley in his Super-Cannes, a novel about chaos underneath the smooth working tech society-state on the brink of the French Riviera, based on tech companies in France. Ballard finds the root of the problem when saying 'The senior managements were the most highly paid professional caste in Europe, a new elite of administrators, énarques and scientific entrepreneurs. The lavish brochure enthused over a vision of glass and titanium straight from the drawing boards of Richard Neutra and Frank Gehry, but softened by landscaped parks and artificial lakes, a humane version of Corbusier's radiant city'.  

His characters say the following: 

'Whether we like it or not. The twentieth century ended with its dreams in ruins. The notion of the community as a voluntary association of enlightened citizens has died forever. We realize how suffocatingly humane we've become, dedicated to moderation and the middle way. The suburbanization of the soul has overrun our planet like the plague.' 

'Sanity and reason are unworthy of us?' 

'No. But a vast illusion, built from mirrors that lie. Today we scarcely know our neighbours, shun most forms of civic involvement, and happily leave the running of society to a caste of political technicians. People find all the togetherness they need in the airport boarding lounge and the department-store lift. They pay lip service to community values but prefer to be alone.' 

'Isn't that odd for a social animal?'

His central character, towards the end, notes- 

The social stratification of the guests had at last collapsed. In a new-style peasants' revolt, the lawyers, civil servants, and police officials had climbed the steps to the middle terrace(..) As if expecting the worst, the bankers and producers on the upper terrace stood with their backs to the Villa Grimaldi, an ancien régime faced with the revolution it most feared, a rebellion of its indentured professional castes.  

This so-called mini-revolution in Ballard's novel happens on the reverberation of music by a band. The algorithmic counter-revolution response is always of strategic silence.  


Hrishikesh Arvikar is a researcher based in Australia.


Offline References:

1. Ballard, J. G. 2002. Super-cannes. New York: Picador USA.

2. Dirks, Nicholas B. 2011. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

3. Polanyi, Karl. 1946. Origins of our time: the great transformation. London: V. Gollancz.