Assistant Professor Dwaipayan Banerjee of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS) has been awarded the 2019 James A. (1945) and Ruth Levitan Prize in the Humanities. The prestigious award comes with a $29,500 grant that will support Banerjee’s research on the history of computing in India.
Melissa Nobles, the Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), announced the award, noting that a committee of senior faculty had reviewed submissions for the Levitan Prize and selected Banerjee’s proposal as the most outstanding.
“Dwai’s work is extremely relevant today, and I look forward to seeing how his new project expands our understanding of technology and technological culture as a part of the human world,” Nobles says.
Postcolonial India and computing
Banerjee’s scholarship centers on the social contexts of science, technology, and medicine in the global south. He has two book projects now nearing completion: “Enduring Cancer: Health and Everyday Life in Contemporary India” (forthcoming in 2020, Duke University Press) and “Hematologies: The Political Life of Blood in India” (forthcoming in 2019, Cornell University Press; co-authored with J. Copeman). Both books assess how India’s post-colonial history has shaped, and been shaped by, practices of biomedicine and health care.
Banerjee says he was delighted to receive the Levitan Award, which is presented annually by SHASS to support innovative and creative scholarship in one of the Institute’s humanities, arts, or social science fields. “Its funds will go a long way in helping explore archives about computational research and technology spread across India, some of which have yet to receive sustained scholarly attention,” he says.
Global computing histories
Banerjee’s Levitan project will investigate the post-colonial history of computing in India from the 1950s to today. “Contemporary scholarly and popular narratives about computing in India suggest that, even as India supplies cheap IT labor to the rest of the world, the country lags behind in basic computing research and development,” he says. “My new project challenges these representations.”
Banerjee adds, “In presenting this account, I urge social science research, which has predominantly focused on the history of computing in Europe and the United States, to take account of more global histories of computing.”
The project, titled “A Counter History of Computing in India,” will trace major shifts in the relation between the Indian state and computing research and practice. Banerjee explains that “In the first decades after India’s independence, the postcolonial state sought to develop indigenous computing expertise and infrastructure by creating public institutions of research and education, simultaneously limiting private enterprise and the entry of global capital.”
Noting that today the vision for development relies heavily on private entrepreneurship, Banerjee asks: “Why and how did the early post-colonial vision of publicly-driven computing research and development decline?”
Policy, computing, and outsourcing
More broadly, Banerjee plans to investigate how changing policies have impacted the development of computing and shaped the global distribution of expertise and labor. “After economic liberalization in the 1980s, a transformed Indian state gave up its protectionist outlook and began to court global corporations, giving rise to the new paradigm of outsourcing.”
Banerjee says he will endeavor to answer the question, “What is lost when a handful of U.S.-based corporations seek to determine hierarchies of technology work and control how its social benefits are globally distributed?” The Levitan Prize will support Banerjee’s field research in India and help him develop a multi-city archive of primary sources relating to the history of computational science and technology in the region.
First awarded in 1990, the Levitan Prize in the Humanities was established through a gift from the late James A. Levitan, a 1945 MIT graduate in chemistry who was also a member of the MIT Corporation.