Dwaipayan Banerjee receives 2019 Levitan Prize
Award funds will support research for "A Counter History of Computing in India"
"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."
— Dwaipayan Banerjee, Assistant Professor, Program in Science, Technology, and Society
Assistant Professor Dwaipayan Banerjee of MIT’s 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 his research into 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 said.
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 postcolonial history has shaped and been shaped by practices of biomedicine and healthcare.
Banerjee said he was delighted to receive the Levitan Award, which is presented annually by MIT 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 said.
Global computing histories
His 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 said. “My new project challenges these representations.”
Banerjee added, “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, which Banerjee is calling "A Counter History of Computing in India," will trace major shifts in the relation between the Indian state and computing research and practice. “In the first decades after India’s independence,” he said, “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 postcolonial 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 said he will endeavor to answer the question, “What is lost when a handful of US-based corporations seek to determine hierarchies of technology work and control how its social benefits are globally distributed?”
Banerjee said the Levitan Prize will support 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 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.
Program in Science, Technology, and Society
About the Levitan Prize and past winners
Story Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
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Writer: Kathryn O'Neill
Photograph: Jon Sachs