Payal Arora – The making of art knowledge via Google Images in rural India

Payal Arora is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communication – Faculty of History, Culture and Communication at Rotterdam Erasmus University. With a research interest in digital learning, she contributed to the conference with a very interesting (albeit also worrying) study on the  search results Google provides to Indian pupils in rural villages and how they are used uncritically for educational purposes.

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Arora Payal at Society of the Query #2 (photo by Martin Risseeuw)

Payal Arora carried an 8 month long ethnographic research in the village of Almora (roughly 56,000 residents), a study which she published in her book  “Dot Com Mantra: Social computing in the Central Himalayas”. There she has been assisting pupils in their after-school projects. The place where these projects are carried is in the village’s cybercafe, the only place that has internet access. Cyber cafe’s are a governmental initiative in bridging the so called digital divide and thus providing high speed broadband to the poorer parts of the country – it costs about 50 cents for an hour; it’s a cheaper alternative to the  One Laptop per Child initiative.

The specific project she detailed at the conference was one in which students had to research Western versus Indian art via Google as a search engine. The typical process of doing so often involved having the owners of the cyber cafe do the browsing and clicking – in other words, assisting. Arora decided to take up this role herself. Her students first asked her to query “Western Art”. The search results in Google Images revealed Chinese artworks – drawings of cowboys – which dominated the first several pages; they were quickly copy-pasted in the students’ paper as ‘western”. When Mona Lisa showed up in results, it is immediately taken as an example, albeit with no argument other than personal aesthetic belief of the students. The same type of “argument” vets out Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as “horrible”. Even more interestingly, when looking up  “Indian art”, religious paintings are also vetted out, as the belief that Indian art can only be secular art prevails. Raja Ravi Varma – a well known Indian painter – also dominates the results and is chosen solely on the basis of its female depiction’s “pretty face”.

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Payal Arora at Society of the Query #2 (photo by Martin Risseeuw)

The students, who need to turn in a paper with an analysis between Western and Indian paintings,  focus on a literal analysis of the image (“too fat”, “colours are nice”, “her face looks ugly”), thus demonstrating a purely personal and often trivial and naive appreciation of art. There is no opportunity for critique, neither with the cybercafe’s usual assistants nor with the teachers in the classroom. It is the latter who find themselves subject to the new authority of search engines like Google or encyclopedias like Wikipedia.

Search engines are extremely powerful in these rural communities because they make up for the lack of books, libraries, trained teachers. They become the new experts in education, but they also open the doors for plagiarism, as Payal stressed out how quickly students learn to use search engines as ways to cheat.

With the Ministry of Technology of Information in India investing massively in these type of initiatives such as cyber cafes, it is  important to observe the political agenda in respect to influencing education, argues Payal. Is this efficient since technology can never supplement human knowledge (teachers) and instead it is used to validate not only biased results like the ones  mentioned above, but also uncritical use of results received?

Society of the Query #2 – Payal Arora: Chinese Cowboy Paintings as Western Art? from network cultures on Vimeo.