Scroll Top

Interview – Padmini Ray Murray

A black-and-white close-up of Padmini Ray Murray smiling.

Padmini Ray Murray is working to make design and digital practice more contextually and locally rooted as well as ethical. She is the founder of Design Beku, a design and digital collective, and her work has deep roots in research, academia, teaching and the publishing industry. Her professional experience and exposure span university and work spaces in India and the UK, including the University of Edinburgh and the University of Stirling in Scotland, and the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru, India. Subjects and themes with which Padmini has engaged deeply over the years have included literature and storytelling, technology, design and digital media, and gender and social justice.

Shikha Aleya (SA): It’s great to interview you for this issue of In Plainspeak, thank you Padmini. For our theme, Digital Spaces and Sexuality, please start us off with a walk through the basics as you perceive them. What are digital spaces, and who creates and occupies them?

Padmini Ray Murray (PRM): The imagination of what a digital space might and can be has shifted with the evolution of the World Wide Web, as well as with the coming of mobile devices. The internet itself was an outcome of research at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which was exploring how to share information and research over networked computers along multiple channels. The World Wide Web, developed by Tim Berners Lee, allowed users to browse websites, which were documents on these networked computers, connected by hypertext (which is text or a digital object linked to another object elsewhere), which made it much easier for people to start using the internet. In the early stages of the WWW (which we call Web 1.0 and spans the ‘90s and ‘00s) digital spaces were created by individuals and organisations: websites put together using basic HTML, with the only possible interactions through email and instant messaging. Of course, access to computers enabled with the internet was relatively limited, especially in the Global South, so content available on the WWW was very skewed towards Anglo-American and European users.

However, even then, the Web was a space that facilitated interpersonal interactions: though these interactions were not necessarily tied to your “IRL” (In Real Life) identity – there was a famous New Yorker cartoon in 1999 with a dog at a computer saying to another “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Virtual community spaces (which we now call social networks) emerged as early as the 1970s, allowing real time, textual conversations, where conversational conventions such as ROFL and LOL first emerged. The potential of these spaces was accelerated with the coming of the World Wide Web, and they were the progenitors of contemporary social media as well as the idea of spaces such as the Metaverse and the foundation of the idea of public cyberspace. Of particular relevance to this issue, is one of the earliest documented incidents of online sexual violence, chronicled in Julian Dibble’s “A Rape in Cyberspace” which occurred in a chatroom and described a harrowing experience of a user in a MOO (Multi-user domain, (MUD) object oriented), encountering a subprogram which forced users to “perform” textually described sexual acts against their will.

I share these facts in order to historicise digital spaces as we encounter them now, largely owned by tech corporations, and therefore subject to the governance policies set out by these companies, demonstrating a shift from decentralised possibilities of social networks to these megaspaces such as those owned by Meta. Interestingly, on the cusp of Web3, we are seeing a return to federated spaces, such as BlueSky and Mastodon which might signal an important shift in who can “own” and create a digital space.

SA: Padmini, connecting these concepts, sexuality and digital spaces, please share some of the significant insights from your own experiences that have been decision points for you in your work and journey.

PRM: As I’ve noted in my earlier response, communication online in digital spaces is not new, but what does play a significant role is how these spaces are governed. The early life of online spaces was shaped, to some extent by user consensus, but commercial social media platforms, or intermediaries as they’re called in legalese – most of which have been built in the US – fall under what is called the “safe harbour” clause. The safe harbour clause, which was written up in 1996 as part of the Communications Decency Act in the US, exempts these spaces from being held liable or accountable for the actions of users on these platforms. This means that any form of misconduct, be that fake news, disinformation, hate speech as well as sexual harassment and abuse committed by a user, will not be taken down by the platform unless they go against “community guidelines” – the reporting of which is often futile, due to the reluctance of social media platforms to deplatform users and engagement, as those are what creates profit for these corporations.

To my mind, this underlines the absolute dearth of what we call an “ethics of care” at the heart of building and designing technologies: that disregards the very real consequences that violence and harassment can have for users, especially women and people marginalised by their identities in different ways. What we lack are digital spaces and infrastructures that are informed by the needs of their end users, that prioritise safety, comfort, joy and care – I founded Design Beku to explore how we could challenge current thinking around how we design for the digital, and to find ways to prioritise these values when we build technology.

SA: Thank you for explaining all of that. You have described Design Beku as “a design and digital collective, that aims to dismantle expectations created by market-driven notions of design by following design justice principle.” How does this collective visualise design justice in action? Also, please tell us a little bit more about the word Beku, what does it signify?

PRM: I taught at a prestigious design school for a few years, where preparing students for the workplace (which were predominantly digital product companies) meant teaching them processes such as design thinking which uses concepts such as “empathy” but ultimately is using design to create a frictionless user experience in order to sell a product; it was undeniable that design was being seen as an inevitable handmaiden to capitalism. Even when we were doing projects “with” communities – designers were seen as the experts, helicoptered in to use the community as a test bed for ideas and interventions, and then to depart once funding and/or interest ran out. Consequently, the sustainability of these interventions was very suspect, which made it a waste of time, resources, and investment for communities, who would ultimately not stand to gain anything lasting from these projects.

Along with my co-founders at Beku, we started thinking about what it would mean to have embedded, long term, place-based relationships with communities, and thinking through their challenges with them – they are undeniably the experts of their own lived experience and know what they need better than any of us, from elite, urban, oppressor caste backgrounds could ever understand. We see ourselves as facilitators, not experts, and as helping to bring and create resources that might address challenges that communities see themselves as facing, and designing responses to these needs together. Our approach is very akin to the principles set out by the Design Justice Network, which urges designers to design with, not for. As outsiders, we have the privilege of time and resources, which allows us to engage with communities at a zoomed out level, and understand the systems that scaffold their lives at scale, which makes it possible for us to find and address gaps that might be affecting communities in some way.

The story behind the name Beku: I’m not from Karnataka and after I moved to Bangalore in 2015 one of the first sentences I learned was “bekku beku” (which means I want a cat – I currently have two!). Beku means I want, or desire – and I hoped that with this name people would find us more accessible, and understand immediately how we might be able to work with them, and that does definitely seem to be the case!

SA: I love that story, thank you! My next question is connected to this. Recently, Design Beku put out a call for short-term fellowship positions starting October this year on the theme of understanding agricultural systems. The call specifically mentioned first-generation learners, and people from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi communities and those belonging to gender minorities. Please tell us something of the vision and intent behind working with the many intersecting realities that come together in a cohort of fellows such as this.

PRM: So we’re very aware of our caste privilege at Beku – the founder members are all from dominant caste backgrounds, and it is all too easy to find people to work with through our own networks, which inevitably perpetuates caste and class hierarchies. In addition, we are from urban elite backgrounds, which means we have very little lived experience of agricultural systems, and so we felt that those with intersectional identities, especially those who might come from those backgrounds, would bring expertise, nuance and understanding of these contexts which we are not wholly equipped to do. We were fortunate that the advertisement was shared widely, and we received applications from a range of candidates, who brought relevant insights to bear on the project and their thinking on it.

SA: Thank you! Before we end this interview, please tell us a bit about the workshop you facilitated earlier this year on Disability and Digital Self-determination with persons with disabilities, rights activists, and people in tech and research. How would digital self-determination unfold in the context of diverse marginalised communities, particularly using the lens of sexuality?

PRM: This was a series of workshops organised by feminist NGO Point of View and Swissnex, and it was a brilliant opportunity to be asked to facilitate them – as it gave us the opportunity to bring together PWD, designers and developers into conversation with each other – something that we were given to understand almost never happens. There are so many assumptions about how to design for people with disabilities, without really understanding their lifeworlds, as well as the range of disabilities we must consider when creating technologies for them. Dating apps are not hugely accessible, and they can also pose risks as they demand personal identifiable information. An exercise we undertook at the workshop was asking people to build their own “dream machines” – which encouraged PWD to imagine the features and affordances they would most like to see in the technologies that they use. To my mind, that is the starting point for digital self-determination in building any technology, but especially for those who are marginalised in some way – the persistent issue that currently dominates the design of digital products is that the product is imagined to fill a gap in the market, but the assumptions that underpin that imagination are often not representative of the minority or the marginalised groups in question. What’s worse, digital innovation is imagined only at scale, which means that it is easier to ignore entire demographics, and still succeed when it goes to market. Digital self-determination can unfold in the context of diverse marginalised communities only when privacy is prioritised and baked into the design of technologies, to ensure they are not further disadvantaged by their technology use.

Cover Image: Courtesy of Padmini Ray Murray