In 2018, technology can sometimes sound like a bad word. Younger generations are consumed with screens that limit face-to-face interactions, the Internet puts pressure on teenage girls to look like Instagram-famous Kylie Jenner, and comment sections act as a platform for hundreds of slurs to be exchanged. But Roopa Vasudevan has become a champion of technology, incorporating her skills and knowledge of computer science to draw people’s attention to the right issues.
As an undergraduate student at Columbia University, Vasudevan was a film major with no intention of working in computer science. To her, coding was a secluded and boring job centered around inputting numbers all day. It wasn’t until she attended the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts when she realized coding could be an important tool in producing her own creative projects.
Vasudevan’s interest in writing code blossomed at graduate school and she has been working on projects nonstop ever since. The technology she works with helps her examine social constructs, politics, and cultural behavior. Using hundreds of different coding programs, Vasudevan scans several platforms of social media, such as Twitter and Youtube, to collect data for her art pieces. Even though the majority of her research takes place online, rarely is her art depicted on a screen.
“Part of the idea of reconfiguring the way that you look at technology and new media is divorcing it from the platform in which you are most used to seeing it,” Vasudevan said.
‘Hate Couture,’ one of Vasudevan’s first projects, embodied Vasudevan’s vision by taking nasty insults from the Internet and turning them into something beautiful. Vasudevan created a code that would pick up every time the words ‘faggot,’ ‘cunt,’ ‘towelhead,’ or the ‘n-word,’ were tweeted or used in a comment. These words refer to four communities - homosexuals, women, Muslims, and Africans - to whom the majority of the hateful comments are directed.
The program would rank the use of the word on a scale from 1-10. If the user had used the word as a joke, referring to a friend, the word would receive a lower rating and would be associated with a lighter color. But if the word was used with a negative connotation or as a threat, it would receive a higher rating, and be assigned a darker color. Using this data, Vasudevan compiled the different colors into a fabric for each insult. Two of these fabrics were printed and designed into garments that were then worn by members of the targeted community.
This project, along with others such as ‘Sluts Across America,’ a viral website that helped women speak out about their birth control methods in a climate in which women's rights were being restricted across the world, amplified the voices on controversial issues. When different communities were attacked or negatively depicted in the media, Vasudevan used the same exact technology to share another side to the story.
More recently, Vasudevan has tackled political issues ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement to attacks on President Donald Trump. During the 2016 election, Vasudevan returned to her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, to work on a campaign installation reflected the views of ordinary people in that important swing state. Currently, Vasudevan is working on a project titled ‘Editor’s Notes,’ where she is rewriting the Constitution using Trump’s tweets.
Vasudevan's innovative use of technology encourages members of society to reflect upon their views and the language they use. By turning the remarks of bigots into creative works of art, she gives hope to the generation that has grown up in the Donald Trump era, and promotes a new path for activism.
There is a difference between tweeting your support for social change and actually contributing to the movement. Rather than just scrolling past a nasty note online, Vasudevan inspires her viewers to take the next step. Vasudevan is living proof that channeling one’s inner writer, artist or even coder can create a ripple that will challenge society.
About the Author
Samantha is currently the writing intern for La Pietra Dialogues. The New Jersey native is majoring in the Liberal Studies Core Program, but hopes to also further pursue studies in Political Science and Media Studies. Samantha enjoys exploring the streets of Florence and is looking forward to traveling through Europe. In her free time, Samantha enjoys listening to music, free writing, and studying with her friends. In the future, Samantha plans to work in New York City as journalist, write a novel, and run for Congress all before becoming an English professor.