Freedom of Expression: Interview with Nishant Shah
Director: Namita A. Malhotra, Subasri Krishnan
Duration: 00:10:58; Aspect Ratio: 1.366:1; Hue: 95.963; Saturation: 0.021; Lightness: 0.398; Volume: 0.130; Cuts per Minute: 0.273; Words per Minute: 168.141
Summary: Nishant Shah is a scholar, writer and the Research Director at the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore. His primary focus is in technology mediated identities, spaces and everyday cultural practices.
In this short interview, Shah speaks about culture, technology, the DPS MMS clip and most specifically about the anxieties of the State around illegal subjectivities and illicit practices of the 'citizen'.
The interview ends rather abruptly because the camera person is feeling faint on that particular day and suddenly collapses, behind the camera. The interview had to be discontinued, though it was decided that this happened particularly because of the sensitivity of the camera person and the one-too-many mentions of pornography in this short interview.
It is nonetheless an eloquent interview about contemporary concerns around the internet, relating it to State governance and role of technology. Shah's arguments are also elaborated upon through his writings on technology and specifically his article on the three figures of the pervert, pirate and terrorist. (See ‘Subject to Technology: Internet Pornography, Cyber-terrorism and the Indian State’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 8:3, 2007, pp.349 – 366.)
My name is Nishant shah. I have completed my doctoral work at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore. My PhD dissertation was largely looking at technology-mediated identities of different sorts.
After completing my doctoral work I co-founded the Centre for Internet and Society which is also based out of Bangalore. Some of the work that we are doing at the Centre for Internet and Society is innovative research and pedagogic interventions around questions of subjectivity, identity, technology, sexuality, regulation, policy, and so on. Its a vast area that we are dealing with.
But one of the thrust areas is definitely technology-mediated identities, where we are atleast interested in questions of gender and technology, sexuality and technology, and questions of digital natives - about young users of technology and how they experience it in different ways.
Q: Taking off from the idea of technologically mediated identities, can you explain that concept? And how is that concept related to the concept of avatar or cyborg or ... techno-social subjects?
The whole notion of technology mediated identity is kind of response to existing cyber cultures work of many sorts. We generally seem to... when we talk about the intersections of the body and technology either go into the cyborg model where we talk about a prosthetic enhancement of the body by different penetrative technologies of different sorts.
If we don't have that then we generally go into this notion of a very functional utilisation of technology. Like, you know, a body which makes ATM transactions, or a body which goes online and so on and so forth. We don't seem to think that there is this space between the body and technology which can actually be explored, and which is shaping both the notions of the body and embodiment, and also the notions of technology and experience.
Rather than stating either a cyborg or an android, or just a user of technology, a technology-mdeiated identity, or a techno-social identity is much more useful as a conceptual term to deal with the different practices and negotiations that the body kind of has - largely in India atleast in the urban setup, but slowly in an expanding community as well.
The idea is also to then not think of the body only as a digital semblance which exists in the digital realm. So that when you talk about... when people start talking about techno-social identities, they immediately talk about 'oh my profile on facebook', 'my avatar on second life' and so on - but its not just that.
I don't want to do the disjoint between the real and the virtual, or the physical and the virtual, but to talk about a constitutive reality of a certain sort. That's where a technology mediated identity becomes useful because it also becomes a category then that is stitched in larger narratives of social transformation, political engagement, change, economic innovation, entrepreneurship... things like that.
Q: How would this idea of the the technologically mediated body or identity... how do you relate that concept to what the state is doing in terms of regulation of technology or internet or spaces like that?
I think there's a very dynamic and complex relationship which kind of needs o be explored. Because it is a given that the state is interested in regulation and production of certain kinds of identities. It is also almost a given, that the state's investment in technology leads to production of these kinds of identities which are very visible in many ways.
So that when we talk about for example the Indian state and technology, we immediately talk about the India Shining Campaign, we talk about these glorified IT bodies and identities which are now going to reconstruct the nation for you, to save it from the 60 years of development problems that we have had, and so on.
So that connection is clear. What is more interesting is that because the state has this particular interest in creating these identities of different sorts, the state has a huge interest also in infrastructure which supports these identities or even makes these conditions of technology possible...
So the state has a certain kind of investment in creating conditions within which these identities are possible. Let's say that that is a given and that is not something we really need to discuss about. What we really need to discuss is that because the state has this imagination of having an identity it is essentially tied to the notion of an ethical subject, or a good citizen. Which means also that the state has very clear imaginations of what this good citizen is supposed to do with his or her engagement with technology.
And so enters the questions of censorship and regulation. Because when you're looking at such a close relationship between technology and citizenship or technology and identity, you're no longer looking at just notions of content or practices. When the state is trying to censor something, some practice, some digital space, some phenomenon, it is closely linked to the state's imagination of what the citizen should be doing, what he or she is not doing, and because he or she is not doing what the state wants it to do, there will be this whole regulatory mechanism which will then almost train you to recreate yourself as the ethical subject, who will only put good use of the technological resources that are given to you.
Q: It is a given that the state has a certain investment in technology, I just want to take a little detour. In terms of how do you think that plays out in the context of Bangalore as the IT city? ...if you have any thoughts about that.
Well if you just look at very chronological history in terms of the Bangalore-Hyderabad war about which city is actually going to emerge as the IT city in certain ways, and it is very strange that Bangalore actually emerged as the IT city because Hyderabad was more poised to be a good IT city - it had better infrastructure, it had more space, it had more understanding of technological liberation so to speak in many ways.
But the reason why Bangalore became an IT city is always a very strange question. The only way that I have found useful to work with it is to say that - not to question whether Bangalore is an IT city or not, but to say that this is what an IT city is like and now let's see what the problems in it are.
So that you have this city which is created largely on surfaces. In terms that if you look up a Time of India magazine article or editorial, the only problem people seem to have is with infrastructure. There seem to be no other problems with Bangalore.
So this almost recreation of the city which delinks it from local trajectories or histories is kind of a significant investment for the state. If you look at megacities like Delhi and Bombay there is a certain historicity which is constantly established, the narratives can be produced. But when you look at an IT city and start doing a history of Bangalore it seems to be only 20 years old. As if before 20 years old all the history that was there now needs to be invalidated or made invisible or made insignificant. Because we are recreating the city from scratch. And in the process then there are imaginations of the way language will work, or what are the kind of people who will be attracted to come and live here... and hence the whole rhetoric of infrastructure development. We need infrastructure development not because your common man needs it or a common woman needs it, but because your IT workers will need it - people with a certain kind of economic background. So it drives the entire economy in terms of development of malls, places of consumption, places of socialisation. It also changes physical notion of what a public space entails. Increasingly Bangalore does not have any public spaces left - the only tihng left now is Sankey Tank and Lalbaug. Only public places left are places of consumption.
And I think there is a very clear tie in terms of the state's imagination of the physical space and how it needs to be recreated, and then the identities who are going to occupy them, in a certain kind of way.
Q: The whole technologically mediated identities that the state wants, but at the same time there are other kinds of identities that come into play, right? The pornographer, the terrorist, the pirate, etc. So how do you account for those, or what are those identities doing there?
I'm not sure if they are outside of the purview of the state - all the 3 identities, if you talk about the cyber pornographer, the cyber terrorist and the cyber pirate. In fact the state has an extremely active interest in promoting them in an almost glorified way as conditions within which you already are.
For me it also seems to be almost like a christian biblical paradigm where you are born in conditions of sin. For the Indian state you are born in conditions of technology. And because you are born in those conditions of technology which enable an abuse of those technologised spaces, you are potentially a criminal. You are potentially existing in a condition of illegality.
So that if you are now utilising any let's say peer to peer network technologies, the chances are that you are doing piracy. Because the chances are really high, the state then gets a justified reason for intervening in your practices, regulating them for keeping records of all that you are archiving and accessing, for even coming to your house and checking out your computer. So that this whole notion of culpability and this whole notion of innocent until proven guilty seems to be kind of twisted when it comes to technology, because it says that the minute you have a certain kind of physical access to technology, you are now in a condition of illegality. And then we need to kind of - the state needs to come in as an arbitrator who will now decide whether you are actually a good citizen who should have rights to the technology or not, but it also puts the onus on the individual to constantly prove that I am a good ethical subject, I do not watch pornography, I do not do piracy, I am not a cyber terrorist. There is this overwhelming need for the individual to negotiate his or her access to technology through these tropes of citizenship and ethical subjectivity. So that becomes interesting.
So you have these bizarre stories about this woman in Bihar who is like a mother of 6 and she has a son who works in Dubai. She uses Voice Over IP protocol to get in touch with him and because she uses that particular thing and she makes a certain number of calls to Dubai, she suddenly gets a police raid targeting her as a potential terrorist.