Freedom of Expression: Interview with Nishant Shah - Part 2
Director: Namita A. Malhotra, Subasri Krishnan
Duration: 00:24:28; Aspect Ratio: 1.366:1; Hue: 17.086; Saturation: 0.309; Lightness: 0.365; Volume: 0.109; Cuts per Minute: 0.041; Words per Minute: 163.257
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'.
It is 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 am the Director for Research at Centre for Internet and Society.
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Okay. You could keep them actually... floating around like those disembodied hands. And Zizek will make an argument about the phantasmagory.
N: Oh God.
My name is Nishant Shah. I am Director for Research at Centre for Internet and Society, in Bangalore.
The Centre for Internet and Society is a research and advocacy based organisation which kind of looks at relationships between emerging technologies in te global south, and the kind of social and political problems or concerns which emerge out of it.
So we do a lot of research which kind of investigates the relationship between internets and emerging societies and questions of let's say cultural production, technology mediated identities, or governance in different fields.
One of the key concepts that I have been working with is techno-social identites or technology-mediated identities. And in some ways that concept is a response to a larger cyborg positioning which happens in academia in a very large context.
The problem for me with a cyborg identity, despite the fact that it has been theorised by variously by feminists and people from social sciences, is that it still remains a creature of fiction. So either you have a cyborg which is always - as Donna haraway puts it - as an imaginary creature which lives on boundaries and cusps and which can never really be realised in any form...
Or you have a cyborg which is extremely functional in everyday, so that if you have a pacemaker in your body you are a cyborg, or if you are wearing a watch you are a cyborg, or if you are using a cell phone you are a cyborg, or withdrawing machine from the ATM cash machine, and so on and so forth.
So, concept of cyborg though interesting as it is, because it looks at different kinds of relationships between technology and the human, it doesn't really allow you to expand it to talk about material cyborg identities. And we're talking about not just prosthetic implants into bodies, but sometimes the relationship between consciousness and technology, and how each shapes the other.
Or how different kinds of socio-cultural practices and negotiations are inflicted by technology to produce new kinds of identities... sometimes they are fluid... they're not really ontological subjectivities per say, but they are different kinds of identities which are emerging because of new kinds of technology-mediated practices.
So the interesting part is that if we talk about technology-mediated identities, it doesn't have to be at this very narrow and cursory understanding of access to technology... which is where a lot of debates happen about technology and identity. Because the minute you start talking about internet usage in India for example, the first example is only 10% of the people use it, who are these elite people you are talking about?... only 6% use facebook, and only 3% are really tech savvy people who are power users. That's the argument usually given to say you don't really need to study the internet, you don't need to study technology relationships with the people.
But when you start looking at let's say afective relationships with technology, which are sometimes on the tropes of ambition, or aspiration or desire, and the way the people reproduce themselves, their lifestyles, their communities, their entire set of negotiations that they do in their everyday life - that's the kind of technology-mediated identity which becoms very important.
So for example the case study that I was studying was the Mega City project that is happening in India. I was particularly looking at the city of Ahmedabad, and how in the reconstruction of the skyline of Ahmedabad, on the banks of the river Sabarmati suddenly 80,000 families have disappeared. And in the same state where the Narmada-Bachao Andolan happened, there was no protest whatsoever when these 80,000 families disappeared.
In doing fieldwork with them you realise that they don't want a framework of violence put upon them. They're not saying that somebody has taken away our land and displaced us and stuff. But in their ambition to become IT citizens of India, they are willingly letting go of these particular places, being thrown out of the fringes of the city, and then rehabilitated to come back as respectable people who will reproduce themselves as citizens worthy of an IT state... who will now be reincorporated into these new IT zones which are being built into their city. So that is also a kind of access. The way in which people and communities get affected, displaced and kind of reproduce themselves. And it is a state-citizen relationship in which this is happening. So that's why a technology-mediated identity becomes much more interesting to study.
The techno-social subject is a very bizarre thing because it presumes to begin with, that subjectivity is not just an individual personal kind of a relationship. That there is a very strong stake of the state in producing certain kinds of subjectivities. And we're talking about now technologies of governance, within which the internet technologies do play a role because the state has an immense amount of investment in the kind of technologies it promotes in order to imagine let's say the nation state, or sometimes the citizens, or what the citizen is supposed to do in that particular place of the nation space, and so on.
So we've had histories of the state investing heavily let's say in radio, or in televison, or in cinema and having a big stake in it. Because they want to regulate that particular cultural product, so that people who are consuming it are consuming it onl y in certain kinds of ways and then thus become spectating citizens or consuming citizens of certain sorts, and also on ethical subjects.
With the internet technologies especially, the state has had a very clear ambition of what it wants to do with the IT. Let's say after development plans have failed for so long, to cure some of the evils that we have always identified as a part of the Indian subconscious so to speak... questions of illiteracy, unemployment, overpopulation and so on. The internet is yet another technology which was supposed to cure all these problems for us. This was also the technology which was supposed to now, you know, make India shine, to fulfill the potential of the India Shining campaign - because you are now supposed to create IT hubs which will house for an investment, which wil house basically back-processing offices, which will house offshore development offices and so on.
So the state always had a very clear vision about how this particular technology now needs to be invested in so that different kinds of skill sets can be produced, and its in relationship between skill sets and citizenship. So you have these entire campaigns like for example the One Computer One Home campaign - the pilot project in Mallapuram district, Kerala is now 99% e-literate, it's the first district in India to be e-literate in some ways.
Or you now have these mobile vans which are now replacing the money which - the money which was supposed to go in for library building, is now being spent in building these mobile vans with comuters which go from village to village teaching children how to use Microsoft Office, so they can actually become a part of the offshore development kind of a system.
So in this clear imagination there was now a disrupture because once the people who were the ideal citizens or the intended citizens got onto technology, they started doing a whole lot of things that the state did not really approve of. From the state's point of view this is an abuse of technology - that you are given the infrastructure to become this neo-Gandhian political saviour of the country, and all you are doing is blogging about what you had for breakfast, and that's a problem. Or what ofcourse you are doing is you are searching for illicit material and especially you are searching for sexual material in pronographic material online.
And the state has constantly tried to then censor these spaces which are basically sometimes guised in the shape of terrorism - in terms of - because you are abusing technology in a certain way, you are obviously anti-national.
Or because you are... especially let's say for queer communities. For a long time, you didn't have recognition and then it was even illegal to be queer in India - the very fact that you are not only accessing pornographic material which deals with queer interests, but also engaging with other queer people in "queer pornographic acts" - which are not really documented but which are happening in the provacy of your own home, also get regulated in the same kind of way.
So there have been many instances in the history of censorship where the state has almost blindly tried to put its foot down, but instead of putting the foot down it put it in its own mouth by shutting down lots of different sites. Eventually I think there was a sort of recognition from within the state apparatus itself, that censorship is not going to work. Because everytime a bill passes or a decision comes into being saying that some space needs to be censored, the users of technology are already 5 steps ahead of them.
In the famous blogspot ban that happened a couple of years ago, by the time the directive was passed and blogspot was banned in 24 hours the entire Indian landscape was filled by people telling you how to bypass that ban and use your blogs and so on.
So then I think there was interesting turn which started, where the state said that instead of me trying to determine whether you are innocent or not, I'm going to presume that because you have access to this one particular technology which I cannot... supervise for you, I will presume that you are guilty. And because you are in this condition of technology now, you will be definitely doing some of the activities which are illegal, and it is the responsibility of the citizen subject to now go ahead and prove that I am an ethical subject, that along with my responsibilities of whatever - voting, being good to my neighbour - I also now have the responsibility of being good on the internet. So that the state can now actually come to your house and it can check your computers and it can see whether you were doing illegal activities or not, and it is upto you to prove to them constantly that were not.
And so there are these 3 images which constantly roam around us. The first is that of the cyber pornographer. The first debates in India were about pornography. It was about Pooja Bhatt's body appearing naked on Stardust, which was a morphed body with her face and some (?) figure. And then the newspaper had just gone completely bonkers, saying "Oh my God, Indian culture now being put up for sale on the internet" and so on and so forth.
So there is this trajectory of sexuality, or pornography, of the forbidden which is always there.
And so the state has now presumed, especially following the Delhi public school MMS case, that anybody who has access to technology is essentially a pornographer. Because the ability of the digital camera to now enter into very private spaces and capture extremely private conversations and then upload them, without going through proper channels of let's say having a censor certificate, being broadcast in theatres and so on, has made the state completely helpless.
In which case it... this is kind of imagination which fuels for example banning of cellphones in schools and colleges. Because we actually have directives which say - if the children did not phones with cameras on them, then they would not have engaged in the sexual activities that they do. Or if the children did not have unsupervised access to the internet, they would not touch pornography. Because apparently pornography came into life only with the internet or some such thing. So its that kind of a position.
On the other hand you have the whole notion of a cyber terrorist. And I do think its the funniest part that most of the instances of cyber terrorism that the Indian state has atleast found, have been extremely fascicious(?). You know, a group of 16 Manipuri students who are writing on blogspot about something or the other - nobody knows because its written in Manipuri to begin with, and how many people read it - suddenly becomes the most glorified state of anti-state activities. Or banning the blog because they think the SIMI activists are orchestrating their attacks in Bombay trains by using blogs, or something like that.
But when an instance like the Taj happens - when the actual terrorists have taken over, nobody talks about cyber terrorism. Despite the fact they used the most superior technologies including GPS technologies, including GPRS connected phones of communication, and so on.
So it is not the "serious" terrorist that uses technology, but it is the availability of technology to the common person that makes him or her into a terrorist.
So here the very very stupid case of this mother of 6 in Bihar, who... one of her children is working in UAE and she calls him using a Voice OVer IP - voice recognition software, and because of some mismatch of whatever, she suddenly gets arrested as a terrorist - as somebody who has booked a call to the UAE. And it is her position in the technologised condition that allows the state to make a case like that.
Or the kind of things like we've heard about the SAR Gilani case by now. In terms of how an extremely inoffensive man, very respectable, very middle class, a professor who teaches a particular language which is contraversial in the university in Delhi, suddenly gets transformed as this criminal mastermind who has attacked the Indian Parliament and so on. There is no really concrete evidence for what he has done, except for the fact that he was a user of internet technologies, and because of some dubious evidence which is present in his computer or his online track, suddenly you can frame him as a criminal who can be attributed with a lot of problems.
And the third example is that ofcourse, of piracy. Anybody who watches this documentary, if you did not pirate it (?) raise your hand. Its not possible, right? If you are online, ...
So, anybody who has access to technology is a pirate. And its a given. Simply because the way the internet technology has rendered notions of property or authorship or sharing or intellectual property have so been drastically different from any material instance that we ever had, that even unwillingly or unknowingly, people become pirates.
So we were doing this workshop with young users of technology in Bangalore. It was a day long workshop with students from different schools talking about the usage of technology. And they're all talking about peer to peer sharing, networking, how they transfer files and music and movies. And then suddenly one of the facilitators said 'but isn't that piracy?' And they said no piracy is what happens when a cablewalla
shows you pirated movies on the cable. What we do is just sharing. They say its not theft. I would have never bought this book anyway. I have only borrowed it from a library or borrowed it from a friend, read it and returned it. Instead of that now I have a digital copy which is travelling with me. So that's not really piracy.
So things like that, these notions have changed. So the state has now just blanketly defined that if you are a technology user, you are a pirate. And because you are now a pirate, not defined by your actions but by your presence in a technology environment, I can now investigate what you are doing. It becomes an extremely interesting entry point into invading your private - invading your personal - invading your rights to privacy and dignity for instance - the state can say ya but you are a pirate and so you are then possibly also a pronographer and so also a terrorist of some sort.
So these are the 3 glorified figures which are constantly revolving around us and at any given time we are almost expected to embody them at the state's convenience. Otherwise we are vaguely in the shadow lands where we are potentially pornographers, potentially terrorists, potentially pirates of some sort or the other.
I think the whole argument about 'subject to technology' is basically to kind of dismantle this extremely glorified narrative that the state produces. See this is the problem. On the one hand you have this very very dangerous, dubious position that the state creates for you, of criminality or of illegality, but at the same time there is also a euphoric celebration of people using technology. Becuase despite its reservations about the usage, the state is definitely investing in ICT development in India in a really massive way. The digital divide being the primary concern, saying that the have-nots of the digital world now need to be rehabilitated into becoming digital subjects of some sort or the other.
So we always think that people actually have a choice and that people always want to be online or want to be connected and so on. So we seem to think of the people as these really powerful people with choice, agency, empowered and making informed choices...
So... we're basically presuming that we are talking about people who have a completely agential role when it comes to technology, that they can choose to be on technology or not. So you are always subjects of technology so to speak, the teminology we have online on the internet as well which is this almost God like creation where you can create and you can destroy and you can trash and you can recycle and delete and edit and so on.
You kind of want to move out of that rhetoric a little, and talk about how technology is also shaping you in many different ways and that there are intentions and uses of technology which are far beyond your own (?) as a user. That the state has deployed these technologies, not for your amusement. They are not there only so that you can upload videos of pretty babies dancing to music on youtube, they are doing some other kind of work as well. And you need to be aware of the ways in which your own privacy, your own usage, your own manifestations of identities online are being observed in different ways.
So I wouldn't be worried about for example CCTV cameras in malls. That kind of surveillance we have always been aware of. Like you go into a supermarket and they say 'the store is under surveillance', and you say ya ya I will not shoplift - and that will be fine.
So there is this Foucaultian penopticon kind of a thing, which for me is actually a more transparent system of surveillance. You tell me you are watching me and so I will behave myself, is fair enough. But when you don't tell me you are watching me, when I don't know that my ISP provider is actually storing 5 years of my digital records, when I don't know that certain kinds of websites I access trigger the state security system because it might be potentially anti-state, or something, that's when the problems begin, because now you are actually a subject of technology - subject to technology. Technologies are watching you without you knowing them.
And this notion of transparent technology, is very very dangerous. Because on the one hand transparency talks about seeing things clearly and so on, but transparency also has a double edge - where it talks about things which are seeing you become transparent. So you don't really know who is watching you, why they are watching you, what are they going to do about it. And that is the kind of... I don't know... its not meant to be a paranoid situation, its not a Big Brother situation, but we are saying that you need to be aware of the implications of usage of technology. That it is not always you in power. That its not always a question of freedom. Sometimes you confuse choices with freedoms. And because we have a lot of choices we think that we are free to do what we want to do. And so on.
That's the kind of connection we're trying to make.
Q: There's also something that you said in the sense of... that the internet here is... by the state its not - the US also it was the military to begin with - but it seems like here its more given by the state than say in other parts of the world.
I think its just about trajectories of technology in different parts of the world. It is not to say that the internet in the developed world is not controlled by the state or not given, or so on. There is a lot of infrastructure development which is done by the state in those places as well. I think particularly in emerging information societies and specifically in India, there has been a state-technology relationship when it comes to the questions of imagining the nation. And so the state has more vested interest. I'm being mean to the state now. The state does have more vested interest in ensuring that the technology-state relationship remains.
So that even when the market does invest very heavily into internet and communication technologies, we have the peculiar position of a public-private partnership, where the state wants its finger in the pie. Its not ready to dis-invest from technology. It's ready to dis-invest from water, and from education, and from healthcare, and from electricity, but not from technology. I think its a very interesting idea, because we now talking not just about a monolithic state which is not changing, but a state which is very acutely aware of the roles that different kinds of technologies of communication and technological production play in the shaping of the state itself.
So its interesting that in America, for example, which is generally known as the cradle of internet technologies - even though it was a military endeavour, it was promoted largely by the academia. The academia which was, atleast in that part of the world, anti-state. The academic justification was that we are here to produce critiques of what the state is doing to the citizen subject and so on. In India, it comes initially via the state, then goes immediately to the market. The academia is actually still the under-privileged when it comes to internet access and so on and so forth. So that is why it is a state given technology.
In many ways, for a long time... before bollywoodisation of Hindi cinema happens, that's exactly the state position there. There are a lot of informal money sources, informal revenue sources, different kinds of nexuses which are making movies, but at the end of the day despite the state apparatus, a film like Bombay has to be sanctioned by Bala Thackrey. There are all these different kinds of positions available to you till then.
So in terms of all technologies there has been a very heavy state presence, as far as India is concerned. And so its not a novelty that it is also so heavily present when it comes to talking about the internet. But I think its slightly slow when it comes to talking about the internet, because it hasn't gotten its head around peer to peer technologies as opposed to broadcast technologies. It hasn't gotten its head around a simulated aesthetic rather than a representational aesthetic. And that's where the problems are arising from.