It is time to insist that the infrastructure of digital India is accompanied by the infrastructure of care for the digital Indian.When the telephone was first introduced as a mass communication tool, one of the biggest fears was that it would allow people to lie and cheat at will.
The social fabric of existence till then, was built on the idea that communication happens between two people who are in close proximity of each other, and thus, are careful of what they say, because there can be immediate consequences to their words. Editorials were written and codes were established trying to figure out how we will deal with this increased distance. When mobile phones came into the market, these fears were intensified. Because, the telephone, at least, had the individual tied to a location and fixed in a particular context. Whereas the mobile phone meant that you could be anywhere and lie about it.
In her hilarious book on modern day etiquette, Talk to the Hand, Lynn Truss describes how she spent hours in public spaces eavesdropping on people, hoping to catch them in the middle of spectacular lying. She was disappointed when people on the train, when called by their partners and bosses, honestly confessed that they were, indeed, aboard a train. In the hours spent lurking in public spaces, never once did she uncover a juicy story of somebody sitting in a park and trying to convince somebody else that they were in the middle of work on a hectic day. Disappointed as she was by the lack of imagination shown by her fellow human beings, Truss does remind us that this new condition of being mobile because we have a mobile phone is one of the most liberating moments of digital telecommunications. And, largely, it is true — our everyday communication now no longer takes for granted that we could know where people are when we are talking to them. Ubiquitous mobile coverage and ever-ready connections mean that we could be interrupting people in their most intimate moments — of making love or doing the morning needful in the loo, or, we could be reaching out to them in moments of such extreme boredom, that they have started tweeting back at celebrities in the hope of making a human connection.
This mobility has been celebrated as a part of our digital make up. Especially with high speed mobile data and almost a seamless access to the web, we now seem to think of this distributed and fragmented nature of our being as the new real. Conversations on apps like WhatsApp continue across spaces and time zones almost seamlessly. Our physical and contextual locations change rapidly even in the course of just one Twitter war. With streaming services like Netflix offering multi-device access to our favourite shows, binge watching is not just limited to the favourite couch at home. A series that starts on the laptop at home, might continue on the phone as we walk down to the cab or train, and then shift to the tablet as we switch from device to device.
Mobility has become such a celebrated way of life that we now presume that, to be truly digital, we have to be truly mobile — the figure of the millennial digital native as the global citizen who navigates geographies, cultures, distances and time easily has emerged as the face of the digital. In our quest for mobile information, we have also created ourselves as mobile people. Mobility is now equated with flexibility and is an increasing skill that is required in new workforces. Mobility is rewarded and also incentivised by the labour markets that are supported by gig economies like Uber. The mobile body in its interaction with the mobile devices is the new normal.
And yet, it is good to remember that the mobility we see as natural and desirable is a condition of privilege. The mobile phone might have penetrated the last mile in developing countries but it does not guarantee meaningful access or inclusion of large parts of underprivileged communities in the mobility networks. Even as new digital competition lowers the threshold of access and affordability, it is good to remember that having a mobile and being mobile are not the same thing. We are slowly witnessing different kinds of users beginning to get onto mobile networks, but their connectivity is always going to be undermined — the mobility expected from the mobile bearing bodies can be afforded only by those who can calibrate lives without the established social safety nets of static living. A mobile life is a migrant life which has uprooted individuals from families, communities and contexts, which might have supported them in times of crises.
The mobile individual has to form new connections, forge new support systems, and learn to cope with the precariousness of mobility in a way that is unprecedented. Otherwise, the continued reports of depression, burn-out, breakdown and mental health issues that we find increasing in digital migrant populations, is only going to get dire. If we make mobility the precondition of being digital, it is time to insist that the infrastructure of digital India is accompanied by the infrastructure of care for the digital Indian.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.