Ok. I get it. You don’t want yet another piece on the horrors and perils of the surveillance state that has come to the forefront with Aadhaar numbers now being tied to our taxes. I know that you must have already made up your mind about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. If you believe that the way to streamlining bureaucracy and making our systems more accountable is transparency, then you are ready to welcome the digital ecosystem of Aadhaar, as introducing checks and balances that might help to curb some of the excesses and wastes of our governance systems . If you are of the opinion, however, that the state cannot be trusted with our information, without the oversee of the Parliament and the judiciary, then you want to resist this mandatory implementation of the “voluntary” Aadhaar. And, for once, I am unable to take a side, favouring one set of arguments over the other. This ambiguity does not come from a lack of political conviction. I continue to fear about the future of our lives when these technologies of control and domination fall in the hands of governments which have an authoritarian bend of mind.
Instead, my lack of preference on the good, bad and ugly sides of Aadhaar stems from a completely different concern around network technologies of digital connectivity that has found very little attention in the almost zealous discourse about “yes Aadhaar, no Aadhaar”.
This is a concern about the relationship between technological networks and the messy realities that we embody. There has been an easy acceptance of a digital network as a description of our everyday life. If you look at any network that you belong to — from public discussion forums to private WhatsApp groups — you will realise that these networks offer to visualise your connections and transactions with the people, places and things in your circles. Thus, it is possible to say that Facebook describes your collection of friends and your social life. Or you could suggest that LinkedIn is a visualisation of your professional landscape. And, in a similar vein, we can also propose that Aadhaar is a representation of the working of our government systems of identification.
Each one of these propositions, seemingly innocent, is blatantly wrong. Facebook, for example, didn’t just connect you with your friends. It has fundamentally changed the idea of what is a friend. For a generation of young people who grew up naturalised in social media, the notion of a friend has lost all its meaning and nuance. Every connection, acquaintance, friend of a friend, a random stranger who likes the same band as you do, is now a friend. And the increasing anxiety we have about people falling prey to predatory friendships is because Facebook has now normalised the idea that if somebody calls you their friend, you don’t have to worry about sharing personal and private information with them. Similarly , for anybody who has spent time on LinkedIn, we know that it is not just a portal that describes our work. It is the space where we stay connected with events and people far removed from us. It is the resource pool that we draw on while looking for new work. It is also the space that we keep an eye on just to see if a better job has opened up. It is a collection of events, links and connections that not only shows what you do but what you aspire for, who you connect with and what are the kinds of professional ambitions you see for yourself.
Just like Facebook and LinkedIn, which don’t just describe a reality but actually simulate, prescribe and shape it, Aadhaar is a digital network that is seeking to change the very foundational reality of our lives. Like most digital networks, it is not merely an explanation of how things are but the context within which who we are and what we do finds meaning and validation. Thus, Aadhaar might propose that it is merely trying to describe your identity but it is actually offering to shape a new one for you. The programme might suggest that it is trying to implement a system already in place, but it is, in reality, creating an entirely new system within which you and I have to now find space, function and identity. The latest announcements of mainstreaming Aadhaar merely betray this fact – that Aadhaar is not something you define and opt into, Aadhaar defines you. And opting out is going to have severe penalties and consequences.
Digital networks have long masqueraded as benign visualisations of the world. But they are, in principle, blueprints that transform the world as we know it. This, in itself, is not bad. However, hiding this transformation is. Because when a transformation happens, especially at systemic levels, it is always the people who are the most vulnerable that suffer the most from it. Think about the older friend who might not be the most tech savvy and how they struggle for inclusion on Facebook and WhatsApp messages. Pay some attention to people who did not understand the public nature of LinkedIn and ended up getting fired because they wrote about their current work conditions and the desire to change them. And, similarly, do think if the people who are being pushed into these digital ecosystems without adequate digital literacy, care and information about the consequences of their actions, are being made vulnerable in their access to resources of life and dignity.
Whether you and I like Aadhaar or not is not really the question. The question is not about the right to privacy either. What is at stake in this deployment of Aadhaar is a government that is pushing radical transformations of the life of its citizens without consulting with them and addressing their needs. In the past, when governments have done this, we have developed strong voices of protest and correction asking the state to be responsible towards those affected by the transformation. The reliance on the digital, however, allows these governments to escape this responsibility and, in the guise of description, are making prescriptions of reality which need to be resisted.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.