The last fortnight, I have been bombarded with advertisements selling the idea of a “Digital Diwali”. We have become so used to the idea that everything that is digital is modern, better and more efficient. I have WhatsApp messages with exploding fireworks, singing greeting cards that chant mystic sounding messages, an app that turns my smartphone into a flickering diya, another app that remotely controls the imitation LED candles on my windows, an invitation to Skype in for a puja at a friend’s house 3,000 km away, and the surfeit of last minute shopping deals, each one offering a dhamaka of discounts.
However, to me, the digitality of Diwali is beyond the surface level of seductive screens and one-click shopping, or messages of love and apps of light. Think of Diwali as sharing the fundamental logic that governs the digital — the logic of counting. As we explode with joy this festive season, we count our blessings, our loved ones, the gifts and presents that we exchange. If we are on the new Fitbit trend, we count the calories we consume and burn as we make our way through parties where it is important to see and be seen, compare and contrast, connect with all the people who could be thought of as friends, followers, connectors, or connections.
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While there is no denying that there is a sociality that the festival brings in, there is also a cruel algebra of counting that comes along with it. It is no surprise that as we celebrate the victory of good over evil and right over wrong, we also simultaneously bow our heads to the goddess of wealth in this season.
Look beyond the glossy surface of Diwali festivities, and you realise that it is exactly like the digital. Digital is about counting. It is right there in the name — digits refers to numbers. Or digits refer to fingers — these counting appendages which we can manipulate and flex in order to achieve desired results. At the core of digital systems is the logic of counting, and counting, as anybody will tell us, is not a benign process. What gets counted, gets accounted for, thus producing a ledger of give and take which often becomes the measure of our social relationships.
I remember, as a child, my mother meticulously making a note of every gift or envelope filled with money that ever came our way from the relatives, so that there would be precise and exact reciprocation. I am certain that there is now an app which can keep a track of these exchanges. I am not suggesting that these occasions of gifting are merely mercenary, but they are embodiments of finely calibrated values and worth of relationships defined by proximity, intimacy, hierarchy and distance. The digital produces and works on a similar algorithm, which is often as inscrutable and opaque as the unspoken codes of the Diwali ledger.
There is something else that happens with counting. The only things that can have value are things that have value. I don’t know which ledger counts the coming together of my very distributed family for an evening of chatting, talking, sharing lives and laughter. I don’t know how anybody would reciprocate that one late night when a cousin came to our home and spent hours with my younger brother making a rangoli to surprise the rest of us. I have no idea how they will ever reciprocate gifts that one of the younger kids made at school for all the members of the family.
Diwali is about the things, but like the digital system, these are things that cannot be counted. And within the digital system, things that cannot be counted are things that get discounted. They become unimportant. They become noise, or rubbish. Our social networks are counting systems that might notice the low frequency of my connections with my extended family but they cannot quantify the joy I hear in the voice of my grandmother when I call her from a different time-zone to catch up with her. Digital systems can only deal with things with value and not their worth.
I do want to remind myself that there is more to this occasion than merely counting. And for once, I want to go beyond the digital, where my memories of the past and the expectations of the future are not shaped by the digital systems of counting and quantifying. Instead, I want Diwali to be analogue. I shall still be mediating my collectivity with the promises of connectivity, but I want to think of this moment as beyond the logics and logistics of counting that codify our social transactions and take such a central location in our personal functioning. This Diwali, I am rooting for a post-digital Diwali, that accounts for all those things that cannot be counted, but are sometimes the only things that really count.
Nishant Shah is director (research), Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore