The Digital is Political

To speak of technology is to speak of human life and living.

Written by Nishant Shah | Published:March 20, 2016 4:00 am

“You are supposed to write about the internet, why do you keep talking about all this politics?” I was taken aback when I was faced with this question. It is true – since the year has begun, I have talked about digital education and the ways in which it needs to account for unexpected and underserved communities, about net neutrality and why the Indian government needs to build a stronger, safer, and a more inclusive digital ecosystem. I have written about freedom of speech and expression and how this is going to be the year when we stand together to save the internet from vested interests that seek to convert it from a public commons into a private commodity.

In my head, all these questions — of inclusion, of access, of presence, of rights — are questions of human life and living, but they are also those that are being hugely restructured by the internet and digital technologies. When faced with the query, I was reminded of a deep-seated division that has been at the heart of digital cultures.

Way back in the ’90s, when the internet was still a space of science fiction and the World Wide Web was in its nascent stages, there was a distinction made between Virtual Reality (VR) and Real Life (RL). The presumption in the construction of these categories was that the digital is only an escape, the technological is merely a prosthesis, and the internet is just a thing that a few geeks engaged with in their free time. However, the last three decades have made this distinction between VR and RL redundant.

We live in digital times. The digital is not just something we use strategically and specifically to do a few tasks. Our very perception of who we are, how we connect to the world around us, and the ways in which we define our domains of life, labour, and language are hugely structured by the digital technologies. The digital is ubiquitous and hence, like air, invisible. We live within digital systems, we live with intimate gadgets, we interact through digital media, and even though we might all be equally digital natives, there is no denying the fact that the very presence and imagination of the digital has dramatically restructured our lives. The digital, far from being a tool, is a condition and context that defines the shapes and boundaries of our understanding of the self, the society, and the structures of governance.

The pervasive nature of the digital technologies and internet can be found at multiple levels. For instance, we do not think about going online anymore, because most of our devices are connected 24×7 to the digital web. Even when we are not online, sunk in a bad network connection, or protecting our precious data usage, we know that our avatars and digital identities are online and talking without us.

So established is this phenomenon that we even have a name for the anxiety it creates: FOMO — the Fear Of Missing Out. Similarly, the digital can be located at the level of human understanding. We are used to thinking of ourselves as digital systems. We talk about our primary identity as one marked by information overload. We often complain, when faced with too many demands on our time and space, that we don’t have enough bandwidth to deal with new problems, and we are not referring to digital connectivity.

The digital also has space at the level of policy and governance. If you, like the many millions of Indians, have registered for an Aadhaar card, you have already been marked by a digital identity whether or not you have broadband access. When our government launches Digital India campaigns, it is not merely about an economic model of growth, but it is suggesting that the digital is going to be at the foundations of the new India that we want to build for the future.

If the digital is so central to our fundamental understanding of the self, the society, and the state, then surely it is time to stop thinking that these technologies have nothing to do with politics? There remains a forced imagination of technologies as devices, as tools, as prostheses which do not have any other role than the performing of a function. However, this is a fallacy, because not only do technologies shape our sense of who we are, but they also prescribe new templates and models of who we are going to be. In the process, these technologies take political action, create social structures, mobilise cultural possibilities, and often, because they are technologies that are still elite and available to the privileged few in the country, they enable decisions which are not always fair, open, and just.

Hence, a technological decision cannot be read merely as a technical decisions but as human decisions. To speak of technology is to speak of human life and living. To write about technology is to write about politics, because a separation between the two is not only futile but downright dangerous.

Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.