When the news came, I was struck with a profound sense of loss. The iced coffee on my desk wept condensed tears as social media started flooding with the news that we have lost contact. There is a complete communication blackout. The last minutes which were the most critical, are now shrouded in mystery. We are doing all we can to reach out, to ping, to find a way to get some information — any information — that tells us that things are all right. People are waiting with bated breath to see if a connection will be made. There is widespread anxiety that comes from knowing that something historic has happened but there is a complete lack of knowledge about it.
At this point, all attempts at trying to get more information are proving to be futile. The devices that we have pinned our optimism to — seldom remembering that hardware fails — and the streams of communication that have become our digital default have let us down. At this point, in the absence of any clean data, we will be clinging to straws. Maybe one solitary ping will tell us that things are all right. We have given up on long stories, but just a cough, a sneeze, a chortle, a hiccup — anything right now, that tells us there is hope, there is a future, there is a tomorrow where we might be able to take back control, would be welcome. Scientists, journalists, politicians, and the common person on the street, all wait to hear more. But as of now, all we get, as we persistently update our screens and push at buttons, is silence.
That silence breaks us. To reach out and get nothing back. To have the entire infrastructure of digital and satellite communication and see it turn to nothing but technojunk in the split of a second. To depend, now, on the unknown — not sure what happens to those who cannot be heard and also those who wait to hear — is unnerving. We fill up the silences with many things — assurances from the Prime Minister about how this is a temporary glitch and we will do better; analysis from media about what could and would have gone wrong in this mission; opinions from people questioning the validity of this move and also bemoaning the validity of our expertise and knowhow; the viral cries of triumph from those who see this as a step in the right direction.
However, it is undeniable that the silence fills us up with sense of grief and loss, making us wonder what the future will hold. And this is not just an individual future but a collective one, where we start realising how technological control and regulation can define and determine our conditions of speech, silence, and connection. It is the moment where we question our brute optimism in science and technology and our soaring ambitions of impossible sounding futures, of singularity and connectivity.
Oh, and while I was trying to process the silence of stifled speech and throttled thoughts in Kashmir, which has been under an information and digital blackout for more than a month now, the news of the Chandrayaan-2’s possible failure and the last minute non-responsiveness from the Vikram lander also trickled in. When the lunar mission news unfolded, I earnestly thought that people were talking about Kashmir — so emotional, passionate, and human, was their interest in the well-being of the exploring robot. Had it landed safely? Was it still chugging along? Was it hurt? Did it get a lunar pellet stuck in its skin?
It took me a while to process that the outpourings of grief and optimism were about the loss of the robotic vehicle’s data stream and not about the loss of voices from Kashmir. I had to reorient my thoughts to figure out that the disconnection from moon was more urgent than the disconnection from people who have been silenced through digital tyrannies. It did give me a pause to realise that the fate of a hurt robot on the moon seemed to generate more concern than the fate of hurt generations of people in the paradise on earth that we have sequestered from the external world.
I had to figure out why the Chandrayaan, made in India and a triumph of our space programme, was a global event, whereas the violation of universal human rights through a technological blackout was still internal matters. This technological silence, which will hopefully be a temporary disruption, and, at the most, an expensive lesson for future space missions, refuses to take my attention. I will go back to listening for a sign of voice, of hope, of dignity, and of respect from Kashmir, where the digital blackout continues to mark a period darker than the dark side of the moon.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Shrouded in Silence’