By Nishant Shah
In the last few weeks, we have realised something we have always known — that the world is not a safe space and that the digital is not going to save anybody. At least, not in and by itself. The recent news about the rape of a woman in a cab run by the online taxi company Uber threw us in a tizzy, least of all, because it reminds us of the gruesome December 16 rape case not so long ago. The digital protests, offline vigils, and collective rage and grief that we had all expressed in the wake of that dark moment of national shame, have marked the ways in which we talk about gender and sexual violence in India.
While the mobilisation of the urban middle classes to come to arms against gendered violence was admirable, there is no denying the fact that we seemed to open ourselves to conversations and interventions around this culture of rape and abuse, only when it happened to somebody who was like us. Statistics show us that many equally abusive and violent crimes have been committed on women in less visible contexts, but we have learned to ignore them because they happen to “other people”.
The social web has emerged as one of the strongest forms of mobilising networks of weak ties to collectively fight against problems in our contemporary societies by becoming agents of change themselves. It enables people to not wait for traditional forms of activism — mediated by civil societies or non-governmental organisations — but to channel their discontent directly through online and offline networks.
At the same time, the social web produces a “gentrification” of politics, where those who have digital access fight for issues which affect them directly. This leads to a skewed attention distribution, where the problems that we experience are the ones that get the most visibility, whereas grave concerns of those who are on the fringes of digital access and imagination remain largely ignored. The protests around the Uber rape betray this sentiment, where the shock is not just about the persistent cultures of misogyny and violence that our society seems to be harbouring and condoning, but also about whom it happened to. The victim was marked by strength and support, by her using an online service like Uber that requires literacy, affordability, and a condition of digital immersion that is often perceived as a safety net of urban survival.
When a person like this is made vulnerable and abused in this manner, it shocks us, because in the celebration of the technological environments and networks of sharing, we have often neglected the fact that the online does not exist in vacuum. While it might create new forms of distribution, consumption, engagement and connection, it still reflects the structural inequalities and violences of our offline worlds. Services like Uber, with their GPS-enabled tracking of vehicles, random assignment of cab services, and establishing a “sharing” relationship between the cab driver and the customer, with the company’s digital reputation ensuring conditions of trust, are seen as exempt from the conditions of insecurity in our societies.
It is important, every time an incident like this becomes public, for us to fight, to rage, and to demand from our governments and societies that we build better infrastructure of security to end gendered and sexual violence. The trauma and the pain of the victim is not any less because she has certain privileges afforded to her by her class and digital intersections. And yet, we also need to ensure that our mobilisations of anger and protest are not always limited to cases where people like you and me are affected. The digital, because it grants hyper-visibility to certain images which can be circulated easily and narratives that can get a lot of attention, can also flatten other forms of violence and inequalities which do not find a space in these narratives of violence.
The challenge for us, online and offline, is going to be five-fold. The first is to make sure that our rage is not triggered only when something like this happens to those who we share weak ties with. The second is to not confuse the visibility granted to these narratives online as having enough power to actually change things through offline political action. The third is to recognise that online services are as much a part of our lived social reality as the offline world. Fourthly, we have to stop thinking of digital technologies as the solution to problems — it can only be an implementation to solutions. And last, the same scrutiny and structure we bring to our physical worlds also need to be brought to the digital because in the times we live in, what happens to us online has direct repercussions on our offline selves.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society Bangalore.
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