There used to be a popular joke among technology geeks when Bluetooth arrived on our mobile devices — everything becomes better with Bluetooth. A cursory web search for things with Bluetooth have yielded toys, lunch boxes, hair clips, cushion covers and sex toys, just to name a few of the bewildering array of things that seemed to be better with a Bluetooth connection. As the projected future moves towards the Internet of Everything, we are in a similar position where we firmly believe that digital makes everything better. In the spirit of random search queries, one can easily find government, relationships, dating, shopping, shower gels, food and families as things that are enhanced by the digital. Advertisers have no qualms in declaring their products as “e-something” or “cyber-this”, emphasising the touch of technology in the most unexpected of things and processes.
The ubiquity of the digital is undeniable. However, as the digital becomes transparent and everywhere, it also seems to be going through a dramatic moment of invisibility and meaninglessness. There was a time when the digital invoked an image of a binary code flashing in black and green on heated computer screens. The presence of the digital made us cyborgs, with prostheses sticking out of our heads and wires sinuously entwined with our bodies. Digital was tied with precision, with the idea that robotic hands and machines performed tasks that were beyond human capacity or exercise. It gave the idea of acceleration, harnessing the power of high-process computing that helped tasks requiring complex logistics and systems management to be performed faster. It had a futuristic value, making us rethink the idea of intelligence, sapience, and a machine-aided life that would significantly alter the quality and habits of life and living.
Our present is the science fiction future that our pasts had imagined. The promises of the digital have already found fruition and its premises have changed so dramatically that our immediate past feels dated and slow when parsed through the lens of the present. The digital has been reconsidered as a fundamental right, being promoted through plans of universal connectivity like with the latest fanfare around Reliance Telecom’s Jio programme. When the digital becomes an all-encompassing force, it is fruitful to ask what exactly it means. Largely, the question needs asking because there is almost nothing left in our urban connected life that is not digitally mediated. From healthcare and childbirth to relationships and disbursement of rights and money, we depend on silent algorithms of work and survival almost without noticing it. Digital is a part of social, economic, cultural, political and biological production and reproduction and hence to call something digital, as if it is a marker of difference is fruitless.
If everything is digital, why do we still insist on using it as a special adjective to describe people, processes, and places? The answer is not in the digital divide, that quickly alerts us to the fact that the terrain of digitality is uneven and that there are still large swathes of world population that remain disconnected. Because, when we see the incredible efforts at digital connectivity infrastructure, we realise quickly that this is something that is going to be resolved sooner rather than later.
The answer is not in pitching the human against the machine, because we have already formed ecosystems where we live our cyborg, symbiotic lives, where each system of the human and the machine requires the other. The answer is not in a futuristic appeal, waiting for the digital to arrive because our future is now, and already in the making, if not quite there.
I would propose then, that we need the crutch of digital descriptors in order to hide the fact that in our quest for digitisation, we have stopped considering and caring about the human user in the digital networks. The human, alarmingly, has been reduced to nothing more than a node, a resource, a set of data, a flow of traffic, connected in these circuits of electronic communication, rescued from itself by the force of digital transformation.
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As we look at the digital schemes, policies and programmes that we are nationally embracing, the human only becomes the end point — the last-mile consumer who has to be connected, the individual who has to be enrolled into a database, an information pod that needs to be harvested for data services.
Digital Everything is not just a benign description but a clear indication that the digital is not just an augmentation but the new norm. The digital has become the principle around which these shall be shaped, and, perhaps, it is time to worry, when we see “digital”, about what will happen to those who cannot or would not want to afford the promises and conditions of being digitally human.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.