At the annual Association of Internet Researchers conference held this time in Berlin in October 2016, a few of us organized a panel on ‘Asymmetries of power and the reshaping of the political.’ Great talks by Aswin Punathambekar, Sahana Udupa, Ralph Schroeder, & Sangeet Kumar.
This panel sought to add to existing conversations about the global emergence of digital politics by focusing on key aspects of the web culture in India. In doing so it illuminates a geographical region that despite having among the fastest growing digital diffusion among non-western locations globally, has not yet attracted the kind of scholarship commensurate with its size and emerging potential. India’s location at the cusp of a colonial past and a globalizing present, its burgeoning and heterogenous demography and its diverse and fractious polity make it a particularly rich site for studying the ways in which the affordances of new media can enable and constrain social and cultural politics. The papers that make up this panel move beyond this dialectical perspective by illuminating the ways in which the web has enabled newer forms of mobilization and solidarity but has equally allowed for novel and hitherto unimagined operations of state power. The size, diversity and the confluence of seeming contradictions within India therefore make our focus on the geographical region, far from a limitation but an opportunity to extend existing theorizations of how new and digital media are reshaping the human condition. Each of our papers investigates this re-shaping through a critical lens that, while embedding itself within the unique complexity of India’s digital sphere, also makes a case about the phenomenon or case study with consequences beyond India.
Aswin Punathambekar’s analyzes the politics of rage and contention in India by focusing on the sonic dimension of digital politics. His claim that a raging popular tune functioned as a floating placeholder that coalesced together a heterogenous field of resistance and animus holds lessons for understanding the role of sound on the web more broadly. Sahana Udupa‘s focus on “gaali” (verbal abuse) cultures on India’s web analyzes the darker side of a medium whose much-celebrated liberatory and expressive potential is simultaneously compromised by equally vituperous and slanderous discourses. In showing the proliferation of the online “gaali” culture, Sahana foregrounds the reactionary consequences of the web’s enabling networked architecture.
Both Ralph Schroeder and I bring in a comparative perspective with other BRICS countries whose media environments have recently received much scholarly attention. My comparison of the cultures of online privacy relies on ethnographic research in India and Brazil to de-center conversations about online citizenship from the global North to the newly emerging struggles over online privacy in the South. In making a case for rethinking our approach to privacy to one that advocates literacy about the issue, her paper reimagines symmetries of network power to arrive at a more equitable definition of digital citizenship. Schroeder continues this comparative dimension of our panel to juxtapose the relationship between emerging digital media ecologies and the state in India and China. His comparison between the largest BRICS nations, each with starkly different polities, is a pertinent reminder of how pre-existing cultural, political and social mores shape the trajectory of a nation’s digital sphere.
Lastly Sangeet Kumar’s analysis of the discursive battle between opposing sides of the net-neutrality debate in India showcases the newer avenues of mobilization and resistance enabled by the web but also allows for the unique ways in which a pre-existing culture of political dissent, mobilization and heterodoxy manifests itself on India’s web. In showing how the web enabled a movement against far more resourceful and entrenched interests on the issue of net-neutrality, his essay extends recent scholarship on online movements in non-western locations to show their differing iterations. The diverse case studies analyzed in the papers that make up the panel, are counterbalanced by the papers’ common interrogation of the asymmetry of power these case studies reveal and challenge.
Access slides to the presentation here: slides-aoir-digital-privacy-citizenship-2016
Laura Scheiber and I wrote a paper on romance online among low-income youth in Brazil and India. It will be out early next year, titled, “Slumdog romance: Facebook love and digital privacy at the margins of India and Brazil”
Facebook has consolidated its position as the one-stop-shop for social activity among the poor in the global South. Sex, Romance, Love – are key motivations for mobile and Internet technology usage among this demographic, much like the West. Digital romance is a critical context through which we gain fresh perspectives on Internet governance for an emergent digital and globalizing public. Revenge porn, slut shaming and Internet romance scams are a common and growing malady worldwide. Focusing on how it manifests in diverse digital cultures will aid in the shaping of new internet laws for a more inclusive cross-cultural public. In specific, this paper examines how low-income youth in two of the BRICS nations- Brazil and India, exercise and express their notions on digital privacy, surveillance and trust through the lens of romance. This allows for a more thorough investigation of the relationship between sexuality, morality, and governance within the larger Facebook ecology. As Facebook becomes the dominant virtual public sphere for the world’s poor, we are compelled to ask if inclusivity of the digital users comes at the price of diversity of digital platforms.
Recently, I gave a talk at an interesting symposium, Convergence and Disjuncture in Global Digital Culture? organized by the Project for Advanced Research in Global Communication (PARGC) at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
My talk was based on my paper, “50 shades of privacy: Facebook ecologies from the margins of Brazil and India.” In brief, the talk questions whether there is a global digital privacy culture? Is Facebook with its global brand, algorithmic structures and privacy settings universalizing the digital experiences of the poor in the global South? the paper argues that Facebook, through its internet.org initiative provides free access to select sites to the poor in the global South, making it the one-stop-shop for most of their social activity online. Given this context collapse, this digital space becomes a forum of public expression as well as state control on morality and privacy rights. It is complicit in obfuscation that empowers and exploits. This text investigates how low-income youth in two of the BRICS nations- Brazil and India, exercise and express their notions on digital privacy, interpersonal surveillance and trust on Facebook. We find there is a convergence in the perception of Facebook as a public and ‘happy’ place. However, disjunctures arise on the motivations for such affections: escapism from chronic violence in the case of Brazil and aspiration for romance in the context of arranged marriages in India. Digital privacy rights confront gender equality. Overall, this paper provides fresh perspectives on how privacy is pluralizing for a globalizing and emerging digital data public.
If you would like to access the slides, here goes:
Slides-PARC Philly 2016
My paper, “Bottom of the Data Pyramid, Big data and the Global South” has been published in the International Journal of Communication, an open access journal. This work is a build-up from the blog that I wrote earlier on regarding this topic for Discover Society as well as a couple of keynotes I gave in 2015 at the Technology, Knowledge & Society Conference in Berkeley and IS4IS Summit in Vienna.
Basically, this paper argues that so far, little attention has been given to the impact of big data in the Global South, about 60% of whose residents are below the poverty line. Big data manifests in novel and unprecedented ways in these neglected contexts. For instance, India has created biometric national identities for her 1.2 billion people, linking them to welfare schemes, and social entrepreneurial initiatives like the Ushahidi project that leveraged crowdsourcing to provide real-time crisis maps for humanitarian relief. While these projects are indeed inspirational, this article argues that in the context of the Global South there is a bias in the framing of big data as an instrument of empowerment. Here, the poor, or the “bottom of the pyramid” populace are the new consumer base, agents of social change instead of passive beneficiaries. This neoliberal outlook of big data facilitating inclusive capitalism for the common good sidelines critical perspectives urgently needed if we are to channel big data as a positive social force in emerging economies. This article proposes to assess these new technological developments through the lens of databased democracies, databased identities, and databased geographies to make evident normative assumptions and perspectives in this under-examined context.
Hope you enjoy the article.
This is the second Amsterdam Privacy conference, an initiative of the University of Amsterdam with active participants from diverse disciplines as philosophy, law, economics, informatics, social sciences, medical sciences and media sciences. APC 2015 brought together leading experts in the field of privacy who discussed and answered the challenging privacy questions that lie ahead of us.
We presented our first analysis of our data on the perceptions and practices of the youth in the favelas of Brazil and slums of India at this conference under the Values and Ethics panel – titled ‘Slumdog romance, politics & surveillance: Digital Privacy perspectives and practices in Brazil and India”
The forum took place from October 8 to October 12 in Rhodes, Greece. Vectors of discussion with fellow keynote speakers touched upon were: The Globalized Digitalized World Community, The New Media Market Tendencies and Perspectives , Media in Flux: The BRICS an Post-American Way, The New Digital Knowledge Society? and Opportunities and Risks in Internet of Things.
As an INGO, The World Public Forum -“Dialogue of Civilizations” focuses on humanity’s future. “It is a Forum where important global issues are addressed through international and cross-cultural dialogue. The Forum deals particularly with major global fault lines: that is, with situations which are, or are likely to become, sources of major political, economic and cultural conflicts in our world.”
My article ‘Bottom of the data pyramid: Big data and the global South’ is out in the Discover Society magazine. This is particularly interesting for those curious to know how conversations on surveillance, privacy, big data and trust transfer to marginalized communities outside the West. It is part of a Special Issue on big data and societal impact with contributions from others like Rob Kitchin, David Beer, and more. Check it out here.