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