Across Borders

Posted by Nishant Shah at Jul 11, 2012 10:50 AM |
A friend and I were at a cafe in Bangalore the other day, when an acquaintance walked in. After the initial niceties, and invitation to join us for coffee, the new person looked at us and asked a question that sounded so archaic and so unexpected that we had no answers for it: How do you two know each other? This innocuous question threw us both off the loop because we didn’t have an immediate answer.
Across Borders

There is hope that as the physical translates into the digital, there is a possibility of reconfiguring our pasts and recycling them for more collaborative and shared futures

Nishant Shah's article was published in the Indian Express on July 5, 2012

How do we two know each other? My story would begin with Livejournal — a community-based blogging platform that was popular in the early Noughties and was the first large-scale digital network I belonged to, and where I spoke with and befriended people writing in that closed social network. My friend probably pins it down to Twitter and how our blogging-friendship solidified through the charms of 140-character direct messages. There is another story somewhere, that we discovered later, when we added each other on Facebook and realised that we have a few close friends in common. Over the last many years, we have also worked together on a couple of projects, have caught up IRL (In Real Life) whenever we visit each others’ cities — Mumbai and Bangalore — and have thought of ourselves as friends, without trying to form a narrative that identifies the point of origin.

When you compare this state of being, which is increasingly the default mode of being for many young people who cement their relationships through digital connections, with how we used to get to know people even two decades ago, we know that things have changed dramatically. For the longest time, the act and fact of knowing somebody was to find physical, material and communitarian similarities — filters that allowed us to hobnob with others like us. Of course, we were always progressive and cosmopolitan, but a quick sweep of any social circle would show that we were mostly confined to people who shared common stories with us. Sometimes these stories were of material proximity, we grew up in the same neighbourhoods, went to the same schools, etc. Sometimes these stories were of class and affordability, we belonged to the same clubs and hung out at similar places. Sometimes these stories were about an imaginary sameness, of religion, community, family etc.

If there is a truly democratising principle that the digital revolution brought to the fore, it can be seen in this destabilising of an older world order, where we are quite comfortable in coexisting and embracing those who are unlike us. I do not mean this to be a celebratory moment where the flat, non-discriminatory and inclusive societies are finally being built. Indeed, the digital networks have their own set of filters that eventually allow us to connect only with people of the same ilk. If you are online in India, you are necessarily talking to people who speak in a particular language and speak it in a particular way. Grammar, diction, fluency, references to global cultural icons and productions, consumption-based lifestyles, all betray the different locations (physical or otherwise) that people come from and serve as extremely strong filters to determine who we connect with.

This, sometimes, even translates into gadget snobbery. For example, a young friend told me that she finds it impossible to connect with people who don’t have a BlackBerry phone because she doesn’t know how she can sustain relationships without being constantly in touch through the BlackBerry Messenger. Similarly, the celebration of social applications like Instagram, which were available only to iPhone users, warns us that there are severe economic, social, cultural and political prejudices that abound in cyberspaces.

However, in the middle of these complications, digital natives are not only a mobile-wielding generation, but also a mobile generation. They are fluid, not necessarily tied to the geographies of their origin, and often imagine themselves, as travelling across different networks and systems, like the information traffic on the internet. This dislocation of the fixity of where we are from and who we are, is one of the most exciting results of the digital turn. The fact that we are able to not only step out of these older networks, which are often entrenched in old-world politics that perpetuate mindless discrimination, but also fabricate new communities and collectives that bring together a diversity, for me, is heartening. While these new social forms will have their own set of problems — gendered, social, linguistic and class-based — they are also the new forms of our socio-cultural being. And there is hope that as the physical translates into the digital, there is a possibility of reconfiguring our pasts and recycling them for more collaborative and shared futures.



Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.