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Internet and Society in Asia: Challenges and Next Steps

Posted by Nishant Shah at Dec 23, 2011 05:56 AM |
The ubiquitous presence of internet technologies, in our age of digital revolution, has demanded the attention of various disciplines of study and movements for change around the globe. As more of our environment gets connected to the circuits of the World Wide Web, we witness a significant transformation in the way we understand the politics, mechanics and aesthetics of the world we live in, says Nishant Shah in this peer reviewed essay published in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 11, Number 1, March 2010.

Traces of digital environments and internet technologies are all around us – we can see them in the rise of Digital Natives who are increasingly experiencing and living their lives mediated by digital technologies; we can see them in new forms of social interactions, such as blogs, peer-to-peer networks, internet relay chat, podcasts and so on, which are progressively becoming the primary points of information dissemination and production; we experience them in the tools and techniques of political mobilisation in large scale democratic elections and also in sub-cultural and smaller phenomena, such as flash-mobs and viral networking; we are incessantly reminded of them in the discourse around questions of safety and danger, especially with reference to activities such as internet pornography, child sexual abuse, piracy, identity theft, etc.

Internet technologies have become so intricately entwined with our daily practices and experiences that it is necessary to seriously look at these technologised circuits and the technology mediated identities thus produced. Increasingly, we see many different disciplines extending their methodologies and perspectives to include cyberspaces and digital behaviour in their purview. We already have a new breed of cyber-psychologists who are looking at the interaction between the human mind, the sense of the self and digital environments. The law, perhaps most concerned with questions of property, trade and commerce, is also examining questions of what it means to be human, with the emergence of post-human categories like cyborgs, cybrids, and genetically modified life forms. Anthropologists and sociologists have discovered cyberspace as a site that significantly influences the behaviour and thought of individuals as well as communities that come into being in the digital deliriums of the networked world. Feminism and Gender and Sexuality Studies have found great theoretical and political interest in the ways in which the internet technologies change the way we understand our bodies and practices. New disciplines like Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Cybernetiques, Cyborg Studies, etc. are slowly garnering importance and evolving as the spread of digital technologies increases exponentially. Cybercultures, a discipline (or perhaps, rather, a combination of various disciplines interested in studying cyberspaces) that comes into being because of the rise of Internet Technologies, is now already institutionalised in many universities and research spaces, concentrating on understanding the complex forms of interaction, representation and negotiation that happen in the fluid and rapidly changing landscape of digital cyberspaces.

As Internet Technologies continue to grow and become a more integral part of our lifestyles, cultural production, and forms of social transformation and political mobilisation, there are a few challenges that we face, especially when writing from and about Asia.

Following the trajectory of the development and spread of internet technologies, academic attention and research has primarily emerged in the North-West and slowly penetrated through disciplines and contexts in other parts of the world. It was only after the 1990s, once the digital revolution reached the ‘rest of the world’, that interest in and research on the phenomenon started to feature in studies in Asia. However, the initial research on and the major interest in the relationship between internet technologies and society has been dependent upon the theoretical categories, examples or ideas produced in primarily Western contexts. This has led to the production of a narrative where the digital technologies of information and communication (like the internet) are looked at as being seamlessly exported from the West to the East, without any attention given to the geo-political contexts and socio-cultural changes that accompany this penetration of technologies. There has been a blindsiding of the role that the State, educational institutions and globalised economic powers have played in the introduction, the proliferation and the acceptance of the internet technologies and digitally mediated lifestyles that have become so commonplace in developing Asia today. Research is oblivious to the context within which these technologies emerge and the kind of negotiations and interactions they have with the larger social and cultural fabric of the region.

One of the main reasons why such a narrative gains currency is that we have no vocabulary but that granted by Western scholars and practitioners to talk of the technologies and the technologised socio-cultural productions that emerge in our own local and regional contexts. With the rhetoric of globalisation and homogenisation on the one hand and the logic of the universalising nature of internet technologies on the other, there has been an un-reflexive theorising of digital identities, productions and interactions; this makes Asia more an exemplar for the existing Western ideas and hypotheses than a site where the drama of these technologies is still unfolding. This process is aided and abetted by the accelerated urbanisation that seeks to create nondescript and sterile spaces of consumption and lifestyle that subscribe to the idea of ‘Global’ or ‘Mega’ cities. Hence, across Asia, we see the mushrooming of cities and city-states – Singapore, Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei, Bangalore – that work at actively erasing histories and producing these bubbles of consumption and globalisation that are disturbingly similar to each other.

Such theorising also reinforces the disconnect that Western Cybercultures has been encouraging between the networked worlds and ‘reality’, which, though affected and changed by the rise of these technologies, still remains strangely continuous and coherent in the midst of transformations. Moreover, it contains most theoretical and political interventions within the zones of urban consumption and change, thus producing a certain middle-class, self-referential work that concentrates on these areas, forgetting other crises and problems that still need attention. It also encourages a view of Asia as a docile, non-agential site upon which technologies are mapped, despite the fact that every year in this new century has seen Asian countries emerging as substantial stake-holders and players in production, proliferation and consumption of internet technologies. Along with the liberalisation of markets, the global digital revolution has also seen boundaries in social norms, cultural mores and political processes being pushed. We have been witness to formerly closed governments attempting to restructure themselves in the global world and to an unprecedented inflation and consumption in the developing Asian countries. We are in the middle of radical reconstruction of academic processes and market economies as public private partnerships become the norm. However, these landmark changes are often ignored or explored from a West-centric view-point, producing extreme and polarised reactions to the spread of Internet Technologies and the changes it entails.

Beyond Euphoria and Fear

Most responses to the widespread reach of internet technologies and digital forms have been grounded in euphoria or fear. There is a certain boundless celebration on the one hand, that proclaims the internet as forming the new public sphere, heralding the democratic potential and transparent structures that these networks have within them. The gurus have looked upon the internet in a ‘convergence theory’ mode where they announce, severally and variously, the death of earlier cultural productions like books, movies and music. The ability of digital technologies to aid innovation and creativity, as well as new forms of employment and entrepreneurship, has spurred the writing of many books and essays documenting the process. The roles that internet technologies have played in granting voice, visibility, and expression to many underprivileged communities, and the way they offer social and economic mobility in developing countries, have been unabashedly celebrated. Governments, civil society practitioners and theoreticians have all looked upon the internet as the panacea that will help level the landscape of social justice and political participation around the world.

Simultaneously, there has also been a construction of ‘ecology of fear’ around the rise and spread of internet technologies. Massive global alarm exists around questions of easy access to pornography and other sexual behaviours online, not only for young adults but also for mature audiences of potential behaviour addicts. Online gambling has emerged as a huge concern and has been at the centre of much debate. Cyber-bullying on social networking systems, and cyber-terrorism on a much larger scale, have shocked us as new technologies get implicated in actions that have disastrous results both at the individual and the community level. With the tightening Intellectual Property regimes, there has also been great debate around digital piracy and the ability of the internet peer-to-peer networks to encourage acts of theft and copyright infringement. As the world becomes more digitised, attacks on sensitive information by crackers and scammers are also on the increase in various forms. The internet has been looked at with growing concern and alarm by parents, educators, policy-makers and corporate entities, who are all deeply involved in assuring safety, creating opportunities and catering to the needs of citizens and consumers.

This simultaneously celebratory and pathologised approach often cripples research in the field of Internet and Society, because it constructs technology mediated practices and identities as at once universal (hence general) and unique (hence particular). Research that emerges is, consequently, confined to producing case-studies explaining what happens in each particular incident online and is unable to examine either the conditions within which the technologies emerge or the contexts that circumscribe certain socio-cultural behaviour. Such research, instead of examining the aesthetics and politics of technology mediated identities and practices, keeps on documenting the extremely fluid and rapidly changing landscape of the digital world – documenting fads, evolutions, innovations and the smaller changes therein – thus missing the forest for the leaf; the research ends up in concentrating on the ‘what happened’ rather than treating these happenings as symptomatic of larger paradigmatic changes that they often hint at.

Internet and the Convergence Theory

This is further complicated by the fact that many theorists and analysts seem to treat the internet more as a platform for convergence of old media forms in new digital packages. Such a view of internet technologies and digital cyberspaces leads to the populist descriptions of blogs as extensions of personal diaries, of digital cinema as a continuation of the celluloid image, of digitally morphed pictures as more sophisticated versions of earlier experiments with still images, of social networking systems as evolution of pre-existing social structures, of MMORPGs (Massive Multiple Online Role Playing Games) as merely complex forms of gaming. These descriptions fail to take into account that internet technologies, especially digital cyberspaces, while indeed affecting and transforming existing forms of media and cultural production, also lead to the emergence of new and interesting forms of expression, consumption and interaction.

Just as the field of Cybercultures has only a vocabulary granted by the West, it also lacks a vocabulary that is its own – most research in Cybercultures, especially in emerging information societies, relies on categories, concepts and ideas that were relevant for earlier popular cultural forms like books and movies. Transplanting categories of authorship, production, consumption, distribution, etc., and trying to map them onto the digital world leads to severe confusion and is a futile exercise. For example, if we look at the discourse around the online user generated encyclopaedia – Wikipedia - and use the earlier existing categories of an author, a reader, an editor and an institutional structure of producing knowledge, we immediately realise that the discussion cannot be sustained; the categories presuppose other forms of writing and production which are not as relevant in the digital worlds. Similarly, legal categories like possession, ownership, labour and copying are also being made redundant by the advent of the internet. As these categories fail to capture the new digital worlds, they also fail to explain the human-technology relationship that the field of Internet and Society seeks to explore. Despite investment in terms of efforts, time and money, much of the research becomes redundant because it does not have the vocabulary or the idea that analysis of these new digital spaces entails.

The imagination of the convergent multimedia internet distracts from the fact that what appear to be earlier historic forms like text and moving images are, in the context of cyberspace and the Web 2.0 revolution, actually new forms that need their own vocabulary that does not carry the baggage of earlier popular technologies. It is time to move away from talking about the Internet and its effects in analogies and to seek and create an independent  and effective language that takes into account the mechanics and the potentials of the Internet revolution.

Institutional Spaces: Internet & Society

It is within such contexts and to address questions like these that institutional spaces emerge in the field of Internet and Society. As more and more disciplines start focusing on internet technologies and their intersections with areas as diverse as identity, sexuality, governance, cultural production, political mobilisation and social transformation, institutions in this space are faced with the daunting question of what to concentrate on and how to define the scope of their activities. Many global organisations and interventions narrowly define the field through their own disciplinary positions and perspectives. The Berkman Centre of Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, for example, examines the law and its intersections with the new internet technologies and practices. Sarai - a new media organisation in India - concentrates on art and cultural production as affected by digital technologies and practices. The Association of Internet Researchers builds a network of multi-disciplinary researchers and practitioners across the globe to meet annually for workshops and conferences and also share ideas through a mailing list, concentrating on existing phenomena on the World Wide Web. Several Communications and Media Studies schools also have established labs and workshops that focus on the internet technologies from their disciplinary grounding.

The Centre for Internet and Society, a newly established research and advocacy centre founded in Bangalore, India, makes a shift from these discipline-bound approaches to Internet and Society, and inaugurates a multi-disciplinary, interactive space for theorists, researchers, students, practitioners, activists, artists and the larger public to initiate a dialogue in the field of Internet and Society. Rather than adopting a disciplinary framework, it takes the model of Asian Cultural Studies, seeking to produce a sustainable scholarship and methodology to talk of the relationship between emergent Internet technologies and the changes they produce in the Global South. It sets out to critically engage with concerns of digital pluralism, public accountability and new pedagogic practices through multidisciplinary research, intervention and collaboration, to understand and affect the shape and form of the internet and its relationship with the political, cultural, and social milieu of our times.

At CIS, we recognise the contexts within which this field has developed and emerged and have initiated many programmes, projects and structures to deal with the questions that this essay has charted. Drawing from the pedagogy and frameworks developed within Cultural Studies in Asia, the research at CIS investigates the local, the contextual, the emergent and the negotiated nature of digital spaces and internet technologies at three levels – At the national level, looking to produce models of research by examining the history, the politics, the growth and the significance of internet technologies in the context of globalised India; At the regional level, focusing on the similarities that global urbanisation and digitisation are bringing to the emerging information societies in Asia and the acknowledging the dissimilarities that need to be addressed in each of these societies; At the global level, engaging with a much larger South-South discourse that strengthens the move to approach internet technologies as integral to our ways of living rather than of foreign import. Such an approach allows us to escape the often restrictive constraints of cybercultures discourse that stays within the domains of internet technologies and produces disconnect between Internet and Society. Instead, we expand the scope of internet technologies to see their relationships with larger political, social and cultural economies, lifestyles and consumption patterns, and identity and transformation structures in the rapidly changing world. In the first two years, for example, we are investing a large part of our research energies into producing the Histories of the Internets in India – inviting different disciplines and standpoints to trace the diverse historically important and culturally significant growth of Internet Technologies in India, thus de-homogenising the internet as well as the discourse within cybercultures.

The policy and advocacy work at the Centre for Internet and Society, also contributes hugely to this localisation and narrativisation of the internet in India, by recognising the law and the State as the largest stakeholders in the growth and proliferation of these technologies. We have initiated campaigns and projects examining national laws regarding intellectual property rights regimes, piracy, e-commerce and security, accessibility and disability, to see how they are subject to modification with the growth of digital technologies. Original field work and ethnography with the consumers, practitioners, stakeholders and law enforcers about the nature of technology, its role in the larger imagination of the globalised Indian State, and the need to make sensitive and informed decisions, has already been initiated, along with dissemination platforms like workshops, seminars, meetings and conferences.

Keeping in tune with our model of collaboration and consultation, the Society Members have also helped us generate a healthy momentum by representing us and helping us find resources around the globe. Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam has been travelling across Asia, Europe and North America, at international policy and activist forums, promoting Open Access to information and knowledge. Lawrence Liang has been involved in teaching both at the local and international levels, apart from presenting original and influential research examining the relationship that internet technologies have with questions of knowledge production, ownership and the law. Achal Prabala has been actively working with the Wikimedia foundation to facilitate user participation in knowledge production online. Atul Ramachandran has been working on developing mobile internet platforms for sharing news and information within the underprivileged communities in India. Vibodh Parthsarthy has been designing academic courses and encouraging research in the fields of internet technologies, governance and democracy.

Because these questions have a much larger regional relevance – with the increasing description of Asia as the Mecca of piracy and digital infractions – we are also in the process of starting projects that do a survey of the laws around intellectual property rights, innovation and access in the Asian region, with Sunil Abraham (Director – Policy) guiding a team of in-house researchers and external collaborators. Cross-boundary research and analysis has also been initiated in terms of dialogues and comparative study of technology, space and globalisation, initiated by my seven month residential project in Shanghai, where we are examining the conditions of technologisation that make global spaces possible, in countries like China and India. Apart from these, the team of seven people has been making interventions in international workshops, conferences and forums, to start dialogues and discussions in the field of Internet and Society.

A significant effort has been spent in starting awareness for the public – from the first documentation on our website of work in progress by our research and policy collaborators to regular contributions to local media sources to organisation of public talks and events – which is aimed at demystifying the internet technologies and giving more ownership and assurance to a larger public. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, gave a public talk on freedom, expression and the internet, citing anecdotes and examples from the phenomenal success and growth of Wikipedia. In a different media, independent film maker Jamie King screened his movies on the piracy cultures and innovation, in Bangalore, sparking conversations and debates about copyright, creative commons and the domain of cultural expression. Students and visiting artists from different countries, through the Shrishti School of Art Design and the efforts of Zeenath Hassan, came together at CIS for a discussion on fear and gender in public space and how digital technologies contribute to it. The discussion feels timely because only a month later, India saw the right wing cultural police tyrannising Bangalore and other parts of Karnataka, by perpetrating acts of brutal violence against women who they saw as progressive or in defiance of the right wing codes of decorum and behaviour. CIS was an active part of the ‘Pink Chaddi’ and ‘Reclaim the Night’ campaigneering, mobilising and participation at a local and national level, as a response to these acts of regressive violence, using digital environments and platforms to garner support and ‘recruit’ people into showing their protest against such fundamental ideas and practices.

Moreover, in order to develop and establish a more accessible vocabulary and understanding both within research, higher education and practice of internet and society questions, CIS has been investing in building national and regional networks of scholars, students and theorists in different disciplines to come and discuss the area. Courses have been designed and administered for undergraduate, post graduate and research students, in the disciplines of social sciences, management and media studies, journalism and communication studies, cultural studies etc. Networking with institutional and university spaces like the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad, Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, Christ University, Bangalore, Centre for Media and Culture Studies, at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. We are also in conversation with regional spaces like the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the Shanghai University, The Open Source Initiative, International Development Research Centre, Hivos and the Asia Scholarship Foundation in Thailand, for extending our regional and global networks.

The Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, is less than a year old and has already embarked upon so many different projects, found a wide range of collaborations, initiated diverse enquiries and has received the support and interest of a varied and credible list of organisations. This warm reception and enthused interest, is as much a sign of the evolving and dynamic nature of collaboration and consultation in Asia, as it is of the need for interdisciplinary spaces like The Centre for Internet and Society, in our times. We see our rapid progress as symptomatic of a much larger need to establish more institutional spaces that can cater to the widely expanding horizon of the field of Internet and Society. While it is indeed laudable that different disciplines have already started showing interest in studying and analysing these often invisible links between Internet and Society, it is also now time, to start looking at technology as more than just an object or platform of study. We can already see how, in the foreseeable future, the internet technologies are only going to become more ubiquitous and central to the crucial mechanics of survival and living. Spaces like CIS help us look at technologies like the internet, as not merely tools and techniques, but as entwined in the politics, aesthetics and economies of the time and spaces we live in.

About the Author

Nishant Shah is the co-founder and Director for Research at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. Nishant’s doctoral work examines the construction of technosocial subjectivities in India, at the intersections of digital technology, cyborg identities and globalised spaces. Nishant is the recipient of the Asia Scholarship Foundation’s grant which places him in Shanghai for a project on IT and the globalisation of Asian cities.

Read the original published by Inter-Asia Cultural Studies here

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