Essays on 'Offline' - Selected Abstracts

Posted by Puthiya Purayil Sneha at Sep 06, 2018 02:05 PM |
In response to a recent call for essays that explore various dimensions of offline lives, we received 22 abstracts. Out of these, we have selected 10 pieces to be published as part of a series titled 'Offline' on the upcoming [email protected] blog. Please find below the details of the selected abstracts.

 

1. Chinar Mehta

2. Cole Flor

3. Elishia Vaz

4. Karandeep Mehra

5. Preeti Mudliar

6. Rianka Roy

7. Simiran Lalvani

8. Srikanth Lakshmanan

9. Titiksha Vashist

10. Dr. Yenn Lee


Chinar Mehta

In September 2017, a student of Banaras Hindu University was allegedly sexually harassed by two persons on a motorcycle while she was walking back to her hostel. Taking the discourse around this event as the starting point, the essay argues that the solutions offered for the safety of women align with the patriarchal notions of surveillance of women. The victim is twice violated; once during the act of sexual harassment, and twice when bodily privacy is exchanged for safety (exemplified by security cameras across the BHU campus). In fact, the ubiquitous presence of security cameras in order to control crime rates makes the safety of the woman’s body contingent to her adherence to social rules.

The moral panic around the safety of women encourages ways to offer a technological solution to a sociological problem. The body is granted safety insofar as the body is not ‘deviant’. There is a fusion of a ‘synoptic-panoptic’ vision, where not only a few watch the many, but the many also watch the few. Additionally, the essay then engages with the politics of mobile applications like Harassmap or Safetipin, and how offline spaces become online entities with crowdsourced data about how safe it is. Mapping events like sexual harassment on an online map is inscribed with perceptions about class and caste. The caste-patriarchal ideas of the protection of upper-caste women is maintained within these applications. The location and the people who visit or reside in them often collapse as the same; as being perpetrators of sexual crimes, while decontextualising incidents. Instead of a focus on how to make areas safer for all women, the discourse becomes about the avoidance of certain spaces, which may not be an option for the majority of women, especially those belonging to certain castes and classes. Features in mobile applications, specifically to do with location mapping, like Google Maps or Uber, become vehicles for the narratives about gendered security.

In defining the ‘offline’, the ‘online’ already exists, and the dichotomy is strangely maintained by the use of interactive maps on personal devices. The essay argues for a more nuanced understanding of internalised constructions of safety, and proposes the idea that institutional surveillance has been a way to discipline gendered bodies historically, and that it is continued with the use of technologies. This may be due to state machinery, or even cultural consent, which would then show up the way that features of mobile applications are marketed.

Cole Flor

Deactivating: An Escape From the Realities of the Online World

A friend posts travels, unboxing the latest gadget, trying out makeup products even before theyÕre out in the market, and the audience hit ÔlikeÕ but deep inside suddenly feel inadequate about their own lives and ask, "What am I doing wrong? Why am I not happy like them?"

The year was 2012 when the earliest of studies on how Social Media contributes to Anxiety went viral.

Even with the complicated nature of mental illnesses the taboo of it all that kept people tiptoeing around the topic - the news was able to crack the glossy facade of online spaces. Back then, it was ridiculous to think that online content the very representation of freedom of expression, information-sharing, open communities caused users some level of distress that affects their mental state. However, with every story that comes out these days of or relating to mental illnesses and social media, people are no longer in denial that being online has become the worldÕs default state. With that primary connection comes a full spectrum of emotions and perspectives that shifted how society views the self, their community, and their roles in being a ÔnetizenÕ. The blurring of lines of whatÕs considered appropriate content, the multiple performances of everyday life, and the imagery that constitutes "happiness", "satisfaction", "significance", "purpose", and "validation" can be described as overwhelming, disconcerting, and stressful to an extent. For borderline Millennials like myself the generation Digital Natives being offline is now an escape from the harsh realities of the online society.

These studies shed light on new narratives that recognized how curating the perfect and seamless life online not only affects the users viewing the content but even the content producers themselves, cracking under pressure and giving into the expectation of "Keeping the Image Alive", whatever it takes. Online life gave "peer pressure" a new meaning.

But users can only deal with so much pressure without sacrificing a part of themselves. During the emergence of social media in early 2000s, users felt the need to go online to escape their personal problems and live in another world where everything seemed easy and possible; where anonymity was powerful and so was virtually traveling in a borderless space where a link opens doors for personal, professional, political, and socio-economic transformation. A quick turn of events, users now wish to escape from the clamor of Twitter threads, Instagram stories, Snaps, and political rants and fake news on Facebook. More and more users deactivate and hibernate, get on board a "social media detox" to rid of the "poison" online content and their [e]nvironments has caused them, all in search for a new something to be called "real".

This narrative essay explores several dimensions why users choose to deactivate, and how that very choice is more of a symptom of a societal anomaly rather than a simple "break" from the chaotic world of social media. It is written in the perspective of a Digital Native - a person who has an inextricable affinity to digital devices but at the same time, is in touch with the analog way of life. The choice of going offline is not only to focus on what used to be real (a life away from the Internet), but it is to gather wits together, stay away from perfectly curated lives to keep sane, and ultimately, to chase life's curiosities and ambitions without having the need to validate achievements with a Like.

Elishia Vaz

Dynamics of the ‘offline’ self-diagnosis, exploration of the corporeal and the politics of information

The corpus of information on health and related topics in the online sphere has caused much concern in relation to self-diagnosis. Concepts like cyberchondria have emerged with the medicalisation of behaviour that uses online health information to explore the corporeal disabilities of the body. While literature has largely concentrated on individual susceptibilities to Cyberchondria and corresponding negative and positive results of the behaviour, there is little that explores the politics of information that characterises this trope. The behaviours of self-diagnosis and exploration of the corporeal often challenge the symptomatology of the offline allopathic physician. The physician often deals with an informed patient. Yet, the questions remain. If online information drives such offline corporeal exploration, who is left out? Are behaviours analogous to cyberchondria a privilege when viewed from a lens of digital marginalization? Are only those who have access to and can make sense of the online health discourse afforded simultaneous access to their offline corporeal bodies in ways that the digitally marginalized are not? This article uses semi-structured qualitative in-depth interviews with doctors to explore the dynamics of exploring the offline corporeal in the presence of online health information.

Karandeep Mehra

The Shadow that Social Media Casts: The Doubled Offlines of Online Sociality

In William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, the protagonist ‘Case’ ‘jacks in’ and ‘jacks out’ of ‘cyberspace’. Yet when ostracized from cyberspace, when there is no more a possibility of jacking in, Case suffers a withdrawal from the ‘SimStim’ – simulated stimulations of cyberspace – and he crumbles in the hollow ache of this isolation “as the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he'd cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, hands clawed into the bedslab, temper foam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn't there.”

Neuromancer has already been deemed prophetic by critics and theorists, yet in beginning with Gibson, this paper seeks to throw into relief a problem that has now begun to receive scholarly and academic attention. Namely, the legitimacy of drawing a line between the online and offline, or the virtual and the real. With Case, the real or the offline only becomes possible within the capacity to access or enter the virtual or online. To think of an offline without this capacity, but after it has become possible, is to confront a detritus, a second offline – a hapless clawing dexterity, with dreams that overrun an articulated, identificatory imagination. Anthropologists like Boellstorff, and media theorists like Yuk Hui, have resolved this problem though they have left unexplained this detritus. Instead they resolve the problem through a tight coupling of the online and offline, and rightly so, dismiss any attempts to think of the real in any way unaffected by the virtual.

The purpose of this paper, though in agreement with the work of Hui and Boellstorff, and drawing from them, is to restage the problem to incorporate the unexplained detritus. That to understand how our conceptions of the subject must be recast to apprehend the transformations that the internet has wrought, must not resolve the opposition between offline and online. We must, instead, attend to the way the two offlines emerge, and the conceptualization of the threshold that oscillates to constitute them.

The paper understands these two offlines as emerging in what are called “shitstorms”, or moments of frenzy across social media that incite a whorl of discourse, where the speaking body becomes a medium for the propagation for viral forms. The threshold that constitutes them is the relation of the technical extension that makes this propagation possible. This relation leaves the body in a perpetual state of information entropy – that is as a disordered source of data - which must be ordered to be communicated successfully. This threshold that marks out the phase shift between disorder to order to make possible propagation, makes possible also the shadow of an incommunicable that it casts behind – an incommunicable that when understood through Walter Benjamin’s idea of “the torso of a symbol” can help us recast the subject of a network society, as a subject grounded on this shadow.

Preeti Mudliar

In WiFi Exile: The Offline Subjectivities of Online Women

In telecom policy imaginations that seek to bridge India’s digital divides, public WiFi hotspots are a particular favourite to ensure last mile Internet connectivity in rural areas. As infrastructures, WiFi networks are thought to privilege democratic notions of freedom and connectivity by rendering space salient as networked areas that only require users to have a WiFi enabled device to get online. However, the kind of spaces that WiFi networks occupy are not always accessible by women even though they are ostensibly public in nature. Social norms that restrict and confine women’s mobilities to certain sanctioned areas do not allow their Internet and digital literacies to be visible in the same way as men who are more easily recognized as active Internet and technology users.

The invisibility of women thus struggles to create a presence as desirable subjects of the Internet that WiFi infrastructures should also address. In a community where WiFi networks was hosted in public spaces, women reported hearing about WiFi and seeing men using WiFi, but had never used it themselves even though they were also active users of the Internet. With its inaccessibility, the WiFi infrastructure was a contradictory presence in the community for the women who found themselves confined to using the Internet with spotty prepaid mobile data plans. Their use and experience of the Internet was thus in many ways diminished and limited and they reported experiencing a state of offlineness in contrast to the men in their community who could frequent the WiFi hotspots and avail of high speed Internet leading to more expansive repertoires of use.

This essay proposes a reflection on how the offline can be relational and constituted by the way infrastructures compose certain user subjectivities even while they exile others from being a part of their networks. It expands on Brian Larkin’s contention that in addition to their technical affordances, infrastructures are also equally semiotic and aesthetic forms that are oriented towards creating and addressing certain subjects. It thus asks, how do public WiFi deployments unwittingly create and constitute, what Bardzell and Bardzell call, as ‘subject positions’ of WiFi Internet users and non-users? How do these subject positions inform subjectivities of felt experience of the WiFi that translate to experiencing the offline even while being online?

Rianka Roy

Information Offline: Labour, Surveillance and Activism in the Indian IT&ITES Industry

In India the public availability of the internet in the nineties coincided with the beginning of liberalisation. Online connectivity brought the aura of globalization to this country. The internet was a privilege of the few. The Information Technology sector (along with the IT-enabled service industry) had an elite status. Its employees visited, and immigrated to western countries. In fact, India still remains one the major suppliers of cheap labour in the global IT sector.

Over the years the aura of the internet waned. In Digital India the State now projects the internet as a necessity. However, IT&ITES companies still identify the labour of their ‘white collar’ employees as a superior vocation. This vague claim to sophistication strips the digitally-connected workforce of various labour rights. Long hours, working from home, and surveillance on personal social media are normative practices in this industry. I conducted a case study on Indian IT&ITES employees for my doctoral research (2013-2018). It showed that protocols of online conduct influence these employees’ offline behaviour. For example, even without digital intervention, employees engage in manual self-surveillance and peer-surveillance to complement the digital surveillance of their organisations. They defend this naturalised practice as employers’ prerogative. Offline attributes like reflective glass walls in the office interior and exterior, reinforce this organisational culture.

Online connectivity is so deeply entrenched in this industry that even dissent seeks digital representation. Activist groups like the Forum for IT Employees (FITE) and the Union for IT & ITES (UNITES) run online campaigns parallel to their offline activism—adopting a hybrid method of protest. They have not abandoned the networks that ensnare them. Paradoxically they embody the same principle of exclusivity that their employers enforce on them. In their interviews, some activists have condemned militant trade unionism prevalent in other industries. For them, their online access sets them apart, and above their industrial couterparts. The “salaried bourgeoisie” (Zizek, p.12) refuse to align themselves with other labour unions.

My paper examines the impact of the near-absence of offline parameters in this industry. On the basis of company policies and interviews of IT&ITES employees, it examines if employees can stand up to digital dominance and secure their rights without conventional modes of offline protests.

Simiran Lalvani

The Offline as a Place of Work: Examining Food Discovery and Delivery by Digital Platforms

Digital platforms for food discovery and delivery are generally viewed as convenient, efficient, allowing discovery of choices beyond the familiar and as reliable sources of information regarding credibility through ratings, comments and photographs.

The digital divide after demonetisation became more stark as those with access to the online abandoned the offline service providers for their digital counterparts. The adverse impact of this digital divide on offline, informal goods and service providers like local kirana stores, autorickshaw drivers, hawkers has been highlighted and the paradox of formalising the financial system while informalising labour has been pointed out too. In a similar vein, this essay examines continuities and changes in the practices of food discovery and delivery in the context of new digital platforms. How do practices of offline food discovery and delivery respond to the introduction of digital platforms?

Recently, the Food Safety and Standards Association of India (FSSAI) found that nearly 40 percent of listings on 10 digital platforms like Swiggy and Zomato were of unlicensed food operators. The FSSAI directed these digital platforms to delist these unlicensed entities and also commented that some of the platforms themselves did not have required licenses.

This essay therefore turns attention away from the impact of digital platforms on offline, informal food operators and towards the digital platforms themselves and the large swathes of informal labour employed in the offline by such platforms. It focuses on location-based gig work4 like delivery to highlight the role of these workers in running the online. It does so in order to avoid obfuscating the role of such workers in making the online seem formal, efficient and reliable. Finally, it asks how working for the online in the offline allows a denial of their status as employees and invisibilisation of such work and workers.

Srikanth Lakshmanan

The Cash Merchant

The paper explores the various reasons for merchants remaining offline and using cash over digital payments, both willingly and without a choice, various factors leading to it, the rationale for their choices, policy responses by the state and industry in furthering promotion of digital payments. Demonetisation not only made everyone including merchants seek alternatives to cash in order to continue the business but also provided a policy window for digital payments industry to get a faster regulatory, policy clearances, get the government to invest in incentivising digital payments. Despite these, the cash to digital shift has not taken place and the demonetisation trends in increased digital payments across modes reversed after cash was back in the system.

The paper attempts to document infrastructural, commercial, social issues preventing the adoption and the responses of merchants, industry to various policy prescription/enablement to increase adoption whose outcomes are unclear and have not been evaluated.

Infrastructural issues include technology, policy, regulatory, industry challenges in expanding the existing infrastructure. The lack of physical, regulatory, legal infrastructure prevents growth and merchants from adopting digital payments. Commercial issues include economics of direct and indirect costs to the merchant incurred in owning, accepting digital payments, commercial considerations of various ecosystem players including banks, payment processors that inhibit adoption. Social issues include awareness, literacy including digital, financial literacy, trust, behaviour shift, convenience, exercising choice towards cash.

Ever since the demonetisation, there is a heightened activity from industry and various arms of the government has been active in promoting digital payments. Industry-led by banks and fintech ecosystem has built a range of mobile-enabled digital payment platforms/products such wallets, BHIM-UPI, BHIM-Aadhaar, BharatQR to enable asset light merchant acceptance infrastructure, expanded merchant base in addition to catering to the surge in demand of card-accepting PoS machines. The government had undertaken a massive awareness program Digidhan soon after demonetisation and had also set up National Digital Payments Mission to promote, oversee the sustainable growth of digital payments. Various ministries are also adopting digital payments in their functioning. It also aided behavioural shift through cashback, incentivisation schemes, some specifically targeted at merchants, reimbursement of card processing charges for smaller merchants and even has in principle proposed a 20% discount on the GST. It has remained light touch on the regulation by not setting up the regulator even after 18 months of announcing the same.

The paper will analyse how the efforts of industry and government have been met by the merchant and look at factors which can and cannot be changed with policy interventions and real scope of digital payments in the merchant ecosystem.

Titiksha Vashist

Byung-Chul Han in his celebrated book “In the Swarm” warns us of the dangers of the mob that is increasingly replacing the ‘crowd’ or collective which constituted the mass of politics. He states that no true politics is possible in the digital era, where online communities lack a sense of spirit, a “we” that is now a swarm of individuals. Despite his theoretical brilliance, Han forgets that he cannot talk of the digital, the online without the offline. Politics has occurred, and continues to exist in the offline space, using the internet to spread its wings. It is not the online as-is, which has become the subject of philosophy, politics, art and aesthetics that characterises itself alone, sealed off as a space where events occur, identities formed and movements created. It is in fact, the offline that brings the online into being and gives it a myriad of meaning. While access, priviledge, commerce and capital are major themes while discussing internet access, we must not forget that the online is not merely a question of choice or access- but one that is often carefully disabled on purpose to control the offline. In India as well as other parts of the world, the internet has been interrupted for long durations to exercise political control and power, often crippling populations. According to a report by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), an organisation that keeps a track on internet shutdowns in the country, India has seen 244 shutdowns in 2012, of which 108 have been enforced on 2018 alone. These have been concentrated in areas such as Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East, and in instances of violence and resistance as well.

An internet shutdown is the digital equivalent of a curfew, and its application raises questions regarding its cause, uses and political intent. The internet as means, as an enabler of political action is seen as threatening, given the shift in the way people today communicate with one another. Internet bans and shutdowns are not only matters of commerce, but also pose the question of politics to understand when and how power is exercised. An offline created out of a shutdown is different- it is curated on purpose and calls for alternative means by which functionalities of daily life, resistance, capital and media occur. This essay aims to explore how the political image of the “sovereign” also enters the digital space to carefully construct, cut- off and marginalized voices, all in the name of state security, and law and order. According to philosopher Carl Schmitt, the sovereign is he who decides on the exception, and the offline is increasingly becoming a space of exception where those who control the digital can influence the political in real time. In this context, how do we understand the relationship of power and digital access? This essay focuses on three broad questions: (a) Is there a community online capable of political action that is facilitated by the internet? (b) How does power function in internet shutdowns and are they threats to democratic freedom of expression? And finally, (c) How do we begin to unpack the ‘online’ and the ‘offline’ in such a context?

Dr. Yenn Lee

Online consequences of being offline: A gendered tale from South Korea

We hear numerous anecdotes of people facing the consequences of their online activity when offline. Some have lost jobs, have been disciplined in school, or have wound up in court for what they have posted online. However, in comparison, there has been somewhat limited discussion of the reverse scenario, where going about one's day-to-day life offline leads to violations of one's online self.

This essay is concerned with a new and unparalleled phenomenon in South Korea, locally termed molka. Literally meaning 'hidden camera', molka refers to the genre of women being filmed in the least expected of situations, including cubicles in public restrooms and in the midst of car accidents, and the footage being traded and consumed as entertainment. This is distinct from revenge porn or cyber-stalking where the perpetrators usually target a known or pre-determined individual with the intention of humiliating them or to exercise control. The subjects of molka are victimised for merely existing offline and are mostly unaware that their privacy has been violated until they are recognised by someone who knows them and informs them (or inflicts further harm). In response to the rising trend of molka, tens of thousands of frustrated and infuriated women have staged monthly protest rallies in central Seoul since May 2018, urging government intervention. Ironically, women gathered offline to protest against molka have been subjected to further molka crimes with unconsented photos of themselves at the rallies surfacing online and many have been the target of misogynous attacks.

Informed by the author's multi-year ethnographic study of technologically mediated and heightened tensions in contemporary South Korean society, this essay provides a succinct yet contextualised account of the molka phenomenon. With particular attention to the ways in which the phenomenon has developed while shifting between offline and online realms, the essay demonstrates the gendered nature of digital privacy and harassment, and the broader implications of this Korean phenomenon for women in other parts of the world.

 

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