Rethinking the last mile Problem: A cultural argument

This research project, by Ashish Rajadhyaksha from the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, is mainly a conceptual-archival investigation into India’s history for what has in recent years come to be known as the ‘last mile’ problem. The term itself comes from communication theory, with in turn an ancestry in social anthropology, and concerns itself with (1) identifying the eventual recipient/beneficiary of any communication message, (2) discovering new ways by which messages can be delivered intact, i.e. without either distortion of decay. Exploring the intersection of government policy, technology intervention and the users' expectations, with a specific focus on Internet Technologies and their space in the good governance protocols in India, the project aims at revisiting the last mile problem as one of cultural practices and political contexts in India.

THE CULTURAL LAST MILE

Ashish Rajadhyaksha

The Argument:

Mapped onto developmental-democratic language since at least Independence, this concept, further mapping concrete benefits with the delivery of the message, has come to define the classic model by which the Indian state attempts to ensure that policy designed for local implementation actually reaches its intended beneficiaries without distortion. The immense link between communication theory and democracy thereby defines not only the Indian state’s historic dependence on technologies of communication – radio, terrestrial and satellite. It goes further, as the technological apparatus – and its variants of the classic ‘broadcast’ model of single sender-multiple receiver – comes to underpin the very definition of democratic development.

One consequence is an evolutionary definition of technology, with the last mile defined as a means of eternal purification of the message, combining content ‘corruption’ with socio-economic corruption, as newer generations of technology tirelessly eliminate distortion in both. This could well be the history of Indian state policy, from radio broadcasts representing the ‘voice of the State’ to the era of e-Governance.  Such an authority is somewhat graphically in evidence in recent years in the deployment of ‘neutral’ technology such as computers within e-governance initiatives, which have, when successful , seen computer-illiterate farmers make wide use of ICT services where they ‘do not feel that there is a barrier to their obtaining information’, a ‘tribute to the grassroots staff and their training’, but also to ‘faith in the technology’ (Shaik, Jhamtani and Rao 2004: 9). The attribution of such ‘neutrality’ to modern ‘scientific’ technology has been in evidence from late nineteenth-century still photography to the use of technologies such as ‘First In–First Out (FIFO)’, a way that prevents queue-jumping, biometrics and double screens for users to view typed in matter, including touch screens (Parthasarathy 2005, VIII: 9).

The Research Project

This project assumes that, given the chronic historic failure in bridging the last mile, whether in communication theory or in the standard functioning of development projects (a key component of the relatively new discipline of disaster management) – a failure stemming from difficulties in both naming and accessing intended beneficiaries – it becomes necessary to reinvestigate the model itself, along with its historic failures.

The project is split into three parts:
(1) The conceptual argument: a historical trace of the theoretical origins of the concept ‘Last mile’ (even if not named as such), and key technical locations of its deployment: the telegraph, the ‘film trains’ in the 1920s, the radio (extended to transistorization in the 1960s), and the first experiments with terrestrial and satellite technology.
(2) It will then take three specific examples (perhaps but may be changed),(a)  the SITE experiment of the 1970s with specific new field work on the well known Kheda experiment; (b) the Cable Television movements in India in the 1980s, and (c) Experiments with WLL in IIT Chennai in the 1990s.
(3) The concluding section will address locations where the last mile has in fact been bridged successfully, in the review’s estimation, and will inquire into how it came to be functional. It is at this point speculated that it worked mainly because (a) the original model was either tampered with or used contrary to stated intentions, and (b) when it worked, this happened with the connivance of the state. The project will therefore perhaps conclude with the following investigations: that historically significant occasions when alternative definitions were thrown up for the last mile worked mainly because they were dependent on error and accident (rather than seeing these as interruptions or distortions to the signal), and that they functioned more on both peer-to-peer and reverse broadcasting than on the single-sender-multiple-recipients model.

References:

Ashish Rajadhyaksha (1990), ‘Beaming Messages to the Nation’, Journal of Arts & Ideas, No. 19 (May): 33–52.

Ashish Rajadhyaksha (1999), ‘The Judgement: Re-Forming the Public’, Journal of Arts & Ideas, Nos. 32–33 (April)

N. Meera Shaik, Anita Jhamtani and D.U.M. Rao, ‘Information and Communication Technology in Agricultural Development: A Comparative Analysis of Three Projects from India’, Agricultural Research and Extension Network (AGREN), 2004.

Balaji Parthasarathy et al (ed), ‘Information and Communications Technologies for Development: A Comparative Analysis of Impacts and Costs from India’, Bangalore: International Institute of Information Technology, 2005.

 

 

 

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Author

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.