Digital native: The View from My Bubble

Posted by Nishant Shah at Dec 05, 2016 03:15 PM |
In the digital world, the privileged have the power to deny a devastating crisis for the poor.

The article was published by Indian Express on December 4, 2016.

For weeks now, my timeline on almost all social media feeds has been dominated by stories of demonetisation. Over the last few years, I have been spending time in countries where I, more or less, live a cashless life. Every transaction is enabled by a digital connection — my contactless debit card pays most of the bills for groceries, my phone works as an automatic wallet at my favourite stores, and the larger purchases are done online, through direct bank transfers. Most days, I leave home with such little cash that I would not even be able to buy a decent meal with it.

While the continent is different, this experience is not much different from my days spent in India. I don’t really remember the last time I made huge cash deposits or withdrawals, and the services that I am used to would almost all have facilitated digital transactions, ensuring a smooth continuation of my life except, perhaps, for renouncing the occasional binge on street food, and letting go of the habit of hailing an auto on a busy road.

Hence, like many people who live in the same privileged combination of class, urbanity, education and affordability, my initial reaction to this move was reflective and speculative. In an abstract manner, I was curious about what this means to the theory of value, what this would achieve in the long-term visions of the state, and wondering what the costs of currency re-introductions might be. The earlier debates with family and friends were all marked by this elitist inquiry into the nature of things, feasting our minds on economic and political conundrums, well aware that there is going to be no crisis on the horizon. The social media also reflected this filter bubble. We made pithy jokes and offered polarised opinions about whether or not this is going to achieve the whitening of black money, and what its long term effects on the economic future would be.

Now that we know, however, that this state of emergency is going to last well into the end of this year, and as reports trickle in of the deprivation, exploitation and precariousness that destabilise lives and push them towards the precipice, I take a deep introspective breath. I don’t want to go into the discussions of the impact and measures of this move on lives that I do not live, and people who are so unlike me that I cannot even imagine what it means to live on the edge of a demonetised currency note. My opinions on this cannot be more informed or valid than the millions of voices that have flooded the social web with commentary, discussions and outright abusive fighting around the issue.

Instead, I want to reflect on what it means to consume a lived crisis, an embodied reality, a precarious condition through the mediated bubble of the digital web. For years now, activists have lamented that the web is an alienating medium. It allows people to become armchair clicktivists, removed from the reality of messy life and able to profess care, concern and commitment as long as it does not inconvenience or disrupt their everyday life. However, this has often been seen as a knee-jerk reaction to change, with enough evidence to prove that these technologies of connectivity also produce new collective forms of action, engendering trust, empathy, and care for people who are often made invisible in the systemic violence of everyday life. The debate is unresolved. However, the ways in which the demonetisation crisis — because it has officially become a crisis — is being consumed online, remotely, makes me wonder how the digital web allows a space for performance without experience, and articulation without politics.

Almost unanimously, the continued chatter of how the common man must bear some inconvenience for the greater good of our collective futures comes from people who embody the same privileges I do. From the comfort of their well-stocked kitchens and their insurances that would cover any health crises, these voices continue to parrot the idea that all that this means for anybody is just a bit of a hassle, but nothing to worry about.

In the growing face of evidence that the poor are being pushed to the limits of their downward precipitation, they continue to invoke the sacrifices that must be made towards making India great again. Every day, I hear them valiantly champion the Prime Minister for his authoritative decision, and defend the logistics that have failed to protect the economic survival of the silent sufferers in the favour of recovering untold wealth which might turn out to be mythical after all.

And, each time I read these reports, I wonder how the digital allows them, protects them, and produces a performative space from which they can speak, without any experience, about the lives of others, reducing their struggles to lifestyle logistics and ambulatory adjustments.


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.