IRC16 - Proposed Session - #DigitalLiteraciesAtTheMargins

Posted by Sumandro Chattapadhyay at Nov 24, 2015 09:55 AM |
This is a session proposed for the Internet Researchers' Conference (IRC) 2016 by Aakash Solanki, Sandeep Mertia, and Rashmi M.



The session intends to initiate a discussion on digital literacies in the wake of ‘Digital India’ programme drawing on the empirical insights from three different field situations. The discussion will be anchored in the social and material context of Digital India but will not be limited to it. The questions we raise in this specific context may be extended to understand the current conceptual as well as practical deployment of many ICT4D programmes as envisioned by both government and non-government actors. The idea of digital literacy is central to both the conceptualization and the execution of such programmes, and the actors in charge work with their own understanding of the context and needs of the people they aim to empower. There have been very few attempts to systematically understand the concept of digital literacy which leave much scope for either lenient contextual interpretations or context insensitive one-size-fits-all approach towards technological interventions. This session is an effort to begin one such discussion which we hope will refine the prevalent understanding of digital literacy/literacies in India.

From a glance at the structure of Digital India programme, it is apparent that the programme is designed to achieve digital inclusion and is primarily directed towards the digitally marginalized in spite of having a more comprehensive agenda. The schemes such as National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM) and the way they are conceived are indexical of the kind of target groups which the programme plans to address. A key concern for us is to think through the mismatches between the frameworks of the digital literacy initiatives and the local socio-technical contexts which we observed in our field sites. The objective of the session is not as much to arrive at the definitional fixity of the concept of digital literacy as it is to complicate and problematize the prevalent definitions of digital literacy implicit in both visualization and execution of such initiatives. We plan to meet this objective through empirical insights we have on three different field sites.

The session will also focus on certain methodological questions that might help us better understand digital literacy. This part of the session addresses questions such as: how can we conceptually define digital literacy/literacies? What parameters should go into the measuring of digital literacy? How should we theoretically understand it – as technical skills or knowledge or some higher cognitive ability? How can we best pedagogically achieve it given the complexity of ground reality? The questions will be directed towards encouraging thought in this area rather than providing answers. The session will also try and discuss various kinds of policy and pedagogical documentation available on digital literacy and critically debate their conceptualization and execution by juxtaposing them against various uses of ICTs on the ground by specific groups of users. This part of the discussion will draw upon scholarly and other kinds of documentation available on the topic and use them to evaluate various government and corporate initiatives to achieve digital literacy in India.



In keeping with the spirit of the conference, the three discussants’ will try to put forth empirical insights from their respective field situations and frame nuanced research and discussion questions on digital literacies at the margins of techno-cultural capital and/or access. Further the discussion will be aided by specific readings and the insights drawn from them. The idea is to have a symmetrical, reciprocatory and anthropologically comparative conversation on questions of technology, materiality, access, meaning making, development and literacy, by moving back and forth between different fieldsites and interpretive frameworks.

Field Note I

The first discussant's work on social media use in rural Rajasthan discusses socio-technical changes instituted by the introduction of ICTs despite their developmental failures. He claims that these changes have been often viewed from technologically or socially deterministic positions and that there are significant empirical gaps between such technocratic discourses and the grassroots experiences of technology. There is a growing usage of social and digital media in rural areas where ICT4D and e-Governance pilot projects have failed to meet their goals. Based on an ethnographic study of ICTs in two villages of Rajasthan, his work aims to situate social and digital media in a complex rural society and media ecology using co-constructivist approach. Focusing on context sensitive meaning making of ICTs, it will seek to contribute to an empirically sound discourse on media, technology and rural society in India.

Field Note II

The second discussant's work on mobile phones and multimedia consumption among the digitally marginalized users in Bangalore brings into focus the popular usage of ICTs, specifically mobile phones, among the subaltern users. While such popular usage indicates a certain level of literacy already achieved by the digitally marginal groups by mere exposure and peer learning, it is not sufficient to do away with all kinds of guided training required to make such users participate in informationalized environments. Her observations on the mobile phone usage among the subaltern users in Bangalore problematize the notion of digital literacy and invite us to think about it as a more layered and stratified concept. They raise questions such as ‘what constitutes digital literacy?’ – some complex use of gadgets learnt by mere exposure and peer knowledge or an awareness about the social relevance of the technologies and knowledge about their appropriate deployment in different social contexts? While mere access and some nominal training might be helpful in equipping people with some knowledge about gadget-use, her study points out that such initiatives are far from achieving the right degree of digital literacy needed to make these people participate in new media ecologies. Thus it contends the claims of 1. Organic literacy attained by mere exposure and peer sharing of technological knowledge and 2. Literacy attained by current training programmes which might equip the digitally marginalized with knowledge of technological use but not necessarily inform them about the context relevant knowledge needed for their appropriate deployment.

Field Note III

The third discussant's work on e-governance initiatives in an Indian state plans to return the gaze on to the bureaucracy itself and takes the conversation from the margins back to the centre. His work moves away from the target groups generally alluded to in programs such as the NDLM. It takes into accounts the struggles, anxieties, hopes and promises of/for a bureaucracy in coming to terms with a gradual but seemingly eventual shift from paper work to digital paper work. The users in this case are staff members tasked by the higher-level bureaucracy-who have little or no clue about it themselves- to learn a new tool and migrate all paper work to the digital domain.  Many of e-governance projects are spearheaded by corporate organizations, which in turn dictate the terms of the conversation on Digital Literacy even within the government. What impact does this have on how Digital Literacy is understood, articulated and executed in ICT4D programs within and without the government.



Terranova, Tiziana. 2004. Chapter 5: Communication Biopower, 131-157. Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. London: Pluto Press.

Mazzarella, William. 2010. Beautiful Balloon: the Digital Divide and the Charisma of New Media in India. American Ethnologist, 37(4), 783-804.

Smith, Richard Saumarez. 1985. Rule-by-Records and Rule-by-Reports: Complementary Aspects of the British Imperial Rule of Law. Contributions to Indian Sociology 19(1): 153–176.



Sumandro Chattapadhyay

As a Director at CIS, I co-lead the researchers@work programme, and engage with academic and policy research on data governance and digital economy. I can be reached at sumandro[at]cis-india[dot]org.