IRC16 - Proposed Session - #WebOfGenealogies

Posted by Sumandro Chattapadhyay at Nov 23, 2015 07:15 PM |
This is a session proposed for the Internet Researchers' Conference (IRC) 2016 by Ishita Tiwary, Sandeep Mertia, and Siddharth Narrain.



The Internet today, as we know, is one of the most challenging socio-technical systems to understand and theorise. As a hybrid medium that perpetually, reinvents, redesigns and re-markets itself and its publics it defies all forms of historical, social, legal and technological determinisms and/or generalisations. The complex nature of the medium and the social and cultural lives of the information packets which flow through it can perhaps be better understood by heeding critical attention towards longer histories of media circulation, technology-society relationships and legal regulations.

The panel attempts to understand the way digital technologies (the Internet/the current digital moment) mediate aspects of our contemporary being through the history of media circulation, legal regulation and data infrastructure. The papers in the panel focus on three crucial periods - the 1940s early history of statistical mediation, the 1980s video moment and the early 2000s advent of legal regulation of the Internet. Each of these moments is marked by socio-technical, cultural and legal disruption as seen through both moral anxieties and utopian claims that circulate at the time. The panel attempts to understand media technologies through their technological affordances (unpacking current debates around data analytics through a history of statistical mediation) and the social and legal disruptions that follow their advent (video in the 80s and the Internet in late 90s).

The papers in the panel approach the Internet and networked digital media as an assemblage of media infrastructures, bringing together both conceptual and material layers of their experience. The papers in this panel use a media archaeology approach (Elsaesser, 2004) to engage with the longer history of electronic communication in India by looking at both its material nature (how law produces the representation of digital media and the Internet), and the history of non narrative framework of databases (the Internet as a massive data infrastructure) which have become increasingly diverse and distributed through a network of institutions, practices and technological platforms.



Abstract I: 'What is Video?' Video and the Moment of Legal Disruption

The advent of YouTube changed the way users interact with media content as now they are making videos, watching videos, editing them, sharing them and discussing them at a frantic speed, creating new communities as they go along (Manovich, 2008).

The YouTube phenomenon and its implications cannot be understood without contextualizing it within the broader history of video. In India, the Asiad Games heralded the arrival of analog video technology, although there was no legal producer of video content in the country. In a sense video was an illegal object that spawned a vibrant economy of video films, video magazines and pornography.

Video cassettes were primarily in the pirate economy and circulated all across the country through video libraries and parlours. New Bollywood and Hollywood releases as well as pornographic films were available on video cassettes which initially did not have any film certification regulation. The new mode of circulation made these video exhibition spaces a lynchpin of moral paranoia and economic anxiety for those in authority-video was like a plague that needed to be monitored and regulated. This led to a string of legal regulations to keep the ‘video menace’ in check. Associations, organizations and forums protested the new wave of regulations as it pitched the medium of video against that of cinema, demanding new medium specific laws instead of amendments to previous laws on cinema.

In this paper, I will examine how the wave of regulations and contesting bodies creates a charged force field of the period that gives one a sense of a social, cultural and legal disruption caused by the arrival of a new technology. Particularly, I want to focus on how video as an illegal object circulates through informal circuits at a rapid pace and how the law deals with this new technological development. By looking at the example of video, it would be productive to think about the resonances the extended genealogies of how the law is interacting with the current digital moment through the prism of analog video.

Abstract II: Big Data 2.0 -- A History of Statistical Remediation

One of the fast emerging themes in the understanding of the Internet is centred on its various technological affordances to generate, collect, measure, analyse, mine andvisualise data. With the recent (circa 2010) advent of the hype cycles of Big Data and data revolution, the socio-technical imaginaries which reveal the Internet as a massive data infrastructure have been gaining momentum. ‘Data’ which in many ways is an ontological byproduct of the Internet, is now increasingly becoming the object of thought and computation for understanding and analysing the Internet. This moment of flux invites us to reflect upon the genealogies of the concepts, techniques and practices which are consciously or otherwise informing the incredible epistemic investment in data-driven systems. With an aim to unpack some of the long histories of the contemporary data analytics movement and moment, this paper tries to trace some of the inflection points in the genealogies of analytics and statistical remediation in colonial and post-colonial India, with an emphasis on the works of P C Mahalanobis and the statistical framing of planning and governance in the pre- and post-independence era.

The author will utilise ethnographic and archival material from his on-going fieldwork on emerging data-driven systems in the social sector in India, to reflect upon the shifts in materiality of data, classificatory affordances of paper and software based systems, and their epistemic implications across two different epochs. In addition, as a methodological reflection, the paper will argue that – developing lateral, conceptual connections between pre-digital circulations and meaning making of numbers and their contemporary algorithmic ecologies, is crucial for moving beyond causalities and the Big Data hubris, towards a thicker anthropology of data-driven knowledge production across times, infrastructures and networks.

Abstract III: The History of Internet Law in India

The relationship between law and media technology in India has been broadly characterized as the law catching up with technological change. To unpack this statement, one needs to take into account how the law both shapes and is shaped by media technologies. As the law ‘catches up’ with new technology, it also characterizes this technology, brackets it, and helps reinforce popular perception of technology. This paper will examine the early history of Internet law in India, the debates that arose in the pre web 2.0 era, and the ways in which a wide variety of factors, over a period of 15 years, has gradually shaped the scope and extent of the law that governs the Internet, the Information Technology Act (IT), 2000.

The IT Act, being relatively recent legislation is an ideal illustration to study the manner in which government policy, public perception, judicial pronouncements, parliamentary committee proceedings, legislative debates, and rapidly changing technology have influenced the shaping of this specific media infrastructure. By examining these documents I would like to open up a series questions around law and media technology How is the relationship between law and media technology staged through public discourse? What are the ways in which both the extremes – utopian hope and moral panic play out, and how are these then related to the more functional aspects of technology? Who were the major actors, individuals and institutions, who drove Internet law and regulation at this time?

By addressing these questions, this paper seeks to examine a small slice of the longer history of electronic communication in India.



Lovink, Geert and Nadiere, Sabine ed. Video Vortex Reader: Responses to YouTube, Amsterdam, Institute of Network Cultures, 2008.

Lisa Gitelman and Virginia Jackson, Introduction, Raw Data is an Oxymoron. Edited by Lisa Gitelman. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2013.

Shreya Singhal v. Union of India. Full text of judgement available at