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  • What the network can't see: Politics of inclusion in connected societies

What the network can't see: Politics of inclusion in connected societies

In the large history of words and concepts, the network is a relatively young player. The first etymological trace of the network is in the late 19th Century, where it was used as a verb within broadcast and communication models, to indicate outreach – as in to cover with a network. The network as a noun predates that and was used in sailing adventures in the 16th Century, when a ‘net-like arrangements of threads, wires, etc.’ was identified as a network. It is only in the second half of the industrial 19th century that the term network was used for understanding an extended, complex, interlocking system. And the idea of a network as a set of connected people is so recent that there are people still alive who remember when the network was not a universally understood descriptor. So ubiquitous is the presence of the network as a practice, as a collective, and as a metaphor that seeks to explain the world we live in, that we often forget how new this phenomenon of networking is. Indeed, for most of us, a network is easily understood as a self-explanatory descriptor that constructs a model through which relationships between objects, individuals, systems, structures, infrastructure and resources are imagined.

And yet, the network is ineffable, if not inscrutable. Especially within the realms of the Internet, which, in itself, purports to be a giant network, the network is self-referential and completely denuded of meaning. A network is benign and like the digital the foregrounds the network aesthetic, it is inexplicable. You cannot really touch a network or name it. You cannot shape or define it. You can produce momentary snapshots of it but can never contain or limit it. The network cannot be held of materially felt. And yet, like a pervert, the network touches us. We live within network societies. We engage in networking – network is a verb. We are a network – network is a noun. We belong to networks – networks are collectives. In all these poetic mechanisms of the network, there is perhaps the core of what I want to provoke in our conversation – that there is a way by which the network becomes such a dominant and naturalised form of thinking about our world, that we don’t see the network, we see through it. The network, from its original ambition of being a scrying device that helps make sense of an external reality, has become the defacto producer of meaning, so that everything we see is only because the network allows us to see. Or, to extend the argument, as Dough Belshaw argues very passionately, we understand the network, but we actually understand through the network, and thus we never see what the network cannot see. It is in the context of this emergence of the network that I want to complicate our understanding of Inclusion and its politics.

The paradox of the hypervisibility of the network and its ineffability, posits it squarely, as the inescapable condition of our times. Networks are not only objects or actions, but they are also the de-facto explanatory framework of our times. We are able to think of networks as historically informed and forming the futures. Different movements, flows, conjunctions, and intersections of history, from colonial ventures to navigation adventures, from the spread of contagion to the virality of knowledge, are all now imagined, mapped, visualised, and understood through the network paradigm. The network is all encompassing and in its constantly moving, always shifting, plug-play-and-assimilate aesthetic, the network is also seen as a natural way of thinking about the world. We are of course, aware that the network as a form is exclusionary and hence we devote a lot of time to try and make them inclusive. What I want to focus on, for this paper, is not on how to include things into the network, but instead, on how the network has become such a powerful mode of imagining the world, that we can now think of a network of things that cannot be included in a network. And before talk about the politics of inclusion, it might be a good idea to examine the morphology, architecture and intentions of a computational network which powers most of our network conversations.

Let me ground this in a story that is both personal and has to do with ICTs. In August 2012, I woke up one morning to realise that I was living in a city of crisis. Bangalore, which is one of my homes, where the largest public preoccupations in recent years have been about bad roads, stray dogs, and occasionally, the lack of a night-life, was suddenly a space that people wanted to flee and occupy simultaneously.  Through technology mediated gossip mill that produced rumours faster than the speed of a digital click, imagination of terror, of danger, and of material harm found currency. And the city suddenly witnessed thousands of people suddenly running away from it, to go back to their imagined homelands.

It was called the North East exodus, where, following an ethnic-religious clash between two traditionally hostile communities in Assam, there were rumours that the large North East Indian community in Bangalore is going to be attacked by certain Muslim factions at the end of Ramadan. This fuelled a mass exodus that just wouldn’t stop despite a barrage of messages from law enforcement and security authorities, on email, on large screens on the roads, and on the comfort of our cell-phones, there was a growing anxiety and a spiralling information explosion that was producing an imaginary situation of precariousness and bodily harm. This wasn’t an exodus of individuals or communities. It was an exodus of an entire network  - of people activated through ICTs, into performing a collective action, and there was no way to stop it.

While there is much to be unpacked about the political motivations and the ecologies of fear that our migrant lives in global cities are enshrined in I want to look at three particular pressure points in this story to talk about the notion of the network and how it informs our politics of what is included and kept out of networks:

The Invisible Network

There is an imagination, especially in cities like Bangalore, of digital technologies as necessarily plugging in larger networks of global information consumption. The idea that technology plugs us into the transnational circuits is so huge that it only tunes us towards an idea of connectedness that is always outward looking, expanding the scope of nation, community and body.

However, the ways in which information was circulating during this phenomenon reminds us that digital networks are also embedded in local practices of living and survival. Most of the times, these networks are so naturalised and such an integral part of our crucial mechanics of urban life that they appear as habits, without any presence or visibility. In times of crises – perceived or otherwise – these networks make themselves visible, to show that they are also inward looking. So what we have here is the visibility of these interior and local networks as a sign of crisis. It is time to mark that the question is not about what the network makes visible and what it keeps hidden.

The focus is to realise that the network, more than anything else, tries to keep itself transparent – and transparency means that it is something that we see through. The network incessantly works at making itself invisible – that as more transparent our devices get, the more hidden our mechanics become – the cloud is the best example of it, where your computer does not even compute – it has no memory, no storage, nothing but just a slick interface that hides the complex mechanisms of data storage, ownership and usage.

Which is why, in the case of the North East exodus, the steps leading to the resolution of the crisis, constructed and fuelled by networks is interesting. Because, as the government and civil society efforts to control the rumours and panic reached an all-time high, and people continued to flee the city, the government eventually went in to regulate the technology itself. There were expert panel discussions about whether the digital technologies are to be blamed for this rumour mill. There was a ban on mass-messaging and there was a cap on the number of messages which could be sent on a day by each mobile phone subscriber. The Information and Broadcast Ministry along with the Information Technologies cell, started monitoring and punishing people for false and inflammatory information. The network, when it revealed its inward looking self – a psychoanalytic network that complained of its server taken away when it was three – suddenly produced a crisis which we were not prepared for.

This notion of invisible networks is interesting, because it inspires most of our engagements around networks right now – they tell us that networks are always around, we just need better tools to uncover and map them. Or they inform us that there are things, people and places which cannot be connected – they are a ‘last mile problem’, and that we need to find a way of converting them into data, transactions, and actions that the network can identify.

The Network as an opaque metaphor

The network, was often seen as a solution to these crises of mass information dissemination. In the past, in times of real communal tensions, in protests against corruption and violence against women, in different instances, the local networks have been in the support of creating globally intelligible mechanisms. We would imagine that this crisis was a crisis about the nation-wide building of mega-cities filled with immigrant bodies that are not allowed their difference because they all have to be cosmopolitan and mobile bodies. The crisis could have been read as one of neo-liberal flatness in imagining the nation and its fragments that hides the inherent and historical sites of conflict under the seductive rhetoric of economic development. And yet, when we look at the operationalization of the resolutions, it looked as if the crisis was the appearance and the visibility of the hitherto hidden local networks of information and communication.

Wendy Chun, in her analysis of networks posits that this is why networks are an opaque metaphor. If the function of metaphor is to explain, through familiarity, objects which are new to us, the network as an explanatory paradigm presents a new conundrum. Because while the network presumes and exteriority that it seeks to present, while the network allows for a subjective interiority of the actor and its decisions, while the network grants visibility and form to the everyday logic of organisation, what the network actually seeks to explain is itself. Or, in less evocative terms, the network is not only the framework through which we analyse, but it is also the object of analyses.

Once the network has been deployed as a paradigm through which to understand a crisis, once the network has made itself visible, all our efforts are driven at explaining and strengthening, and almost like digital mothers, comfort the network back into its peaceful existence as infrastructure. We develop better tools to regulate the network. We define new parameters to mine the data more effectively. We develop policies to govern and govern through the network with greater transparency and ease.

The network, thus works as the perfect metaphor of the frictions of the local and the global, because it offers to produce a map, or a pleasing visual that shows how all our globals are a happy collection of all our locals, but what the network produces is itself. And indeed, when we do encounter communities, bodies, or people who cannot be included in our network protocols, we are able to construct a network of these unconnected nodes a well. In traditional cartography, this was the tension between ‘X marks the spot’ and ‘Here be dragons’. There are no more dragons. There is no unknown. And that which cannot be accommodated in the network – made legible, intelligible, written and quantified within a network – quickly becomes invisible, hidden behind the transparent network.

Networks do not have an exteriority

Thus, in the case of the North East exodus, instead of addressing the larger issues of conservative parochialism, an increasing back-lash by right wing governments and a growing hostility that emerges from these cities which nobody possesses and nobody belongs to, the efforts were directed at blaming technology as the site where the problem is located and the network as the object that needs to be controlled. What emerged was a series of corrective mechanisms and a set of redundant regulations that controlled the number of text messages that people were able to send in a day or policing the internet for spreading rumours. The entire focus was on information management, as if the reason for the mass exodus of people from the NE Indian states and the sense of fragility that the city had been immersed in, was all due to the pervasive and ubiquitous information gadgets and their ability to proliferate in p2p environments outside of the control of the government. This lack of exteriority to the network is something that very few critical voices have pointed out.

Duncan Watts, the father of network computing, working through the logic of nodes, traffic and edges, has suggested there is a great problem in the ways in which we understand the process of network making. I am paraphrasing his complex mathematical text that explains the production of physical networks – what he calls the small worlds – and pointing out his strong critique about how the social scientists engage with networks. In the social sciences imagination of networks, there is a messy exteriority – fuzzy, complex and often not reducible to patterns or basic principles. The network is a distilling of the messy exteriority, a representation of the complex interplay between different objects and actors, and a visual mapping of things as they are. Which is to say, that we imagine that there is a material reality and the network is a tool by which this reality, or at least parts of this reality, are mapped and represented to us in patterns which can help us understand the true nature of this reality.

Watts, drawing from practices of network modelling and building, proved, that we have the equation wrong. The network is not a representation of reality but the ontology of reality. The network is not about trying to make sense of an exteriority. Instead, the network is an abstract and ideological map that constructs the reality in a particular way. Or in other words, the network precedes the real, and because of its ability to produce objective, empiricist and reductive principles – constantly filtering out that which is not important to the logic or the logistics of the network design – it then gives us a reality that is produced through the network principles. To make it clear, the network representation is not the derivative of the real but the blue-print of the real. And the real as we access it, through these networked tools, is not the raw and messy real but one that is constructed and shaped by the network in those ways. The network, then, needs to be understood, examined and critiqued, not as something that represents the natural, but something that shapes our understanding of the natural itself.

In the case of the Bangalore North East Exodus, the network and its visibility threw up a problem for us – and the problem was, that the network, which is supposed to be infrastructure, and hence, by nature invisible, had suddenly become visible. We needed to make sure that it was shamed, blamed, named and tamed so that we can go back to our everyday practices of regulation, governance and policy.

What I want to emphasise, then, is that this binary of inclusion and exclusion, or the quaint notion of building counter-networks, is not very generative in thinking of policy and politics of digital inclusion. What we need, is to recognise what gets hidden in this debate. What becomes visible when it is not supposed to? What remains invisible beyond all our efforts? And how do we develop a framework that actually moves beyond these binary modes of thinking, where the resolution is either to collapse those on the outside, or to pretend that they do not exist in the first place?

Working with frameworks like the network makes us aware of the ways in which these ideas of the inside and the outside are constructed; let us remember that you can actually experience the network only when you are either denied entry into it or if you have to go through a ritualised entry into it. My suggestion is that we need to perhaps ask a different set of questions, which are not about the network and do not reference the network as its originary point. This is where the new and radical politics of working with the digitally underserved are going to be located.

Developing intersections, of temporality, of geography and of contexts are great. But we need to move one step beyond – and look at the couplings of the network with a range of social, cultural and political practices which are not of the internet. It is easy to make an argument, for instance, about the need for transparent governance and creation of digital publics. But the argument really worth making is one of the non-digital subject and how she gets connected through the invisible presence of the internet of things.  Opening up policy to look, not at the usual intersections of infrastructure and governance, but of aspiration, inspiration, autonomy, control, desire, belonging and precariousness that often mark the new digital subjects, might offer us a new way of understanding these tensions that we have otherwise outsourced to the network imperative. And our policies, politics and regulation will have to be tailored to not only stop the person abandoning her life and running to a place of safety, not only stop the rumours within the Information and communication networks, not only create stop-gap measures of curbing the flows of gossip, but to actually account for the human conditions of life and living, of safety and justice, of love and happiness and of belonging – well, to a network.