Social Justice in an Internet-mediated World

(For a complete set of all podcasts from the course, please click here )

IT for Change, Bangalore and Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, co-organised a three day workshop, from Jan 31, 2014 - Feb 2, 2014, on the subject 'Social justice in an Internet-mediated World'. The Workshop was open to scholars, academics and practitioners across disciplines, and drew a multitude of participants, national and international alike. The resource persons were also from broad ranging disciplines,  and engaged with the process, from diverse standpoints.

Sundar Sarukkai began the introductory session by foregrounding the 'social' in Social Justice. He pointed out that the Internet's military origin, in and of itself, strongly contests how 'social' the medium can be. Further, recalling that technology was historically cast as a 'development marker' whose proliferation tactically aided the colonisation/'civilisation' of the underdeveloped 'other' by the West - he challenged technology's neutrality along with its supposed sociality. In his final engagement with the topic, he surmised that technology's enormous potential for instant gratification diminishes the user's tendency to depend on any other service – not even that which is offered by friend or family. He thereby highlighted a fundamentally anti-social character trait induced by a user's increased association with the Internet: who needs society?

Murali Shanmugavelan from the panel on 'New Democracy and New Activism', agreed with Sundar to the extent that the Internet does gratify a user's tenable needs, but posited that even the most arbitrary Internet practice such as 'viewing' can be classified as 'consumption' for gratification. And more often than not, it has been observed, that as a result of the increased levels of consumption, a soporificity or INACTION sets in. By hyper-clicking 'like', 'fan', 'share' etc. our civic duty is reduced to a cursory glance and little over a moment's consideration.  By hyper-clicking 'ignore','delete','skip' etc. our sensibilities can swiftly and conveniently discard, the very same things that once assaulted them. Such architecture seems to have paved the way for apathy in place of activism.

The concept of an architecture-influenced-politics – is not new, and Kiran Jonnalagadda, from HasGeek, complemented Murali's address by making a case to this effect. Armed with substantial empirical evidence, he demonstrated how a website's semiotics, composition, ordering and other access-denied elements, can dictate consumption patterns. With that, a general mood of skepticism regarding the emancipatory potential of the Internet, set in, fueled further by Prabir Purkayastha's and Parminder Jeet Singh's combined testaments unveiling the ultimate abuse of power by BigCorp hegemonies (Google, Amazon, Facebook..) who sow and reap most of the fruits of the Internet orchard.

At this juncture, Gurumurthy Kasinathan, as if right on cue, squarely reminded us of the merits of the Internet, such as open software, Wikipedia etc. Similarly, Anita Gurumurthy inter alia directed our attention to the ubiquitous 'selfie', 2014's pet (peeve), which has wittingly or unwittingly permitted the individual entity to be the one filming, as well as the filmed - the subject as well as the object - at the same time, thereby challenging the traditional understanding of storytelling, pornography, privacy and law. Of course re-orientation-of-norms or autonomy, even on these terms, is illusory – as Anita problematised. Important questions such as - Who are you? And correspondingly, can your story travel or will it be silenced? - remain unspoken fissures.

Nikhil Govind's timely theorising of the offline/have-nots, unpacked these questions to a degree: perhaps the most silenced/silent voices belong to the digitally disenfranchised. The digitally disenfranchised may not be a numerical minority, but they are significant in number and significantly disadvantaged, no doubt. They are without access to the Internet, whilst for the rest of us, most utilities are just a click away and instantly procurable. And 'access' is but located at the very periphery of their problem matrix... There is only so much that access can affect. Pursuing a thread from Meera Baindur's extensive engagement with the question of ethics for the Internet age, for the marginalised, the Internet may germinate into a staid utility in the near future, but may never morph into the virtual world that many of us claim today. They may be yet to identify with it, in the manner that the 'patriotic netizen' or the majority active users of the Internet are so eager to embody. Simply because, active users are ready to trust technology without so much as the bat of an eyelid, while the digitally disenfranchised are not.

How can they trust? As Nikhil Dey went on to illustrate - the Internet contract is in a foreign language, with foreign content, framed to benefit the foreign/global user. The digitally disenfranchised trust not this, but local practices. Their trust lies in themselves and in the real struggles of their everyday lives.

Humaara tho akkal hai,
Aap logon ka keval nakkal hai. (9:56, Nikhil Dey)

But can they afford these silences? Their increasing exclusion in online spaces only exacerbates their invisibility, as posited by Usha Ramanathan. After all, at present, if you are not online, you do not exist. And sometimes, as has come to our knowledge, even if you are online, it is not guaranteed that you may speak. And on the occasion that you do speak, you  may not be heard. Regardless, what is known with utmost certainty, is this; that you the marginalised, you the disadvantaged, 'you will be said'. (Trin T. Minh-Ha, 'Woman Native Other', 1987) Not losing sight of this, it becomes the need of the hour to harness online-engagement of the marginalised. There arises an unprecedented necessity to work towards a pervasive and inclusive  net. The time is now. But enroute, we must wrest with the telling words of Sundar Sarukkai's closing note - How you understand a knife cannot be how you understand a nuclear bomb.

(For a complete set of all podcasts from the course, please click here )