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An eye on history, facing the future

Sarai has made an invaluable contribution to radicalising our understanding of contemporary urban public culture, as articulated through the interweave of prior and emerging media practices, and the political, social and economic accretions and ruptures that this brings about. NANCY ADAJANIA on the concerns of the latest in its Reader series.


"DATA-Information: Can mean anything from numbers to images, from white noise, to noise, to sound ... Data-mining is a major emerging industry in Delhi. The miners lead very quiet days, and spend long nights coding in low-temperature zones called `Data Outsourcing Centres'."

Contrarily, the word Data (daataa) in Hindi/Sanskrit is taken to mean `giver', which suggests that one must always be generous with information, and make gifts of our code, images and ideas. To be stingy with data is to violate an instance of the secret and sacred compacts of homophonic words from different cultural/spatial orbits ... '

`A Concise Lexicon Of/For the Digital Commons' by Raqs Media Collective (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta).

Words lose their literal, and often profound, meanings when they become part of the dead coinage of daily conversation. We never, for instance, stop to think twice about the word `data'. It takes the Raqs Media Collective's etymological gesture, comparing our favourite Latin-derived word with its Sanskrit cognate, to disclose its inner force. And so we are reminded that `data' is that which is given, made in the spirit of gift, and should therefore be shared and distributed, not restricted and withheld. This emphasis on generosity is a manifest feature of Sarai, the Delhi-based new media initiative based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), of which Raqs is a co-initiator with the scholars Ravi Sundaram and Ravi S. Vasudevan. The ethical project of sharing knowledge resources and tools is central to Sarai's political perspective.

Sarai has made an invaluable contribution to radicalising our understanding of contemporary urban public culture, as articulated through the interweave of prior and emerging media practices, and the political, social and economic accretions and ruptures that this brings about. These concerns, which Sarai shares with its collaborator, the Amsterdam-based Waag Society/for Old and New Media (SONM), are manifested in the three Readers that these two institutions have co-published between 2001 and 2003 — Reader 01: The Public Domain, Reader 02: The Cities of Everyday Life and Reader 03: Shaping Technologies, the latest in the series, in which the lexicon entry cited above appears.

This trilogy of Readers enacts a pragmatic meld of micro- with macro-politics, of personal software with societal hardware. The essays, reports and inquiries that these anthologies present, embody a broad spectrum of concerns, including old/new media project profiles, stark photo-essays and strategically located graphics; emancipatory polemic composed by theorists and practitioners from across disciplines and ideological approaches; urban anthropology, media theory, cyber-feminism, programming, environment studies and the critique of eugenics. The simultaneity of diverse visualities and textualities, presented in these Readers, turns the act of reading into a heuristic navigation of our current physical and virtual reality.

* * *

The interlocking themes of these Readers are drawn from the emergent technoscape of the late 20th Century: the rise of the new media technologies and their impact on various communicative, symbolic and image-making practices, including conversation, telephony, televisuality, art, mass media and the Net. Thus, these Readers chart the contours, uneven but vibrant, of a new conception of public space, on and off the Net; they also testify to the production of conventional as well as improvisational kinds of public sphere. These investigations are mapped across the transition from protected or entrenched localities to the current globality, powered by the economics of globalisation, by powerful states and corporations — but nevertheless offering venues and idioms for renewed expression. The Readers engage with an innovative politics — involving a fresh distribution of power, authority, and accordingly, of resistance — through which there have developed various locally situated but globalised (post)modernities, each of these representing emancipatory and subversive possibilities. These are set over against the classic State-managed modernity in most post-colonial contexts. The transformation of experience by these factors has been unprecedented. This is the reality to which the three Sarai Readers bear witness.

Reader 01 provides a caveat against the dotcom utopia and emphasises the importance of free software, copyleft and the uses of tactical media in the new public domain, with an accent on the contested term `public' and what constitutes `public-ness' (in Habermas — phrase, oeffentlichkeit). Reader 02 stresses the avatars of the contemporary city: a society in the new space of flows of capital, information and power, equally mediascape, infoscape and hard-bitten polity. Shaping Technologies weaves together the concerns of its two predecessors by expanding on the question of how technology shapes us and how as urban agents of change we mis-/de-/re-shape its morphology.

The editorial collective — Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, Ravi Sundaram, Ravi S. Vasudevan & Shuddhabrata Sengupta (Sarai), and Geert Lovink and Marleen Stikker (Waag Society) — makes clear that it is not interested in the binary of "techno-fetishism and technophobia that marks the frugal discourse on technology that exists in contemporary South Asia, especially in India". Instead it affirms the enabling improvisatory potential of technology, but simultaneously cautions us against the powers that, "[control and govern] the flow of knowledge that accretes to a particular technology or a practice".

In keeping with this stance, the texts display a Lyotardian distrust of the master narratives and explore the many proliferating little narratives of technology as an intimately social force. The reader therefore inhabits the everyday space of flowing energies, invisible nanos, pilfered connections and risky synapses (Monica Narula's photographs of hybrid devices suggest this space of encounter with a subtle visual wit). The locus of inquiry, here, is not the multi-million-dollar lab, but the statistic-hardened government hospital ward, the gleaming stainless-steel vessels throwing back reflections of caste/class hierarchies, bazaar prints selling gods and gripe water, tactical software, localisation of computer cultures, domestic photography, humanised science fiction, the customised voice boxes of call centre employees and genetically modified wombs.

To begin with, essays by Arun Mehta and Ravi Agarwal dismantle the key mythology of Modernism, that of technology as promise of domination over nature and the engineer as hero of modernity and the agent of utopia. Veena Das' essay on the "Technologies of the Self" extends the Foucauldian notion of the cultivation of the self through reflection, to the illness narratives of people living in lower-income neighbourhoods where health care is bureaucratised and `brokered' in public/private institutions.

Compare these accounts with the more personal notes in the `CyberMohalla Diaries' by Naseem Bano, Babli Rai, Mehrunnissa and others living in a working-class neighbourhood in Delhi. These texts from CyberMohalla, Sarai's media neighbourhood project, record voices in which wondrous awe is mixed with anxiety about access and the use of everyday technology from the bypassed bylanes of the Indian capital. While these accounts testify to the sensorium of ordinary experience, they also act as devices in defamilarisation for the relatively privileged reader — who takes objects like the telephone, clock or transformer for granted. Reader 03 dramatises the metamorphic potential of technology. The telephone, which empowers those residents of a proletarian colony, can morph in a different context and become an embarrassment to the woman employee at a Call Centre in Delhi, whose telephonic masquerade, her assumed American identity, slips — this is exposed when a customer asks to speak to her superior.

But media revolutions are not just deployed for exploitation; other kinds of conversation take place across cultures without the apparatus of State or corporate surveillance. An email dialogue on the localisation of computer cultures, between Ravikant, who coordinates the language project at Sarai, and Arash Zeini, a programmer and GNU/Linux enthusiast from Iran, reveals the problems of finding scriptorial domicile for the new communicative possibilities in the Indic and Farsi linguistic contexts. We realise the fatuity of absolute translation, on nationalistic grounds: the demands of practical life have long ago `naturalised' many words from supposedly colonial or imperialist languages, so that it would be counter-productive to replace them with fantastic neologisms, proxy terms, or parallels.

Reader 03 also explores the fields of intermedia art and software culture, setting them in the context of the creative and conceptual definitional blur between art, science and technology. In the perspicacious texts by curators and cultural workers such as Pauline Van Mourik Broekman, Amanda McDonald Crowley and Andreas Broeckmann, we trace the interplay, in these fields, between utopian political belief and ludic aesthetic impulse, between a scientific duty towards research and a commitment towards the performance of art.

A special feature of Shaping Technologies is the inclusion of a 70-year-old text by the legendary poet, artist and playwright Rabindranath Tagore on the experience of flying to Persia in April 1932.

Tagore uses the metaphor of distance to reflect on how the earth becomes a target of opportunist politicians who choose to annihilate that part of the globe which is distant and `unreal' to them. He cites the case of the British bombing of Iraq: this extract could not have been more timely.

To conclude, let us add to the etymological gesture of the Raqs lexicon, by invoking Brahma's triple injunction in the Upanishads: Datta (generosity), damyata (self-control), dayadhvam (compassion). This could, perhaps, be seen as yet another extension of the way in which Open Source technologies enrich our lives.

Sarai Reader 03: Shaping Technologies, The Sarai Programme, Delhi and the Waag Society/ for Old and New Media, Delhi/Amsterdam 2003, p.379, Rs. 295.

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