I woke up one morning to find that I was living in a city of crisis. Bangalore, where the largest public preoccupations to date have been about bad roads, stray dogs, and occasionally, the lack of night-life, the city 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 we found thousands of people suddenly leaving the city to go back to their imagined homelands.
The media spectacle of this exodus around questions of religion, ethnicity and regionalism only emphasised the fact that there is a new wave of connectedness that we live in – the social web, or what have you – that can no longer be controlled, contained or corrected by official authorities and their voices.
Despite a barrage of messages from the 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 mill that was producing an imaginary situation of precariousness and bodily harm.
Much has been said about the eruption of this irrationality that pokes holes in the mantle of cosmopolitanism that Bangalore (and other such ‘global cities’) is enveloped in, in its quest to represent the India that is supposed to shine. It has been heartening to see how communities that were supposed to be in conflict have worked so hard in the last few days, at building human contacts and providing assurances of safety and inclusion, which are far more effective than the official word.
There has been a rich discourse on what this means for India’s modernity, especially when such an event marks the so-called neo-liberal cities, showing the darker undercurrents of discrimination and suspicion that seem to lie just beneath the surface of networked neighbourhoods.
While there is much to be unpacked about the political motivations and the ecologies of fear that our immigrant lives are enshrined in, I want to focus on two aspects of this phenomenon which need more attention.
The first is the fierce localisation of our global technologies. There is an imagination, especially in cities like Bangalore, of digital technologies as necessarily plugging us 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.
The visibility of the networks, when they suddenly crop up for public viewing, for those of us who are outside of that network, it signals that something has gone wrong. There is a glitch in the matrix and we need to start unpacking the local, the specific and the particular that signals the separation of these networks from our habits of living.
The second point I want to make is about the need to look at the ellipsis that occurs in this spectacular emergence of the network and the apparatus that is set into place to control and regiment it. The hyper-visibility of the information and technology network destabilises the ways in which we think of our everyday, thus emerging not only as a sign of the crisis but a crisis unto itself.
These ellipses of the crisis – replacing the crisis with the network – as well as the collusion between the crisis and the network are the easy solution that state authorities pick up on.
This is a problem about the nation-wide building of mega-cities filled with immigrant bodies that are not allowed their differences because they all have to be cosmopolitan and mobile bodies. The solution, however, is offered at the level of technology.
Instead of addressing the larger issues of conservative parochialism, an increasing back-lash by conservative governments and a growing hostility that emerges from these cities which nobody possesses and nobody belongs to, the efforts are being made to blame technology as the site where the problem is located and the object that needs to be controlled.
So what we have is redundant regulation that controls the number of text messages we are able to send, or policing of internet for those spreading rumours. The entire focus has been on information management, as if the reason for mass exodus of people from the North East Indian states and the sense of fragility that the city has suddenly been immersed in, is all due to the pervasive and ubiquitous information gadgets and their ability to proliferate in peer-2-peer environments outside of the control of the government.
Digital Technologies have become the de facto scapegoats of many problems in our past. It invites more regulation, containment and censorship of the freedom that digital technologies allow you – from the infamous Delhi Public School MMS Scandal in the early 2000s to the recent attempts at filtering the social web – we have seen the repeated futility of such measures of technology control, and yet it appears as a constant trope in the State’s solution to the problems of the contemporary.
This obsession with governance of technology to resolve a much more nuanced problem is akin to fabulous stories of mad monarchs banishing spinning wheels from their kingdoms or sentencing hammers to imprisonment for the potential and possibility of crime.
And these solutions are always going to fail, because they fail to recognise either the intimate penetration of digital technologies in our everyday life, or the ways in which our local structures are constructed through the presence of ubiquitous technologies and gadgets and screens and networks.