There was virtually nothing on my Facebook mini-feed initially relating to the attacks on the Kenyan university in Garissa. Did that mean that it did not occur? Maybe this is close to the point that Jean Baudrillard was trying to make, in the context of the televised September 11 attacks, when he suggested that the nature of reality has changed since most things we see on a television screen, or in this case, encounter online are subject to a peculiar form of dissemination. I as the viewer, as the online subject, have little to no control over what appears in front of me when simply <g data-gr-id="81">wiling</g> away time on my home page.
Knowledge on the Internet, especially on social networking sites, is subject to the same complexities as we face in the whole word of mouth routine in the context of the everyday, where if someone does not share enough, spread enough of, in this case, a particular event, it remains on the outskirts of my awareness of the world.
Where the world is in so many ways coming together, where what I write here, can be seen by a student in Kenya, the violence that student may have witnessed, refuses to enter my line of sight due to it not being retweeted or shared enough, it not being #trend worthy. Hashtags have become an essential part of knowledge production, an explicit form of compressing experience into keywords, thus rearranging what we mean by the political.
Why is it that instead of the massacres in Kenya, what were instead trending on my homepage were arguments regarding a dress being #BlueAndBlack/# WhiteAndGold, or whether Modi’s suit was better than Obama’s?
The political, then, has become a strange phenomenon on any form of Digital Media. It is no longer, I suppose, about influencing people’s opinion into a certain ideological premise, but instead about creating truths, various realities – each having its own factuality, its own believability, and its own rationale. How this works on the internet is truly remarkable.
What is changing is not so much how we come across knowledge, but the nature of what we consider knowledge itself. Where some have used this Digital medium to spread the word about climate change, swine flu prevention, etc., political parties/causes have shaped an entire world with it. One only has to look as far back as Anna Hazare to realise the potential of the Digital, in doing just that.
Imagine a leaflet campaign instead of a Facebook event page having as much effect in today’s day and time. Would you have attended Kejriwal’s rally? Would you have switched off all technology for an hour? Would you have remembered to wish happy birthday to people you barely know in life?
Digital Media has changed our very definitions of the individual, and the state (among so many other previous formulations – the idea of the celebrity, for example). You see the two collapse on top of each other when a Kejriwal tweets a Kiran Bedi inviting her to verbally joust him for the post of Chief Minister.
I’m pretty sure, had this event taken place, it would have been live-streamed/cast/tweeted all over the world, and that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make; as one of my favourite characters on NBC’s Parks and Recreation pointed out in an episode: “the internet is no longer optional; it’s a necessity for everyone”, and what that means is that not only is it engendered out of this world, but the world itself is inadvertently being shaped by it.
What we perceive is heavily regimented by the online space, and all the powers that be of our country are aware of this. The official Narendra Modi page on Facebook, for example, updates all who ‘like’ it, with carefully curated information in the form of texts, pictures, and videos of what the Prime Minister has been up to. The same holds true for most other politicians, or journalists in the country, who claim to an online presence. But this brings us back to the question of visibility.
Already spaces of dissent are constantly, and consistently, regulated by the state in order to enable the least amount of resistance possible to its ways of functioning. If you were sitting in the Parliament House, you would hardly care about which protest was taking place in Jantar Mantar, now would you? And if any protests, and protestors, like the ones against the Four Year Undergraduate Program led by the teachers of Delhi University, or the ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’ demonstrations against the Hindu Mahasabha, on Valentine’s Day, were to step out of this allocated space for protest, they would immediately be dealt with; in both instances, being transported to the nearby Parliament Street Police Station.
The spaces regulated by the state do, of course, extend to the virtual space. But at the very least, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 66(a) is a step away from incarceration, and a step towards a little more freedom online. The virtual space is being used to resist the constant cornering of dissenting voices, in order to coordinate efforts to try and elaborate on the various ways in which what we know is being created and propagated by the powers that benefit from our ignorance.
What defines a Democracy, at the end of the day, is its ability to encounter dissent as an active part of an exchange of dialogue regarding the ways in which it functions – something to engage with, instead of intimidating into silence. There is no Democracy, without dissent. The digital, then, is rearranging the ways in which the political functions, and dare I say it, politics itself. Let me end by retelling a story from A.K. Ramanujan’s many recorded narratives from around India.
There was an old lady under a street lamp, bent over, struggling to find something she had apparently lost, when a man walked by. On enquiring she told him that she had lost her keys, and asked if he could help her find it. After some time had passed with no results, the man asked her if she remembered where she’d last seen it. The old lady replies, that she’d lost the keys indoors. The man, obviously, dumbstruck asks her the point of looking in the street if she knew all along that she’d lost the keys in the house. She looked at <g data-gr-id="84">him,</g> and replied: “this is the only spot which was lit-up, and the house is in total darkness.” We are the old lady. It’s time we look inside the house.
The author teaches in the University of Delhi