In most surveys of transnational digital media cultures, there is a tendency to treat the diffusion of technology and capital as a flattening, where the Anglophone West as the epicenter relays technological novelties and a premade trajectory of progress to the periphery, or conceives of the Global South as pure contrast, whose histories are impossibly different, alien, or distant. Neither problem can be resolved by exclusively foregrounding the national as the dominant paradigm for understanding the flows of digitization. The editors of Global Digital Cultures: Perspectives from South Asia, Aswin Punathambekar and Sriram Mohan, present thirteen essays from media scholars in Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Pakistan to make a necessary intervention in media studies through “granular, experiential engagement” (15) with South Asian contexts. If the digital “is now everywhere … it is also in a series of somewheres, and it is through one such somewhere, South Asia, that this volume engages with the cultural dimensions of digitization,” they write (26). The scope of this volume is trifurcated into the following areas—infrastructures, politics, and publics. Although separate, these categories are permeable, interpenetrated, and intermediated. The volume is replete with events that challenge scholarly cynicism toward media imperialism in the developing world as well as techno-futurist conceptions of progress.
A wide range of methodologies are present in this collection, from mixed-method analysis of Twitter feeds, discourse analysis, and broad historiographies of television and internet, to semiotic deconstructions of visuality. This diversity of approaches is one of the strengths of this volume as it gives us a picture of the interdisciplinary modes of research being undertaken by South Asian and diasporic scholars across a broad range of institutions. By dividing the book into three sections, the editors are able to create a flow of attention from hardware (infrastructure as material and social scaffolding) to software (the forms of publicness created through digital platforms) that allows the volume to come to grips with what is a vast site of media scholarship. Although the book is largely India-centric, the editors make a conscious effort to include scholarship from Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Pakistan, whose histories of media usage are inextricable from the same subcontinental and international forces that affect India.
Using an “intermedial” (8) framework, the volume examines how digital media intersects with the political and the everyday. By paying attention to particularities of national, regional, transcultural, religious, linguistic, and gendered subjectivities, Punathambekar and Mohan argue that the only responsible scholarship is a situated one. The story of the digital in South Asia has come to be synonymous with modernity and development, though contemporary digital modernity utilizes the resources of older national and transnational infrastructures—not only TV and radio, but also the data-collection processes of colonial empires. Payal Arora's essay, “Politics of Algorithms, Indian Citizenship, and the Colonial Legacy,” in the first section of the book, “Infrastructures,” studies the politics of big data in India's Aadhaar project, which was created by the Unique Identification Authority of India. Challenging the notion that big data is identity-agnostic or profoundly liberating, Arora traces how the promises of civic representation—a voter ID card, biometric data collection, directed distribution of state support—are undergirded by the politics of caste, religion, and language, which undermine marginalized communities in India. By using an “apparatus of empowerment (that) is built on information infrastructures with a deep colonial lineage” such as the systemic violence toward certain castes and religions in India, the Aadhaar project threatens to not only “freeze privilege”’ (43) along communal lines but also foreclose dynamic social mobility within the caste system. Arora self-consciously engages with Indian “exceptionalisms,” such as the lack of vernacular concepts of privacy, to argue that promises of better governance through the emancipating powers of data-driven infrastructures are doomed to flatten difference and multiply disadvantages. As a parallel to this governmental imagination of a public, Rahul Mukherjee, in “Imagining Cellular India: The Popular, the Infrastructural, and the National,” examines the imaginary of Indian cellphone usage. The heterogeneous use of cellphone and internet infrastructure across the country speaks to a tension between the imagination of modernity in advertisements and the moral panic created by the ungoverned mobility of mobile phone media objects such as “lewd” music videos. While these mobile media practices circulate invisibly (84), the similarly invisible radiation of cellphone towers dotted across urban landscapes creates a different imagination of cellular (dis)embodiment when expressed through middle-class users’ anger at the lack of governmental oversight.
The introduction and regulation of digital technologies create such uneven and unforeseen circumstances in Shanti Kumar's and Daniel Arnaudo's essays, which are both broadly historical. The digitization of television in India in the 1990s allows the media industry to mine data about viewing practices and audiences and is envisioned to culminate in a nationwide digital addressable system, but Kumar argues in “Digital Television in Digital India” that the state's fantasy of Digital India is compromised by a lack of privacy laws and its vulnerability to corporate interests. In contrast, in Myanmar the intensity of state regulation of digital infrastructures creates a lack of digital literacy. In “Bridging the Deepest Digital Divides: A History and Survey of Digital Media in Myanmar,” Arnaudo describes Myanmar's struggle to get its people online after decades of dictatorship followed by strict regulations that delayed its development of material infrastructures, such as fiber optic cable networks. Along with difficulties in coding the Zawgyi script and the absence of a cultural understanding of user privacy, there was a huge gap in computer proficiency and disposable income that made the internet inaccessible to most Myanmarese. In 2014, Swedish telecommunications company Telenor offered Myanmar “Facebook Zero”—a no-data access plan to the website which, Arnaudo argues, has made it the “dominant platform” to the extent that most Myanmarese have no sense of being on the internet, only of being on Facebook (108).
Continuing the concern with how material infrastructures shape digital interactivity, the second section, “Platforms,” contains essays that examine the proliferation of identity-based discourses that “animate continuities” in cultural formations. Vishnupriya Das argues in “Dating Applications, Intimacy, and Cosmopolitan Desire in India” that India-based online dating platforms operationalize modern aspirations toward exploring one's sexuality outside the frame of marriage, but nevertheless reproduce sexist anxieties about women's bodies, sexual expression, and freedom. In her study of the Indian dating app Trulymadly, Das points out how a particular construction of interactivity on the app penalizes men overwhelmingly for their age, Facebook profile, or apparent lack of communication skills. The platform markets this control as prioritizing women's safety, but also structurally limits sexual behavior seen as unsuitable for women, such as “dirty talk” or “casual surfing” (132). Digital platforms become political platforms in Joyojeet Pal's essay, “The Making of a Technocrat: Social Media and Narendra Modi.” Through a mixed-methods study that analyzes the Twitter feed of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pal deconstructs Modi's image as a technocrat whose embrace of digital technology promises meritocratic reform. Modi's social media presence and mediated techno-futurist persona has purchase in the Indian media, and aligns itself with “a vision of patriotic optimism” (178). Due to Modi's authoritarian politics, scholarly interventions like Pal's are a welcome effort to understand the driving forces behind his populist appeal in the age of apparently decentralized, democratized media cultures in South Asia.
The same affordances of platform performativity also lend themselves to the heightening of nationalist affect in Purnima Mankekar and Hannah Carlan's piece in the third and final section of this volume, “Publics,” titled “The Remediation of Nationalism: Viscerality, Virality, and Digital Affect.” The authors begin with the assumption that publicness is a mediated phenomenon and go on to discuss the events surrounding a student protest at Jawaharlal Nehru University as they were remediated on television, in newspapers, and on social media platforms. They argue that instead of being imaginative or discursive, nationalism is affective. Media convergence of outrage against allegedly anti-national university students produces a “visceral and viral” nationalism (203) that carries affective and actionable “freight” (205); the essay conceptualizes this mediatized moment as a transformative creation of an Indian public that legitimizes gendered and sexualized violence not only online but also against the bodies of seditious traitors.
Sahana Udapa's essay, “Clash of Actors: Nation-Talk and Middle-Class Politics on Online Media,” follows this by characterizing this discourse of exclusivist nationalism as “online nation-talk,” considering the overdetermining effects of social media platforms in defining publics. Specifically analyzing Twitter, which its users dignify as being “for serious people” (227), Udapa studies the hypervocality of Twitter in response to Modi's 2015 gaffe of insulting Indian-origin people, asserting that “social media nationalism” reinforces the middle class's self-image as the only public that matters. Muhammad Nabil Zuberi's essay, “The Man on the Moon: A Semiotic Analysis of Scopic Regimes in Bangladesh,” on the sighting of a Bangladeshi cleric's face on the moon, approaches its subject through semiotic analysis, exploring the different “scopic regimes” (262) in a country that is otherwise apparently culturally homogenous. He discusses how the circulation of clearly manipulated images on social media and print media does not provide evidence of media illiteracy, but rather draws from a cultural tradition of valuing transcendental, spiritual “seeing” in Islam. As the secular/rational viewers mock and make memes of the image while dismissing claims of non-indexical visuality, Zuberi discusses how digital circulation creates a deictic indexicality in the image that is felt in the body through suggestion and stimulation, and by communing with others.
These essays represent exciting work being undertaken in South Asian media studies. My sense is that Punathambekar and Mohan have correctly identified the modalities of digital technology in South Asia as being “infrastructured” (emphasis original) per sociologist Jorg Niewöhner1—that is, technology creates a digital culture that is not autonomous and final, but instead is caught up in a process of creating, reusing, maintaining, and borrowing from various cultural and national imaginaries (14). The essays in this volume perform the necessary work of contextualizing digital media usage in light of local pressures of representation, exploration, and aspiration. The study of digital media platforms, either through statistical work or discourse analysis, stands out as a particularly promising avenue, especially as scholars grapple with the ambivalent democratic promises of participatory culture. One looks forward to more such work that undertakes to study a region of vast diversity without resorting to the temptation to universalize.
Jorg Niewöhner, “Anthropology of Infrastructures of Society,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, ed. James D. Wright (Oxford, UK: Elsevier, 2015), 119–25.