Opinion

Dark side of digital democracy

Monish Khetrimayum | Updated on March 12, 2018

Does the creation of a biometric database point to a larger political project to monitor large populations?

Social networking sites are also a source of market data and security information.



Speed, connectivity and innovation define the contemporary Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) revolution. With the years, however, ICTs have begun to dramatically alter social interactions and create new cultural realms. Digital technologies, in other words, have profoundly reconstituted our social spaces and emotional experiences.

Following the steady digitalisation of the social, business-driven models have quickly emerged to create a number of striking technological platforms. The term ‘social media' has, in fact, come to define a range of interactions by sites such as Facebook and Orkut. Added to which are a host of micro-blogging sites such as Twitter or Google search engines, which can wire mobiles and handheld devices, and even televisions for intense social communication.

FORM OF CONTROL

The orientation in these platforms is to not only digitalise all forms of communication, but to also profit from the information being shared, and to make digital technologies indispensable and inevitable for all types of social interactions.

Thus, concentrated marketing through targeted advertising and consumer profiling has finally arrived. By getting chatter, gossip and inane banter to translate into discrete information, bytes and data, the personal collapse into the public. All that was otherwise private is, thereby, uninhibitedly placed in the domain for constant surveillance and monitoring. Our social realm and cultural peculiarities, in effect, have become ‘data sets'.

Gilles Deleuze, an unorthodox thinker on technology, defined the contemporary age as ‘societies of control'. Life itself can be codified as discrete bytes of data. And inevitably, such kinds of technological ‘modulation' can subject the individual to new regimes of domination and control. Our individual physical presence can then be subject to electronic surveillance, and be either retrieved or deleted through passwords and User IDs.

Put differently, the more a society and its forms of communication are rendered into data sets and information bytes, the more likely that politics will revolve around issues of digital surveillance, the collapsing of the personal into the public, and the manipulation of codified life. Significantly, in such an assessment, digital technology is no longer a mere format for communication, but rather becomes a form of politics itself.

ARAB SPRING BOOMERANGS

Recently, some people attributed the ‘Arab Spring' to the doings of a vibrant social media. Ironically, it was also noted, that the same sites which became the source for democratic possibilities served as tools for subsequent government crackdowns on protestors.

Despite The Atlantic's former editor Andrew Sullivan's optimistic outburst of a ‘twittered revolution' in Iran in 2009, and the Obama administration's cyber-optimism regarding the Internet's transforming potential, the point missed was that oversimplifying the definition of ‘potential' could be quite myopic.

Evgeny Morozov, a leading Internet critic and author of Net Delusion, calls this technological optimism the Google Doctrine — “the enthusiastic belief in the liberating power of technology, accompanied by the irresistible urge to enlist Silicon valley start-ups in the global fight for freedom.” This gives rise to what Morozov calls ‘slacktivism'. This engagement is entirely different from a revolution that — as Malcolm Gladwell puts it — requires one “to confront socially-entrenched norms and practices”.

This spirit was missing, for instance, in the virtual enthusiasm for Anna Hazare's campaign in India. Recent media reports on the ‘India Against Corruption' page on Facebook put the campaign data from August 14 to August 31, 2011, at 304 million page impressions for news feed. The news feed itself totalled to 1.9 million likes, 0.33 million comments and 4.3 million active users (non-unique) — a digitally-verified grassroots level movement.

STATE CRACKDOWN

Transparency and dissemination through digital technology is also often a double-edged knife. Even as events unfolded in the Arab states and WikiLeaks unleashed a torrent of incriminating documents, governments responded more or less in a typical fashion: Deploying the force of law to deny access, increase net surveillance, block sites and even shut down the Web.

Responses to WikiLeaks, Anonymous and Lulzsec just show how far establishments are ready to go to curb virtual dissent. During the London riots, the Telegraph reported how a popular encrypted text messaging service was alleged to be the main source for inspiring two nights of rioting.

A host of other social networking sites were similarly flagged for creating ‘riot communities'.

The British Broadcasting Cooperation, interestingly, in one of its report, pointed out how the very same social technologies left enough electronic trails for a comprehensive search operation by the police. If anything, therefore, social networking in which people tweeted and chattered against the state was all but comprehensively countered through an equally technologically-savvy state capacity to monitor and pursue through the Web.

SURVEILLANCE IN INDIA

Closer home in India, there are a raft of these state-enabled counter-measures to check, control and dominate the Internet. These include the creation of biometric databases, digitalising the public distribution system, interlinking institutional and departmental databases for intelligence and information gathering, introducing amendments to cyber laws and monitoring online activities and technical collaborations with industries for cyber security issues and measures. Not to mention the capacity to closely monitor and render visible for surveillance online Web sites or campaigns.

Initiatives such as these in fact, suggest that a larger political project is underway to digitally aggregate and monitor populations, their activities and behaviour.

The rise and decline of the ‘social media' in recent events makes clear that digital networks of interactions are not yet beyond comprehensive and intrusive policing. If anything, the private digital realm of opinion or idiosyncrasy has become the potent point for market data and security information. The promise of an alternative democratic space through ICT, in other words, could be a Trojan horse.

(The author is with the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

Published on November 08, 2011

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