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<nettime> Recycling Electronic Modernity
Ravi Sundaram on Wed, 16 Sep 1998 15:01:30 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Recycling Electronic Modernity


RECYCLING ELECTRONIC MODERNITY
By Ravi Sundaram

Marx, now long forgotten by most who spoke his name but a decade or two
ago, once said the following in his brilliantly allegorical essay on the
Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. "Bourgeois revolutions.... storm
quickly from success to success;their dramatic effects outdo each; men and
things set in sparkling brilliants; ecstasy is the everyday spirit; but
they are short-lived; soon they have attained their zenith, and a long
crapulent depression lays hold of society before it learns soberly to
assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period." In Asia, reeling
under the current crisis, the moment of ecstasy has long passed, and the
'long crapulent depression' is here to stay. India, a poor cousin of the
East-Asians, tried to ignore the crisis through its traditional
west-centredness. But the crisis has finally arrived in South Asia, the
Indian rupee has dived steadily since last year and inflation is raging.

But in the area of electronic capitalism, the mood is buoyant. Software
stocks have risen 120 percent and soon software will become India's
largest export. Many fables have emerged as a response to the irruption of
electronic capitalism in a country where 400 million cannot still read or
write. The first fable is a domesticated version of the virtual ideology.
In this Indianised version, propagated by the technocratic and programming
elite, India's access to western modernity (and progress) would obtain
through a vast virtual universe, programmed and developed by 'Indians'.
The model: to develop techno-cities existing in virtual time with US
corporations, where Indian programmers would provide low-cost solutions to
the new global techno-space.

The second fable is a counter-fable to the first and quite familiar to
those who live in the alternative publics of the net. This fable comes out
of a long culture of Old-Left politics in India and draws liberally from
1960's dependency theory. The fable, not surprisingly, argues that India's
insertion in the virtual global economy follows traditional patterns of
unequal exchange. Indian programmers offer a low-cost solution to the
problems of trans*national corporations. Indian software solutions occupy
the lower end of the global virtual commodity chain, just as cotton
farmers in South Asia did in the 19th century, where they would supply
Manchester mills with produce.  

All fables are not untrue, some more 'true' than others. Thus the second
fable claims, not unfairly, that most Indian software is exported, and
there is very little available in the local languages (ironically the
Indian language versions of the main programs are being developed by IBM
and Microsoft) The alternative vision posed by the second fable is
typically nationalist. Here India would first concentrate on its domestic
space and then forge international links.
In a sense both fables suffer from a yearning for  perfection.While the
first promises a seamless transition to globalism, the second offers a
world that is autarchic. Both are ideological, in the old, 19th century
sense of the term, which makes one a little uncomfortable. "Down with all
the hypotheses that allow the belief in a true world", once wrote
Nietzsche, angrily.

There is no doubt that for a "Third  World" country, India displays a
dynamic map of the new techno-cultures. The problem for both the fables
mentioned above is that they remain limited to the elite domains of
techno-space in India. This domain is composed of young, upper-caste,
often English-speaking programmers in large metropoles, particularly
emerging techno-cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad. This is the story
which  Wired loves to tell its Western audiences, but in a critical,
innovative sense most of these programmers are not the future citizens of
the counter net-publics in India.

What is crucial in the Indian scenario is that the dominant electronic
public has cohered with the cultural-political imagination of a
belligerent Hindu- nationalist movement. Hindu nationalism in India came
to power using an explosive mix of anti-minority violence and a discourse
of modernity that was quite contemporary. This discourse appealed to the
upper-caste elites in the fast-growing cities and towns, using innovative
forms of mechanical and electronic reproduction. Thus it was the Hindu
nationalists who first used cheap audio-cassette tapes to spread
anti-Muslim messages; further giant video-scapes were used to project an
aesthetised politics of hate.  Some of the first Indian web-sites were
also set up by the Hindu nationalists. To this landscape has been added
that terrifying 19th century weapon, the nuclear bomb.

This is an imagination that is aggressive, technologically savvy , and
eminently attractive to the cyber-elites. The cyber-elites may be
uncomfortable with the Hindu nationalists' periodic rhetoric of "national
sufficiency", but such language is hyper-political and has less meaning on
the ground. Outside the universe of the cyber-elite, is another one which
speaks to a more energetic technoculture. This is a world of innovation
and non-legality, of ad-hoc discovery and electronic survival strategies.
But before I talk about this, a story of my own.
Two years ago, I was on a train in Southern India where I met Selvam, a
young man of 24, who I saw reading used computer magazines in the railway
compartment. Selvam's story is fascinating, for it throws light on a world
outside those of the techno-elite.

Selvam was born in the temple town of Madurai in Southern India, the son
of a worker in the town court, who came from the Dalit community, India's
lowest castes. After ten years in school, Selvam began doing a series of
odd jobs, he also learnt to type at a night school after which he landed a
job at a typists shop. It was there that Selvam first encountered the new
technoculture - Indian-style.
In the from the late 1980's India witnessed a unique communicative
transformation - the spread of public telephones in different parts of the
country. Typically these were not anonymous card-based instruments as in
the West or other parts of the Third World, but run by  humans. These were
called Public Call Offices (PCO's). The idea was that in a non-literate
society like India the act of telecommunication had to be mediated by
humans. Typically literates and non literates used PCO's which often
doubled as fax centres, xerox shops and typists shops. Open through the
night, PCO's offered inexpensive, personalised services which spread
rapidly all over the country.
Selvam's type shop was such a PCO. Selvam worked on a used 286, running an
old version of Wordstar, where he would type out formal letters to state
officials for clients, usually peasants and unemployed. Soon Selvam
graduated to a faster 486 and learnt programming by devouring used
manuals, and simply asking around. This was the world of informal
technological knowledge in most parts of India, where those excluded from
the upper-caste, English speaking bastions of the cyber-elite learnt their
tools. Selvam told me how the textile town of Coimbatore, a few hours from
Madurai set up its own BBS, by procuring used modems, and connecting them
later at night. Used computer equipment is part of a vast commodity chain
in India, originating from various centres in India but, the main centre
is Delhi.

Delhi has a history of single-commodity markets from the days of the
Moghul empire. Then various markets would specialise in a single
commodity, a tradition which has continued to the present. The centre of
Delhi's computer trade is the Nehru Place market. Nehru Place is a dark,
seedy cluster of grey concrete blocks, which is filled with small shops
devoted to the computer trade. Present here are the agents of large
corporations, as also software pirates, spare parts dealers, electronic
smugglers, and wheeler-dealers of every kind in the computer world. This
cluster of legality and non-legality is typical of Indian technoculture.
When the cable television revolution began in the 1990's, all the cable
operators were illegal, and many continue to be so even today. This
largely disorganised, dispersed scenario makes it impossible for paid
cable television to work in India. This is a pirate modernity, but one
with no particular thought about counter-culture or its likes. It is a
simple survival strategy. The computer trade has followed the pirate
modernity of cable television. Just as small town cable operators would
come to the cable market in the walled city area of Delhi for equipment,
so people from small towns like Selvam would come to Nehru Place to source
computer parts, used computers, older black and white monitors, and
mother-boards out of fashion in Delhi.

This is a world that is everyday in its imaginary, pirate in its practice,
and mobile in its innovation. This is also a world that never makes it to
the computer magazines, nor the technological discourses dominated by the
cyber-elite. The old nationalists and Left veiw this world with
fascination and horror, for it makes a muddle of simple nationalist
solutions. One can call this a  recycled electronic modernity. And it is
an imaginary that is suspect in the eyes of all the major ideological
actors in techno-space. For the Indian proponents of a global virtual
universe, the illegality of recycled modernity is alarming and
"unproductive." Recycled modernity, prevents India's accession to WTO
conventions, and has prevented multinational manufacturers from dominating
India's domestic computer market. For the nationalists, this modernity
only reconfirms older patterns of unequal exchange and world inequality.
In cyber-terms this means smaller processing power than those current in
the West, lesser band width, and no control over the key processes of
electronic production. I suspect that members of the electronic
avant-gardes and the counter net-publics in the West  will find recycled
modernity in India baffling. For recycled modernity has not discrete
spaces of its own in opposition to the main cyber-elites, nor does it
posit a  self-defined oppositional stance. This is a modernity that is
fluid and mocking in definition. But is also a world of those dispossessed
by the elite domains of electronic capital, a world which possesses a
hunter gatherer cunning and practical intelligence.

The term 'recycling' may conjure up images of  a borrowed, unoriginal
modern. Originality was of course Baudelairian modernity great claim to
dynamism. As social life progressed through a combination of dispersion
and unity, the Baudelairian subject was propelled by a search for new
visions of original innovation, both artistic and scientific.  A lot of
this has fallen by the wayside in the past few decades, but weak impulses
survive to this day. It is important to stress too that recycled modernity
does not reflect a thought-out post-modern sensibility. Recycling is a
strategy of both survival and innovation on terms entirely outside the
current debates on the structure and imagination of the net and
techno-culture in general. As globalists/virtualists push eagerly for a
new economy of virtual space, and the nationalists call for a national
electronic self-sufficiency, the practitioners of recycling keep working
away in the invisible markets of India. In fact given the evidence, it
could even be argued that recycling's claim to 'modernity' is quite
fragile. Recycling lacks none of modernity's self-proclaimed reflexivity,
there is no sense of a means-ends action, nor is there any coherent
project. This contrasts with the many historical legacies of modernity in
India - one of whom was Nehruvian. This modernity was monumental and
future-oriented, it spoke in terms of projects, clear visions, argued
goals. And the favourite instrument of this modernity was a state Plan,
borrowed from Soviet models. Nehruvian modernity has been recently
challenged by Hindu nationalism, which too, has sought to posit its own
claims to modernity, where an  authoritarian state and the hegemony of the
Hindu majority ally with a dynamic urban consumption regime.

While recycling practices claim to modernity lies less in any architecture
of mobility, but an engagement with speed. Speed constitutes recycling's
great reference of activity, centred around sound, vision and data.
Temporal acceleration, which Reinhart Koselleck claims is one of
modernity's central features, speaks to the deep yearnings of recycling
praxis. But this is a constantly shifting universe of adapting to
available tools of speed, the world info-bahn is but an infrequent
visitor. Consider the practice of speed, where the givenness of access to
the net, the purchase of processing power, all do not exist. They have to
be created, partly through developing new techniques, and partly through
breaking the laws of global electronic capital. Recycling's great
limitation in the computer/net industry is content. This actually
contrasts with the other areas of India' cultural industry - music and
cinema. In the field of popular music, a pirate culture effectively broke
the stranglehold of multinational companies in the music scene and opened
up vast new areas of popular music which the big companies had been afraid
to touch. Selling less from official music stores as from neighbourhood
betel-leaf (paan) shops, then pirate cassettes have made India into one of
the major music markets in the world. In the field of cinema and
television, content has never been a problem with a large local film
industry which has restricted Hollywood largely to English-language
audiences.

What accounts for this great limitation in the net and the computer
components of recycled modernity? Recycling practices have, as we have
shown been very successful in expanding computer culture, by making it
inexpensive and accessible. Most importantly recycling provided a
practical education to  tens of thousands of people left out of the
upper-caste technical universities. But content providers are still at a
discount. But perhaps not yet. The last time I went to Nehru Place I met a
young man from Eastern India busy collecting Linux manuals. In a few years
the recyclers, bored with pirating Microsoft ware, will surely begin
writing their own. Given that such has taken place every other dimension
of recycled modernity in India there is no reason it should do so here.

Ravi Sundaram
Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
29 Rajpur Rd, Delhi -54, India
rsundar {AT} del2.vsnl.net.in



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