The digital is political

Technologies are not just agents of politics, there is politics in their design

Published: Wednesday 15 June 2011

Nishant ShahThe links between digital technologies and politics, especially in the light of the recent West Asian-North African uprisings, have been well-established. But there is a pervasive belief that the technologies of computing, in themselves, are apolitical. There are two warring groups when it comes to debates around political participation and social change that the digital and Internet technologies have fostered.

On the one hand are people who celebrate the negotiation- and intervention-making power of these technologies and attribute to them great power that can change the world. On the other are those who look at these developments with suspicion, trying to make a case for the power of the human will rather than the scope of technology design.

Both sides remain convinced that there is a cause-and-effect link between technology and politics, but nobody talks about the politics of technology. The functional focus on digital technologies—economic prosperity, time-space shrinkage, transparent interaction and governance—has been overwhelming. This fosters a pervasive belief that technologies of computation and communication are agnostic to politics: there is a disconnect between everyday practices of technology and spectrum of politics within which we operate.

Let me give an example to explain this. Take a blank sheet of paper. To all appearances, it is completely agnostic to the uses it can be put to. It can become a letter of love, it can become a note of dismissal, shattering the dreams of somebody who is fired, it can be a promissory note facilitating legal and economic transactions, or it can become the rag to mop a spill on your desk. It is generally presumed that the piece of paper does not have any design or agency. And yet, it is obvious from history that this sheet of paper did indeed revolutionise the world.

imageThe advent of the printing press, the ability to mass-produce paper, the possibility of sending disembodied messages, the power of the paper to store information which can then be retrieved, has been transforming the world the last 500 years. It is a technologised platform that, by its very design possibilities and limitations, is able to shape, not only how we have communicated with each other, but also how we think. Let us remember the first proof of our identity is not in images or in sounds, but in a document, printed on a piece of paper, that declares us human and alive and legally present—the birth certificate.

We have grown so used to the world of writing and of printing that we have appropriated paper as an integral part of the human socio-cultural fabric. However, technology interfaces and products have not only a political agenda in their design, but also the power to shape the ways in which human history and memory function. The blank sheet of paper, in its inability to capture oral traditions, eradicates them. The tyranny of a piece of paper brings a fixity to articulations which are fluid. To think of the paper as bereft of political design, ambition and destiny, would be to neglect the lessons learned in history.

The digital interface needs to be understood through similar prisms. It is presumed that the digital interface in itself is not political in nature. Or politics is reduced to the level of content. In the process certain significant questions remain unanswered: who owns the digital technologies? Who supports them? Who benefits from them? Who controls them? Who remains excluded? Who is being made to bear the burdens?

Questions about exclusion and discrimination, built into the very structure of technology, are often overlooked. How do technologies determine who gets a voice? How do the digital webs exclude those who shall always remain outcasts? What happens to our understanding of the relationship between the state and the citizen? What are our digital rights? How does the technology design mitigate social evils? How does technology emerge as the de-facto arbitrator of law?

image Politics plays a part in the very presence and design of these technologies. It is perhaps time to proclaim that like the personal, the “The Technological is the Political.”

Nishant Shah is director, research, Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru

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