New Delhi, January 26, 2017 (Alochonaa): The modern and modernity is constantly evolving in the era of the digital. Like a perennially buffering software program in the background, the digital, with all its complicity, is more than anything the secular global theology of financial growth. The digital is simply the turbocharged amplification of the statistical, the obsession of the mandarin elite with data, rather than the context. As Sherlock Holmes, who depends on the facts for deduction, the context for evidence-based decision-making is paramount to operationalizing big data, small data and whatever is in between. The obsession with technology in lieu of Aadhar, Jan Dhan and Demonetisation reflects the convergence of the technocratic with the social.
The fundamentalism of modernity has digitalisation as a core value. Questioning data and research methods behind it, is questioning ‘development’ and ‘growth’. The architects of the digital age – the engineers and scientists – often do not understand the wider ramifications of their work. A recent example of this was discussed in the New Yorker article, ‘The Bot Politic’, where the author explores the ethics behind making the voice of the bot male or female.
Questions of gender justice are not the only themes within the social justice framework that infect the digital sector. The intersectionalities of caste are as real in the Indian start up sector. The Baniya (the traditional trader caste within the larger Hindu community) is as powerful as ever. The Agarwal, Bansal, Sangal, Sethia, etc. business models are pretty standard too, as the source of capital behind the thinking is the same. Some things are never ‘disrupted’ for all the chatter about digital technology’s potential to disrupt the status quo.
The conversations regarding data security is endless but with the JAM-Demonetisation combination, this problem is more relevant than ever. Public policy will be more technology driven and questions of ethics and transparency to citizenry have to be brought up again and again. India is a country of unprecedented complexities on the ground and it is infinitely difficult to model the deficiencies. There is a rampant black market already in Aadhar numbers. No one talks about making government decision making transparent, including diluting RTI. Rather, citizens as taxpayers are treated as criminals unless proven otherwise, as exemplified by the bank’s questioning their usual account holders wishing to deposit or withdraw their own resources. Technology is underwritten by value-laden thinking, and assumptions behind technology need to be unpacked as a black box.
My reflections on December 8th 2016, one month after the Demonetisation event:
“One month of mayhem. The push towards the digital economy is happening as a mode of survival. Reflexive rather than proactive. The dabbawala registered bank transfers this month. This was a watershed moment for me. The digital economy has a surveillance and a panopticon lens. Inclusion has a mainstreaming effect. The narrative frame is of the ’emancipatory’ spirit. Critical thinking needed, to unravel the various layers of this techno deterministic move. Overall, the common man is so helpless reacting to various top down policy interventions as a clueless lost kid at the train station.”
Technocracy is a definite political ideology where hypothetical outcomes dominate process and where pains of common people are trivial for the larger good. This also presumes that marginal communities are incapable of taking decisions for themselves. In short, the rule of the elite mandarins, and politics is a performance. Technocracy is not a silver bullet for the divisive intersections of everyday politics of life; caste, economic inequalities and race. Often, on the ground, execution needs buy-in from communities of professionals, such as bankers in the case of demonetization. Demonetization is reflective of this technocratic imagination.
Demonetization as Pop Culture:
The authoritarian imagination is now pop culture. Standup comics Bharti and Krishna, on Big Boss, have mimicked 500 and 1000 rupees notes themselves, quipping that the 2000 rupee note has chips in it that can report excess notes, shine in the dark and what else not! People on Big Boss are also being comically critical of demonetization and PM Modi having a new years’ eve national address. The discourse has indeed changed forever.
Even Swami Sampurnanand of the Ramakrishna Mission (a prominent Hindu sect) joked about Demonetisation in a short talk on science and Swami Vivekananda at Hindol Sengupta’s ‘The Modern Monk’ in Delhi today (10-01-2017), suggesting that the impact of Demonetisation on ascetic life was such that earlier people would willingly donate 1000 rupees but now refrain from donating 100 rupees, as small daily expenses are covered by donations. The small saved up reserves are worthless whereas the wealthy are not impacted. Demonetisation is a cross cutting lived experience phenomenon, from the saint to the sinner.
Nirmala Sitharaman ji in NDTV’s Davos debate, equated Demonetisation with India’s Mars Mission (21/01/2017). Cash is now backward, while payment wallets are the same as ISRO’s space exploration excellence. This is stretching the technocratic imagination a bit too far. Amitabh Kant ji’s verbose speech to back up the digital push did not cut any ice. Harvard economist Ken Rogoff’s expression was priceless. The Indian delegation on the panel was certainly not the best as far as intellectual firepower. The SBI Chairwoman was least convincing. Sitharaman ji’s criticism of banking corruption in the wake of the note-bandi crisis was sniggered away by Arundhati Bhattacharya. Not the most cohesive presentation on India’s most disruptive public policy innovation since 1991 on the world stage. Please send Jayant Sinha or Nandan Nilekani or the Davos Men to present India’s brand.
To be fair to the current administration, the Big Bang of Innovation was something anticipated by the public since 2014. A large section of the working class, although troubled, is content at least because of proactive measures are being taken, even if they are as flawed as Demonetisation. A shopkeeper once mentioned that at least a step was taken, whereas the last PM was on silent mode. The outcome of the measure has been shifting but the political capital investment is huge. This is truly the audacity of hope.
Politics intersects in new ways are to manifest itself on the ground. Asia is the new battleground for the digital, as a ideology for the ruling classes. India has government programs such as Digital India, Start Up India and Make in India, which concentrate the focus on the fourth industrial revolution, but the negative consequences of entering the digital era are yet to be fully appreciated.
*The Writer is the India Affairs Editor, Alochonaa.
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