New Delhi, February 22, 2017 (Alochonaa): History is often known to be the winner’s version of events, as we read in our poorly written schoolbooks. The voices from the other side, the subaltern, have often been excluded, as the historian is often commissioned by the ruling elite to construct historiography of the phenomenon, event, or era in manner that portrays the winner in a positive light. Data collection was a tedious affair and analysis of the data was the task of the professional historian, the preserve of the expert. The historian’s job was to connect the threads of the landscape of the past.
The statistical was primarily the realm of the state, with the census as its core register. Assessing government data sets was laborious and time taking. The world of government data is now real time, with geotagged locations and tablet enabled data collection, as in the case of the 2017 Economic Survey in India, bringing in the tools of innovation in governance. In the 2017 survey, thermal heat imaging was even used for estimating the numbers of homeless. This ‘datafication’ is a technologically turbocharged phenomenon. The statistical subject is now ‘datafied’, in an ever-present post-modern panopticon, where his/her every development is coded, from the biometric Aadhar to how much he/she pays for medicines through PayTM (an e-wallet), since demonetization killed the cash economy three months back. The surveillance is real, under the smokescreen of expanding the tax collection net.
The advent of the ‘big data’, social media and analytics era, where real time narratives are created every nanosecond and put the maxim of journalistic writing as the first, rushed draft of history to shame as every one with a smart phone, a data pack and Facebook/Twitter account is a ‘prosumer’ of content. That is, the audience consumes and produces the news in an endless feedback loop. The smart phone is the erstwhile OB Van, as a former BBC correspondent quipped at a future of journalism seminar in Delhi on 6th December, 2016 at the Tony India Habitat Center.
The image is also no longer the realm of the documentary photographer, not with Instagram recording our times, meticulously, every moment. But this recording of events in bytes is not decoupled from politics. As P. Sainath – the founder of the People’s Archive of India, a digital crowd sourced online archive of the soon to be forgotten arts and cultural practices of India – says, the online sphere is reflective of fissures in real life.
The digital economy is not perfect either. The so-called digital economy can crumble, as we have seen recently in the transportation sector. Recent technology aggregator business models have proven to be inefficient, even after having raised and burned through cash to gain market share. When the crunch came, the incentives are slashed, the ‘achche din’ (The Modi Government’s catch phrase during the 2014 electoral pitch in India) for the cabbies are gone. Most of them made almost two lakh every month, took on hefty bank loans to finance their new sedans, but now must brace for a slowdown in income. The OLA-Uber collective labor action (a.k.a. the strike paralysing local transport in Delhi) is rewinding the clock back to the pre-digital era where autos ruled the road. After traversing diagonally to Noida from south Delhi yesterday via the good old auto via the standard meter rate, I would say they are truly the masters of the local ecosystem. The convenience of the transportation aggregator was surely missed; the GPS, the e-wallet payment etc. The standards of service have risen. This collective action reveals how traditional urban life is. One strike can impose cracks in the era of the digital.
Social media creates real time narratives of events and phenomena, and thus helps create the emergent present. The digital is a reflection of the emergent present: a reduction, exposition and inversion of the present. Digital content is often unmediated, although skewed algorithmically (the articles on Facebook feed mirrors our likes and shares), and a battle ground for narrative warfare, a perception battle where there is ‘fake news’ and unverified ‘prosumer’ content, which can sway actions in crisis situations in the real world. An earthquake, a terror strike or an electoral victory triggers an avalanche of data, which is manufacturing the technologically mediated present. The digital is the force creating an emergent present, constantly buffering in the background as a new feed is created.
The archive of the digital is the cache, while the cache grows every moment as the ‘present’ moves forward with every tweet. The digital landscapes of the past have a shifting form, with articles from a decade back no longer available. I beg to ask, is this because the text online was not considered serious enough? Online platforms emerge, evolve and dissolve everyday, as they do not have the same media demands as a printed magazine. The digital is killing the traditional printing star, to appropriate an adage, with hundreds of journalists being fired as a freelance economy based on an app takes over.
As the Principal Economic Advisor of the Indian Government and urban theorist, once said at a prominent book launch last year in Singapore
‘I did not like how history was written in India, so one day I woke up and started writing history’
The role of the historian to sift through big data and make sense of an ever-updating archive. The digital is the central dogma in framing of the modern subject. A modern subject is a digital subject, citizen and consumer rolled in to one.
*The Writer is the India Affairs Editor, Alochonaa.
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