Is the information society selling a justifiable hope for liberation and empowerment to the marginalised in post-truth India?
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are providing an enormous platform to re-arrange societal contours, by abandoning the primitive, time and space-driven edifices of epistemology to develop some new sets of normative standards, for citizens in the information age. Citizenship assumes geography, which is later underlined as a nation-State. This understanding, however, becomes inept in times of a new digital citizenship under the sovereign ruling of ICT. This has paved the way for the subaltern’s voice. For ages, socially-acceptable and prestigious spaces/institutions were devoid of subordinate voices. Digital social media platforms via the internet have considerably enabled them to mature a first-hand collective consciousness to authorise a distinctive, shared philosophy (through Facebook, WhatApps, Twitter and so on) deeply interwoven in democratic traditions.
Digital windows have arguably helped diverse online communities to materialise their life-world experiences and advance a fresh alternative and corresponding model of living. Information society theorist Manuel Castells recognises the liberating outcomes of ICT. Subalterns are taking epistemic responsibilities in socio-technical processes of the information society, conditioned on epistemic justification to rectify injustice done to them.
ICT and empowerment: Subalterns have utilised digital platforms more suitably to reveal their experiences, ideas, concerns and aspirations and explore unsung heroes, weave stories and preserve oral traditions. These include their life experiences, cultures, traditions, beliefs, languages and ethics, despite the anxieties from the existing dominating political entities. Information technology enabled subalterns with the required information, without much obstruction, to get closer to the pursuit of truth and justice. Information/knowledge systems of a large section of the Indian population possibly would have been isolated by the mainstream content drivers to sustain dominant conceptual accounts and discourses/narratives. Meanwhile, cyberspace is offering sizeable avenues to freely communicate with local and globalised communities.
The rise of multiple online news outlets, individual content providers and senior journalists devoted to maintaining the integrity of their profession, and their incessantly digitally-widening audience, attests to the fact that subalterns and ordinary citizens receive more reliable information from them than from mainstream news outlets. In the present scenario, formal education is less required to produce creative content. On the contrary, industrial society is engrossed in ownership of talent. The information age does not need a bulky investment of academicians for information; rather it independently cultivates a new digital forum. It is also not purely social-capital caste driven. In this way, the creator of information will enhance balance in society. The embryonic subaltern epistemology adheres to different ideas and figures, which might be in stark contrast to some widely-considered knowledge structures. This will actually induce those, who remained at the helm of social and political affairs/narratives, to incorporate burgeoning criticism and demands of subordinates to enable the substantial democratisation of ICT.
Subaltern news outlets: Subaltern presence is notable in online news portals, though not adequately enough. Some channels like Dalit Dastak, National Dastak, Bahujan TV, National India News, The Shudra and Dalit Camera: Through UnTouchable Eyes have started generating content. They have subscribers/viewers in millions from various social groups. Notably, subalterns have utilised digital media to constructively choose relevant, valuable and meaningful information, more than ever to educate themselves.
ICT and subaltern causes: With collective struggle, subalterns are reaching at the centre of democratic knowledge production and content generation, challenging the discriminatory and hegemonic patterns of the State. The April 2, 2018 mobilisation of Dalits and Adivasis across the country, against the dilution of the provisions of the SCs/STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, is a unique testament to a better and purposeful utilisation of internet technology by subalterns in India to assert their rights. Leaders became irrelevant and, despite that, it could become the largest unprecedented movement of this scale, in recent years, by subalterns.
Why is information society more liberating to subalterns? In agricultural societies, they could not acquire the land. On the contrary, in the information society, they could secure key positions from content generators to content managers and owners. However, the lack of financial resources limits them from projecting their accounts as general mainstream opinions. At the epistemological front, they have had considerable accomplishments by acquiring digital space but do not possess materialistic resources to take the ownership of big mainstream media. The information society, further, has been converted into a revered room that furnishes more substance of respect and dignity to an ordinary subaltern. Fundamentally, the information society is based on ideals of inclusivity, mutual collaboration, open and free access to reliable data. The subaltern people’s reliance is diminishing on mainstream news channels. This will further translate into the development of community-owned and driven online media outlets, leading to active involvement and participation of outcasts and subordinates. More so to democratise the media space in the information society.
Subaltern hyper self: In an information society, people use the new social channels (Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and so on) to self-broadcast (uploading pictures and locations), reveal preferences (likes and dislikes), and share personal information (relationship status). This way they are developing informational selves, covering various aspects of human life.
Anonymous social identities and the idea of self could be reformulated on a digital platform to generate meaning and accomplish freedom of speech in society. Thai philosopher Soraj Hongladarom in his seminal work, The Online Self, maintains “viewing the self as made up of information makes it easier to account for the self in the online world.” The online self allows this unique opportunity, to conceal and change your identity to put your message across. The physical self, which is socially neglected, might form a new online identity (or social self) to legitimise itself socially, without revealing the original identity. The new online structure changes the forms of earlier social structures.
Futurist Jason Ohler argues, “Our ability to hide our real life identities by using obscure user presences — from chat room names to avatars who look nothing like us — allows us to literally reconceptualise ourselves.” It testifies the departure from the earlier mode of existential self to the digital self, which is attributing more meaning to a digital subaltern self.
Indian and Western digital self: Culturally, individuality is not suppressed largely in the West due to an individualistic understanding of the self, rooted in the Cartesian self. In India, desires, fantasies and aspirations are peculiarly anchored by external factors other than an individual. People will, therefore, often go and create digital selves and put fake/distorted/misinformation about their identities to cherish what they always wanted to be without revealing much about themselves. It has given them more freedom to express, which has resulted in the online social selves dominating the real ones. Sometimes, the social self overpowers the real existential self. In general terms, humans are living in a world of “double social self.” The former springs from physical social space, the latter is caused by ICT and made compulsory due to economic and political compulsions. Novel digital subaltern metaphysics has yet to be thoroughly comprehended in India. It could empirically be concluded that the information society sells a justifiable hope of liberation and empowerment to subalterns in India.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi)