N5M3 South Asia Forum Presentation

Working with new media in the part of South Asia that I come from is something like crossing a tightrope on a bicycle. The bicycle which could have helped me along were I on my way on flat ground makes the crossing that much more precarious. Consider the bicycle to be the single computer and the internet connection which I use along with at least seventeen other people, friends, colleagues, neighbours and complete strangers.

An infinitesimal fraction of the South Asian population has access to internet, and this is likely to be the case in the future even at the most optimistic projection. Computers are few and when we get them, we tend to spread them thin by sharing them out. Computers, modems, internet accounts - these are expensive things and a lot of people sharing the costs, and the phone bill makes sense in a context where the rent, the absence of any form of social security, and the price of vegetables and the lack of work are important concerns. This means that not everyone gets the luxury of privacy, or unfettered usage. It makes for a crowded bicycle, but as we say often in other crowded situations, in trains, buses or even in living spaces : 'never mind, we'll adjust' The tightrope is made up of three intertwined strands : the failing electricity supply, the soggy and overloaded telephone line and the server that crashes every other day. I am never quite sure if the message that I typed and sent actually reached it's destination until I get a reply. The sent-mail box in my e mail may be full, but that doesn't really mean anything. I might have just got into my favourite anarchist archive on the net, but a little click sound will tell me that the system crashed again, for the twentieth time within half an hour. Surfing the web in New Delhi is a lot more like trying to climb up a slippery mountain face that never lets you get to the next foothold.

And yet India is amongst the highest exporters of software professionals in the world. Large multinational corporations in London, Brussels and Chicago tap into India's growing labour market of cheap, skilled, anglophone, software professionals via dedicated internet lines every working day. While they sleep each night, half the world away, in another timezone, somewhere in New Delhi, or Bangalore or Hyderabad, reports are typed, spreadsheets drawn up, software created, graphics designed in a virtual sweatshop by workers seated in assembly lines glued to keyboards and screens. Fifty people get laid off in one place, another five sweatshops open their virtual windows in another. The sweatshops have their own electricity generator, leased phone lines and dedicated internet connections that don't collapse every five minutes. The grease of the global digitized workplace makes sure that everything runs smoothly, that deadlines are stuck to, and that the modems hum in tune with the music of production schedules.

My fragile internet connection, riding on pirated software (the only kind I can afford, on an assembled computer that was made in an anonymous 'grey market' workshop) beeps and crackles along side the drone of a giant economic engine as it cavorts on a new virtual playground. Can my beep and crackle, and the beep and crackle of others like me challenge the digital drone of power?

My reasons for hope in this regard, few though they are, are based partially on the fact that South Asian cultures have shown a remarkably high ability to absorb new expressive and communicative technologies and transform them in keeping with local needs. If you look at the rapid ways in which the printing press, the cinema and photography spread in South Asia, giving rise to new and varied expressive forms, and new constellations of audiences and performers, then perhaps there is some hope for a yet-to-emerge internet and new media culture. But this new media culture will depend crucially on the way in which it's protagonists shape their space, and the content of their work, vis a vis existing communication structures, both hegemonic and otherwise.

But before we go on, I want to briefly examine what I consider to be a missed opportunity. A case of the forgotten 'old' medium of the radio for which I have a certain affection, even though I am a filmmaker and it is television, not radio that pays for my bread. I am referring here to the mysterious lack of any interest in the creation of an alternative radio network. Radio has a long history in India, it is also the cheapest and most ubiquitous means of communication in India. Even the remotest hamlet in the interiors of India, will have radio sets, and the radio, like the bicycle is the one form of technology that everyone can afford and access because it is cheap. One would have thought that such a scenario would have prompted a widespread alternative radio culture based on low cost transmitters, initially set up as pirate stations and then battling for legitimacy through public actions. I find this even more surprising given a recent Supreme Court judgment that declared the airwaves to be public property, and situated them as a public resource independent of the control of the state and market. Thus the situation is in a sense ripe for the mushrooming of local radio stations run by anybody who pleases, that can flood the airwaves with any manner of subversive content. If the state wishes to crack down upon them, then the ground is ready for a protracted legal battle that bases itself on the right to freedom of expression and the fact of airwaves having been declared public property by judicial fiat, thus contravening existing laws that controls access to broadcasting, (the infamous and draconian Telegraph Act of 1885).

But unfortunately, this is precisely what does not happen. Debates on the autonomy of the media continue to rotate around the sterile question of corporate versus state ownership of the media. Few years ago, when a group of independent film makers and media practitioners to which I belong, the Forum for Independent Film & Video, attempted to initiate a debate on public access to broadcasting as a fundamental right they were either thoroughly ignored , or told off for stirring up trouble. On a number of occasions I personally have been told by respectable left-liberal intellectuals and NGO activists that free access to the media would only mean that fundamentalists would open radio and television stations and disseminate fascist and communal propaganda. The possibility of a libertarian culture on the airwaves is perhaps too threatening for the South Asian cultural elite, which is why the bugbear of 'opening the fascist floodgates' is such a handy and convenient excuse. Meanwhile the spectacle goes unchallenged except by exhausted and token protests. The spectacle lives and breathes in the hardsell of a new consumer culture on satellite television, in the cardboard mythological on state television, in the violent nationalism of commercial cinema, in the political circus of slick current affairs and news shows and in the proliferation of fundamentalist sermons and communal propaganda in the name of religious programming on cable channels.

In such a situation if any group of people anywhere in South Asia had tried to operate a free thinking, open radio station, with a small transmitter, and supposing that this radio station would have on the off chance also featured open debates about everyday life, reports from the workplace, from factories and schools, letters from prisons, features about the way in which the police was hounding Bangladeshi immigrants from cities or terrorizing gay people in public parks, or played songs against nuclear weapons, they would have simply landed up in prison, for violating antiquated broadcasting rules. And frankly no one would even know, or have given a damn.

Until and unless free and equal access to the media becomes recognized as a political question, just as access to drinking water, or land, or housing, or a clean environment are recognized as a political questions, unless access to the media not just as recipients but as producers is not seen as a question that relates to the way in which power articulates itself in our society, this is bound to remain the case. And this recognition cannot come from those who work with the media alone, though they can help engender it.

In South Asian societies it will have to be demonstrated through practice that only a participatory media culture can bring back a lost vitality into our exhausted public spaces. In a cultural climate where all forms of political expression and social communication are rigidly controlled by a complex structure of mediators and representatives who negotiate the messages that are transmitted between people and power through the forms of representation (and here by forms of representation I mean both the political structures of representative democracy, as well as the 'representational' function of the dominant media - holding up an acceptable picture of the world) there may in fact be a great hidden social urge for unmediated, direct and spontaneous expression . For expressions that either ignore or confront power in new and surprising ways. That reject the older forms of spectacular protest for subtle, if low key acts of everyday resistance, that are hard to locate and identify, and thus impossible to punish or appropriate. Traditionally, the peoples of South Asia have had a a rich subaltern history of popular poetry, forms of satire, and a repertoire of symbolic challenges to power. These traditions were founded on the basis of anonymity, or of the hidden and shifting claims of authorship which made them difficult to censor. New media practitioners in South Asia have a rich precedent before them in the very 'old ' media, should they choose to recognize such a lineage. This will imply a re-appraisal of what we consider to be political in our societies, which will involve rejecting the notion that the media, or work in them is at best an instrument for the projection of a political programme, and consider instead that the media and their usage in themselves are political questions.

Such a vision can imagine a new media and a new public culture that takes photography to the streets through large prints made as posters, that encourages the evolution of graffitti as an urban folk art form, that transforms public spaces through the projection of films made from within communities (as opposed to being about them) , that actively agitates for popular cafes and liberal licensing laws for inexpensive pubs where small newspapers can be read, where poets can read and new songs can be sung accompanied by cheap food and drink. For a series of movements to liberate the means of communications, especially radio from the stranglehold of the state and advertising. That demands that every school or college or housing estate be seen as a potential radio transmitter, and that this demand be considered as basic and as natural as the demand that each neighborhood have its own hand pump for clean drinking water.

It is in this context that the Internet and other new technologies of communication need to be looked at in South Asia. For the foreseeable future, they will remain technologies available only to very few people, and these will be the cultural and political elites. Those of us who are lucky to have some form of internet access can use the internet as a resource for information that is rapidly transformed into older 'media' to make it use friendly in a public context. Thus it is impossible for us to contemplate a universe contained within the web, and to see the new media as replacements for other, not necessarily only 'older' forms of communication. (there may be the need to think of other 'new' media that are not as dependent on technology as the Internet). We can creatively and imaginatively use the Internet as the one space in which national boundaries have ceased to matter, in which we can as of now travel form New Delhi to Lahore without the intelligence agencies of either state monitoring our every movement. This opens out the possibility of contemplating long term joint projects that explore common concerns, and engender new initiatives without having to fall into the trap of simply reacting with e mail petitions to each new political disaster that our rulers bestow upon us.

This can then gradually pave the way for the opening out of an 'offline' space, populated by real people, and real actions and exchanges, where the state that we evaded so successfully 'online' can be surprised by our refusal to act on the terms laid down by it. Where the free floating ambiance of the web, where everything is up for grabs and nothing belongs ideally to no one can be translated on to a from taking over the streets and spaces of our cities. Where the net is only an online rehearsal for an offline celebration, in real space and time of our real lives.

I would like to end by talking about a group of friends, some of the growing family of people who share and enrich our internet account. They have over many years have brought out a newspaper for industrial workers. The newspaper, a black and white tabloid in Hindi with no illustrations is distributed free to workers in the industrial town of Faridabad, close to Delhi and has a readership of over ten thousand people. The people working on the paper correspond almost daily with other workers in different parts of the world, in Hong Kong, New Jersey, Tokyo, Johannesburg and Amsterdam, among other places. Their e mail exchanges feed into their newspaper and the reports of the newspaper make their way into the e mail correspondence. In this way workers in Faridabad get to know about wildcat strikes in South Korea, or the way in which people resist work pressures in Amsterdam. And a conversation gets started between one form of resistance and another. Recently they have started putting publications on the web, one of which is called "A Ballad Against Work" . A collage of instances of resistance, and a string of arguments, this text grew out of the fusion of 'new' and 'old' forms of media, of street corner conversations while distributing the paper, and e mails that spanned continents. Today it circulates in turn, 'offline' and 'online', taking on new lives with every reader or surfer, living through every postcard and every e mail that confirms that we will always find new and old ways of saying we have had enough with this world and want another one instead.