Culture is future » Innovation and digital

11.15.2011

DEBATES 2011 - Electronic Conviviality, by Arjun Appadurai

I write to combat a deep prejudice which many of us share and some of us wish to resist. This is the prejudice that something in the current world of electronic communication is the enemy of conviviality. There are several sources for this prejudice. The main one is the idea that electronic media are an extreme form of impersonal modern media and thus are inherently opposed to the intimacy and immediacy of face-to-face communications. They are seen to represent the final stage in the victory of Gesellschaft over Gemeinschaft (society over community). Another one has to do with technology. We often believe that where technology wins, human relations suffer. And the third has to do with the economy. Since electronic communication is regarded as requiring considerable literacy, leisure and cosmopolitanism, it must be against the interests of common people who do not have these privileges. This prejudice is an obstacle to seeing the real potential of electronic media for conviviality and we can build this argument by addressing three specific myths that support this prejudice.

Myth # 1: The “digital divide” deepens the gap between the “haves” and “have nots”.

The Reality: The “digital divide” is not simply a matter of “haves” versus “have nots”. In fact, digital literacy is a new form of literacy, which is not controlled by churches, states or corporations, unlike all other previous forms of literacy. This is why even the most powerful states, like China, fear the Internet. Dissident movements throughout the world use the power of the world-wide web to upset established authorities. Artists are using electronic technologies to create new sorts of events, performances and installations in which they exercise the power of their imaginations but also question the role of science, religion and corruption in human life. In this way, the gap between scientific and artistic creativity has been narrowed by the electronic revolution. Throughout the world, people are beginning to use new electronic media to leapfrog previous technologies. For example, mobile usage is exploding world-wide, as is texting, which requires a very different form of literacy than what is taught in classrooms and textbooks. E-literacy can be a massive weapon for democratization, and this is the biggest difference between the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and those of the Arab Spring in 2011. The growth of websites like Wikipedia opens the possibility for more democratic methods for constructing public knowledge. Google has made it easier for ordinary people everywhere to do serious research in their own time and for their own purposes. And even when not many people have access to computers, as in Africa, for example, their leaders, teachers and activists almost always do.  Farmers in rural India are now able to examine land records in their own districts to examine the legality of all land transactions. Prisoners of conscience are able to reach out to supporters outside the control of the states that have imprisoned them much more easily than before. Projects of exclusion, corruption and repression are much harder to hide, given the wide spread of electronic new reporting and the rise of various laws about the “right to information”. In short, it may be that the electronic revolution cannot solve the global challenges of inequality. But it is wrong to see it as a major force in perpetuating inequality.

Myth # 2: Electronic Technologies are Destroying Older Forms of Solidarity.

The Reality: Older forms of kinship, friendship and solidarity are very much with us. They are enhanced by new technologies like Skype, cell phones, texting and instant messaging. In many cases, family ties are expanded, old friendships are rediscovered, localities are revitalized and social bonds are re-energized. At the same time, because of the speed of information exchange in the electronic era, the sort of rumors that spark religious wars, ethnic cleansing and mob violence are also resisted and challenged. Blogging increases the richness of public debates, Google allows more people to see the details of other parts of the world, and Skype allows intimate contact in real time between friends and family. Take one example from India. For many centuries, Indians have arranged marriages for their children, based on previous ties between family, friends and neighbors. In the current era, when many Indians have moved far away from home, in search of employment or education, arranged marriages have not disappeared, but in many cases have been revitalized by the use of  Skype, video-movies, real-time photo-exchanges and other forms of electronic mediation. By these means, the circle of arranged marriages has become geographically enlarged and men and women who live and work in Europe, Australia, Canada and United States continue to build marriage ties with family and neighbors in India. The circle of marriage grows but it retains many of its traditional qualities. Similarly, electronic media allow friends and neighbors from small localities in the Philippines, Mexico and Senegal, for example, to combat the problems of an often cruel global labor market, which reduces their legal and political protections in their new locations in Europe, the Middle-East and the United States. Faced with hostile labor and immigration laws, these migrants build on earlier ties by transferring money electronically to their families, by staying in touch through the internet, and by making marriages with persons from their original localities. Of course, criminal mafias, human traffickers, terrorists and arms-dealers also us the Internet to advance their own ends. But they cannot prevent the poor and exploited from also using these very technologies to pursue, dignity, justice and opportunity to some significant extent.

Myth # 3: Electronic Media Value Distance over Proximity in Social Life

The Reality: The old opposition between distance and proximity is itself undergoing a tectonic shift. Messages and images move at lightning speed. Strangers appear among us all the time. We and our children have links across the world. Old ideas of scale and size have become obsolete. It is not much that we now live in a “global village”. It is rather that the villages of the world have become increasingly globalized. Chairman Mao once predicted that the villages of the world would encircle the cities. In reality, the villages of the world are becoming cities and these cities, themselves electronically linked, restore some sense of intimacy across vast distances. In large part, this is due to the visual component of the new media, and their capacity to communicate pictures and images in real time. Seeing pictures of one’s loved ones in real time, across thousands of miles, seeing an instant message accompanied by a photograph on a cell phone, seeing a Jpeg photo of a child’s wedding, these are experiences that close the distances of migration, at least for some purposes. It is true that these technologies are not available to all people to the same extent. But they are no longer distributed in a strict hierarchy of big and little places. Technological connections can appear in African villages, Buddhist monasteries, Indian temples, and other remote places. These links subvert the old geographies of distance, allowing voices, messages and images to create a true ecology of intimacy which is not simply ersatz or derivative. Anyone who has watched sports fan screaming and celebrating a home team’s victory thousands of miles away from the site of the match know that electronic communications can produce the magic of participation at great distances.

The Lessons

  1. We need to invest in electronic literacy, not just in new hardware and software for connectivity. We need ordinary people to know how to produce images and messages in the new languages, in a way that can expand their intimate priorities.
  2.  Intellectual property is not about protecting only current owners, but it is about expanding the class of future owners. We need to focus on methods of education which will expand the universe of readers so that there will be more writers, of viewers so that there will be more artists, of listeners so that there will be more musicians. We need new methods to widen the class of electronic producers, and not just of consumers.
  3. There is no opposition between creators and entrepreneurs in the new age of electronic connectivity. Rather, there is an emerging relationship between creating, dissemination and ownership of the means of electronic production. Marx could not have dreamed of this change. But we need to embrace it, manage it and deepen it. Our laws about intellectual property belong largely to the 19th century. We need to revise them for the 21st century.
  4. We often refer to the great 18th century ideas of “liberty” and “equality”. The age of electronic connectivity also has the possibility to bring new energy and relevance to the ideal of “fraternity”. This fraternity will be characterized by the emerging ecologies of electronic conviviality.

 

Arjun Appadurai