In her study of information capitalism in the US, management scholar Shoshana Zuboff recounts America’s transition from the industrial system to one that has turned the actions of internet users into commercially exploitable “behavioural surplus”.
This turn towards political economy in the study of the internet’s impact on society makes it imperative for us to also trace similar interactions between capitalism and information technology in India.
Digitally connected and social media savvy Indians, especially from the millennial generation, are often portrayed in exclusively commercial terms as consumers fuelling India’s digital economy.
But commerce is just one side of the story. If we consider the context of social media, we can see how technological innovation also interacts with politics and ideological divisions in the polity.
If we are to understand the substance and effect of technology policy in millennial India, we need to take into account the “anxieties and aspirations” of India’s youth who are not only the most prolific users of social media, but as surveys have consistently shown are more opinionated on matters related to politics than other age groups.
An alternative politics of social media policy
There are already signs that ideological politics is driving changes in technology policy, which will have an impact on social media as well.
Consider, for instance, the question of autonomy online and ensuring that digital media intermediaries do not infringe upon the rights of citizens as they surf the internet and network on social media.
On the one hand, the leadership of majoritarian Hindutva parties have framed autonomy in cultural nationalist terms, all the while pushing a populist policy discourse that seeks to store Indian data within Indian borders. Such ideas are neither novel nor imaginative.
So far, however, such ideas have failed to have much impact. This is largely because an alternative alliance based on very different ideals of autonomy has emerged in recent years. Instead of simply ensuring cultural and territorial domination, the alternative vision articulated by technology-savvy, young leaders calls for an internet democracy.
These actors see technology policies both as a site for contestations as well as a means to advance their ideas in the public sphere. This reframing of autonomy in terms of democratic revival echoes with a long history of anti-colonial struggle for freedom, or azaadi.
The debate around technology policy and information capitalism in millennial India has already developed a political, anti-colonial accent. In the process, it has become inseparable from progressive activism that is often dubbed anti-national by its Hindutva opponents.
These alternative ideas could shape the political economy of information capitalism in India, with media activists and journalists beginning to question the politics behind surveillance capitalism in the country.
Regional dynamics and social media politics
Moreover, there are indications that ideological framing of technology policy in political terms have also trumped economic interests that dominate India’s national media system.
By challenging the political economy of mass media, activists have not only made technology policy a site for dissent, but also turned it into a means to enlarge the role of regional parties in this crucial domain.
This institutional growth is in sharp contrast with the growing cultural nationalist character of India’s mass media. Regional parties in turn now see the debate around social media as another avenue to challenge the dominance of New Delhi, particularly in matters concerning cultural autonomy, which is seen to be under threat from the Hindutva idea of India.
Already, with the emergence of anti-Hindutva public spheres online, ideological cultural warriors are feeling the pressure. This has prompted them to seek more intervention from the political leadership in Delhi.
At the same time, proposals by the BJP-led government, such as setting up a social media monitoring hub in the national capital, have been rebuffed to a large extent due to the pushback from regional parties and groups opposed to the growing centralisation of political power.
It was a Trinamool Congress MLA from Bengal who took the debate against a “surveillance state” to the Supreme Court. These actions have further united the democratic Left parties around the issue.
Such trends could result in real reforms, but only if debates in Delhi are backed by a concurrent revival of regional and subnational movements around technology and social media policy.
This is in sharp contrast from the past, for instance, in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when computer-based typesetting took off. At that time, regional print media aligned with the centripetal trends in the national economic sphere.
Eventually, the new class of “traders turned editors” behind India’s newspaper revolution compromised on press freedom, with technological change failing to deliver on the democratisation of the vernacular public sphere.
For instance Dalit parties and journalists in the Hindi press were even more discriminated against, with the revolution in readership falling behind the inclusive trends in Indian democracy.
Following this, in the 1990s, the satellite revolution was again driven by Delhi-based political and economic interests, to the extent that the first ever private pan-Indian news television network takes its name from the national capital – New Delhi Television or NDTV.
Beyond New Delhi: Azaadi as policy framework
As yet, the politics of the internet and, by implication, surveillance capitalism in millennial India, points towards more entropy and regional variation.
Over the last six-years, I have met several technology policy stakeholders, ranging from grassroots FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) movements to those representing Silicon Valley technology firms in India, and the picture is not quite the same as the one that Shoshana Zuboff paints in her book about the US.
Many representatives seemed wary, some even deeply worried, of being caught in ideological and political cleavages between cultural nationalists and progressive ideals of azaadi that have begun to define the debate on autonomy and privacy online.
However, besides the inability of the Hindutva leadership and information technology capital to forge a consensus, as had been the case in the era of offset printing and satellite networks, the current moment represents a historical rupture, an opportunity for millennial India to shift the loci of technology policy.
Moving away from New Delhi would be a first step in ensuring a more democratic future. Given the regional accent evidenced in the role of regional parties, and the growing use of social media in youth activism as these actors take their ideas of azaadi into India’s Hindi heartland, the technology policy debate could yet prove to be a turning point in not only “fortifying our future” against surveillance capitalism, as Zuboff calls it, but also in reviving the institutions of our democracy.
Aasim Khan is assistant professor in social sciences at IIIT-Delhi.