A few years back, I spent an entire summer hanging around info-kiosks – part of a major ICT4D (information and communication technologies for development) initiative – in south India (Tamilnadu). As it happened, I ended up spending quite a bit of time in one particular site, partly because a group of high-school and college age guys were part of the scene. These guys also happened to be members of a Vijay fan club, and given my interests in participatory cultures, I was more than happy to hang out and chat with them.
A few weeks into the summer, I showed up as usual on a Monday afternoon and found the kiosk empty and the Vijay fans were nowhere to be seen. I learned later that day that these guys has been told to stay away from the kiosk. Someone had found out that this group had been using the computers in the info-kiosk to watch (and copy) VCDs of Tamil films, some Hong Kong action films, and perhaps even a few “blue” films (porn). Word had come from the coordinators of the ICt4D initiative that such activities would not be tolerated, and if people couldn’t understand that these kiosks were for “development” and “progress,” they would shut it all down and set up the kiosk in a place where people understood its uses.
From the perspective of the predominantly urban and middle-class professionals involved in this project, this was disappointing. Watching films, toying around with Microsoft Paint to design a fan club poster, etc. marked a betrayal of sorts. It was clear that there was no place for pleasure in the ICT4D world. Or, at the very least, pleasure ought to be deferred.
I’ve always struggled to make sense of this incident. At one level, it was not surprising. Contemporary ICT4D initiatives could certainly be located within the history of development communications in India (and across the Global South). One example that comes to mind right away is Hum Log, the “pro-development” soap opera that Doordarshan mandarins concocted with assistance from Miguel Sabido, renowned as the father of “entertainment-education.” And even then, the question of pleasure was always set to one side. Surveys of audiences focused on what was learned. The thousands of letters that people across India sent in, expressing thoughts about Chutki and Badki (the feisty young daughters in the show), for instance, did not seem in the least bit important.
I’ve always struggled to come up with an adequate explanation of why we need to focus on pleasure and participation in the ICT4D world. Not anymore. Lawrence Liang to the rescue!
In a recent essay, Liang points to French philosopher Jacques Ranciere’s reflections on a set of journals that workers in 19th century France wrote. These workers (iron smiths, metal workers, and so on) were interested, we learn, not in reflecting on the terrible conditions of their lives but instead in “poetry, philosophy and indulging in the pleasures of thought.” Liang extends this to the ICT4D world:
What the workers wanted was to become entirely human, with all the possibilities of a human being which included a life in thought. What was not afforded to works was the leisure of thought, or the time of night which intellectuals had…
If we were to translate what this means for our understanding of ICT and the subject of development, we find that most interventions frame the poor as objects of the discourse of digital access, and they are rarely seen as the subject of digital imaginaries. How do we think of the space created by ICT as one that expands not just the material conditions but also breaks the divide between those entitled to the world of thought, and those entitled to the world of work? In other words, what is the space that we create when we frame the discourse of ‘digital divides’ only as a matter of technological access? How do we begin to look at the technological lives of people beyond developmentalism and take into account the way it changes aspirations and subjectivities?
I wish I had been able to frame the incident I mentioned above in this way. In conversations with programme coordinators and fellow-researchers (who were studying other ICT4D sites in India), I was unable to articulate why a group of young men tinkering with computers, watching films, and going online to interact with Vijay fans in the world at large is actually very good news and not cause for despair. This is, as Liang puts it, “a classic instance of what Ranciere would term ‘exclusion by homage’.” I, for one, am yet to hear of large-scale ICT4D initiatives that move beyond such exclusions to think more broadly about engagements with emergent media.