[iDC] Decoding Digital Outcasts: Reflection 2

Nishant Shah itsnishant at gmail.com
Sat Sep 3 16:52:45 UTC 2011

Dear All,

Thank you very much for the responses and questions that have already come
my way – some on the list and some over personal email. They help me frame
my own thoughts better and I hope that this second set of reflections will
elaborate on some of the key things at stake in this effort at charting the
shift from the Digital Native to a Digital Outcast. I have already replied
in some detail to a few of the questions around those and I am getting my
way through the other responses, but I want to now take the time to add to
my own understanding of these terms and more specifically, focus on what
labour I am making those terms perform and to what effect. I also know that
these reflections come back-to-back and presume a linearity of thought,
which might not necessarily be fruitful. Please feel free to juggle through
the reflections (and add tangents, if you will) and jump into the
conversation as desired.

So to get back to the notion of the Digital Outcast. I had proposed earlier
that the Digital Outcast was helpful to us, within the “Digital Natives with
a Cause?” project because it escaped some of the dead-lock debates in the
field that revolve around age, access and infrastructure. However, the
Digital Outcast is not ‘outside’ of the scope of ‘Digital Natives’. The
intention was not to produce a new category that would discount the digital
native as an irrelevant category. Instead, I am using the ‘Digital Outcast’
as a way of opening up who can become and claim to be a digital native. Like
in the earlier reflection, I want to posit a couple of inflections that
Digital Outcasts allow us, to account for a wider range of digital natives
than have been included in a majority of the discourse.

I want to begin by looking at a ‘construction’ argument. Digital natives are
constructed. They are not born digital, they become so. We didn’t have
digital natives with the emergence of digital technologies. We have at least
two generations of people who had learned to be ‘native’ to the digital
cultures before the term got currency. Why then, did it become necessary, at
the turn of the millennium to coin this particular phrase? In his response
to my earlier reflection, John Sobol has very succinctly asked, “If we have
digital cultures, why shouldn’t there be people who are native to it?” and
this is where I want to locate this ‘construction’ argument.

The digital cultures that we assume that these natives are digital to, are
often taken for granted. It is assumed that there are only a few kinds of
digitalities that exist in the world. This gets compounded by a series of
impulses: Because everybody seems to be using the same kind of platforms and
gadgets across the world, we presume that they must be doing the same kind
of things. Because the digital technologies seem so pervasive and outside of
everyday regulation (false perception, as almost everybody on the list will
agree), we also start imagining that the virtual realities are disconnected
from the physical contexts. Because there are a few hyper-visible stories of
digital superstars or villains, we believe that the rest are in similar
conditions of being saviours or criminals. These kinds of presumptions
actually form a prescriptive model of who a digital native is, what kind of
practices should a person perform to be a digital native, and where these
people are located.

In the process, it imitates a classic state-citizen structure where
parameters of belonging are clearly defined and it is only through those
parameters that people are allowed to be citizens or belong to the state.
The digitally disempowered or those who are recognised as not being ‘digital
natives’ are recognised as the constituencies that need to be included in
this digital fold, thus granting them access and empowerment. However, the
digital outcast refuses to be accounted by either of these positions. It is
neither a success story of somebody who has actualised the transformative
potentials of technology, nor is it somebody who just needs to be included
in the narrative of technologised development. The Digital Outcast offers a
way of reading against the grain, to people who exist in ironies,
hybridities, in hyphenated existences where they have been accounted for but
not given the resources required to actually engage with and strategically
deploy the technologies which they have been given an inclusive access to.
This ability of the digital outcast to be inside and outside, is why I
retain the formulation  - again, to posit it, not as a replacement category,
but as a kind of digital native who can offer critical self-reflexivity
about the politics of inclusion which is beyond mere inclusion by access.

The second inflection is to do more with the specific project I am currently
involved with, that seeks to look at how imaginations of Social Justice in
India are informed by the emergence of digital and internet technologies. I
shall be presenting in greater detail on this at Mobility Shifts, but I want
to flag a few questions here which might be of interest to think more about
the Digital Outcast. I shall locate this specifically within the Indian
context and history (they are the legacies I am the most familiar with) but
I hope that there are resonances with other locations and temporalities.

There has been a very clear correlation between the technological
apparatuses of governance and ideas of Social Justice. In India, for
example, Cinema, Radio, Television and the Telephone have all been used as
metaphors and networks through which justice, redress and rights were served
to the citizen on the behalf of the State. The broadcast model of governance
that seeks to constantly improve the message of the State (ideology,
benefits, subsidies et al) to the most remotely located Citizen, through a
medium that can transmit the message with minimal distortion and in a manner
that makes the State accessible to the citizen (and the citizen visible to
the State) has marked the second half of the 20th Century. This model also
frames politics as an articulation for justice, rights or redress from the
State through different mechanisms and apparatuses. Which means that our
modes of articulating any politics has the State at the centre of our
imagination and is the only arbitrator and dispenser of Justice.

With the P2P protocol of the digital technologies and the emergence of New
Social Rights (Right to information, right to knowledge, right to access
etc.), there is a new way in which rights are imagined. More interestingly,
the State is not imagined at the centre of these rights. The citizens’
abilities to bypass the state, in communicating with each other, and
mobilising resources (money, people, ideas) in order to demand their own
rights with a sense of entitlement that does not address the State at all,
gives us a new way thinking about rights and justice. The Digital Native,
which is still ensconced in a State-centred narrative of protection,
prevention and cure, easily gets subsumed under the older model. However,
the Digital Outcast offers a different way of reading the
State-Technology-Citizen structure. Because the digital outcast has been
produced (through a grammar of infrastructure and access) but not been
accounted for (because of a functional view of technology),  the
imaginations of justice, equity, discrimination and rights that it offers is
often different from our earlier conceptions in the analogue world.

I shall stop here, more as a teaser than an answer, to lead to my final
reflection tomorrow. However, I would really appreciate questions,
suggestions comments, completely unrelated tangents and discussions that
this reflection hopefully opens up as I continue expanding on and exploring
the Digital Native – Digital Outcast relationships.



Nishant Shah
Director (Research), Centre for Internet and Society,( www.cis-india.org )
Asia Awards Fellow, 2008-09
# 00-91-9740074884
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