Communication Front 2000 Book, "Crossing Points East-West"

[This text was first published in ZKP4/nettime and is available at <>.]

Electronic Marginality

Or, Alternative Cyberfutures in the Third World

Ravi Sundaram

Thinking about virtual space in the Third World is almost a lonely exercise. At the same time that the local elite in a country like India dreams of riding the new wave of post-territoriality and simultaneous time on the backs of Microsoft, the fact remains that this is a society with one of the lowest saturation rates of telephones in the world. As for critical movements in electronic culture, remember that India has no tradition of cyberpunk nor any indigenous science fiction. Most cultural communities until recently have been ambivalent about technology. Historically, representations of science and technology have been state-sponsored, social-realist and monumentalist. All this raises a significant dilemma: alternative voices in India can only feel a sense of existential solidarity with cyber-debates in the West. For the genealogical reference points simply do not exist in India, much less much of the Third world.

In fact one almost feels a sense of bemusement towards the somewhat sweeping pronouncements in futurology emanating out of the French intellectual circuit, notably Baudrillard and Virilio. While Baudrillard's positions are consistent, Virilio's gloomy prognosis of the future net-worlds, ruled by the "industrialisation of real time," make little sense here in the periphery of global capitalism as a singular category of analysis.

Despite all this, there is no doubt that the time of cyber-transition has arrived in India - the rhetoric of connectivity is in full swing both within the trans-national elite, state-managers and a bewildered generation of social movement activists. This essay seeks to stake out a voice for theorising the new electronic space in India by looking at the discursive patterns of cyberculture in the country. These patterns operate within a constellation of re-configured nationalist pan-optics, elite time-travel to the sacred geographies of the "West," the decline of the Village imaginary and the rise of the Techno-city (Bangalore, Noida-Delhi) and new patterns of violence and terror in the old City. Cyberculture also operates within a changing grammar of techno-social power: elite/new class core enclaves which are predicated on a new post-nationalist optics are juxtaposed with large techno-cultural peripheries.

What concerns me in this essay is the changing topography of urban life. This new urban space which is distinct from Western modernist and post-modernist experiences of the city, which seeks to 'house' the new electronic culture. In much of the Indian public discourse on electronic networks and cyberspace this very significant transition is often missed.

Various forms of electronic networks exist in India today. They include the state-connected networks (VSNL, NICNET, ERNET), private providers (AXCESS, DART, SPRINT, etc) and the hundreds of non-legal bulletin boards which offer inexpensive network culture to many citizens. The public discourse on the 'network', 'cyberspace' and the Internet is intense, so much so that 'cyberspace' remained the top foreign story in the newspapers. In his recent visit to India, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates was accorded the kind of welcome few heads of states receive, and India is being spoken of as the software 'giant' of the future. Behind all this rhetoric, long-term transitions are missed. Our hypothesis is that the new network culture is actually part of a deep transition to an urban and proto-globalised culture in India within which any study be based. Before we go on to map out the possibilities of dissent within electronic space in India it is imperative that a brief history of this transition to the 'city' be given.

The Absent City: Post-Colonial India 1947-1980

The centrality of the city in the narrative of Western modernity contrasts with the situation in post-colonial India. To be sure, in the pre-colonial period, Islamicate [1] political life accorded a certain importance to the city, notably the Imperial capital. This can be contrasted with the complete turn-around in the post-independence period. It will be no exaggeration to say that the City was marginal to the self-imagination of Indian nationalism.

In the Indian case, citizenship was secured through different forms of territorial identification: the self-governing village community (Gandhi) or the abstract, levelling national imaginary which reproduced itself through developmentalism (Nehru). While European social theory accepted the city as an important site for citizenship (in that it dissolved ancient regime distinctions), in India universalism was secured less by the city, but through developmentalism and constitutionalist discourses. The city also seemed marginal to Indian political and social thought - indeed to this day urban theory is one of South Asia's great failings.

To be sure, urban space had remained prominent in the colonial imaginary - witness the grand constructions centred around Lutyen's Delhi and the re-invention of Moghul urban spectacle through the Imperial Durbars. Nevertheless post-colonial political narratives privileged the village/Nation as sites of social discourse. In the Gandhian discourse, the village was seen as occupying a kind of sacred geography where intrusions of industrial western and urban modernity could be contested through self-governing communities based on indigenous technologies. In the immediate post-colonial period however, the Gandhian vision was overwhelmed by Nehruvian developmentalism which combined the imaginary of the dam/steel mill with populist references to the village as the site of the "Nation". In other words despite its fundamental distinction from Gandhi's agrarian utopia, Nehruvianism never departed from rhetorically asserting the importance of the village in building the imaginary national community.

Ashis Nandy has argued convincingly for the decline of the Village from the public imagination in India in the 1990's. One can perhaps attribute this to a number of factors: the decline of old-style nationalist narratives, the imperative of globalisation which privileged a new urban space, and the secular retreat of upper-castes from the rural areas with the concomitant rise of lower caste movements for political power.

In the post-independence period, a city like Delhi had for the elites a certain untheorised security - part legacy of colonialism and part upper-caste hegemony over politics. While cities like Bombay, and previously Calcutta, came closest to resemble the urban experience in the Western sense, much of this began to change by the 1990's.

The New Constellation and Electronic Networks

The accelerated pace of globalisation has led to a new focus on urban space, with cities acting as conduits of labour/cultural commodities vis-a-vis the West. Saskia Sassen [2] has spoken of a new geography of centralisation and marginality in the new "global cities". The modes of electronic centrality links the financial centres of New York, London, Frankfurt, Tokyo with new centres like Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bombay. This new regime of centralisation operates within an increasingly changed dynamic with local/national regimes. On the other hand the geography of marginality is also reproduced on a world-scale through migration of labour to low-wage areas of both Western and Third World cities.

In the Indian case however, the new focus on the city remains embedded in a distinct, historically specific constellation that may well add new dimensions to the debates in the West. In the first place, the unity/fragmentation dialectic, so central to Western thinking on cities, seems inadequate in capturing the evolving urban landscape. The experiences in India, with an explosive criss-crossing of religious-secular geographies, new urban landscapes based on inversions of received notions of public-private, speak to a host of theoretical issues that need to addressed.

In India, the rewriting of urban space appears as a series of disjunctures, which seem to reproduce specific practices of differentiation and conflict within cities. These include: the re-writing of the "national" to include the diaspora; the development of new enclaves of software/electronic production autonomous from the old city but connected to trans-national space.

Within cities themselves there have emerged a series of new overlapping discourses: the emphasis on the city as an abstract guarantor of consumption and desire, the idea of urban speed and temporal acceleration, the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalist movements which are securely embedded in the new urban commercial/consumption cultures. The new urban consumption cultures include a rapidly growing popular component centred around the large film industry, and a new subaltern techno-culture focused on musical audio cassettes. The resurgent lower-caste movements have sought to engage with the new discourses on the city, often aggressively supporting consumption regimes. The argument here is that the old hostility to consumption and an emphasis on frugality was derivative of an upper-caste politics.

Thus we see a number of initiatives that have radically changed the old marginality of cities: the decline of the village in the self-imagination of nationalism; the differentiation of cities with electronic enclaves linked to transnational space, new patterns of conflict embedded in practices of inequality, consumption and desire. These patterns of conflict do not follow traditional paths - given the limited resources of urban theory in South Asia (in contrast to the very rich work on rural and subaltern protest), very little work has been done on this new phenomena.

Nationalist Visions (1956-1980)

The peculiarity and abstract character of nationalist science stands out today. This was predicated on "development" - that is the possibility of 'catching up' with the West within the framework of a peripheral capitalist economy. Given the impossibility of this task and its eventual failure, we are left with the cultural legacy of the project and its impact on sources of dissent.

Nationalist science policy was state-centred and typically monumentalist - a feature Nehruvianism borrowed from the Soviet plan and the TVA [3] in the US. The early science/development monuments were the steel mill and the dam - huge, ugly monuments based on violence and displacement of millions (Walter Benjamin's remark that there is no document of civilisation that is not also a document of barbarism [4] holds particularly true here). Not surprisingly, this project inspired very little cultural celebration (except a few Hindi films and thousands of reels of boring state news-reels). The Soviet industrialisation drives may have inspired Mayakovsky, but the Indian scientific monuments moved very few cultural producers.

The effect was the opposite. The vast majority of dissenters, aghast by the violence of the technological monuments, moved in the opposite direction - towards an engagement with Gandhian critiques of modernity and modern industrialism. Most social movements were joined by cultural dissenters who were hostile to technological monumentalism and nationalist technoculture.

This is a crucial distinction from the West. In the advanced capitalist world there almost is a "givenness" to the history of technology, rationalisation and creative dissent. In India, and I suspect in many parts of the Third world such a situation does not exist. Net-critique has to struggle against a whole tradition of dissent and radicalism that has, in the past, remained hostile to techno-culture.

Anyway, the first electronic networks, state sponsored, appeared in the 1980's. This was again in the form of a panoptic grid, with the focus of vision right at the centre - the nationalist state. The idea was to connect each district centre of the country to the national centre to encourage accurate information for "development". But this was at the time of a declining nationalist project, the pan-optics of the old, based on a now-defunct monumentalism soon gave way to the current multiple scenarios.

The transition from the old developmentalist science to the new urban techno-culture is significant. The old developmental model was partly based on an abstract Village imaginary that it cannibalised from the legacy of the anti-colonialism. The new techno-culture speaks to an urban imaginary, but in a fragmentary sense. This does not therefore fit in with the traditional history of the Western city of modernity with the compulsory reference points: Baudelaire, Simmel and Benjamin for modernism, Debord [5] and Baudrillard [6] for the new city-scape. In the new Indian cityscape there is a bit of everything and much, much more.

The tiny forms of digital accumulation (Deleuze's "Societies of Control" [7]) co-exist with disciplinary societies (Foucault), as also violent forms of primary accumulation (Marx) and pockets of industrialised real-time (Virilio). Violent abstractions based on single-concepts: discipline, control, evil, speed make little sense.

The real dilemma for net-critique in India is this: on the one hand there is the historical tradition of dissent in the country that has remained hostile to techno-culture; on the other hand many of the critical Western debates make little sense here. What is the way out? It seems to me that net-critique has to engage with "actually existing techno-culture" in the country, and speak to the spaces that exist apart from the elite domains of multinational capital housed in the suburbs of techno-cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Madras. These domains include the hundreds of BBS [8] all over the country, the new network space of social movements and a fledgling electronic art movement.

But this is not all. There is no simple discrete net space in South Asia. Electronic geographies include the vast field of experimentation in popular cinema and music. In fact, some of the best fields of electronic engagement have been popular music composers and those that generate the older forms of mechanical reproduction - radio, inexpensive cassettes. The fact is that electronic space in India will never reach the vast spatial grid as in the West - unlike the cinema and radio, it is premised on speed of capital and print-literacy, both in relatively short supply in the periphery. To be sure, this may well change in the future, but for the moment what makes electronic space interesting in the periphery is the explosive mix of cultural transitions that it speaks to: village to city, monument to techno-culture.

But what of the critical dialogue with the West? Any trans-national solidarity has to move beyond simple-minded liberal acknowledgement of "limited access" in the Third World. The problem with this framework is that it leaves untouched the very limited framework of the Western debate itself. A genuine dialogue needs a reflexive transition in the terms of electronic debates in the West, which do not offer any theoretical place for the experiences in the periphery. Given the acceleration of the multinational-sponsored discourse here in the periphery, such a dialogue between dissenting voices is both urgent and necessary.


[1] Islamicate, as opposed to the more restrictive notion of Islam, is a term introduced by American historian Marshall Hodgson to include the multicultural breadth of thinking and societies in the regions under Islamic influence, especially in South-East Asia - eds.

[2] For an overview of Saskia Sassen's theses, see <> - eds.

[3] TVA: Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the main New Deal projects of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt <> - eds.

[4] Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History <> - eds.

[5] Many of Guy Debord's texts are available online at <> - eds.

[6] A number of texts by Jean Baudrillard are available online at <> - eds.

[7] Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control, in: _OCTOBER_ 59, Winter 1992, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 3-7<>. Original French text in: L'Autre journal, No. 1 (May 1990) - eds.

[8] BBS: Bulletin Board System; computer system accessible by modem, on which you can read messages by others and download programs, and leave messages and upload programs for others to download; BBS systems have almost disappeared since the rise of the Web, but can be considered its precursor - eds.

Tazi statiq na bylgarski / This text in Bulgarian
Back to Contents in English