Obituary for a Sunset (in India)

Obituary for a Sunset (in India)

In the final few moments of the movie Otokoppi, set in pre-technodermy earth around the year 2018, we see five characters organising townspeople to stand in unison against Vedanta Sterlite. The corporation had severely contaminated ground water and was responsible for leaking extremely poisonous gases into Thoothukudi Town. We see the characters brave through torture, run from militia, goondas and organised crime as the five finally run into the town-square to meet the newly organised townspeople to finally take down the corporation, they stop abruptly and stare with opened-jaws. The suspense is at its hightest as the perplexed audience waits for the camera to slowly pan and reveal to us what the characters see, we are struck in terror, in awe: this was only the start to a long and painful history – the square is emptied of protestors.

While the characters in the movie had no idea of what is in store for them, the audience knew only too well. In reality Otokoppi’s attempt at forecasting techno-colonialism hadn’t been reserved for Thoothukudi, but had for other parts of the India. If only the poorest in Assam had been warned about ethno-nationalist techno-states; roughly fifty years later technodermy took over governance.

For now, however, Sterlite Copper had to count their days.[1]

May 22nd was slated to be a day for massive protest against the Thoothukudi Collectorate and Vedanta (Sterlite Copper’s parent company). Anticipating the inability to adequately control the enormous sea of protestors, Section 144[2] was imposed in Thoothukudi. And when the protestors did not abide the rule, the crowds were lathi charged and finally shot at by army snipers. A total of seven people lay dead. In the face of this brutality Vedanta had to shut down Sterlite Copper and conduct an undignified exit from Tamil Nadu.

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The biggest merger of all time has taken place in India: an overtly centralised ethno-national state that has embraced techno-colonialism now aims to provide Access (user access to information, vendor access to user-data) and Surveillance[3] in over people for the sake of its own dubious cultural financial supremacy. While religion has always been a close confidante of finance, market logic has most often superseded it. For the time since India’s independence, a ruling partly has found ingenious ways to convert cultural war-cries into the magical sound of fresh 2000 rupee notes being printed.[4]

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Developing surveillance technology and biophysical tools were amongst the most important aims of the present version of the nation state, for it was seen as the only way to achieve the goal of gaining authority. Coupled with the mission toward digitising financial exchange, tools such as surveillance, access had to be trademarked and used to gain sovereignty over peoples governed by analogic capital and socialism. A two-fold updating programme was required: some places on Earth (mainly economic non-centers such as land between metropolitan mega-cities) had to still be integrated successfully and linked to centrally operated governing machinery. Further sovereignty situated outside the geographical domain that went beyond the standard nation-state structure required consolidation.[5]

Though this was a logistical nightmare, the cloud needed to travel.

Market rational has been characterised as knowledge which is obliged to oppose the shared and common resources whenever the latter has presumed to speak about things on this earth. Within the nation state-corporate nexus socialism is understood within the realm of the irrational, coercive, and altruistic. The impetus to increase shareholder value in the free market is considered constructive; charming citizens use impartial tools and to engage in entrepreneurial growth. Citizens require identification through biometrics first and only then, maybe, the state recognition will follow.[6]

The terrestrial, the bodily, the cloud and the user are inextricably linked; one cannot exist without the other. The need and ability to cognitively and practically manipulate environments had to be inculcated and ideologised as inevitable first, and then as fact. There would first be data gathering systems, then a data organising systems and finally a data trading systems. Attempts to digitise the country and formalise informal markets is underway, but bad planning, incomplete software and tendencies towards non democratic means of coercing people to embrace ‘access’ (a stand in for precision surveillance) are seen as ‘necessary side-effects’. While the problem with Aadhar and Digital India initiative are plenty, they have given us an idea of how cloud-based infrastructure directly affects physical infrastructure – the experience of it and the conversation around digital privacy (India drafted its first privacy bill in 2017 and are yet to draft an anti-troll bill) and control have only just begun.

With collection and dissemination systems partially in place, data collection and storage platforms are slowly being already de-regulated, and the authority of the digital order along with it.[7]

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Meaning assumes different roles: prior to the advent of surveillance-governing, meaning found its origins in understanding human conditions and/or the decline of nature. Prior to that religion was paramount and everything was ‘pre-decided’. While this idea still persists, financial rational had to separate itself from reason and allow for alternative meanings to emerge. While this very new information system proposed an equal techno utopia for everyone, it founded its spatial dominion through premeditated and systematic surveillance.[8]

People ended up trading a digital commodity they didn’t even know existed via social media platforms and self-quantifying apps. Some believed the trade was justified, others not. And for whole hoard of people, it didn’t matter. But the playground for money has already moved towards immateriality.

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Time’s arrow has no direction, and in that lack of definitive direction is to be found all the significance of contingency, process and history. Post-modern sciences initially inherited this lack from older technologies (such as the natural world) and turned it into a method for the study of humanity. This non-linearity has been the undercurrent mode of thinking of technoscience and the subsequent theory of human growth. But this non-linearity has little to do with sequence, cause, duration and chronology of temporality. It does however require spatial dominion of its implementation. What also got exported out of the network, the cloud and to land with little access to the internet were their struggles and contradictions connected people could not resolve, such as the battle between State and access, the struggle between private property and various versions of collective ownership, surveillance and anonymity, the tension between the rule of code and the rule of the human desire. Terrestrial problems follow us to the cloud and get amplified there. Digital cosmopolitism (or the idea of the cloud as a unifier) was not primarily an effort to impose some consensus on the rest of the world; it was an effort to find consensus by the staging of unresolved terrestrial debates in a network – comprising the humans and its personal and impersonal cloud, and the projection of a flattened atmosphere.

The question of techno-science’s interface with the wider population is no longer of interest to philosophers and theorists alone, the fate of human existence coupled with the question of the future has assumed an intensity like never before. The dialogue between coders, biophysicists, non-human digital users and society is to understand what it means to be human as well as the responsibility for the natural world that we share with other sentient beings.

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In 2018 a group of farmers from Kanchipuram district met with a team of world renowned biophysics’ engineers to solve a peculiar problem: the farmers claimed something was wrong with the air leading to crop failure, while their own bodies were emitting a strange smell. While their collaboration did not yield results, this is hardly surprising. That the conversation took place at all points to the increased understanding that the modern sciences simply could not keep up with the changes taking place due to algorithmic governing systems. This included partial and sometimes total algorithmic high speed trading without human interference; this also included the creation of AI systems whose sophistication was not completely understood by their creators. For one the biophysicists could not fathom how air, a non-liquid substance, could contain a pH number. The farmers were dismissed.

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Since then, studies have shown that the atmosphere did receive a pH number due to certain chemical changes in the human epidermal layer. In a bid to have a robust workable surveillance system that could account for every human, excessive technologies employed to do that job have changed the nature of human skin upon interaction with it. Changes in the epidermal layer were exteriorised though emission of certain gases that later condensed into tiny liquid molecules suspended in the air. Air indeed now has a pH of -13. (The movie Otokoppi mentioned in the beginning of this text attempted to capitalise on this period of change, where nanotechnologies began its movement of getting imbibed into the human epidermis.)

The tendency to now treat skin as geography is rife with national cartographic initiatives, spatial data infrastructures, and the development of epidermal geographic information systems (EGIS). Remote sensing has now taken on an entirely new agenda; knowledge gathering and production have never been so tightly interwoven.

A newer epidermal politics will be born out of skin-based technology. What we have now is the site where big data meets our largest sensorium (the epidermal layer), codifying the senses. Preservation here is in the form of live taxidermy, which is tech’s ability to map living skin in real time from one codification to the other: thermodynamic skin allows for specimens to be located through the understory of think urban cover, while computer vision places great importance of skin recognition for facial and body surveillance tools.

The economy is also shifting: Skinscaping is now a service industry comprising architects, designers and construction companies, and provide high quality workmanship in calibrating invisible and the visible infrastructure that operates on human-skin. Since physical infrastructure, where natural (humans and ecology) gathering is constructed partly forms the armature of society; its non-physical element (digital and cloud based technologies) is actively shaping this armature. Smartness is the computational glue binding the physical and the non-physical.

While it is still early to understand what the effects of such a mutation, we have to recalibrate what we term identity politics. How we are experiencing this landscape has now become tantamount, especially when it enters our bodies, operating in and through our epidermis? And more importantly, if this a monetary exercise, can skin now be considered property? If so, whose is it?

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[1] For 20 years the residents of Thoothukudi along with activists from Tamil Nadu and all over the country had been sporadically fighting Sterlite Copper. Following a gas leak the company appealed to the central National Green Tribunal and had a state closure-order overturned. In 2018 the plant closed citing a 15 day scheduled maintenance. Sterlite Copper was made to pay the state government a 100 crore fine for the environmental damage caused, for residents’ compensation and medical expense. However the state has since distributed only 7 crores.

[2] Refers to intent of deliberate disturbance of peace and prohibits assemblies of more than four people in public.

[3] Surveillance is of two types: first is a one-on-one policing where individuals are confronted by the state. Autonomy reflects the individual’s fragile and tumultuous relationship with the state.
A second kind of surveillance is a more global one where surveillance is actually reducing (at a rapid pace) individual autonomy. Government and corporate actors need data (as per the platform economy). People here are not people, but data sets. Individuals are ‘users’ whose decisions can (and most often is) recorded and are fed into prediction algorithms for state and corporate ends.

[4] In 2016 the Indian government decided to ban two currencies, the 500 and 1000 rupee notes, overnight in a highly publicised move to weed out hoarding cash and counterfeits that funded illegal and terror activities. The repercussions of this move have been layered and far reaching: The enormous informal market and small-scale middle-men are alleged to have borne the brunt of demonitisation; It is widely speculated that large businesses families were told of this move beforehand; The government soon rolled out new 2000 rupees notes: it seems hoarding just got easier.

[5] though facebook’s offices are within the jurisdiction of US territory, the company’s real operation follows no geographic constraints or nation-state laws

[6] In July this year, a staggering 40 lakh people were left out of the Nation Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. The govt. proposed that in the event those omitted were to be branded illegal immigrants, keeping record of their biometric details would help control their movements. These people, largely Muslim, will not be forced to take part in the optional Aadhaar ID process.

[7] The railways ministry is considering disinvesting of IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation) data though at the moment it has been put on hold while the govt decides what to do with the data.

[8] The internet was proposed as the great unifier, cutting class and caste lines by assuring everyone similar if not the same content. Platforms, too: as intermediaries connecting vendors and users, platforms enable groups to interact at a fraction of the cost physical infrastructures demand. Technically anyone with the means and access to the net can avail these platforms. Concomitantly, a relatively newer raw material as data has emerged with the means of wealth generation moving from production of information to ownership of this information. In short, the health of platforms hinge on data collection.