Digitality and people at the margin: Tasks and challenges of civil society and faith communities in Asia
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Digitality and people at the margin: Tasks and challenges of civil society and faith communities in Asia

Peter Singh

Digitality is an “ontology of the age”, an epistemic reality involving networked, automated, interactive, databased hypertexts that raise fascinating and profound ontological, existential and experiential questions. Humanity exists online today and digitality changes their way of understanding and thinking about reality.

Digitality is changing not just entertainment and leisure pursuits and time and space but, potentially, all spheres of society, such as the digitisation of social life, economic transactions, cultural transmission, political manipulation and religious exercises. Alvin Toffler’s prophecy in the 1970s on the emergence of the third wave has become a reality today. We come across the existing pattern of capital accumulation – a transformation in terms of the emergence of a new social era, that of a digital society.

The combined forces of multinational corporations and political interests succeeded in the systematic introduction of these digital platforms from web television and personal computers to robotics and data banks to and, particularly, laying an integrated national electronic grid that altered social life in almost all aspects. Commoditized entertainment and attendant services have been pumped into individual households in a metered flow. Digital technologies have proliferated in homes to mediate the work of consumption and reproduction to facilitate the increasingly demanding and complex experience of everyday living.

These technologies influence many people and for them daily existence has become sufficiently complex, costly, and labour intensive so that some machine-assistance is not only feasible but necessary. Through digitality, capital permeates the very cracks and pores of social life.

Digitality – a reality

Digitality has become an epistemic challenge today. Society is undergoing profound transformation due to the increasing adoption and effectiveness and reach of digital applications. In particular, the application of Artificial Intelligence is playing a huge part in everyday life (AI pastors, AI teachers, AI judges and AI counsellors). The adoption grew from 4% to 15% during 2018-2019, according to Gartner. AI is playing a huge part in our everyday lives in health, wellness and warfare; however, there is a sore lack of understanding of what AI really is, how it shapes our future and why is it likely to alter human life. Media exaggerate or create further confusion, fuelling sci-fi-inspired imaginations of computers smarter than human beings. This is one side of the reality.

The other side of digitality is the reality of the digital divide. A number of prominent radical sociologists have been trying to offer their own critical understanding of a society that is digitalised. One important person is Manuel Castells who, by taking a political economy approach, has boldly gone where no critical sociologist has gone before, to tell us that, it actually is a globalised network society. His three-volume trilogy on the Information Age: Volume I: The Rise of the Network Society; Volume II: The Power of Identity, and Volume III: End of Millennium formulates a systematic theory of the information society and critically examines the social economic dynamics of information age.

Another important contribution has been made by Brian. D. Loader who focused on the emergence of new information and communications technologies, such as the Internet, and the social, political and economic actors shaping their development, and their implications for social, economic, political and cultural change. His edited book The Cyberspace Divide: Equality, Agency and Policy in the Information Society critically considers the complex relationship between technological change, its effect upon social divisions, its consequences for social action and the emerging strategies for social inclusion in the Information Age.

In the same line, Pippa Norris’ The Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty & the Internet Worldwide questions the use of “the divide” as shorthand, suggesting that there are at least three major divides: a global divide between the developed and undeveloped worlds; a social divide between the information rich and the information poor; and a democratic divide between those who do and those who do not use the new technologies to further political participation.

There is a similar analysis in Mark Warschauer’s Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide.

Digitality in Asia

Asia boasts many of the world’s top IT companies, tech entrepreneurs and digital start-ups. Yet, it is also home to nearly 50% of Asia’s population, people who do not have access to the Internet. Many countries in Asia simply lack the routers, fibre optic links and servers needed to expand access. Few public Wi-Fi spots exist, and broadband connections with faster speeds require infrastructure that is rarely found in urban low-income areas, much less rural ones. Mobile Internet connections are not much better. During the lockdown due to Covid-19, studies and experiences point out that 50 to 70% of theology students are connected with online classes and only 20% of the school students have access to online education. The rest are denied attending online classes.

Conditions of network connectivity develop conflict over access, capability, ability and distribution. These contradictions between a virtual life “on-line” and real life “off-line” must be a central concern for any analysis of how the basic conditions of access, capability and distribution of digitality affect our communities. Access to information technology is also a difficult question to be answered. Access does not mean that people should be provided with a few computers. In poor countries, access means availability for their daily needs within a reasonable distance, whereas in the rich nations it is owning a computer with all configurations. In this sense, in the poor countries, access does not apply only to individuals, but also to communities.

Exclusion reduces the capacity of individuals to contribute to and benefit from society, the economy and from information technology. Exclusion is a complex phenomenon involving many causes. We need to clarify exclusion and inequality. Exclusion is a condition of people who are at the bottom of a socio-economic distribution; inequality is a phenomenon where distribution is uneven. Unfortunately, the impact of exclusion is being left to market forces to mould and then control. Market forces create wants among the affluent in any society and the economically impoverished are simply made to adjust their wants downward to cope with new conditions.

In this way, social divisions and distinctions have remained largely untouched by information and communication technologies. They owe their existence to the desires of the rich. Thus, the digital divide is a deepening of existing forms of exclusion. As yet, digitality has failed to touch the lives of the average citizen in the rural areas. “Cybertouts and infoprophets” from Alvin Toffler to Nicholas Negroponte, Howard Rheingold to Bill Gates have promised a brave new world of equality and empowerment. But the reality is different. People are already divided on the basis of income, race/caste, education, age group, gender and ethnicity. We consider them as people at the margins.

The new “margin”

The margin has been constructed socially by several factors. Gender is a social construct in which women belonging to lower classes, lower castes, illiterate, and the poorest regions experience different levels of marginalization. The stigmatization of disability resulted in the social and economic marginalization of generations with disabilities. Structural marginalisation of Dalits suggests that they are in a state of oppression, social disability and are helpless and poor. Marginalization based on ethnicity, the Scheduled Tribes and the Scheduled Castes produces structural discrimination within Indian society. The elderly, due to an increased incidence of illness and disability but also due to their economic dependency upon other family members experience marginality. Economic dependence has an impact on their access to food, clothing, and healthcare. Children mortality and morbidity among children are caused by poverty, their sex and caste positions are determined by the society, girl child faces discrimination and differential access to nutritious food and gender-based violence. Sexual minorities such as LGBTQ communities experience exclusion. More importantly those digitally divided are those who are denied access to digital technology, capability in the use of technology and equal distribution. They are the margin.

The power of the “margin”

Bell Hooks in her article “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness”, suggests an alternative way of thinking about the margin. For Hooks, the margin is a “space of radical openness … a profound edge”. It is in this space, she writes, “one can say no to the colonizer, no to the downpressor.” It is a “position and place of resistance … for oppressed, exploited, and colonized people.” Seen in this way, the margin is not a place one wishes “to give up or surrender as part of moving into the center-but rather … a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers to one the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.”

Lagana stated, “margin” refers to the excess of power that people possess. McClusky views that margin is the ratio of load to power in one’s life. For him margin represents the residual power available to participate in personal and professional development activities like learning. It is contrasted with the “centre,” a place of hierarchy, of race, gender, and class domination, the source of oppression, definition and limitation. Marginality can be described as a state of being, a site of intense energy and a space of interaction and mobility, and at the same time a site of repression and resistance. Margin can be a place for intellectual production, possibilities, resistance and creativity. Civil society and faith ocmmunities are not at the receiving end, not the objects of digitality. Rather, they should become the subjects of digitality.

Tasks and challenges in Asia

Civil society and faith communities must first reaffirm the power of solidarity, and then learn from that enormous reservoir of as-yet uncodified action which is constituted by ordinary people’s everyday struggles to meet their own needs. Perhaps the starting point is finding the following ways of acting as if we might be able to build a new world.

Decolonise digitality

This involves dismantling the power relations and conceptions of knowledge. Knowledge is being centralised. For this process digitality itself offers a space for decolonial activism i.e. constructing support for decolonising strategies online. Digitality still holds the scars of colonialism and therefore digitality has a scope for decolonisation of its own.

Decentralise digitality

Digitality supports centralization in creating structures. Centralization is a tendency of human and technical systems as a level of common authority. Digitality has created value through supporting centralization in areas where it is required to exist. Even in decentralized systems there is a place for centralized authority. Digitality should not exert absolute control over others, rather decentralized authority is often accompanied by decentralized responsibility and accountability.

Democratise digitality

Democratization of technology refers to the process by which access to technology rapidly continues to become more accessible to more people. Democratic governments and civil society and digital industries urgently need to devise and implement rules and defend human rights online. New technologies and improved user experiences have empowered those outside of the technical industry to access and use technological products and services.

Development through digitality – bridging the digital divide

Digital technologies are at the forefront of development and provide a unique opportunity for countries to accelerate economic growth and connect citizens to services and jobs. Digital technologies can also transform markets and economic opportunities. Digitalization of public sector operations and services, together with development of digital industries and jobs helps drive socio-economic development by closing the digital divide in Asia. Fostering digital inclusion is of paramount importance.

Digital theology

Where is God and God’s praxis in digitality? Jeff Zaleski´s book, The Soul of Cyberspace asks does digitality essentially challenge the religions? He finds that the bodily presence of the believer is essential. God is in the connectedness, the spiritual basis of the universe is understood as creative events unfolding in time and the creative process forms the soul of cyberspace. Jenifer Cob in her book Cybergrace says that if grace is the experience of the divine flowing in our lives, then experiencing the creative process is grace and experiencing it in cyberspace is cybergrace.

Digitality is a place of process. Asian Contextual theologies provide a model to resolve this question. Not everything is in process; but to be actual is to be a process. To be fully real is to be in process, and thus, the real is not beyond change, i.e., it is not absolute or unchanging. In process, God does not coerce, rather God offers the Divine to each actuality. God changes. The EATWOT theologians assert that God is not static, rather God enters into the new realities of life.

A reformed digital ecclesiology

The Church must accept digitality gratefully, which enables us to store information in vast human made artificial memories, thus providing wide and instant access to the knowledge which is our human heritage, to the Church’s teaching and tradition, the words of scripture, and the theologies which articulate the presence of God who brings out of His treasure new and old (Mt.13:52).

What sort of future do we aspire to? How can we live through digitality? Will digitality help life flourish or threaten the end of human race? The Gartner prediction is shocking that, “by 2025, 50 per cent of data activities will be digitalized by Artificial Intelligence (AI).” In the Fourth Industrial Era Machines can have a resemblance to human body, can perform like human but they are not real human. Brian Hayes’s analysis asks will AI create minds like machines, or will it show how much a mindless machine can do? Digitality is not the end product, it continues and thus the ongoing critical journey of civil society and faith communities must continue.

Rev. Dr M. Peter Singh is an ordained presbyter of the Church of North India (Kolkata Diocese) and currently serving as Professor and Head of the Department of Communication at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College (GLTC). He completed his B.D. at the United Theological College, Bengaluru, M.Th. at the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, Madurai, and D.Th. from GLTC.

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