11 May 2021 Towards equitable and sustainable technology futures
In April 2020, an announcement was splashed across the media in India – that of Facebook’s investments in Jio Platforms, acquiring a 9.99% stake through an all-cash deal. Jio Platforms, owned by one of the biggest conglomerates in India, entered into this deal with Jaadhu Holdings LLC, an indirect, wholly owned subsidiary of Facebook, incorporated in Delaware, in the United States.
This move came come a few years after the technology corporation tried rather unsuccessfully to implement its Free Basics version for Internet access in India, something that it had been able to put in place in parts of the African continent. With technology corporations like Facebook and Google doubling up as media houses today, and with governments now figuring out policy directions with respect to issues like intermediary liability, encryption, regulation of OTT platforms, etc, it becomes important to see these developments as continuities, as also in their contexts.
This article reflects on newer developments in the arena of media and technology policies and practices in South Asia and to place them in the analytical trajectories of what were landmark constitutive moments (Collier and Collier, 1991) in the history of international media development and communication governance.
Divided world, concentrated media: A bit of history
The post-war world was characterized by two developments – the emergence of newly independent states undergoing the process of decolonization, and an emergent world order that was bipolar and divided between the US and Soviet blocs. The first experience of decolonization is one that is arguably an ongoing process, which will be reflected upon later in the article.
The second development saw the concentration and usage of media entities, backed by the respective blocs, for the furthering of their political and national interests. For instance, Samarajiva and Shields (1990) have written about the role of myth of neutrality that often confronts the study of media policies, highlighting the role of communication and media studies scholars in working with the United States government, towards propaganda in the Middle East at the height of the Cold War. This story is true of the Soviet bloc as well. From the first experience, the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) as an intervention in the bipolar world order, meant that the newly independent nations were asserting the need for a third way.
As a result, the 1970s saw the call for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) intensifying, as a means to end the imbalances in news and information flows, between the developed and developing worlds. Tied to the New International Economic Order (NIEO) OF 1974, the NWICO conversations were heard at Algiers in 1973, Tunis in 1976, and later that year in New Delhi. The involvement of the UNESCO saw a deeply divided UN, with major powers withdrawing support and numerous international publishers against initiatives initiated under the rubric of the NWICO.
It was in 1977 that the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems was set up, by the director of UNESCO. This Commission, chaired by Seán MacBride and comprising representatives from 15 other countries, submitted the final report in 1980, titled “Many Voices, One World”. The report was oftentimes disowned and went out of print, only to be resuscitated by Rowman and Littlefield, in 2004. Among many notable things that the report stated was the idea that while new technology is welcome, to view it as an all-purpose vehicle to supersede social action and eclipse structural transformation would not bode well for the future. “The future largely depends on an awareness of the choices open, upon the balance of social forces and upon the conscious effort to promote optimum conditions for communication systems within and between nations” (1980: 33), the report said.
It is now imperative to draw out the continued importance and relevance of the Report, in a world dealing with AI, but also radio – in a time of multiple temporalities and a multiplicity of lived experiences.
South Asia and its multiple offerings
South Asia serves as a theatre that registers continuities and changes in the media development landscape, in line with the vision envisaged in the MacBride Commission Report. The region is home to some of the oldest linguistic traditions, oral cultures and histories, even as it is now the site that has seen the growth of technology corporations and home-grown businesses, in response to policies that opened up economies, allowing for the influx of global capital. Home to strong state media institutions, the region has registered numerous shifts since the days of modernization programmes, even as late as the late 1970s when community-based radio was introduced in the region by Danish broadcaster, Knud Ebbesen.
While Ebbesen’s vision was about making radio along the lines of the Danish Tape workshop, during my conversations with him he described his inability to work along those lines in Sri Lanka, the country where he developed his idea. The overarching control of the state meant that the initiatives that brought in UNESCO and DANIDA had to reconcile with community (-based) radio working under the aegis of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). This is in contrast to the Nepalese experience with independent radio, which was brought in by interpreting legal documents to allow community broadcasting in the mountainous country.
Meanwhile, the media sector in India saw numerous foreign media companies investing in the region, bringing with them what was to become quotidian exposure to and experience of watching international music and sitcoms, news channels and technologies. The 1990s and 2000s also saw a burgeoning and unregulated cable television industry in India, with cable operators almost ruling access and subscription to television. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the popularity of participatory communication methods meant that media and communication researchers were now working with media technologies at the grassroots.
Again, this could be seen in the realm of community radio in India, which led to the promulgation of the first policy guidelines in the region for this form of participatory media. While 2008 saw the global financial meltdown hit countries in a big way, India managed to deal with its growth rate rather safely. However, the country saw a marked shift in power in electoral politics, with a Hindu nationalist government coming to power with a huge majority in 2014, and again in 2019. This becomes an important turn for experiences with media technology and its development in the region.
The current political regime in India is one that is working at a confluence of policy trajectories – while, on the one hand, the government’s preference for privatization of public entities and institutions is now widely understood, on the other, one also witnesses a call for atmanirbharta or self-reliance. This has typically meant that home-grown conglomerates have been given a free hand, riding on these only seemingly divergent strands of policy prescriptions, unifying them to create big entities, with wide-ranging business interests, including in the digital media space. The recent case of a member of Facebook’s Public Policy team in India colluding with the present government’s interests and Twitter’s blocking of accounts opposing government policies and stances, has only opened up a can of worms on the functioning of technology corporations in a muscular regulatory state enabled by a majoritarian right-wing government in power.
Post-globalisation? Pandemic, surveillance technologies, “openwashing”
Connecting to this strand of thought is the current debate that has scholars and thinkers talking about a post-globalised world. Do we now live in a world that is seeing the resurgence of the nation-state? Strong governments elected along nationalist sentiments have come up in various parts of the world, even as we see a shift in power in the United States. This has only been exacerbated by what has been a near-global phenomenon: the pandemic.
With the onus on governments to control the spread of the pandemic, we have seen the deployment of surveillance technologies through contract-tracing apps, national healthy registries, health stack technologies, and widespread datafication (Couldry and Meijias, 2019). With advances in technologies like Artificial Intelligence, we see their unabated usage in the making of smart cities, for instance, in the region. In India, Mozilla wrote a scathing response to a government policy on the National Open Digital Ecosystem, calling it “openwashing”, since the definition of access and openness was left vague and undefined, thereby allowing a lot of room for interpretation and implementation at the individual technologists’ level.
Similarly, in the realm of datafication, we see policy moves in the form of the Personal Data Protection Bill and the Non-Personal Data policy report, both of which prefer nationalization of data, to a large extent. All these developments raise questions in the interest of democratization as a process and an ideal.
One of the biggest contributions of the MacBride Commission’s Report has been its focus on decolonisation and democratisation – as an integral and internal process – one that is rooted in ideas of liberation and justice. While the Report examined these ideals in the context of news production and flows from the developed to the developing world, and placed on the shelf the need for the latter to make its own media, it also emphasized the flow of news within the developing world. Recent works on the ideas around designing for the pluriverse (Escobar, 2018) and the plurality of the Souths (Milan and Trere, 2019) as sites even within the developed world, continued to emphasise the need for internal democratization, which is a progressive, ongoing process.
This can be translated into praxis, in the designing and development of technologies and their policies, in an inclusive fashion, bringing to light not only their implementation but also their making. Who has access to the spaces where technologies get codified? Who are the people who operationalise technologies and at which sites? Who are the people who get left out of these processes and are made to be passive recipients or, worse still, completely excluded?
Asking these questions would allow us to reflect on democratising newer technologies. When this is brought into conversation with the ideal of deliberation as an act of not only diagonal and two-way dialogue but also as a robust multi-vector process (Raghunath, 2020) of facilitating conversations, one is left with a vision for the future of media and technology developments for a pluriversal world, as one that draws on ideas of sustainability and equity for the future, and one that would bring to life “Many Voices, One World”. ν
Collier, R. B., & Collier, D. (1991). Shaping the Political Arena: Critical Junctures, the Labor Movement, and Regime Dynamics in Latin America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Couldry, N & Mejias, U. (2019). The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press
Escobar, A. (2017). Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham; London: Duke University Press.
Milan S & Treré E. (2019) Big Data from the South(s): Beyond Data Universalism. Television & New Media, 20(4): 319-335.
Raghunath, P. (2020). Community Radio Policies in South Asia: A Deliberative Policy Ecology Approach. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.
Samarajiva, R., & Shields, P. (1990). “Integration, Telecommunication, and Development: Power in the Paradigms.” Journal of Communication, 40(3), 84–105.
Preeti Raghunath is an Assistant Professor at the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication (SIMC), Pune, India. She is the author of Community Radio Policies in South Asia: A Deliberative Policy Ecology Approach (2020).