24 05 2005
Grey Markets, Decentral Media
Ravi Sundaram on media cultures in India's post-colonial cities.
Q: You are currrently a research fellow at Princeton University, teaching a class on “Post-colonial urbanism: South Asia and the world”. Which are the main issues you want your students to understand?
A: I am trying to describe the changes in the so-called developing world, which I call post-colonial, drawing a cross-section between north and south. I am doing a kind of critique of the classic division between north and south which was there in the fifties and sixties, within the context of globalization. I am looking at the transformation of the underlying concepts.
Q: What is it that makes South Asia particularly relevant in these questions?
A: I do a number of things: I look at the pre-history of what is called globalization today. One of the things I point out is that globlalization has a long history, since the 17th century. I call this present globalization the “new globalization”. I am looking at the problem of nationalism, of import substitution, and state-centered development that took place in the fifties and sixties, the crisis in the seventies, the slow transition, and the opening-up and the nineties, including the coming of the new technologies, of new networks, and the expansion of cities. I use this to open up a dialogue with developments in the rest of the world, e.g. in parts of Africa, Brazil, and even issues of urban design in the US and Europe.
Q: Is it fair to say that with the arrival of new technologies the discourses around “development” took a major turn? Some would claim that the whole idea of development is defunct.
A: The classic discourse on state-centered development entered a crisis in the 1970s. All over the world nation states with their notion of sovereignty have been in crisis. What happened in the 1990s is actually quite interesting: the state attempted a kind of revival, a new rethorical discourse on development. In this new discourse, it is not just the state that plays a role, but all kinds of other actors, including NGOs and the UN. My argument is actually that this is bypassing what is actually going on at the ground level. What is actually going on is a far more complex dynamics that has to do with the way people are relating to new technologies. I see these as more relevant than the whole notion of e-development, which does not make sense to me.
Q: Does anyone still believe in the classic model of development in India?
A: The classic model was one of catching up with the west. And although this is not so secure any more, the catching-up discourse is still very strong in the formerly colonized world. I think it is looking more and more illusory. The rise of China in the 80s and 90s and the emergence of China as one of the important players in the world economy in the next 10 to 15 years is actually changing the discourse quite radically. It is changing the discourse in ways the classic model had not foreseen. For example, the Chinese are building independent networks that were not envisaged in the classical model of catching up with the west.
Q: How do you account for the demand for Indian IT specialists in western nations in this post-colonial scenario?
A: In India there is a very large technical labour force that has been produced because of the high-quality education that was set up in the 50s and 60s for the upper caste elites. The majority of the population is still not part of this. But with around 100 million people, the elite amount to quite a large section of society. These are people who went to technical schools of very high quality. Many of them went to the US, and most of them still go to the US. But then there are people who run the system, programmers etc. And these are people with reasonable qualifications. The problem with this is that it is export-centered, and there is still no use of local software of quality. This is something of great alarm. I think the level of innovation is still not very high.
Q: What would need to happen for this level of innovation to increase? Is this an area where particular governmental policies would be required, or are we looking at a transition in terms of technological cultures?
A: I would distinguish two levels: one is the industry itself, the classic software industry. This industry sends programmers to the rest of the world, sending people to the US or Germany, or the carry out jobs locally. This is labour export controlled by companies. The industry itself has not been very innovative. I don’t think the innovation patterns are going to change right now, because there is a certain global structure in which this is embedded. Basically they are performing services for corporations in the west and not writing independent applications. It is not easy to write independent applications, but they are not even thinking about it. That is the structure. Breaking that structure would mean a kind of revolutionary shift, and I don’t see that happening right now, practically speaking. The second level where I think a lot of innovation takes place, and the area that I find actually more interesting: how any ordinary people are connecting to the digital world. I think there is a lot of dynanmism and a lot of innovation in how media services are circulated and delivered to the population. In India most of this world is not controlled by large corporations, it is part of the normal economy.
Q: What would be an example of this culture of innovation?
A: One example would be the grey market. India has the second largest music market in the world. The majority of the music market is dominated by small labels. This could be a small local music producer who would be operating in the neighbourhood. The bulk of cable distribution is not yet controlled by large companies, there is a lot of diversity and dynamism which exists in the media production and circulation scene. And this is what actually delivered services to the mass of the urban population, and increasingly to sections of the rural population. It is not the big companies, and it is not the state, it is basically kids in the neighbourhood wiring the whole area so that people have access to the media. There is a kind of democratic and innovative underlying goal, and it is done at an extremely low cost. I find this world more interesting because one of the arguments I am working on is that this has actually transformed the way the city looks like.
Q: In which ways has the transformation of the city occurred?
A: It has been a very kinetic, very dense and tactile transformation. There are thousands of small shops, flyers everywhere, and a kind of vivid feeling of the city because there is so much media production that is de-centralized. In India people access media not online, because bandwidth is still a problem, but they go to shops. For example, most young people in many parts of the world would go to a P2P client and download music. In India they would go to a neighbourhood store and the neighbourhood store would put the music together for them.
Q: There seem to be evident conflicts of interest between this kind of urban and economic models and the strategies of large corporations. Where do you see the main points of friction?
A: Such conflicts happen every day. Companies hire detectives to raid shops, claiming that copyright has been violated. But this is a losing battle, because even the investigators who we have interviewed say that it is not going to work. Property discourse has a long history in the west, and it has a history of 500 years of great violence. It has taken a long time to become stable. In India that history never existed. People have a kind of practical relationship to this. If someone is giving me access in a shop, where I get music much cheaper than from a big company, I would buy it. The same applies to film: if a film is realeased on Friday, it will be shown on a cable network on Saturday.
Q: If this economic model is tied to particular forms of urban design, which kinds of control strategies are there on this level?
A: There are strategies to re-spatialize the city, and create spaces where media are related to high levels of consumption, like in malls. Media consumption is part of a spectacle. In Delhi they will open 22 malls in the next two years. The second strategy is the kind of raid or violence model, which I mentioned and which is not working very well: there is not even one conviction even today. There have been one or two convictions in software cases, but nothing in music and film. So there is the violent strategy and the spectacular strategy. But there is a global crisis of media property, because costs have been driven so high in the past few years. This particularly affects the US companies who have set up a highly authoritarian model led by the Hollywood combines. What is interesting in India is because media production is so de-centralized it is far more dynamic. It is not one individual downloading on his/her computer. It is highly socially embedded, that is what I think it makes it so interesting.
Q: So there are models emerging that challenge the existing corporate models of media ownership.
A. Yes, but in an indirect way. These are also commodified spaces of buying and selling. But they are commidified spaces that are outside property. It is like a new form that was not anticipated in the history of industry and capitalism. In the classical models a small producer would sooner or later try to become legal and become big. But here there is no interest in this, because the new technologies favour de-centralized structures. You can burn a CD in your backyard, you don’t have to set up a big factory. But de-centralized structures do not only apply in media distribution, they are present in production in general. For example, Delhi is one of the centers of fake goods production in India. This does not mean that all these goods are bad quality, it just means that some of them are could actually be surplus from production houses of transnational untis, for example Nike shoes which have been overproduced.
Q: So these are originally branded goods?
A: Yes, and it happens in China all the time. A lot of the branded goods produced in China would find their way to India at a fraction of the cost, without the brand name on it. I have seen many of these items, which in Europe are sold at astronomical prices. This is part of a global crisis of industry and capitalism: business had to de-centralize to sharpen profits, and what emerged is a kind of system seeping away through all these little holes. What makes media different from ordinary goods is that their immaterial character makes them more dynamic. Precisely because the city is so de-centralized today it is possible for these “grey markets” to emerge. The software companies of India hate this image of India, they think it is unproductive, and cuts our ‘value’ in the world economy.
Q: Talking about urban design, there often seems to be very clear-cut division between the software parks and the rest of the city, for example in Bangalore. It seems to me that there are often cases where such radical polarities between different urban and economic spheres do not survive in the long term. How would you assess the development of a city like Bangalore in the medium term?
A: There is a problem. One thing you have to bear in mind that software companies don’t vote. What happens is that politicians get elected by constituents who do not agree with the elite vision of Bangalore. The political leadership in Bangalore has actually put on hold many of the undemocratic changes that had happened in the previous city government, for example they wanted to displace local farmers to build a highway into the IT park and initiate a kind of elitist cleaning-up of the city. Bangalore will see a lot of tensions over the next years. As a result, the IT elite begins to move out of Bangalore. What we will see is a playing out of these tensions in the next few years, between this clean image of the city, and the real city. The campuses are modelled on a kind of generic type of security campus characteristic of US corporation design. They are completely generic spaces with high levels of surveillance, and high levels of work fragmentation. For example, when I do a job for one company I may not be allowed to discuss it with another person in another wing..
Q: Can the civic rights of people be secured in such spaces?
A: As far as civic rights are concerned this is a long struggle. There are dissident chatrooms and websites set up by people who worked in these places. Part of the problem here is that the retention rate is not very high. They lose people significantly at lower levels, and sooner or later will have to find a response to this problem.
Ravi Sundaram is researcher at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and a co-founder of the media collective Sarai, New Delhi. He is currently a visiting research scholar at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.