Friday, April 13, 2018

Corporate surveillance, Facebook's predicament, and the state's role

Some thoughts on the FB ‘scandal’. Privacy is such a fraught concept. If millions of people make their political opinions and preferences known on FB, is it really surprising that this data can be (and is) harnessed? If private corporations have created a business model that is based on the harnessing of user preferences, should politics be exempt? Is it OK for FB to use my data to show me ads for a movie, for example, but not for a politician?
User agreement is another interesting piece of the puzzle here. 

In this instance, they key contention is that Cambridge Analytica didn't even seek the consent of the people involved (friends of users of the relevant app could have had their data harvested). This is a clear example of a breach of privacy. 

But many people appear to be angry more broadly about the fact that their data was used for political purposes. Of course most people think that they have not explicitly consented to their data being used as part of a political PR campaign. But are they right? Have they or haven’t they consented (in some form or another)?
The fact that FB is having to really think hard about privacy right now is a good thing. Historically, we are at a point where, in terms of surveillance and privacy, great corporations have amassed great power. We need to articulate what their responsibilities are.
Private corporations are being held to account. That’s good.
But what about the state? If corporate surveillance is offensive, then surely state surveillance is even more offensive. But what are the checks on state surveillance? The state too has great powers, and we are yet to learn what its corresponding responsibilities are. Who is going to hold the state to account?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

American/Australian performers

Cultural differences between Australians and Americans can extend to and visibly play out in performance spaces. Australian audiences can expect performers to be ‘relaxed’, and to engage them in a jokey, jovial or even blasé manner. Australians might appreciate some self-deprecating humour and like artistes to not take themselves too seriously. They might giggle loudly during breaks in the music to provoke the performer on stage, for example - generally in a good natured way. Americans, on the other hand, can be much more earnest, serious, passionate and intense about their work and perhaps life in general. They might find the Aussie vibe slightly disconcerting. I’m not suggesting that Aussies are unserious. They are very focused and dedicated but appreciate good humour and a self-deprecating disposition, especially in performers and public figures. American performers tend to engage with audiences in a more earnest way. In general, for most of my life, I have also been an earnest and serious type (I get along extremely well with Americans and admire many of them greatly) but I am getting used to and can appreciate the Aussie self-deprecating approach.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The needle in the haystack - reporting brain injury

Media reporting of stories that involve injuries and trauma are always (necessarily) incomplete. Injuries can be incidental to the story or narrative that is being focalised, and, as such, may appear as a vestigial detail in a report. It is well-nigh impossible to capture the magnitude of the impact on each individual casualty. The word 'casualty' signals that disturbing (but unavoidable) semantic quality of being reducible to a statistic - a part of a tally. A report about a terrorist attack or a mass casualty incident will include some details of the trauma inflicted on a few victims or survivors, but these threadbare details are minuscule and inevitably inadequate markers of the 'reality' of the experience and impact. It is impossible to convey the magnitude of the experience of injury and trauma, and it is completely unrealistic to expect to understand what it was like for each individual person. However, that desire to know and sense of needing to know and understand the experience - of wanting the elusive description of trauma to be fully comprehensive and comprehensible - can be quite insistent. 

To mark the one-year anniversary of the 20 January 2017 Bourke Street attack in Melbourne - in which the attacker drove a speeding car into a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, killing six and wounding thirty people - some media channels have told the stories of some of the victims and survivors, allowing the latter to reflect on their recollections of the day and the aftermath. One of the survivors, a thirty-something year-old man, was hit by the speeding car and thrown some meters, flying, into a taxi. He crashed headlong into the taxi and then collapsed onto the ground, badly hitting his head. He managed to crawl onto the kerb and into a building before blacking out. The report described that, upon regaining consciousness and emerging from his concussion in hospital, he was determined to be in a stable condition. The skeletal fractures that he'd suffered in the attack were attended to. The report summarised that, one year since this incident, this man had resumed normal life. He is now OK.  

It is hard to explain how inadequate this description is. Knowing full well that all such descriptions must of necessity be incomplete and inadequate, the gaps and fissures that mark the surface of this account render the words hollow. What does it mean to be normal again after this transformative experience of trauma that inflicted brain injury, with potentially long-lasting repercussions and lingering trauma that is imperceptible to others but ever-present for the survivor? The comforting and reassuring claim of a return to normalcy is belied by the original description. However, our desire for resolutions is an overpowering one, and we cannot, in the space of a few sentences, adequately reflect the unresolved and irresolvable nature of trauma. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The triumph of the symbolic

[A blog in progress...]

A realisation 

In India, the symbolic seems to have greater resonance than the material. By this I mean that the power and potency of symbolic markers, gestures, signage and 'acts', inter alia, is greater than that of material markers, conditions and 'acts'. This is not to suggest that material conditions can be ignored or that they are generally de-prioritised in relation to the symbolic. Certainly not - and it'd be remiss of me to downplay the importance of material conditions as well as the primacy of (what used to be called, with a modicum of dismissive-ness) 'materialism' (essentially commercialism) in contemporary Indian culture. But on a subterranean and more fundamental level, questions of a symbolic nature and significance resonate in a way that questions of a material nature do not. 

This is definitely not a contemporary phenomenon but a longstanding one. What does it mean exactly? Well, that is difficult to spell out explicitly. Put simply, for the most part, names, images, icons, representations, films, designations, signage, conspicuous demonstration of both symbolic (even abstract and magical) power (e.g., a temple) and material power (e.g., a home), symbolic markers of primordial belonging, symbolic markers of social and economic status, among various other symbolic entities - as well as issues relating to these - have a resonance and inspire a level of emotive investment that material questions and issues simply do not. 

The symbolic is certainly not a standalone category; it is undergirded by the material. However, in every visible manifestation of the palpable tension between the symbolic and the material, the symbolic tends to triumph. 

It is hard to describe this tension but it can be seen, for instance, in this visual: an impressive, utterly glorious temple - with a soaring steeple, and magnificent arches and sculpture, in the midst of a crumbling, dilapidated streetscape; the soaring genius of the sculptor juxtaposed against the failure of the engineer/urban bureaucrat. 

Indisputably, the construction of a temple is a patently material process -  involving more engineering than iconography. But the temple overall is a symbolic entity (in terms of its conception and the purpose it serves), and, as such, the material investment that goes into it assumes a symbolic valence. This investment can be juxtaposed with investment in less symbolically-charged material processes (such as the construction of a road, for example), and found to be far more significant - on every conceivable level. The manifest disjuncture between the gloriousness of the temple and poor state of the infrastructure surrounding it exemplifies the triumph of the symbolic.  

Art is more beautiful than infrastructure. The genius of the symbolic worker (an arguably contentious category that may include all those who produce works that draw on symbolic modes - such as words and images [both religious and secular] - the content creator, essentially; as well as those who invest in symbolic entities) is outstanding and distinguishable, whereas the genius of the material worker is shrouded in a dense fog. I am not sure whether this can be rephrased using a more agentic/agential frame - the genius of the symbolic worker flourishes while the genius of the material worker is stifled and constrained (because of economic and social conditions, etc.). 

Somehow, this tension between the symbolic and the material tends to reveal itself to you as a philosophical issue (chasm even) when you step back and deliberately adopt a more distant perspective. Otherwise, it is among those things that you take for granted. How does it affect everyday life? That is the difficult question. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


I think the way in which we use the term Asian-Australian is important. The hyphenation is a critical part of that. The term evokes hybridity and interaction, rather than straightforward identification. It’s necessarily much more complex than either of its two components considered individually. An Asian-Australian, to me, is someone who is conscious of their migrant status, whatever stage of temporality or permanency their journey might be at, as well as of their continued investment in a new homeland. Asian-Australian is an intercultural concept rather than a strictly political one. It conveys a sense of coming-into-being and expansiveness that is quite distinct from the authoritative, established and assertive sense that underlies both strictly ‘Asian’ or ‘Australian’ identification. It conveys a sense of commitment to an ongoing project of discovery and negotiation. Is it a tentative concept? Some might argue that it is. But perhaps that is authentic to the experience of being a migrant or a descent of migrants. 


Who represents the diaspora? Representation is always a tricky concept because classifying, categorising or characterising something as representative entails investing that person, idea, practice or thing with power, even if the circumstances surrounding this are problematic. This process of investing something with power is always inherently fraught but spontaneously occurs, takes place or is deliberately enacted in diaspora contexts in an almost unreflective manner. This is arguably true irrespective of whether the participants in this process are members of that diaspora community or others. Sometimes, the links between the cultural contexts of the ‘home country’ and the ‘diasporic enactments’ of the ‘host country’ are seamless, demonstrating a continuity of values, attitudes, thought processes and practices. This may include hierarchical attitudes to representation, both formal and informal.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

IP and appropriation of crafts

This is the kind of cultural appropriation that gets my back up. The sheer impossibility of enforcing any semblance of an IP claim when traditional crafts - learned, produced, marketed and transmitted within communal frameworks - are appropriated by giant MNCs is far more of a substantial concern than any of the other gimmicks that provoke debates around cultural appropriation. These products are sold by craftsmen as merchandise in their own geographically delimited markets, so it's really a question of MNCs taking advantage of the artists' lack of market access and capitalising on (or 'stealing') their designs. But the legal or even philosophical dilemma here is, how can one address issues of ownership, proper attribution, etc., when no proper framework exists for the recognition of 'IP' (which is invariably a nebulous concept when one is talking about traditional crafts)? At the very least I think MNCs should be compelled by existing IP laws to use the proper names of the products they're marketing. Correct attribution doesn't compensate for lack of compensation but at least it's something. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Fear, loathing and politically-motivated violence at Delhi University

On 22 February, students who had gathered to attend a public lecture at a college in Delhi University were severely beaten and assaulted by alleged members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

The event was to feature two students from Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of whom had been arrested last year on charges of “sedition” for the “crime” of organising an event where “anti-national” slogans were raised by demonstrators. (In India, “sedition” remains a statutory offense, punishable with up to a lifetime of incarceration.)

At the event last week, attending students (many of them belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-affiliated All India Students Association (AISA)) and professors were assaulted, and the event was prevented from taking place. On 27 February, further protests and counter-protests by ABVP on the one hand, and AISA and other groups on the other, roiled the university. A febrile atmosphere has descended on campuses around Delhi.

Groups like the ABVP use violence, intimidation and harassment to stifle political discussions on university campuses. They create an atmosphere of strife and indulge in blatant fear-mongering to provide cover and justification for the violence they routinely inflict on people who do not share their worldview. As seen in the aftermath of this most recent incident, politicians and police often condone this violence, both directly and indirectly.

The core message that comes through the ABVP’s demagoguery and politicking is that the “nation” is in grave and imminent danger; that vile “anti-nationals” are out to destroy everything that they hold dear – “peace”, “unity” and “development” (even if each of these notional attainments is fraught with contradictions); that only the paragons of the ABVP can defeat this implacable evil, this profound danger and existential threat that is “anti-national” thought.

But the first question that comes to mind is – what exactly are they claiming to defend?

What or where is this nation that is so imperilled by the calumnious voices of the so-called "anti-nationals"? Where is this fragile nation that, we are told, is on the verge of irreversible disintegration? Where is this nation that is irredeemably on the verge of collapse? Where is this nation that is so in danger of being overcome and overrun by destructive forces that even the slightest criticism of its actions or policies should be stifled and nipped in the bud?

What or where exactly is this nation, and why is it that the groups like the ABVP are claiming to be its defender/saviour/only hope?

The logics of national ownership and representativeness that animate these groups and formations have long prevented others from feeling like they have a say in politics.

The exclusionary, us-against-them Manichean thinking that has long been the staple of right-wing Indian politics – indeed, the staple of Indian politics in general – engenders a siege mentality that obviates and makes impossible any lateral thinking, lateral engagement and rational discourse.

You are either with us or against us. You are either for development or you are against development. You are either for culture or against culture. You are either for the army or against the army. You are either for peace and harmony, or against peace and harmony (they say, completely oblivious to the irony of the statement).  

The warlike rhetoric and exhortations to “defensive” onslaughts that demagogues routinely indulge in make any kind of nuanced dialogue impossible.

So steeped in self-righteousness, and so dependent on other-hatred, is this whole political culture that nuanced dialogue is simply impossible.

So mired in irrational dogma is this whole political culture that thinking critically about issues is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Taking political persuasion out of the whole equation, what’s going on now cannot be excused. Irrespective of where your sympathies lie, there is no way that the hooliganism that we have recently seen can be justified.

The fact that some political formations refuse to evolve – from hooliganism and barbarism to something resembling civilised disagreement – is unacceptable.

The harassment of individual students and professors is reprehensible. It is completely antithetical to the democratic ethos that is supposedly meant to underpin student politics at Indian universities – the systems of student representation that allow groups like ABPV to exist in the first place.

The fact that violence against “political opponents” continues to erupt on Indian university campuses should compel young people to confront more seriously the question of what kind of educational environment (and ultimately what kind of society) they’re allowing their so-called “student representatives” to build.