Sunday, February 12, 2012

You are being watched !

The anxiety of the digital

Nishant Shah : Mon Feb 13 2012, 00:18 hrs
The Karnataka porn drama reveals how digital technologies blur the public and private — and make it hard to identify the norm being transgressed

We are getting used to being constantly watched. CCTV cameras in supermarkets and malls, security personnel at gates, satellite images of private spaces, webcams, cellphones enabled with cameras witnessing and recording every accidental moment — all create an incredible web of surveillance that catches traces and records of us even when we are not aware of them. The state has always emerged as the watchman who protects our privacy, saves our data and makes sure that it does not get abused. However, the question has always remained unanswered: Who shall watch the watchman? The ministers and bureaucrats who appoint themselves guardians of our public morality and private shame, have often considered themselves above the surveillance assemblage, not realising that in the digital game of “I, Spy”, the watched is also the watcher.

The recent incident of three Karnataka BJP ministers caught watching porn on their mobile devices, while sitting in the legislative assembly, brings us back to these questions of watching and being watched. It has been difficult to figure out exactly what the crime was — their watching pornography, watching pornography in a public space, watching pornography in the assembly, or being caught on live camera watching pornography. These questions have been at the fore of debates around pornography, sexuality and the Internet in India.

The Internet has always been thought of as a realm of the dirty, the desired and the inaccessible, since the Delhi Public School MMS case in 2003, where two young adults caught themselves in sexual intercourse through a mobile phone and the video went viral. Almost a decade ago, when a digital object was considered pornographic, the court had similar concerns about where the crime resides — is it the performers, the person who recorded it, the person who sold it, the people who consumed it or the technologies that allow for the distribution of such objects?

These questions come to haunt us again in the case of the ministers. There is no doubt, their feeble defence notwithstanding, that they were consuming pornographic objects. The Information Technology Acts of India very clearly mention that possession, transmission and consumption of material that might lead to prurient excitement is punishable by the law. Which means the ministers are already in a condition of criminality, and legal action could be initiated against them. It doesn’t help that one of the ministers involved handles the affairs of women and children in the state. The fact that the pornographic clip was, moreover, exaggeratedly violent on the women involved, only bolsters the crime.

So, if we have already established that these ministers committed an offence, why are we so worried about what just happened? Certainly, it invites questions about public morality and political ethics. But I am going to suggest, that one of the less articulated concerns is around questions of digital technologies. The ability of the digital to be ubiquitous and portable, and to transgress moral and legal codes, has been at the centre of the anxieties around it. In this particular case, the anxiety is amplified because of digital technologies’ ability to confuse our sense of the public and private. The digital offers an escape from a certain physical reality, creating safe cocoons of consumption and practice that often lead us into divulging personal information or committing intimately personal actions in the eye of the public. In the case of the ministers, more than anything else, the scandal is about how their private fantasies and desires (and they do have a right to what goes inside their head) were publicly manifested, bridged by the digital technologies that they were using.

Remember, that the same clip — the video of it playing on the ministers’ mobile screens, as well as streaming from video sites — was also broadcast by various news channels for the whole world to watch on their TV sets. In effect, the broadcast of these pornographic objects made voyeurs out of all of us. However, we consumed the TV images from the designated spaces of private consumption, in our living rooms and bedrooms, and hence there is no anxiety about us seeing these clips. We were the witnesses needed to corroborate that the crime happened. It is this different relationship, we as an audience had, that absolves us from consumers of porn. The ministers, on the other hand, were engaged in an act of consumption to feed their personal desires in a clearly public space.

While we debate the rights and the wrongs of this case in terms of social conduct and public responsibility, I wanted to bring out the ways in which digital technologies blur our notions of the public and the private, and create these challenging moments of “obscenity”.

The writer is at the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society

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