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Friday, June 19, 2015

Activism in Cellphones

Are cell phones carrying activism in our pockets? Cell phones are ubiquitous today, present in almost every household in the country. They are like Infotopia for the political sphere, a hope for women under patriarchal households, for misogynists, they are an uncensored connective public space,  while for the  government they are a cheap service delivery gateway. They also represent fundamental conflicts of civic life dramatically. Cell phones represent a sort of pocket activism, where they fill activism in our pockets and leather straps. Now, we carry life style politics on the go with this device.

A weird pattern of cell phone usage represents civic and political involvement mirroring a new public. Despite being at its budding stage, our pockets or leather bags have begun to surface like public spaces when they cover up a cell phone! Now, the keypad and touchpad, in significant ways cope up to engage in a wide array of citizen advocacy. The significance of cell phones in reconfiguring a mediated political public is vividly reflective in the news, pessimistic or optimistic, pertaining to mobiles phones from various parts of India.

Being smart is tempting and in politics, it is in fact romantic. Smart car, smart phone to SMART governance, smart is quite appealing to an entire bunch of audience. Yet, apart from being a Simple, Moral, Accountable, Responsive and Transparent government, smart is meaningful for politics, protest, advocacy also. So is the smart phone for our age!

When we think about smart phones, we should also think about their implications for politics. Cell phones have introduced a new way of configuring democratic engagement and participatory politics. A loose network of amorphous political public takes shape via the tiny devices in our pockets or leather straps.

Cell phone users in India are around one quarter of the total wired public of the world, says a study by global telecom body Global System Mobile Association (GSMA). Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and Nielsen, a research firm, in 2012 reported over 900 million mobile phone subscriptions in India. With cell phone subscriptions exceeding  a population of 900 million  and cell phones reaching every doorstep, it will be no exaggeration to think of mobile phones as the next PC of India. Holding a great potential of facilitating access, quick delivery, easy networking, low cost, quick interactivity ensures that no alternative can compete against cell phones in achieving a new kind of governance.

A Survey by Nielsen releases that Indians are increasingly taking to smart phones and with almost half of the users younger than 25. One-third of the YouTube viewers, nearly 30 percent, access videos through their mobiles and spend over fifty hours a month on the Website. The dramatic growth in the usage of smart phone has been driven by a desire among users to stay connected and have instant access to social networking sites.

Mobile device is a fascination among youth and more importantly, it filters in to the lives of citizens regardless of age, gender and how much economical, cultural, social, symbolic and intellectual capital one holds. These designate mobile devices wholly eligible for discussion of public sphere.
Pocket Politics

However, let us think of a ‘pocket activism’ here, which is a budding portable  both men and women carry either in pockets or in leather bags. Wherever we move, this amorphous political public is portable with us. It was this phenomenon that made Ling and Yttri (2001)  think of ‘hyper-coordination’ and Howard Rheingold (2002)  think of ‘smart mobs’. The 25th February 2012 to 2nd March 2012 weekly Gazette of India notification titled Framework for Mobile Governance confirms a new approach of the government to enable something like ‘smart mob’.

Many State governments in India are trying to implement m-governance service delivery gateway to citizens. The website of Kerala IT mission says there are twenty-five service delivery programs under M–governance gate way. An M-governance activity in Kerala IT Mission has claimed the praise of World Bank as one of the best practices in the world, says a post on UNDP website .The services of Mobile Internet companies such as MOBME, which provide end-user m-governance solutions to governments and brands are much hopeful since markets are becoming more committed to social engineering.

In fact, the decision of Election Commission (EC) of India to advance from the 2009 election practice of COMET to a coded SMS-based alert system to supervise the 2014 national election has stimulated the hope of M-democracy movement. Moreover, in the Northeast area of India, EC has provided facilities on its website for voters to identify their polling booth, route and other relevant information on the go and this can be accessible via smart phone we have.

At this moment, it is time to scream that cell phone public of India seemingly cut across a range of social science variables; caste, class, gender, region and ensure mobility across social layers that were otherwise not possible. From fish markets to skyscrapers, cell phones have begun to affect lives in an unusual way. M-governance to M-market and M-politics to M-health, plethora of mobile affiliated rich terminologies have already become part of our routine cultural vocabulary.

Cell phones bring about  greater political significance and social value and this  illustrated the magnitude to which cell phones have rekindled a public space in India that has been used to create a pocket activism analogy. As the debate between participatory vs. representative democracy intensifies, cell phones will have winning arguments supplementing participatory politics.

Cell phones have been deployed by civil society groups, NGOs, contentious groups, professional agencies and networks to avail funds from public. Micro-donations of Rs. 10 to 50 to political parties have been made with just an SMS, which can possibly revolutionise election funding in India. Greenpeace makes use of mobile phones to request its supporters for donation from Rs 500/- onwards.
Major Indian political parties are by now making widespread use of the social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc and are indulging in online brand advertising by launching Nokia, Android, iPhone and Blackberry applications to win the hearts of the younger cohort. As reported by media, the UPA Government had plans for a Rs.7000 crore scheme; “A Phone in Every Hand” to give one Mobile Phone to every family living below the poverty line (BPL Family) with free calls.

What ever be the electoral gimmicks, there are many studies that report there is a close relation between mobile penetration and socio-economic growth.Telenor in Norway commissioned Deloitte to study the mobile and economic growth correlation in six markets: Malaysia, Thailand, Ukraine, Pakistan, Serbia and Bangladesh (Deloitte 2008). It has found that Mobile phones provide the ability to communicate to those sectors of the community typically under served by fixed line technology. It also enhances social inclusion by leaving a positive impact on economic welfare through an increase in GDP and by  generating employment opportunities in both the mobile communications sector and the wider economy.

Cell phones and social structure

The power to bring about changes to the lives of women began to challenge the patriarchal mindset associated with community institutions in north Indian countryside. The patriarchy is afraid of women getting jobs, earning money and, in many cases doing better than men. They are afraid of India’s other quiet revolution: the women’s revolution. Cell phone is a supplement to the silent upheaval of women power breaking social structure and barriers to mobility.The reach and effect of cell phone has stabbed the social structure and stigmatised social order. This has reflected in the way the “community institutions” in India deal with Cell phones for instances;  some rural areas of North India like Siwan, Sunderwadi, Dausa and Anjuman remain the fortress of ‘Talibanising’ cell phones giving it a gender dimension.

Importantly, the potential of mobile phones is not merely confined only to m-governance in the political realm. In fact, it grows up to reconfigure m-politics, m-advocacy, m-protest, m-campaign, m-funding, m-civil society, m-public sphere, m-capital, m-education and many more.In the land of cobblers, ‘sadhus’ and snake charmers, cell phone is a sacred device. It adds many dimensions to the lives of women, sexual minorities, caste groups, dalit, tribe and other marginal sections.Among many marginal sections, this device has enormous significance. For the fishermen community, it is a device to connect with traders in the mainland to bargain on their catch from the sea itself. For girl students, it is a favourite device while commuting the misogynistic terrain appearing in between educational institutions and home.For women, in unsafe metros like Delhi, where going to public places is life risking, mobile platforms like Fight Back app and Circle 6 offer a new way of security in a violent zone. It is inevitable that technology is becoming gender sensitized. New technologies are becoming necessary for battling sexism and violence against women.

Yet, it is clear that this tiny device has crossed over the hurdles of patriarchy, taboos, social stigmas and rigid social structure that reduce our social mobility.

From the patriarchal household to the open country, many rooms appear that offer hope, and surely, cell phones are one among the many providers that will lighten our new future! The cyberpunks of contemporary digital India have already been born in pockets and leather straps, and are on the go! They, of course, resurface in cell phones.

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