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Is it Time to Call India a Digital Dystopia?

It is time to renew efforts to de-mystify technology with the aim of surveillance reforms, before this Digital Dystopia becomes a permanent future.

India is rapidly digitising. There are good things and bad, speed-bumps on the way and caveats to be mindful of. The weekly column Terminal focuses on all that is connected and is not – on digital issues, policy, ideas and themes dominating the conversation in India and the world.

Monday night’s alerts from Apple to politicians and journalists about “state-sponsored attacks” pointed to an increasing trend of using surveillance towards the suppression of the political opposition. Digital India is being hailed as the government’s flagship contribution to nation building, with technology determining our lives everyday. This utopian imagination is being hailed by many, from the World Bank to Bill Gates. But is it time for us to question whether Digital India has actually become a Digital Dystopia?

Digital India as an official Government of India programme was launched in 2014 by Narendra Modi, and digitisation has been an important agenda for this government. The BJP gave all the push necessary to build Nandan Nilekani’s imaginations of India, one where technology determines the lives of every Indian. It forced Aadhaar, UPI, GST and a host of digital technologies in a bid to formalise the economy. But this digitisation process also powered the surveillance and policing infrastructures like CCTNS, NATGRID, CMS and ICJS that were set in motion in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.

The surveillance infrastructures that were being developed were always directed towards the citizenry, under the garb of enumeration exercises, which was not immediately clear to the population. The Ministry of Home Affairs historically policed us through secretive systems and any push towards reforms in policing and intelligence has not been a priority. The idea of surveillance and 360-degree profiling were always part of the imaginations of the Aadhaar programme, specially with agreements between the UIDAI and MHA to share biometrics, to create tge National Population Registry and the requirement of unique IDs to link databases for creation of NATGRID.

The possibility of active surveillance of any individual through spyware was always a demand from our intelligence agencies. But this reality is far more concerning with no accountability in these agencies. Surveillance infrastructures have always been part of societies, from surveillance of telegraphs, posts to telecom networks. But unrestricted access to these systems by rogue institutions and actors has brought us here. The current reality is being cheered by the population, which has been sold this reality as a Hindutva utopia by media networks.

The techno-utopian imagination that were sold to us was that technology in the form of Aadhaar would eradicate fraud, corruption and economically make every Indian rich using their personal data. This imagination, while being utopian, could only be enforced through technology and was forced on the entire population which had no option other than fitting itself into the imaginations of a billionaire whose entire claim was that technology will fix everything.

The imagination that was sold to us was not complete and was never entirely explained to us, while rubbishing any critical questions around it. It should be clear to any individual that the early experimentation of Aadhaar on welfare schemes was just an excuse to build and test software that could be finally used for building credit profiles and a data economy. The language of fraud and duplicate Indians in welfare that was forced on us is leading us towards a witch-hunt to search for illegal citizens in the country with biometrics.

Nilekani was always silent about the surveillance aspects of his imaginations, while claiming there are no privacy issues with Aadhaar. According to Nilekani, Aadhaar linking with voter IDs will remove duplicate voters, but he won’t talk about the dangers of centralising elections and risks of online-voting which Aadhaar is expected to power. This technocracy powers the entire techno fascist machinery of the current regime. It is a symbiotic relationship for the Bangalore Ideology as Mila Samdub calls, “For the engineers of Bengaluru and their allies in neoliberal think tanks, the BJP’s Hindutva politics is the necessary condition to put their designs to work.”

Also read: Modi Government in Damage Control Mode As Apple Spyware Alert Revives Ghost of Pegasus

This system of technology architectures that are being termed “digital public infrastructures” and are highly centralised and unaccountable are turning governance invisible. Black box governance is a feature of this imagination, where people are not told why something works or fails, with a sense of mysticism associated with technology. The Aadhaar failures and non-functional apps that are mandatory on welfare systems are being forced with an excuse of fraud prevention, while we clearly see the dismantling of social welfare infrastructure. There are claims that are associated with this setup that have started in 2008 and continue to exist.

These black boxes and techno-utopian imaginations need to be demystified for the general public. While there has been a decade of work around this, the control of reality with media narratives has been a challenge to expose the under-workings of these systems. Any language of criticism that was used by the citizenry was co-opted and was used against them to dissolve the criticism. The editorial decisions of media houses to not be critical of Aadhaar or Nilekani has already unfolded in the form of technology driven violence, that could have been prevented.

New frameworks of critical thinking and de-mystification of technology need to be evolved to make the citizenry aware of the violence being pushed with utopian claims. India is being shown as a utopian society where technology has transformed our economic lives primarily with dematerialisation of documents. But the realities of the material world are being hidden with clever marketing strategies where any discussion over fraud, corruption or poverty is replaced with UPI.

We need alternate imaginations to counter the existing narratives of techno-utopians who have sold us a dystopia while they profit from this enterprise. For a software engineer who builds these technology systems, a broken app doesn’t affect his life and he sees these technology systems as utopian solutions to a problem that doesn’t actually exist. Meanwhile this becomes a technological nightmare for the working class dependent on social welfare. Dystopias and utopias are relative in class societies and can co-exist simultaneously with different narratives among the population.

Privacy has been turned into a non-issue for people, with opposition from the economic actors who advocated against it. Digital India isn’t what it is being claimed, the reality is different on the ground. It is time to renew efforts to de-mystify technology with the aim of surveillance reforms, before this Digital Dystopia becomes a permanent future.

Srinivas Kodali is a researcher on digitisation and a hacktivist.