Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Contemporary South Asia

Aasim Khan and Zehra Hashmi — Prehistories of the Information Age and Politics in South Asia

Prehistories of the Information Age and the Politics in South Asia

Friday, March 17, 2023

2:30pm – 4:30pm

McKinney Conference Room, 111 Thayer Street

Reception to follow.

Zehra Hashmi/ Making the Individual: Politics of Information and Identification in 1970s Pakistan

This talk explores the history of a state-led information infrastructure directed at identifying individuals in Pakistan. Pakistan’s first paper-based national identity registry—built after the creation of Bangladesh in 1972 and in the context of an intensifying Cold War in the region—presents a transformation in bureaucratic approaches to information. Specifically, during this period, information about kinship came to be retooled for governance and control over an unknowable population. How and why did the Pakistani state begin to “individuate” its population by collecting data about families? What kind of individual was produced out of this new “kinned” information infrastructure? Such a configuration of individuating practices presents a departure from earlier (informational) governance strategies that were primarily reliant on classificatory schemas—most prominently, the colonial census and its enumeration of caste and tribe as identity categories. To make this argument, this talk will delve into both the interconnections and disjunctures between caste, tribe and kinship to then focus on how conceptions of each of these social formations was refracted through the newly created information systems in 1970s Pakistan. In so doing, it will foreground the tension between classificatory schemas and individuating technologies in the realm of informational control.

Aasim Khan/Political Origins of Big Tech: Democracy and the history of Internet in South Asia

The rise of Big Tech is increasingly discussed in relation to the threat of surveillance for liberal democracy and more broadly the liberal international order. However, if we are to grasp the challenge in relation to the future of democracy beyond the West, we also need to think about the origins of the Internet and the expansion of digital capitalism beyond the West. It is in this context, of a democratic rather than liberal order, that the talk positions the non-Western origins of Big Tech and offers a conceptual overview of the Internet as a world political event. More broadly, the talk will trace the diverse varieties of digital capitalisms that have emerged outside the West and move the focus on the particularities found in South Asian states in terms of digital access and use. I argue that these trends reflect the limits of liberal ideas about technology and national advancement which were challenged actively in the debates in the 1970s when the non-aligned movement espoused the ideal of a 'New World Information Order.' While the Western powers were concerned with the Cold War and brought forward themes that suited the capitalist development, in India as in many other parts of the world, these debates also led to conceptual thinking about technology in an atmosphere of democratic challenge to sovereignty and advanced ideas that emphasized equality and historical justice. Using archival evidence from international debates that led to the failure of the quest for a 'New World Information Order', the talk will follow up by mapping how the evolution of ideas about information and evolved with the subsequent arrival and expansion of the Internet up until the most recent debates surrounding privacy and disinformation. Through this overview, the talk offers a fresh conceptualization to consider the challenge of regulating Big Tech and places it within a broader conceptual history of democracy and discusses the gaps in the present liberal discourse about technology and politics.

Dwaipayan Banerjee, MIT
Russell Newman, Emerson College