Pramod K. Nayar
Writing Technologies, with an intentional ambiguity about both terms, proposes in its series of questions nothing less than a sustained interrogation of the very basis of ‘texts’. And this is surely something most of us welcome, faced as we are with increasingly new (and often bizarre) versions of what Anna Everett termed ‘digitextuality’ (2003).1
I see Writing Technologies as a space where debates about the local and regional miscegenation of writing ‘habits’ with global software and technologies can be conducted. Techno-criticism, as the editors suggest, relates in different ways to more established critical systems. It is possible that techno-criticism of the new ICTs might be increasingly called upon to relate it to postcolonial studies, considering the circulation of these technologies in the postcolonial nations and cultures. And it is this aspect of techno-criticism that is of interest to me as a cultural critic based in India.
Writing, as always, transforms what it writes about and what it writes with. It is important to ensure that any theory of digitextuality foregrounds textuality within larger cultural practices of writing and signification and does not just focus on the technologies and software alone. The ‘literature of the new informational economy’ of which the editors write is, of course, culture-specific, despite, or perhaps in part because of, the extraordinary dominance of Microsoft and American English spelling. Engagements with new global (and globalizing) technologies often result in new forms of writing that adapt techniques and practices that are local, particular and singular. Compuspeak with its ‘universal icons’ and deployment of English has, like all ‘conventional’ writing and literature in history, been appropriated and ‘morphed’ by local modes of narration. In terms of content, cyberspace might just remain determinedly local too.
An instance would be ‘Cybermohalla’, a popular digital culture initiative by the Sarai project (based in India’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi) and an Ankur (an NGO).2 Writing and signification are altered in many ways here, from the location of the physical object (the PC) in a ‘Compughar’ (‘ghar’ meaning house in Hindi) within a project-area, the Sarai, to the writings. 3 ‘Travelers’ have created stickers, scratch books and diaries, mostly dealing with local issues expressed in local slang and the aleatory mode favoured in conversations in India. The Cybermohalla diaries in the print version of the Sarai Readers document local individuals’, families’ and communities’ responses to technology – from the arrival of fluorescent light bulbs to computers and multimedia. 4 It is, I believe, a new mode of sociability that does not efface the face-to-face in favour of the virtual, but builds the virtual through the intimate and the corporeal. To me this cybercultural turn or twist to the local is a productive engagement with and counter to the ‘digital divide’ as it foregrounds the subjectivities of individuals in cyberspace. This form of sociability where minorities, the marginalized and often the minimally literate can record their experiences appears to be a technology that furthers democratic debate. It is a good example of what Lev Manovich terms ‘meta-media’, the ‘remixing of interfaces of various cultural forms and of new software techniques’. 5 Cybermohalla mixes street language with English, the topos of the ‘sarai’ and the ‘mohalla’ (literally ‘locality’) with that of a-geographic cyberspace, and street conversation and the intimate diary with documentary forms.
This is ‘writing technologies’ of the sort that one always hopes for – the technology of the margins, where the products of transnational corporations and global finance are used to write the local. Cybermohalla broadly addresses some of the themes and questions the editors raise. Maybe a sustained examination of this glocal digital domain will enable us to understand the complexities of digitexts better. It is, as the editors point out in their piece, the reshaping of local and national identities by global technology. But it is also, at a very basic level, a ‘resistant recoding’ of such technologies.
1. Anna Everett, 'Digitextuality and Click Theory: Theses on Convergence Media in the Digital Age', in Anna Everett and John T. Caldwell (eds) New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality, New York and London: Routledge, 2003, 3-31.
2. See the Sarai website [accessed 18 December 2006].
3. 'Sarai' in Hindi means an enclosed space in a city or more commonly beside a highway where travelers find shelter; it signifies a meeting place, a tavern and a place of rest in the middle of a journey.
4.See, for instance, Ravi Vesudevan et al (Editorial Collective), eds, Sarai Reader 03: Shaping Technologies (New Delhi: the Sarai Programme, CSDS and Amsterdam, The Waag Society for Old and New Media, 2003).
5. Lev Manovich, 'Understanding Meta-Media' CTheory [accessed 18 December 2006].