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"Shadow networks" and subversion in postcolonial megacities


Le Corbusier, Development plan for Rio de Janeiro, 1929

In the April issue of e-flux journal, Ravi Sundaram traces the history of
informal networks of communication and sociality in Indian megacities. During the colonial period, these “shadow networks” evaded and subverted colonial power. In the modern age, they continue to foster social relations at a remove from state control, and are now enhanced by cheap mobile technology. As Sundaram writes, “The management of public affect through authorized circulation has broken down all over the postcolonial world.” He continues:

The circulation engine creates a surplus of shadow networks. In older modes of governance in India, paper-based databases (electoral rolls, ration cards) produced by state functionaries intersected with political mobilizations at local and city levels. Colonial power was based on a powerful deployment of paper-based information systems for routine policing as well as the management of migrants, epidemics, and cross-border movements. After independence, the postcolonial regime drew significantly from this system, by aligning it to republican democratic politics. As typical postcolonial technologies of visibility, paper-based information systems allowed the regime to manage urban residents through systems of inclusion and exclusion, while for political groups, entry into the database constituted an important vector of everyday life. Such political strategies could range from selective, strategic entry into some databases (electoral rolls, ration cards) with fuzzy land-ownership patterns and informal systems of electricity and water. In short, entry into one information system could coexist with tactical invisibility in another. Small traders and migrant residents of squatter settlements moved in this shifting information ecology.

In the contemporary digital era this is a neurophysiological zone amplified by the mix of mobile computing objects, moods, and sensations. Provisional networks form around these temporary connections: Bluetooth sharing of media by sailors, urban proletarians, and migrants; shadow libraries moving via USB drives; hawala transfers via text; and neighborhood shops that refill phone memory cards with pirate media. Online shadows exist in Whatsapp sharing networks, dancing around regime and mobile company filters. This is a remarkable infrastructure of agility and possibility. Will this become a logical object of a new post-Tardean political economy of propensity? This means not just emerging corporate-funded research on proprioception, facial recognition, and gesture, or all the contemporary big data rhetoric and the excitement over the algorithmic turn. Emerging players like Alibaba in China and Snapdeal in India dream of tapping the energies of the new urban information ecology, while regimes push for connecting cellular phones to identification. But perhaps not. The dream of stable designation was the ruination of postcolonial design in its powerful heyday, and the current dreams of platform capitalism may be no different.

Read Sundaram’s essay at the e-flux journal website.