Objects, Media Technologies, Aesthetics and Politics: Material Histories and Cultural Imaginaries, India c. 1940-1960

This project, supported by ICAS:MP, speaks to issues of archiving and memorialization by developing an engagement with a novel and under explored terrain of historical experience. This is the world of objects as they bear testimony to major transformations in energy use, environment, travel, bodily health and cleanliness, registers of everyday life. We seek to attend to this deeper register of transformation, and its political underpinnings in the work of states, business corporations, media practitioners and consumers. The project braids this exploration of new archival objects with their production, distribution and reception in aesthetic and mediatized form, and specifically through registers of publicity and advertising.

Ethnographies of Social Data

Big Data and the Data Revolution have been pitched as a potential transformation of all modes of digital data collection, organization, storage, mining, analytics and visualization. The new episteme of data-driven knowledge production is primarily rooted in a meshed network of concepts from statistics, cybernetics, micro to planetary scale computing and information flows, statecraft and governmentality, standardisation and classification, and so on. Not surprisingly then, social data – the data collected and generated by governments, academia, businesses including technology companies, and civil society organisations pertaining to education, health, development, poverty, public behaviour, etc. – has been a key site for the constitution and circulation of the new episteme of data-drivenness. Taking this as a point of departure, the project explored the historical and emergent conditions of data-driven – statistical and computational – knowledge production in the social sector.

Social Media: Contemporary Histories and Archaeologies

This project explores the remarkable transformation signalled by social media in the contemporary era. We are interested in new circuits of social communication, cultural consumption and sharing, transparency discourses and political mobilisation. Such contemporary changes will be situated in a complex history mapping the social basis and circuits of older and more recent media, including film and sound media, the emergence of audio and video-cassettes in the 1980s, and the development of a powerful scrambling and interlacing of media technologies, formats and publics across different platforms and devices with the proliferation of digital forms in the 1990s. The project is supported by a grant from the Indian Social Science Research Council (ICSSR).

Media and Information Infrastructures: Histories and Contemporary Practices

Infrastructure has come to be an increasingly important object of social science and cultural-historical research. From roads and railways to river and seaborne transport, from telegraphs and telephones to cable networks and satellite communication, the question of infrastructure has been key to the evolution of the modern and contemporary world. Information is part of this co-evolution from script, through print as well as contemporary moves to the digital. This research initiative frames the category of ‘information’ both as a critical problematic—a way of describing the world and its constituent processes—and as an environment—a field through which we can enter the contemporary and connect to its past. It links media, urbanism, and the governance of populations, while initiating new debates on privacy, public access, and welfare.

Law and Social Media

The advent of social media and its increasing use in India has led to numerous questions concerning its legal regulation. Our research commenced with questions around incidents of communal and ethnic violence where social media has been ascribed an important role – the Bangalore and Pune North East exodus of 2012, the Azad Maidan disturbance in Mumbai in 2012, the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, and the communal disturbances of 2014. We conducted extensive interviews with lawyers, the police, journalists, policy experts, academics and others associated with the technology industry, and collected relevant media reports, official documents, legislation, case law and First Information Reports (FIRs). Through this process, we noted that the role of the law is moving from post-incident investigation and trial, to monitoring activity on social media and prevention of incidents of violence or public disorder. As changes in technology and law begin to shape each other, it is clear that the impact of law will be felt not just as words in a statute, but also as technological forms through which people use social media.

Climate Change and Uncertainty: From Below and Above

The research project hypothesizes that uncertainty in climate change has been narrowly conceptualized from ‘above’ (by scientists, experts and decision-makers). In doing so, the day-to-day experiences and practices of local people around uncertainty have been ignored, thus missing out on local-level detail. Thus, it is important to bridge the divide between uncertainty from ‘above’ and ‘below’ which may result in new or hybrid perspectives that could form the foundation for transformative pathways to adapt to climate change. Our specific study sites include megacities of Delhi and Mumbai (looked into by Sarai-CSDS team) and dryland Kutch and wetland Sunderbans (studied by research partners IIHMR, Kolkata and GUIDE, Bhuj). The research project is funded and coordinated by STEPS Centre, University of Sussex.