Beyond the Digital-The Class Question

First posted here
By Maesy Angelina in Digital Natives

Blank Noise aims to be as inclusive as possible and therefore does not identify any specific target groups. Yet, the spaces and the methods they occupy do attract certain kinds of volunteers and public. This raises the class question: what are the dilemmas around class on digital interventions? Are they any different from the dilemmas on street interventions?

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My first click to Blank Noise’s main blog was a surprise. Having read so many media coverage about them, I expected to see a professional, minimalist looking website like other women’s organizations[1] where the menu is immediately visible. Instead, I have arrived at the most common and basic form of blogging: the personal blog.

I was greeted by entries on their latest thoughts and activities with photos and text with red font against a black background. I scrolled down a long list of permanent links on the right side of the site and arrived only at its Frequently Asked Questions link on the 28th item while it would be one of the easiest to spot in other websites. For me, this discovery said, “we would like to share our thoughts and activities with you” rather than “we are an established organization and this is what we do”. It is not the space of professionals, but passionate people. As a blogger myself, I recognize the space as being one of my peer’s and immediately felt more attracted to it.

Reflecting on my own position, my familiarity with the space is due to my background as a young, urban, educated, English-speaking woman for whom the Internet is a key part of life. My ‘peers’ who are also attracted to this place apparently share the same background with me. The main demography of Blank Noise’s volunteers, almost equally men and women, are those between 16-35 years, urban, and English speaking (Patheja, 2010). My interviewees were all at least university educated, some in the U.S. Ivy league, and are proficient users of social media, most of them being bloggers or Twitter and Facebook users.

This dominant base reflects the discourse on the ‘youth of India’, which represents only a fragment of India’s vast population of young people. The two narratives on the youth of India are described by Sinha-Kerkhoff (2005) as ‘the haves’ and ‘have-nots’, a reflection on the broader discourse on the deep social economic inequities in India. ‘The have-nots’ are the majority of Indian youth who are struggling with the basic issues of livelihood, health, and education, while ‘the haves’ are painted as the children of liberalization: the mostly urban, middle class, technologically savvy, and highly educated students and young professionals up who maintain a youthful lifestyle up to their 30s.

Although ‘the haves’ only consist 10% of the total youth population, they are the ones identified as the youth of India by popular discourses. Lukose (2008) explained this by stating that youth as a social category in India is linked to the larger sense of India’s transformation into an emerging global economic powerhouse together with Brazil, Russia, and China (popular as BRIC) after its liberal economic reform in the 1990s. India’s information and technology industry is spearheading this transformation, thus it feeds into the discourse of youth as Digital Natives.

Although there are exceptions to this dominant demography, they are far fewer. Does this then mean that Blank Noise is ‘contextually empowering’ (Gajjala, 2004), given that it reaches only ‘the haves’ due to the digital divide and their sites of participation?

The classed nature of the virtual public space is something Blank Noise fully acknowledges. Some interviewees stated that this is why street interventions are so important; they reach people who may not be Internet users. However, people who have been involved in Blank Noise for more than two years acknowledged that class issues are also present in the physical public space.

Dev Sukumar, one of Blank Noise’s male volunteers, explained to me that the British colonial legacy still shape the way public spaces in Bangalore are organized. The commercial areas in the city centre where Blank Noise interventions were initially organized, such as M.G. Road and Brigade Road, are dominantly inhabited by English speaking people, but in other parts of the city there are many who can only speak the local language, Kannada. After recognizing this, Blank Noise organized street interventions in such places, like the Majestic bus stand, and making flyers and stencils in Kannada. In order to do this, Blank Noise specifically called for volunteers who knew the local language.

The interventions might be in a non-elite space, but the main actors remain those from the middle class. Hemangini articulated the class issue in Blank Noise, saying “Like it or not, a lot of the people in Blank Noise are from the middle class and a lot of the people we have been talking to on the streets are of a certain class. What is the ethics in a middle class woman asking ‘why are you looking at me?’ to lower class men? It is if we already assumed that most perpetrators are lower class men while it is definitely not true.”

The reflexivity Hemangini shows led me to rethink the assumptions around digital activism. It is often dismissed as catering only to the middle class, privileging only one side of the digital divide. But then again, the class issue is also present in the physical sphere. If middle class youth mostly attracts their peers in their digital activism, is it problematic by default or is it only problematic when there is no accompanying reflection on the political implications of such engagement? How is it more problematic than the ethical dilemma of middle class people addressing their ‘Others’ in street interventions? Is the problem related to the sphere of activism (virtual versus physical), or is it more about the methods of engagement and the reflexivity required for it?

Hemangini told me that her dilemma is being shared and discussed with other members in Blank Noise’s core group, consisting of those who dedicate some time to reflect on the growth and development of the collective. They have no answer just yet, but they intend to continue reflecting on it. I have no idea what their future reflection looks like, but I do know that the class implications of the cyber sphere will be resolved with more than simply taking interventions to the streets. Considering that the actors of youth digital activism are, like it or not, urban, middle class, educated digital natives, Blank Noise’s reflection will indeed be relevant for all who is interested in this issue. And if you have your own thoughts on the strategies to resolve this dilemma, why don’t you drop a comment and reflect together with us?

This is the seventh post in the Beyond the Digital series, a research project that aims to explore new insights to understand youth digital activism conducted by Maesy Angelina with Blank Noise under the Hivos-CIS Digital Natives Knowledge Programme.

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