Meera Baindur began with a brief discussion of ethics. Introducing the idea of ethics as a discourse of right vs. wrong, she pointed out the influence of alternative views such as those which describe ethics as a system of moral choices, dissociated from law. Perhaps the most significant contribution of such a view is to forcefully focus on the individual as a social ethical agent. This might offer a holistic view of the complexities involved in an ethical choice. Meera drew attention to how a personal stance, such as that of someone who does not watch porn and passes it off as unethical, hardly attains the vigor of a prescriptive standard. However, she then asserted the importance of looking beyond such a simplistic relativism. A moral dilemma then locates itself in the layeredness of the individual herself.
There is an inherent problem in viewing people as simple, unified entities. In a social sphere, one is constantly taking on numerous roles simultaneously, and it is up to the individual to prioritize one over the other when in a conflicting situation. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that ethical decisions are associated with discomfort, and may lead to their practical devaluation. Meera concluded her short introduction by suggesting that an ethical individual, then, is a thinking being, acutely mindful of her capacity for deliberate moral actions.
Meera then restated her position by approaching the question of identity within a virtual space. There is certainly a fracturing of identity when one passes between an online and offline activity. This could be quite a dilemma, with the potential for anonymity that cyberspace offers. Perhaps, this tends toward more unethical behavior on the internet than outside of it. But, in spite of this, the rules of moral praxis operating within cyberspace are closely comparable to those in the real world. Meera suggested that one can begin by transcending notions of innocence attributed to technology, to replace them with a healthy acceptance of the exact role played by human agents. Viewing the internet as a platform for the flow of knowledge, it is important to situate the source of this knowledge, and its consumer. Thus cyberspace remains not divorced from the politics of geographical space.
Within this construction of social reality, what happens to questions of justice and equality? There already exists a distinct divide in attitudes to expert opinion vs. layman’s opinion. What exactly is the nature of the framework we are working with, within cyberspace? Consequently, the dynamics of power can be transposed onto this space. The internet is a convenient arena for a kind of ‘terrorism’ perpetrated by those in control of knowledge. A certain kind of fear psychosis is triggered in the rest. When individuals find themselves operating constantly within peculiar legal frameworks, it can be said that the question of true choice becomes very much at stake. Meera thus concluded her talk by challenging the rationale behind calling the internet as a borderless space.
Nikhil Govind took on the task of surveying the ground for constructing a political framework for the issues raised. Taking off from Meera, Nikhil re-approached the issue of defining the nature of cyberspace. Hardly a homogenous space, the internet is partly defined by the variety of its users. It is important to understand how different identities operate within this space. This would lay out the difficulties of making a case for a war of rights. He went on to introduce the new ‘situation’ defined by the constitutional moment, as the country saw itself squirm through attempts to define cultural distinctiveness appropriately, while struggling to keep intact a nationalist identity. Nikhil brought out the notion of disenfranchisement that operates within this discourse: the identity politics of disadvantaged classes is insufficient in the context of digital disenfranchisement. A community waging a war of rights claims a minority status that is not only defined in numbers, but also in a culture of distinctiveness; a historicity through which it pitches its appeal to maintain the same. However different making a case for a digitally enfranchised community is from the constitutional example, the concept of a minority clearly offers a general insight into the question of rights; it can be seen that the first step beyond identity politics is to acknowledge that what defines a minority as a community is the disadvantage itself, a disadvantage that can be overcome.
Nikhil continued to speculate on Meera’s train of thought. What reality are we imposing on a ‘cyberspace’, as we choose to use that idiom to describe it? And what civic utopia would it imply in our imagination? Would it have to be a space where all would meet? Disadvantage seems to be defined by its temporality in the described situations. Would such a parameter even function here to make a case of difference? It is not simply a case of defining disadvantage through speed, or access, or numbers. This would only serve to ignore human agency. The real question concerns what primary claim we base our notion of equality upon. Explaining that this claim has to do with the space defined by human agents interacting, he gave an illustration with the example of certain tribal communities who fought for rights to their land. Their relationship with the land became their primary claim for rights, and they chose not to fight as a minority.
This resounds with the issue of identity discussed before: will a case for virtual equality be made through an appeal to distinct identities? This, then, would be the utopian space where all would meet. Within a space that resists clear spatial and cultural boundaries, what does it mean to appeal to the identities that operate these contours? This goes back to metaphors of a homogenous space. A war for rights would have to make a case for something that unites all human agents. This would be a particular sense of community that takes in all the variety, for a civic space is clearly imaginable.
In India, political rhetoric still seems to be routed through nationalist appeals. Consequently, the analogy of the ‘good’, protective big brother in the Ramayana still conditions the attitudes to governance. This indicates that the only discourse challenging political tyranny is highly outdated, and has not transcended its origins in colonialism. There is a clear urgency to update our notions of a space wherein a variety operates. Equality would rest on a unifying claim, one accounting for the variety.
Report: Faustina E.J. Johnson
Photography: Samuel Buchoul
Editing: Samuel Buchoul