Where are the Alternatives? Is Distributed Power Possible?

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If earlier societies are known to have been hierarchal, our contemporary societies tend to move to horizontalize power structures. This session aimed to understand such process of horizontalization, along with its merits and demerits.

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The first speaker was Solomon Prakash, founder of Mgaadi, a social enterprise aiming at bridging the gap between customers and auto drivers. Having worked on the nature of livelihoods since 1989, Prakash was well aware of the problems that troubled migrant labor. Mgaadi inherently serves as a platform that seeks to improve the quality of commuting in Indian cities, while at the same time working towards the interests of auto-rickshaw drivers. The platform seeks to protect auto drivers from their larger problems such as debt arising from private borrowings, while also helping stabilize prices that would be asked of the customer.

The second speaker, Kiran Jonnalagadda, is the creator of the Hasjob platform, which also seeks to horizontalize certain hierarchal structures. In the job market, individuals searching for jobs are at the mercy of employers. Job seekers have to state their salary expectations upfront, thus giving them less bargaining power in comparison to companies and employers. As Jonnalagadda claims, every platform is structured in a way that its very architecture or structure is political. The structure inherently favors some over others. In other words, the design of such platforms works to impose a soft discipline over some, so as to influence the hierarchal nature of the interaction. While this favoring may not be visible or evident to users, they are intended by their creators. Both the Mgaadi and Hasjob platforms remain political, in the way they are constructed to benefit job seekers and auto-rickshaw drivers. Thus, the attempt here is to bring those who are normally outside the network of the platform into a favorable situation within the structure.

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The third speaker, Vishnu Vardhan, brought the Foucauldian notion of the ‘panopticon’ into the discussion about distributive power. For Vardhan, distributive power entails turning the searching gaze of the panopticon back onto itself, and the internet could help to do so. He showed how an everyday internet application like Google Maps has helped concerned residents of Mumbai to expose and check corruption. Google Maps, an application that is open to all users of the internet, gave residents the power to see developmental plans in relation to the actual geographical situation of the city. The internet thus was a tool that helped turn the tables on an enormously powerful state in favor of the city residents.

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Distributive power, as seen through the speakers mentioned above, entails giving power to those against the powerful. In doing so, it corrects the hierarchal architecture of the many platforms, real or virtual, that surround us. However, the question remaining to be asked is whether the internet necessarily is a platform correcting such hierarchies. The technological divide present in India implies that only a few have access to the internet. Given that the internet largely functions in English, there is a language barrier as well, which limits access and interaction on the internet. It must also be remembered that the internet is not outside the control of the state. A key aspect of distributive power implies bringing those outside or on the periphery within the network of the platform. Thus, in my opinion, we can only begin to talk of the internet as a platform that equalizes, once it has corrected its architecture, so to be more inclusive.

Report: Tarun Kattumana
Photography: Marina George & Samuel Buchoul
Editing: Chitralekha Manohar & Samuel Buchoul

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