Digital Content: Binaries of Empowerment


Lila Azam Zanganeh, Margarita Guerrero, Osama Manzar, Sudha Gopalakrishnan and Vikram Chandra in conversation with Pranab Singh


By Rushati Mukherjee, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Blogger


Mythology tells us the story of samudramanthan, the churning of the ocean. The gods churned the Ocean of Milk and from its depths emerged the most desired amrit, the nectar of immortality, as well as the fatal poison, halahal. Which of these did the Gods keep? Which did they reject?

This parallel emerged in the discussion held at Durbar Hall, the glittering, towering venue of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. Panelists Lila Azam Zanganeh, Margarita Guerrero, Osama Manzar, Sudha Gopalakrishnan and Vikram Chandra spoke with Pranab Singh about the rise of digital media and how it simultaneously empowers and excludes marginalised voices in our world.

All content in today’s world is digitally mediated, said Vikram Chandra, author of Red Earth and Pouring Rain. Publishers and authors thus think of creating and distributing content via diverse formats. Margarita Guerrero, who has been in the publishing sector for nearly two decades, pointed out the enormous reach provided by these methods. The 550 million Spanish language speakers who form her audience with could never have been reached by local publishers without digitization.

Can the digital revolution then give voice to publishers outside their natural boundaries? Sudha Gopalakrishnan, Executive Director of Sahapedia, thought so. Digitization of content has led to the creation of free material accessible by everyone. It has also brought about the incorporation of multimedia into encyclopaedic resources. Different kinds of people can now access knowledge, not just experts.

Different kinds of knowledge are thus available to a large audience: oral, aural, visual and others. Literacy has become less of a barrier, felt Osama Manzar, founder of Digital Empowerment Foundation. Everyone can be a publisher or performer. He cited the example of Justin Bieber, a star performer who started out with home videos published on the internet.

A counterpoint exists for all positives, however. ‘None of this has actually changed the structure of commercial power,’ pointed out Chandra. Linguistic disparities have not been bridged: English still gets a disproportionate amount of attention. The educated, economically privileged still have more presence. In places without digital infrastructure, the marginalized are further excluded as the institutions fail to keep up with the march of technology. As Chandra said, ‘Big capitalism still wins 99% of the time.’

Are we then drinking the digital Kool-Aid, asked Lila Azam Zanganeh, author of The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness. ‘The roads to bypass power structures are open, but to what degree are the excluded coming to the centre?’ she enquired.

As Gopalakrishnan said, these inequalities are far more fundamental in society. The digital medium is merely a mode of expression and not creation for these. The endeavours it has given birth to, however, have far-reaching impact on human lives.

Zanganeh mentioned Libraries without Borders, an initiative to provide books and education to disempowered people, such as the children of refugees. The children were given boxes filled with board games, computers and digital books. ‘Everywhere where we brought these digital books,’ said Zanganeh, ‘we noticed that violence in the refugee camps diminished.’

There is no alternative to the digital way of life. It is a medium change on the same scale as the shift from hand-written scripts to printing. The early years of the print revolution produced these same anxieties, Chandra reminded the audience. Commercial power is still in concentrated in the hands of a few, but the digital medium can lead to empowerment for many. ‘There is a chance,’ asserted Guerrero, for resistance within it.

This is where one recalls the myth of Samudramanthan, the great churning of the ocean. That, too, was a dissentious decision that produced dichotomous results. It did not merely result in limitless death: it also gave the Gods the key to limitless life.

‘We are going through another great journey,’ explained Chandra. ‘It’s a manthan, and out of that both poison and nectar will come.’


Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor

Margarita Guerrero and Vikram Chandra

170118-JBMD-DigitalContent-11.30-RajendraKapoor (7) [1600x1200]

Pranab Singh

Sudha Gopalakrishnan

Osama Manzar

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