Scintillating Silhouettes of Digital Consumerism Sreetanwi Chakraborty
“The paramount doctrine of the economic and technological euphoria of recent decades has been that everything depends on innovation. It was understood as desirable, and even necessary, that we should go on and on from one technological innovation to the next, which would cause the economy to “grow” and make everything better and better. This of course implied at every point a hatred of the past, of all things inherited and free. All things superseded in our progress of innovations, whatever their value might have been, were discounted as of no value at all.” ( Wendel Berry )
I would definitely like to commence this topic with a segment of my personal experience, when I was loitering inside a grotesquely designed shopping mall in Kokata. Inside a renowned gadget store I found two women bargaining for a mobile phone. One was referred to as the maidservant of the household, and the other lady was the employer, an orthopedic surgeon’s wife. The maidservant wanted a duplicate product, a carbon copy of the same mobile that her ‘madam’ had just bought. Her enthusiasm was triggered, because that digital thingamajig could allow her to impress her boyfriend with megapixelled images of her facial and bodily contours, as the mobile screen could adjust light and shadows in the pictures automatically, and could eradicate physical anomalies in the photo version to the maximum limit.A second case also captured my attention, regarding the formidable effects of digital extravaganza. During the anti-eviction movement on 30th March 2012, in Nonadanga, a place that had temporary slums and shanties, in Kasba area of Kolkata, the Bartaman (a Bengali newspaper) reported unimaginable plight of the protesters. One of the female protesters commented that, she had lost her ‘branded television and mobile set’, and claimed that, more than anything else this was an irreparable loss to her. In fact, the irreconcilable discrepancy between those who are having all the facilities in life, and those who are perpetually deprived of even the basic minimum necessities, is glaring, but consciously and subconsciously, they also desire for all the advertized, digitalized, and morphed products that can enable them recuperate from the condition of perennial and sporadic drudgery. A pertinent question that nudges me at this juncture is that, what is the digital debate all about? Is it, in any way, trying to subvert all the preconceived notions about the welfare and lifestyle of these destitute, the lower class women, or, is the digital revolution, in some way, embarking upon a catastrophic journey to fabricate a world of temporary illusion for them, where these mason-women, rag-pickers, domestic maidservants, female tea-stall owners, poultry retainers, tea-garden laborers, municipality scavengers, part-time ‘ayah’s (untrained nursing helps), milk-maids, and female construction workers are entrapped into the computerized marketing procedures, billboards with swanky gadgets displayed on them, the spicy concoctions which promise to make their bland dishes delectable, essentially make them oblivious of the multiple faces of poverty and the relentless struggle with a drunkard husband, a debauch male partner, or their sultry afternoons and insipid nights at the red light areas of Kolkata. Commercial television channels have intrinsically infringed as the by-products and disseminators of a very complicated concept of modernization and urbanization, and they have penetrated even the remotest parts of West Bengal and other surrounding areas. The behavioral patterns, psychological framework and the idea about their own ‘body’ have inculcated in these lower class women, an urge to have the most glistening of all beauty products, fairness creams that will boost their confidence and somehow allow them to progress a step further in the social hierarchy and ‘look’ like the middle class, well-to-do females. Images used in print media, magazine covers, advertisement of multinational products, and a complete flourishing of technology and scientific innovations have created a hyper-real world for these women, who fail to differentiate between the glittering tinsel world, and the position they occupy in the overall social structure. If we scrutinize the temporary consequences, as well as the concrete impact of the digital or the cyber cataclysm on Kolkata’s culture of servitude, it is revealed that, although the maidservants, domestic workers, and part time or full time helpers are considered to be an integral part of the ‘bhadralok’( a parochial view of part of the educated middle class Bengali people), disparities still remain, and Indrani Sen has contemplated in her book Are You Being Served that the television and ultramodern marketing strategies have almost blurred the distinction between the employers and the employed, where, even if the actual picture remains the archetypal- they eat, but only after we have finished our food, they also participate in our family drama, although they are relegated to the role of bit players. For recognizing one aspect of the digital deliberations, it can be said that, for these women who generally belong to the marginal, non-advantaged positions of the society, the irresistible temptation of a luxurious lifestyle, computer, internet, laptops, tablets, wi-fi connectivity, motorcycles, lipsticks, LCDs, LEDs, data cards, supersonic channel loaders, computer courses, and even getting admitted in some discounted spoken English lessons at the end of their daily activities, in reality, portray the unmitigated onslaught of the frantic fatality of globalization and digital excess, and how these women remain vulnerable to these. The digital flirtations emphasize not just a spatial or temporal shift for these women whose roles have been traditionally selected, codified, structured and socially demarcated as less significant or mediocre, or secondary among the more educated, privileged or economically solvent females, but a conspicuous truth is also laid bare about their newly-achieved positions. The incessant dichotomy between the ‘central’ and ‘peripheral’ space which these women occupy, and the whirlpool of numerous complexities that affect these women, is really to be examined by us, before we usher in another grand celebration of the National Women’s Day this year. The valorizing of unprecedented digital connectivity and networking destabilizes and reprimands the social disparities among these subordinate class workers who actually create and recreate, capture and recapture their moulded ‘images’ as they wanted them to be. To present themselves in shades of shimmering pink photo-arts, to wrap their discomfitures in marvelous salwar suits (although, for most of the domestic staffs, they come as second-hand, used material from their employers!) is an extraordinary achievement for them. Their physical, mental scars, all of their social aberrations are then teased at, and finally devoured by the more rhythmic inclusion and tempo of the new cyber mania, recorded and transmitted through money, a new wave of collective Capitalism where the binaries of deformity no longer exist, but a promotional courage ratify these women to be in their new ‘avatar’s, in semblance with the larger circle of others. ‘The effects of technology’, in the words of the perceptive media theorist Harbert McLuhan, ‘do not occur at the levels of opinions or concepts’, rather, they transform patterns of perception. Rampant usage of digital equipments, and a constant obsession with digital facts, figures, pictures and contents actually paralyze the life of either Rowma, or Sushma, or Fulki, or Tiya, as they wait, want and long to be ‘seen’, to be visualized as the members of the same planet to which their employers, or the children of their employers belong. Rapid and autonomous access to education, social networking sites, communication groups, pen-friend circle, business advertisements, e-banking, commercialization of the realty firms, estate building layouts with swimming pools, Jacuzzi, joggers’ park and mechanized gymnasiums, database available in call centres, the association with what have erstwhile been considered as the ‘finer’ things of life, have all catapulted these women not only to an economically superior position, than those who just live the BPL lives in rural villages, or even, their own housemates, sister-in-laws, other female friends, or co-passengers in train. In her celebrated book Zeroes and Ones Sadie Plant expresses eloquently how the cyberspace acts as a liberating zone for the women, and she thinks the textual nature of the internet lends itself to ‘the female’. Her adroit portrayal of the ‘zeroes’ as females and the ‘ones’ as phallic and male, predicts that the digital future can be said to be feminine, distributed, non-linear, an innovative world order where the phallic ones are displaced by the zeroes. Plant in this connection can be considered one of the leading harbingers of cyberfeminism, thwarting the previous conceptions of technology as essentially masculine.
Everyday, in local trains that connect Sealdah to Dankuni, or Howrah to Bandel, or Shalimar station to some other unknown, less remarkable, prehistoric places, we see women jostling in crowded compartments of the ‘vendor’ class; women travelling by train, commuting from obscure villages near Lakshmikantapur, or Taki, Hasnabad, Karimpur, or Sandeshkhali, not just to earn a decent livelihood, but also to include themselves in the tantalizing world of the city; they are found staring vacantly at what the fashionable car showrooms or the glistening façade of a branded garment store has to offer, considering the ‘digital’ images, style sheets, labeling, pixelled beauty, conglomeration of perfect, size-zero models as the basic parameters of rising in a social hierarchy, thus making it quite obvious that digital consumerism has overpowered them completely. It is a slice of my thought, that, whereas railways connected the suburbs to the metropolitan cities, they have also become sites for the perpetuation and regeneration of social evils like child trafficking, molestation, drug-peddling, prostitution and other sorts of anti-social activity. The number of escort services, call girls, phone and get a friend who will satisfy all your needs, and sophisticated massage parlours that have mushroomed all over the suburban areas like New Barrackpore, Ashokenagar or Habra ( and not forgetting our very own Kolkata!) have been instrumental in aggravating and nurturing these social evils and facilitation of sex over, via and through internet, wi-fi, cheap mobile marketing and attraction of money and long-term fixed deposits. The images of several girls have been distorted, re-configured, re-textured, morphed and drastically changed and circulated in obscene websites. On a microscopic level, it was also understood, as different newspapers generated facts that many of the girls work as part-time call girls only to receive some extra money, and work either in a tea-stall, or as a maidservant, or in a construction site thrice a week, or a flower-seller, or a vegetable-vendor. They justify their acts, disregarding any sort of flippant moral scruples that all good girls or women of the society are endowed with. They are just like the college students, or any other woman on the street. Unlike the stereotypical prostitutes on the streets, they feel liberated; they are vociferous about their personal sexual choices, they can ‘edit’, ‘select’, ‘control’, ‘delete’, or ‘alter’ their clients, after entering the business by placing their own computerized advertisements on public classified sites, and often keeping the work a strict hush hush to their families. At this point I found it relevant to concentrate on what Scott Cunningham, an economist at Baylor University, who has studied the impact of internet on prostitution markets, has said: “When you take the profile of internet prostitutes versus street prostitutes, you find there’s more education and that more work temporarily, and then exit. They also are significantly less likely to work for a pimp”. But the question still hovers around – does the digital debate has only positive ramifications, or, is it, in essence, trying to suppress and objectify simultaneously, the feminine self, the pivotal role of these females in the society.
As for my personal experience with a woman, about thirty-five year old, who works as a maidservant in one of the most affluent areas of Ekdalia, in South Kolkata, her life was not so smooth even after all the grotesque humour that digital market had to offer her. She actually participated in a dual income activity circle, she had been married off to a carpenter of ‘Bongaon’ at a very early age, she became vulnerable to the sordid miscalculations of pregnancy, as well as social and cultural atrocities like domestic violence, as well as several oppressions in the house of her employer. The person whom once she fondly called ‘dada’ (elder brother) had forced her into distorted sex performance (which is prohibited by the Indian Penal Code), photographed her naked with his own self, morphed her pictures, deleted his own from those, and circulated these on social media and pornographic sites. Incidentally, this man was also a computer engineer and he had made an unproductive use of the digital dexterity. Thus, a sufficient technological knowledge on the part of the man actually placed him in a superior position when compared to the utter ignorance of the woman in economic, political, social, technological, and educational matters. Several cases have been registered both with Kolkata as well as Barasat and the entire West Bengal police, where digital crime records have soared beyond imagination, where school drop-out girls, farmers’ wives, brick-kiln labourers, detergent industry workers( female) are either tempted to experience a pre-nuptial carnal pleasure with their prospective grooms, who relish a one-night stand with their girlfriends, and then either rape them, or engage them in flesh-trafficking, or else, channelize, synchronize, and mobilize distorted images of these girls or women, for a lucrative sum. This in the process defames these women and mentally paralyzes them beyond any sort of recovery.
Digital insurgency is a continuous process and more than a debate, it can be considered to be an incredible phenomenon that has multifarious consequences; both the positive and the negative aspects jostle for identification, and the collective synthesis is almost impossible. What remains is a fragmented kaleidoscope of azure, white, crimson, magenta, turquoise female faces that salute the disheveled clouds of modernity and civilization, their hearts pulsating, their nimble fingers embracing one, two, three, four bit, byte, megabytes and infinity…