Distributed Networks: On Security, Terror, Mobility and Other Sensations

Posted: April 19, 2010 in Becoming, Bergson, Clinamen, Deleuze, Ecology of Sensation, India, Method, Mobile Phones, New Media, Organized Networks, Perception, Probabilistic chips, social viscosity, Swarms

This lecture is based on research conducted in Delhi-NCR and Mumbai on mobile phone cultures over the past nine months. This research has focused on changing patterns of use emerging from shifts in relations of power between government, network providers, content producers, value added companies, and communities of active users across urban and rural space. The wager of my research is that a new ecology of sensation is emerging through an evolving, globally distributed security apparatus. This apparatus has become centered on controlling populations as searchable digital information, while mutating the biopolitical project of maximizing productive capacity and minimizing risk.


1. What is a Media Assemblage?
2. Why is it particularly appropriate for diagramming Mobile phone networks?
3. Emergent properties, critical thresholds, and phase transitions of multiplicities
4. Types of connectivity: Security, interoperability, and standardization (ICON, TRAI regulations); pirated connections (ends up valorizing what you are stealing, non-standardized, on the margins of control); and the strategic refusal (Naxalite sabotage); pre-empting emergence: keep control but enable capitalist innovation and value creation
5. Intensive gradients of populations cannot be understood through linguistic categories, we need tools to be able to model intensive gradients of perception, meaning, rates of flow, density of connectivity…etc
6. This leads to a perspective where we take the body’s sensorimotor processes seriously as a mode of unmediated connectivity to media. UNMEDIATED. DIRECT. But with a history. Patterned but unpredictable, as virtual as it is actual, ecologies of sensation are evolving fields of sense, value, and force. So we can understand in this way the mobile phone as directly productive of sensation: in narrative: the mobile phone is a sensational technology (Dev.D), a dangerous device (A Wednesday), and passage into an intercalated timespace (the private bubble around the bodies of people in public places so common in Hindi cinema)…The mobile phone in cinema has become banal, a device assumed to be everyday for postcolonial modernity…VAS production: the creation of sensation through viral content and “necessary” services.
7. Art and Mobile Phones: The Creative deployment of the mobile: social viscosities project, GPS and mapping, the camera (Kainaz’s iPhone photography), the mobile dropping out of the pants video, use of the camera, text novels in Japan
a. Dialtones: A Telesymphony. There are a few different interactive mobile phone performance art pieces that I am aware of but this is by far the coolest of the bunch. Basically, when you come to see this show you (and your cell phone) actually become a part of the show. You register the phone number of your cell phone so that it gets linked with your seat. Then the show starts and it involves the ringing of your cell phone with new ringtones that have been added to it to make it more musical. Your phone and the phones around you are all ringing as part of this amazingly beautiful musical piece. It’s music but it’s made using mobile phones. It happened way back in 2001 but I still think it’s a magical piece to remember today. http://www.flong.com/projects/telesymphony/
b. Cell Phone Movies by Giselle Beigulman. This artist actually uses the mobile phone to create art by taking different models of cell phones and using the video recorder on them to record different scenes in movement whenever she is on buses or trains or in the car. These videos are then combined together to make cell phone movies of the subjects that she has taken video footage of. Learn more her
c. Phonetic Faces. This is another one of those interactive art pieces that utilizes mobile phones. In this case, the Phonetic Faces exhibit is set up (it’s been in various galleries around the world) and people at the exhibit can come add to the piece. They do so by calling a specific cell phone number which tells them how to choose images to collage together as part of the piece and then also allows them to upload their own picture for use in the collage. Essentially, this captures the visitors to the exhibit in images but also alters the piece through their contributions. That’s public art at its best and it has the cell phone at its core.
d. http://www.textually.org/textually/archives/2007/01/014567.htm
8. Social Viscosities: cuts both ways…. After a certain threshold of connectivity, the network (which includes but is not reducible to people’s use, no one part of the open, distributed system is decisive, what is decisive is the emergent properties that take hold with the nonlinear interaction of these components), the system takes on a kind of life, it becomes self-organizing after a gradient of probabilistic functionality, a gradient of connectivity…
a. Self-organizing networks doesn’t mean that this is utopic, without hierarchies of power, or resistant
b. Sensation gets us out of the dialectic of docility-agency.

A word on the machinic phylum and becoming. Arthur McGoey in “The Machinic Phylum and Non-Organic Life Engines” writes:

Life, organic or otherwise, comes from the intensive processes of a space Manuel DeLanda refers to as the machinic phylum in his essay Non-Organic Life. His use of this term comes from the philosophy of Gilles Delueze, including Delueze’s collaborations with Felix Guattari. Delueze and Guattari tend to not use any one term when referring to their concepts, instead, like the concepts they are talking about, they fluidly interchange several different words depending on the circumstances. In the case of the machinic phylum, Delueze and Guattari also use terms such as the Body without Organs (BwO), Plane of Immanence and Plane of Consistency. DeLanda in turn, also uses the term Intensive Spatium in his book Intensive Science, Virtual Philosophy. Each of these words is like a different gateway to the same concept, thus by virtue of each term we can gain a better understanding of the concept. The machinic phylum is a broad group of “abstract machines” that drive processes of becoming. Becoming is the engine of space-time. It is the act of emergence, the act of evolution, the process of being driven by abstract machines. For DeLanda, Delueze & Guattari there is no just being there is only becoming. Everything is changing; this is to say objects in this world exist far from static equilibrium. These machines have several requirements for their definition. They must be concrete, abstract, and universal. To be concrete, the abstract machine must be able to be “found” in world around this. In this way, Delueze’s philosophy can be said to be empirical. To be abstract, the machinic process must be constructed as a pre-individual. This means that the process must exist without the intervention of specific context. DeLanda’s example of oscillators in Non-Organic Life is an example. The mechanics of the process exist without the need to bring up specific chemical reactions. The machine is said to drive all chemical oscillators, even though the actualization of the process will differ in each specific historical circumstance. Finally, the intensive engine is said to be universal in that it exist across a wide range of actualized processes. By being concrete, abstract and universal, abstract machines are said to be immanent in the material world. They arise from the differences between objects and behaviors. They can be thought to drive differentiation and be driven by difference. Because of the fact that abstract machines are inherent (immanent) in the world, this outlook is said to be materialist. It is through the processes of material and energetic flows (difference) that becoming (emergence) happens. (“A Synthetic Architecture,” http://amcgoey.net/?p=32, accessed 4-20-10)

What is crucial here is that the machinic phylum is both virtual and actual, incorporating and distributing abstract machines that actual tendencies in an intensive space. So let us keep this framework in mind as we turn to India’s intensive mobility.

What is the history of telephony in India? Consider this quote as a kind of testimonial:

Till about 10 years ago at any point of time over 30 lakh applicants were waiting to get a telephone connection. Some of them had waited for more than 10 years. In Mumbai, applications used to be accepted only if they were in the own your telephone (OYT) scheme, in which a hefty, non-interest bearing deposit had to be made and there was no guarantee when even such an applicant would get a phone. To get a coloured or push-button phone, a long cord or extension phone, one had to wait in queue or get a recommendation from an MP or minister. One wit suggested that the telegraphic address of the telephone department could be ‘wait list’. One communications minister introduced a ‘cash and carry’ telephone scheme. For Rs 30,000 cash to his agent he would sanction an ‘out of turn’ phone; in his four months, he made Rs 900 million. His successor legalised the scheme under ‘tatkal’, i e, immediate phone connection, for Rs 30,000 paid, mercifully to the department itself. When members of parliament complained about non-working phones and sky-high bills, the minister (communications) – others called him minister for complaints – shot back “It is not compulsory to have a telephone; anyone could surrender it any time he liked.” The “left, progressive, democratic, socialist” theoreticians occupying the commanding heights in the Planning Commission said that telephones and other telecom services were elitist. The common man had no need for them and therefore investment in telecom should be restricted to serve governments and a few other essential needs. (T H CHOWDARY, Telecom Reforms: A Decade On, EPW 2004

Today, there are well over five billion mobile phones world-wide.

As per figures released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the wireless subscriber base has increased from about 545 million in January to 563.73 million in February, with a monthly growth rate of over 3 per cent. Hence, the total wireless additions in the month of February stand at 18.76 million new subscribers which is a drop from the 19.9 million new additions in the wireless segment in the month of January. The mobile teledensity stands at almost 48 per hundred as of February.

Faster processing phones, constantly connected through email, SMS, Facebook, internet, GPS and barcode recognition. Smaller, probabilistic chips that save energy allow for the live streaming of movies from and to your smart device:

Purple Fire Films announces mobile movies, music videos for cell phones, VAS, Mumbai, April 01, 2010: With the fast-growing mobile phone market in India, Purple Fire Films has announced special content products for mobile phone users including films and music videos specially purposed and customized for mobile phone viewing. According to Flynn Remedios, Executive Producer for Purple Fire Films, the Mumbai-based production house has planned to produce over 50 music videos and about 10 films for the mobile market during 2010 itself. Company sources said that the films will be of 30 to 50 minute duration, while the remix and original music videos would range from 4 to 6 minutes each. “We have done extensive research on the subject. Mobile content users or viewers have an attention span of not more than 5 to 20 minutes at a stretch. Our products will keep in mind this factor,” said Remedios. “In addition to mobile films and music videos, we will produce music videos and films completely shot with high-end mobile phones from start to finish. The first-cut or rough edit of our first mobile remix music video starring Tamil actress Neelakshi Singh has been released on You Tube. This is just a test case and is based on remix editions of three popular Bollywood numbers. Two more such mobile music videos are in the pipeline and will be released in April 2010. The salient feature of this product is that it has been wholly shot with a high-end mobile phone,” explained Flynn Remedios…The company also plans to produce “A-rated” mobile music videos and films for a mature audience and the international market. Says Remedios, “If Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms known for its family soaps and saas-bahu content can start producing spicy adult fare like Love, Sex and Dhokha, Purple Fire Films sees a tremendous market for such similar content specially produced for mobile phone viewing.” http://telecomyatra.afaqs.com/pressrelease/index.html?releaseID=439_Purple+Fire+Films+announces+mobile+movies+music+videos+for+cell+phones

What are the aims of a media assemblage approach to mobile cultures in India? The aim is to diagram the tendencies of an ecology of flows and processes not centered on the semiotics of mobility, but on the pragmatics of connectivity. Mobile phone cultures are not about the device as an ironic metaphor for postcolonial modernity that it can so easily become, but rather about the potentializing force of an object that has evolving affinities. The mobile is an affine object, an object with definite affinities that allow the perceptual, social, and affective capacities of subjects to co-evolve with machinic assemblages. Now an affinity is both rooted in an ontology of connectivity, and not reducible to it. An affine object is both potential and actual because it has tendencies. Tendencies take on statistically probable characteristics given a patterned but unpredictable population of flows and processes.
So the mobile phone has affinities, tendencies, becomings. It has a certain life independent of the will of the user, symptomized by the fact that e-wills are now being written in NCR concerning the disposal of cyberlives after the termination of the carbon-based life of the sim owner. But this silicon and coltran-based life is also invested in and in turn invested by the sensorymotor circuits of the human body.
In that sense the mobile phone is a durational or temporal object that correlates the timescales of its multiple affinities. What does this mean concretely? The body is a concatenation of habits, movement-actions, memory, neuronal assemblages, autonomic processes, etc. It is a distributed neuronal network. The body is a center of indetermination, whose stochastic processes play out by embedding themselves functionally in ecologies of biomass and information. These processes are temporal, they have durations, speeds and intensities that can be rendered as statistical probabilities, never epistemic certainties. Take for instance a text message. Castells et al note that “two main factors need to be kept in mind in the case of SMS: the limit of 160 characters per message; and the challenge of the interface—mobile-phone keyboards are far from being comfortable for writing. Thus, as a major consequence of intensive texting, young users improve their ability to synthesize” (179). For Fortunati this signals the discovery of the written word among young people today: “in many cases adolescents have surrendered to writing, discovering the attraction of the written word, its power (when the word is written it loses its sound, but takes on greater density of meaning) and its permanence in time (transcribing it in a diary can become social memory” (2003: 9; qtd. in Castells et al 180).
Hundreds of millions of text messages are sent weekly throughout India. Statistically more in the urban areas, and concentrated in English educated households (although I have seen English-savvy transcribers of sms’s writing messages for other non-English proficient subjects in Mumbai). Very soon Indian youth will rival Singapore’s Generation Txt, and Japan’s Thumb Tribes. Now the creation of a text message has a certain duration, which lasts no more than a few minutes on average (although there are reports of adolescent boys spending upwards to a half and hour constructing expressive messages to loved ones), extending material effects and durations through dynamic connectivity and the de-sedimentation of language through txting practices (Castells et al mention the Tanglish dialect of txting in the Philippines which combines Tagalog, English, and Spanish, and bahasa gaul in Indonesia; Hinglish in North India has also been adapted for txt messaging, and there are many other examples throughout the world; special attention should be paid to this desedimentation of elite dialects and the formation of a new language of power in SMS—for the phenomenon of linguistic de-sedimentation see Delanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History). Within that duration a set of sensorimotor circuits adapted from screen-keyboard assemblages, pager histories, slang-formations, and fashion-based subcultures are more or less operative and functional. What the mobile phone does pragmatically is correlate these bodily and linguistic processes with flows of information, pragmatic mutations in language use, and events of perception. These flows and events pass through critical thresholds and phase transitions. There is a report of two adolescent Finnish girls who sat next to each other on the same bed and txted back and forth for six hours. But this was when sms was first introduced in the market there—quickly it became banal and habitual. These embedded time scales suggest something decisive about the mobile: the mobile is bound up with irreversible processes of the body’s perceptual capacity, that perception, language and telecommunication are co-evolving through emergent capacities, and that this heterochrony (embedded timescales) is part of the mutational capacity of the mobile-body assemblage. The mobile event is a fluctuation in ecologies of sensation whose conceptual history stretches back, in no particular order, to the shock of cinema (Benjamin), the dream-memory-action circuit (Bergson), and the potentialization of capacities (Deleuze), the “text-urizing” of the sign (Derrida), but whose diagram is not reducible to any concept whatsoever.
What has this meant practically in the lives of mobile phone users? Information is not only available 24/7, but the user is reachable always, making the habituation of forms of social networking through the device obvious, easy, necessary. Writes Jason Pontin of the Technology Review:

I Pownce, too—sharing images, music, or videos on the filesharing service. I also have a Facebook profile, where more than 700 “friends,” most of whom I have never met, note my status updates, nod over the books I read, and peek at my photos. I Digg. Occasionally, I blog. And all my social-media activities are rolled up on FriendFeed. If you subscribed to my feed, you’d see how often I use social technologies: 24 times on Thursday, July 31. I am not sure why I do all this. Anything I write for Technology Review or other publications reaches a far larger audience. I began because I felt I shouldn’t write or edit stories about social technologies without having used them. Then, too, everyone young seemed to use social media all the time, and I didn’t want to be generation-gapped by the little freaks. But I persisted because social technologies allowed me to talk with readers and sources in new, interesting ways. Also, it was fun! By now, using social media has become habitual, like keeping a diary. (See Pontin, “Authenticity In The Age Of Its Technological Reproducibility: Do Social Technologies Make Us Less Sincere?” Technology Review September/October 2008 12.)

Hence the uncanny effect of mobile technologies that assemble bodily habits with social networking platforms like Facebook. Recall, that for Freud the uncanny was that which works toward an ambivalence: the homely is what is inside, and what is inside is hidden away, and what is hidden away haunts the subject as the return of its superceded double. In Facebook-mobility, by exhibiting the inside obsessively, the homely is what is on display (this is played upon in A. Kashyap’s Dev.D, when Lenny’s boyfriend uploads fellatio video of her and the video goes “viral”). Not to be on display is to be in ennui, or worse, uncool, says this ideology of self-entrepreneurship (see Fouault’s lecture on neo-liberalism). In that sense its cultural logic is the logic of kewl, or the viral, the catching-on of what catches on. The mobile is a mode of connecting with the viral by intensifying the potentiality of connectivity through probabilistic feedbacks, not more accurate but increasingly energy efficient.

In probabilistic chip technology, “’Relaxing the probability of correctness even a little bit can produce significant savings in energy,’ Krishna Palem says. Within a few years, chips using such designs could boost battery life in mobile devices such as music players and cell phones. But in a decade or so, Palem’s ideas could have a much larger impact. By then, silicon transistors will be so small that engineers won’t be able to precisely control their behavior: the transistors will be inherently probabilistic. Palem’s techniques could then become important to the continuation of Moore’s Law, the exponential increase in transistor density—and thus in computing power—that has persisted for four decades. When Palem began working on the idea around 2002, skepticism about the principles behind PCMOS was “pretty universal,” he says. That changed in 2006… Palem and his team have already built and started testing a cryptography engine. They are also designing a graphics engine and a chip that people could use to adjust the power consumption and performance of their cell phones: consumers might choose high video or call quality and consume more power or choose lower quality and save the battery. Palem is discussing plans for one or more startup companies to commercialize such PCMOS chips. Companies could launch as early as next year, and products might be available in three or four years. ”
(Erika Jonietz, “Probabilistic Chips: Krishna Palem Thinks Introducing A Little Uncertainty Into Computer Chips Could Extend Battery Life In Mobile Devices—And Maybe The Duration Of Moore’s Law, Too,” technologyreview.com, http://www.technologyreview.com/specialreports/tr10pdfdownload.aspx?ufid=14699&aid=20246, accessed 4-13-10)

The probabilistic chip resonates with the tendencies of the evolution of microprocessing; denser chips, more memory, faster processing, smaller size, self-organizing, multi-tasking all at the limits of perception and cognition (the perception/cognition is not an opposition but a field of potentialized feedback loops). Probabilistic chip technology trades accuracy for energy efficiency by reducing the factor between noise and signal in transistors on tiny chips. This allows the mobile to become an energy-hardy, live-streaming social networking and media production device. With the increasing smallness of transistors that are inherently probabilistic, drawing on the physics of stochastic resonance, mobile phones will last ten times longer on one charge, and already videos are streaming from our mobiles targeting, modulating our perceptual limits in real time (see qik.com).

So the mobile is an affine object that potentializes embedded processual timescales. Indeed, temporality is central to understanding the potentiality of mobile technology. Castell et al, call the timespace of mobile networks a “space of flows and timeless time.” I’m with them on the space of flows, but I’d rather think of the intensification of durations through mobile networks, rather than a vague “timelessness.” I pick up on this description below in my discussion of the durational nature of sms-ing:
Timeless time as the temporality that characterizes the network society is also enhanced by mobile communication. The availability of wireless communication makes it possible to saturate time with social practice by inserting communication into all the moments when other practices cannot be conducted, such as the ‘in-between’ time during transportation, in a waiting line, or simply during free time. Thus, teenagers use their time at home, under the surveillance of the family, or in school under supervision, to transcend the institutional barriers of control and create their own space for interaction, thus filling in time during non-chosen activities. Or else, any waiting time becomes a potential communication time and the general notion of time is ‘softened’ to accommodate all kinds of activities, sometimes in a simultaneous manner. [quoting Rheingold here] (174-5)

Mutating from this line of thought on time (we will not think of this as timeless or softened, we will try to diagram the processes that have become intensified, and passing a critical threshold have become potentialized; mobile temporality doesn’t come to fill an empty time, but is a will to power that couples, uncouples, and speeds up and hence phase transitions durations that already had an ecology), sms’s, for instance, exploit what have been called quotidian scraps of time, time endemic to the changing viscosity of the social–travel-time, waiting, queuing, sitting in cars, on mall benches, taxis and buses, loitering or stuck in traffic. The tendency thus in the mobile-human assemblage is toward the intensification and thickening of patterned information flows, and the refunctioning of transit time-space. These intensities have critical threshold as I have said, fields of potential, and correlated feedback loops. This durational, intensive plane of potential is the ecology of sensation that I have written about elsewhere, a concept whose components I am multiplying pragmatically here.

Castells et al, write, first, of the rhythms of device use, referring “primarily to the duration and sequencing of interaction between an individual and the device. … time spent using communicational devices makes relationships durable and continuing, rather than fragmented. …doing what you want as quickly as you can” (175). Second, in considering the durational dimension of the mobile, rhythms of everyday life refers to the local temporalities associated with social and cultural relationship in which a specific device use is embedded; and third, rhythms of institutional chance which references the historical and infrastructural elements that enable mobile use, including such dimensions as the institutionalization of travel, cycles of technological development, or the time taken to establish and maintain network technologies (175). Thus they argue that mobile temporality “resurrect mobile time that would have been previously been considered ‘dead’” (quoting Perry et al 2001; 176). But is this in fact the case? What is dead time anyway? Doesn’t the mobile show that all time is potentially chaotic, potentially far from equilibrium, and thus through a combination of chance and patterned flows, embedded time scales exhibit a definite heterochrony that can pass critical thresholds. This is I believe in keeping with the contemporary physics of kinesis inspired by the work of Prigogine, and in conversation with the philsosophy of Stengers and Deleuze, the historical work of Latour, Donzelot, and (aspects of) Foucault, the fiction of Delaney, Butler, Sterling and Gibson. But Castells et al go even further than positing a tenable temporality. They deny temporality as such.

…new activities that arise during ‘dead time’ create value both for people and business. By saturating ‘dead time’ with communication, people compress and ultimately deny time. As Meyrowitz writes: ‘Paradoxically, the more our new technologies allow us to accomplish in an instant, the more we seem to run out of time.’…There is a new spatiotemporal formation made of communication flows and their infrastructure. Because this infrastructure depends on place-based nodes (the access points) and their networking, the space of flows shapes timeless time. Where you are determines your ability to transcend time and space. The spatial structure of wireless communication determines the capacity of people and functions to access the new spatiotemporal configuration of our age. The more information systems and databases can be accessed and interacted with from mobile devices, the more access to the space of flows becomes the decisive feature of social organization. (Castells et al, Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective 176-78)

We are arguing for a different notion of mobile temporality, one that is fully historical, material, and virtual, one that is ecological, modular, and unpredictable but probabilistic. We will continue to pursue this line of argumentation.

The mobile is also an industry, and in India the market for handsets, services and data plans, and value added products and content is the most competitive in the world. It is also a highly regulated industry. What of this regulation? The tendency of TRAI policy over the past three years has been to eliminate vestiges of the license raj, maximize competition, encourage lower tariffs, and minimize monopoly formation. TRAI has also attempted to create an open, feedbacked business climate, in which it stays responsive to technological and value-generating innovations coming from the industry itself. This is basically in keeping with the neoliberal regulatory technologies globally. Now in his lectures on neoliberalism Foucault notes that what is decisive about neoliberal control technologies is that they promote entrepreneurship of the self as a way of working on, or better modulating the capacities of the population. The play, the structured play within the discourse of mobile telephony between security and individuation turns on this self-entrepreneurizing of the consumer of (affective) labor. The examples of the crisis of patriarchalism in Castells’s work on mobile phones, the cases of Spain, Singapore, South Korea, and 9-11 in the US are elaborations of this discourse. But isn’t it a symptom of the limits of this kind of analysis that could take events with an unpredictable quanta of potentialization, whose temporality flows nonlinearly as examples of the sad dialectic between security and individuation. This problem is an effect of the material technologies of social hygiene of which the ‘policing of families’ is an excellent example (see Donzelot on families and promotional feminism). This point needs clarification, we must wage battles on behalf of not good sense but pragmatic transvaluation, a new sense of interpretation, break the motor, kill the buddha, it amounts to the ‘same’ thing: create, intervene in, tweak the nonlinear ecologies whose torsions you are.
By privileging competitive neutrality at the level of the intra-national, TRAI has missed the historic opportunity to innovate globally when it comes to spectrum allocation and new cognitive network technologies. On the positive side, the highly competitive mobile provider and handset market has necessitated the formalization of feedback channels between consumers and suppliers (of services or devices). This connectivity, which smoothens and speeds up various practices of consumption through the forms of exhibitionist self-entrepreneurship that I marked above, is also potentializing mobile phone culture. In a recent article on spectrum allocation, Mehta and Horvitz argue that

When computers were slow and expensive, this approach was necessary, because the radios did not work well when there was interference, for instance someone else trying to use the same slice of spectrum. But radios have become far smarter now, and if suitably designed, can easily share spectrum. The most spectacular example is WiFi, which even though far less smart than the radios of today, has allowed people to use what was “garbage” spectrum – polluted by micro wave ovens and the like – as the easiest way for notebook computers to connect to the internet. An extension of this idea is cognitive radio, which can intelligently detect which communication channels are in use and which are not, and instantly move into vacant channels while avoiding occupied ones. This optimizes the use of available spectrum while minimising interference to other users. Continuing the beach analogy, cognitive radio is a technology that allows you to make the most amazing use of large segments of unused spectrum, the equivalent of unspoilt beaches. India was so bad at commercialising this valuable property, that it is one of the few countries that has not parcelled off its spectrum into thin strips of fenced-off property. Not only can we start using this spectrum in ways that more developed countries cannot think of, this technology also provides us with a neat way out of our regulatory mess and so-called shortage in spectrum. (Arun Mehta, Robert Horvitz, “Managing and Utilising
Spectrum More Efficiently,” Economic & Political Weekly, February 27, 2010 vol xlv no 9, 26-28, 26. )

Cognitive network technology can be implemented in the 700 MHz Ultra High Frequency (UHF) spectrum right now; UHF is “very valuable indeed, for it can penetrate walls far easier than the higher frequency spectrum now being used for mobile communications” (28). Coming up with new ways and regulations to use the 700 MHz band, the authors suggest, the Indian state should ignore neither the old technology, for which the population already has receivers, nor new technologies like cognitive radio that can easily coexist with the existing users. What is crucial here is that cognitive radio can “easily detect which transmitters are broadcasting at which frequencies in its environment, and avoid those.” More, it can also take advantage of the unused spectrum between contiguous channels, without disturbing TV signal reception. Using cognitive radio in this way could significantly reduce the cost of bringing broadband connectivity to rural India. Part of why cognitive networks are a better idea for India is the problem of solving the “line of sight” problem. In other words, when using higher frequencies for communication, line of sight is a must, which means tall masts, the main capital cost factor. Seven hundred MHz cognitive radio use far shorter masts. Indeed, as the authors note, “if we can simultaneously promote terrestrial TV, and put into the licence conditions the requirement that the government is allowed to mount cognitive radio on the same masts as the antenna of the TV transmitter, we might eliminate the cost of erecting masts for wireless broadband almost entirely. The positive impact on the viability of rural broadband would be huge” (28).

So what about the Peasant, then? This question was put to me during a job talk years ago, and I thought it stupid at the time, but have since returned to it again and again sometimes with a sad piety, and other times with an affirmation of becoming. It’s the latter I am hoping for here. So what about the rural field for the development of mobile networks? First, are we sure today that we know who this figure is, this “peasant”? In a recent article in the Economic Times, Sunil Duggal, CEO of the famous indigenous herbal brand Dabur, asks “Is it Rural India or new urban pind?” (Economic Times, Tuesday April 13, 4):

…who exactly is this [rural Indian] consumer? A lot of newsprint and boardroom time has been spent all through last year on identifying the rural consumer, but little is still known about this person, leave alone her likes and dislikes, aspirations and beliefs.”

Of course, as the CEO of a leading herbal cosmetics brand, Duggal is interesting in making this information active, searchable, mobile. So Duggal breaks down some “myths”:

Myth # 1: Rural India is a slow-burner and investments give late returns. Reality: Rural India is on an overdrive with growth coming much faster than most of us assume. In fact, given the rising prosperity in rural markets, demand growth has outpaced urban markets over the past two years. And this demand growth comes across categories such as shampoos and toothpastes.

And then, for safe measure, he gives some figures from Dabur’s turnover:

Dabur has been among the first companies to identify this latent potential of the India’s countryside. Today, 50% of our turnover comes from rural and semi-urban India. In fact, in the 12 months to February 2010, Dabur’s shampoo sales in rural India have grown by over 26% compared to just 7% jump in urban India. Sales of Dabur’s toothpastes – a category till recently seen as more urban centric – have increased 21% in rural India compared to just over 13% in urban India. This also mirrors the overall category sales for the industry, a trend that several bigwigs seem to have missed.

Myth # 2: Rural consumers lack purchasing power and are highly price inelastic with no preference for premium quality and aspirational products.

Reality: Popular perception that the rural consumer is more concerned with the daily necessities of roti, kapda aur makaan is far from ground reality. While the rural consumer may generally be seen as less affluent that her urban counterpart, things are changing. And changing fast.

The government rural job guarantee schemes coupled with the spike in commodity prices in the recent years have put more money in the pockets of rural consumers, in turn giving a big push to their standards of living.

Also, the great rural-urban divide is no longer as strong as it used to be a decade ago. There is today a greater linkage between urban and rural India with members of several rural households migrating to urban markets and media reaching deeper into rural markets. So, the overall prosperity of the urban markets is also resulting in a positive impact on the rural economy. …

Myth # 3: Mass media is the best way to talk to the rural consumer.

Reality: While the exposure to mass media has surely increased in rural India, there are still large parts of the country that are media-dry.

At Dabur, we feel direct engagement with the consumer is the best way to reach out to the rural populace. In rural India, we have moved beyond the traditional media options like radio, television and cinema, and now speak to consumer through a host of special initiatives that not only engage the consumer but also give her an opportunity to touch, feel and experience the products.

Be it through participation in haats, nukkad nataks or innovative initiatives like Dabur Amla Banke Dikhao Rani rural beauty pageant, we have captured what is today the most expensive piece of rural real estate – the consumer mind-space.

In rural markets, success depends highly on how a brand is positioned and promoted. Greater the strategic attention to this unique demand, greater the chances of the products success in the rural pockets. I feel it’s time marketers did better than just assume what our rural consumers desire, despise, relish and reckon.

While visiting Khanam’s house and listening to her story over a glass of orange soda (and over the tinny strains of the prayer calls from the nearby mosque), I noticed that she owned a cell phone. It was a simple Nokia 1100, the low-end stalwart of developing-world communications; she purchased it last year after concluding that the business value justifi ed the investment of 3,000 rupees (roughly the retail cost of six of her saris). Her prepaid plan allows outgoing calls for about half a rupee (less than two cents) per minute. One of her communication strategies is to note the phone number of an incoming call but not answer the phone. It’s a common trick throughout the developing world; in this manner, people can con vey mutually understood messages, such as “Let’s meet.” Soon, the phone could transform how she deals with Grameen Koota. In one of a handful of such initiatives in India, a Bangalore startup called mChek is plunging into microfinance. Its software is already used by 500,000 people, who can use their mobile phones to pay their phone bills and purchase a limited number of goods and services, such as airline and movie tickets. Through a pilot project, as many as 5,000 borrowers will begin using the system to manage their finances—tapping keys on their cell phones to access bank accounts and execute transfers, make payments to Grameen Koota, and possibly even do business with local merchants. Several borrowers should be able to share one phone. The new system could help Grameen Koota achieve its goal of roughly- quadrupling its lending efforts by 2010. “All this will get eliminated,” Krishna exclaims, pointing to photos of his loan offi cers poring… If this and similar eff orts succeed, the concept could be extended to millions—even hundreds of millions—of Indians, giving them access to banking and credit for the fi rst time. And India’s national
economy would stand to gain as well. Money that is electronically lodged in accounts earns interest for banks and account holders. 48-50

From: David Talbot, Upwardly Mobile: An Indian Startup Thinks That The Right Software Can Make Cheap Phones A Financial Lifeline To Hundreds Of Millions.
Technology Review November/December 2008, 48-54.


  1. […] this link: Distributed Networks « Media Assemblages Tags: facebook, facebook-recall, freud, homely, mobile-technologies, social-networking, the-homely, […]

  2. Katheryn says:

    See for an article written by Beiguelman I cite in my dissertation called “For an Aesthetics of Transmission”.

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