The Political Lives of Information – review

The Political Lives of Information – review

In The Political Lives of Information: Information and the Production of Development in IndiaJanaki Srinivasan analyses the history of the idea of “information” and its political implications for poverty alleviation through three case studies in India. This comprehensive and important work demonstrates why we must interrogate the authority of information within its social, material and political contexts, writes Suraj Beri.


This blogpost originally appeared on LSE Review of Books. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact the managing editor at lsereviewofbooks@lse.ac.uk. 


The Political Lives of Information: Information and the Production of Development in India. Janaki Srinivasan. MIT Press. 2022.

The Political Lives of Information examines the interplay between politics and the definition, production and assessment of information, elucidating the profound impact it has on the individuals who either generate or find themselves at the receiving end of critical claims. The question of whether information possesses the capacity to empower individuals has stimulated considerable discourse within our developmental regimes. This work examines the political lives of information within the context of development and claims regarding the eradication of poverty.

In her introductory chapter, Srinivasan explores how the currency of information came to prominence within academia, development think tanks, and other spheres in recent decades. She subsequently directs her attention towards the term “information,” its seamless assimilation as a potent instrument for progress and advancement. She posits that its inherent ambiguity and a certain lack of distinctiveness in the term have facilitated this outcome. However, according to Srinivasan, one must question whether the process of reifying information has inadvertently resulted in the depoliticisation of development. She utilises literature from the field of development studies to scrutinise the plausibility of this scenario, its ramifications, and the inherent risks at hand.

One must question whether the process of reifying information has inadvertently resulted in the depoliticisation of development.

The book meticulously examines three notable cases in India wherein concerted efforts were made to enhance the well-being and sustenance of poor sections of society. The notion of information holds utmost significance in the functioning of each case, even though defined through differing ideological foundations spanning the entire political spectrum. Srinivasan employs a diverse combination of methods, ethnography, interviews and archival records to collect data.

Srinivasan argues that the growing belief in the efficacy of information leads to a tendency to disregard the importance of how specific social structures, individual actions and material interests affect how information is generated, perceived and used. The key objective of this study is to investigate the ramifications of conceptualising information as an isolated entity, separated from its relatedness to ideology, and the behaviour of its practitioners. The author tries to restore the importance of politics and produce a contextual analysis of information distribution and usage. Srinivasan draws upon the notion of “information order” first developed by historian C. A. Bayly, albeit with several alterations and enhancements. An information order may be seen as a societal framework that covers diverse information systems, channels, formats, and individuals engaged in the process of communication. This concept challenges the dominant idea of knowledge as “self-governing” and inherently useful by placing emphasis on its “social and material” underpinnings. She highlights the significance of social and material structures and forms of power to identify something as “information” and exclude other things as non-information.

 the growing belief in the efficacy of information leads to a tendency to disregard the importance of how specific social structures, individual actions and material interests affect how information is generated, perceived and used

The first case is of fishermen groups living in the state of Kerala, whose means of subsistence improved due to mobile phones. This facilitated the dissemination of price-related information among the fishermen, thereby fostering the establishment of more streamlined and effective market mechanisms. In the fourth chapter, Srinivasan elucidates how the establishment of prices does not simply occur naturally or spontaneously within the framework of a buyer-seller transaction, driven solely by the interplay of demand and supply, or “politics denied” (61). Rather, prices are determined through a complex relational process, entailing negotiations among a multitude of actors, intertwined with social connections and power dynamics. Neglecting to acknowledge this political dimension runs the risk of exacerbating the marginalisation of specific stakeholders and social collectives engaged in the fishing industry.

The second case looks at the utilisation of internet-enabled community information kiosks in Kilipet Village Knowledge Centre in Puducherry, implemented by the Swaminathan Foundation. As part of Information Village Research Project (IVRP), these kiosks were established with the aim of alleviating poverty and enhancing the livelihoods of people in rural Puducherry. The Swaminathan Foundation has dedicated its efforts to exploring the intricate dynamics between information and its impact on interactions with the state. It also looked at its broader implications for livelihoods and yet its intervention was labelled as apolitical. The information shops aimed to supply prompt and pertinent agricultural details like such as the expenses and uncertainties associated with seeds, prevailing market prices, and intricate micro-meteorological specifics. The objective was to aid village leaders in evaluating discrepancies between the allocated budgets or authorised projects, and the actual outcomes achieved. Srinivasan calls this mode and practice of information “politics bracketed”. IVRP and information shops were strongly advised against engaging with the political matters of the village.

The third case considers the efforts of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) – an organisation for workers and farmers – to attain the “right to information” and public accountability of state practices and bureaucratic policies in Rajasthan. In this case, the “politics is made quite explicit” (113), because MKSS has been vocal about the political aspects of governing structures and its construction of information through campaigns, public hearings and long rallies (in chapter six). MKSS tried to examine the discrepancy between what farmers and workers have been experiencing, their accounts of the policy and actual practice and how state officials portray it interpret and legislate around it. It has engaged in spreading awareness about minimum wages, the right to information and the significance of the interrogation of the official documents in the legal and political discourse. MKSS’s campaign also challenged the difficulties people had in accessing “official” documents and “rules and procedures”. It changed the political discourse towards accessing information as a right for all citizens. Instead of perceiving information as representations of truth, they regarded documents and records as materials to ensure the accountability of the government (139).

(MKSS, an organisation for workers and farmers) changed the political discourse towards accessing information as a right for all citizens.

Through a comprehensive analysis of these three case studies, Srinivasan challenges assertions regarding the intrinsic value of information devoid of its embeddedness in wider social and political relations (chapter seven). The author stresses that such conceptions in addressing issues like poverty have consistently led to the “depoliticisation of political issues”. By examining the process by which a certain entity was recognised as information, Srinivasan’s central argument is to critique the economic and mechanical market-driven understanding of information. According to Srinivasan, the three cases also provide examples of the equally diverse forms of political action they prompted.

To initiate a discourse of social change one must interrogate the political lives of information and reconceptualise information within its social, material and political contexts.

Srinivasan concludes by urging us to scrutinise who has or does not have information, and what people do with the information they have. To initiate a discourse of social change one must interrogate the political lives of information and reconceptualise information within its social, material and political contexts. At times, the sections of her work become repetitive and mechanical. She could have incorporated discussion on the social and cultural embeddedness of information along with its mediation by digital infrastructure today, and considered the implications of this, particularly in the times of fake news and polarisation fostered by social media. The author could have also touched upon the reproduction of political cleavages through the manipulation of historical facts, information and systemic circulation of misinformation through various channels in India today. The argument of this important work could have been richer if it also engaged with cultural and moral orders within which groups and communities make sense of information and make decisions to leverage it, since cultural and moral orders also shape the dynamics of politics.

 


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