Governance and Technology

(這是我2007年1月9日對印度學者Nishant Shah在中大的演講所作的回應)

With increasingly limited time under the end-of-term paper crunch for the 5-year-50-billion dollar grant that has been revolutionizing the operation of this university, I must apologize for not being able to spend more time conducting discussions with our visiting scholar during his stay.  I had hoped to be able to do more to that purpose in these final days of his stay, but as plain to all, new obligations and duties kept piling up.  In the end, I was only able to do a preliminary reading of the paper, so whatever comments I offer here this morning should be taken with caution.  Incidentally, the spirit of jumpstarting the nation’s competitiveness in higher education through the 5-year-50-billion dollar grant is completely in sync with the state’s construction of the cyber world and its regulation as described in Nishant’s paper; in fact, many of us have already had full taste of the changing formations of not only the socio-politico-legal order but also the intellectual/academic order.

Nishant’s paper is written in the intersection/interface of almost all the key issues in contemporary theoretical musing: technology, state, power, governance, self/subject, meaning, embodiment/disembodiment, gender and sexuality, inclusiveness/exclusivity, etc.  His analyses touch upon so many provocative and profound points, to which his presentation this morning really does not do justice, I’m only able to respond to the paper in my own limited interests.  And I must say the lucidness of the paper is a great pleasure for any reader who might be interested in exploring these complex issues.  If you did not have time to read the whole thing, you should at least read the top of page 19, the beginning paragraph of “The Cyborg Citizen,” which proposes a series of insightful questions that promises to jerk your thoughts on these issues.

Nishant begins his paper by describing the arrival of internet technologies as “a signifier of neo-liberal politics and a globalised (post)modernity.”  Whether it be the Indian government’s investment in building the infrastructure for the new technologies or its efforts at E-literacy campaigns, all of these should sound familiar enough for us in Taiwan, for similar policies are being promoted here too.  In fact, the same trend is probably true for all developing countries that are now bidding for promotion into the rank of the rich-boys club as prevalence of the communication technologies has become the newest and surest index of development.  Of course, as Nishant aptly points out, the promotion of internet technologies is accompanied by important and decisive state policies as the state struggles to contain and shape emergent new social forces.  Following Foucault’s discussion of the four privileged objects of knowledge that make up modern deployment of sexuality (namely, the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple, and the perverse adult), Nishant then names three key figures through which the state’s deployment of new powers of governance reinforces itself in the face of emerging new technologies: these three figures being the cyber pervert, the cyber terrorist, and the cyber pirate.  Nishant has devoted the most discussion in this paper to the first two figures and said very little about the third.  This uneven distribution of attention and concern is, I think, quite significant and I will begin my discussion from here.

If I were to give a weighting to the three figures in the Taiwan context, I would probably rank them, by degree of state attention, as the pervert, the pirate and lastly the terrorist.  Although dogged by political squabbling, Taiwan has rarely seen political unrest that verges on armed struggle or terrorist attack.  In fact, since the lifting of the martial laws in 1987, a gradual democratization process has opened up public spaces for political dissent to such a degree that local Amnesty International branches now work mostly on the elimination of the death sentence.  With the assumption of power by the opposition DPP party that had continuously presented itself as political dissidence proper, political dissidence can no longer constitute real threats to political legitimacy; even charges of embezzlement and corruption don’t quite make it as they are characterized as ethnically-oriented frame ups.  Under these circumstances, it is little wonder that attention to politically-oriented internet speech aim only at those specific cases where individual netters have uttered death threats against the president.  As to the question of piracy, Taiwan was, before China, probably the top intensely watched location for production of pirated items, from name-brand handbags to Hollywood’s newly released films, and the application of punitive sanction clause 301 which sets restrictions on trade relations with the US has long taught the government of Taiwan to enforce legal as well as ideological campaigns against the act of piracy.  The result may not be all satisfactory, but the posturing is in place

Viewed in a different light, 20 years of political transformation has now produced a social context in which the verbalization of political stances, with the help of highly competitive and popularizing/sensationalizing media, has replaced down-to-earth analyses and discussions with convenient and flippant bickering.  Along with this political taming process came a simultaneous civilizing process that also worked to establish a mostly middle-class-based moderation of sentiments which has even gradually stripped street activism of its impact of challenge and confrontation.  Governance is now conducted mostly through the invocation of popular consensus, which in Taiwan’s context has come to be saturated with a somewhat warped sense of justice that carried all the traces of Taiwan’s convoluted past and its various struggles.  Unfortunately, such a populist tendency, with its penchant for the normal and the mainstream, lends itself easily to the perception of impropriety, if not illegality, of certain issues, stigmatized issues in particular.  This brings me around to Nishant’s discussion of pornography.

In the section titled “Internet Pornography and the Pornographer,” Nishant details the Indian context that was already highly concerned about obscenity and pornography when the internet arrived.  He lists incidents starting from 1993 whereby a series of controversies followed by outrages helped build up public sentiment against obscenity and pornography which would prove to be inhospitable to interactive styles unique to the internet technologies.  Yet, scattered throughout the list were not only state laws gaining upon the production and dissemination of sexually explicit materials, but more significantly complaints, petitions and moral panics that called the attention of the state to certain cultural existences.  I am curious to know: who were the people or groups launching these complaints, petitions and panics?  What interests or ideologies did they represent that may help shed light on the formation of the new model of governance?

I think these questions are important for the dialog this morning, for it seems that the state occupies such a dominant position in this paper that the whole discussion is geared toward the functioning of the Indian state and its long arms of power that work to construct not only the new cyber social order but also individual subjectivity.  In other words, it is the state’s response to the specificities of internet technologies and the new social fabric enabled by them that shaped Nishant’s problematic for the segment of writing that was presented this morning.

In the case of Taiwan, the above-mentioned petitions and panics had been the work of conservative religious groups presenting themselves as concerned child-protection NGOs.  I had written a paper to detail their transformation from other-worldly or at most charity-based organizations to secular social service groups highly involved not only in sharing the state’s powers and resources, but also in forming what we now know as the network of global governance.  The religious groups’ global connection through the religious network has also made it quite convenient for the groups to claim global respectability and international power of influence, which happen to be the urgent desires of the Taiwan state.  In other words, the precarious nation-state status of Taiwan has made it most vulnerable to the demands of the internationally connected religious groups who were doing no less than actualizing their kingdom on earth through new legislations and moral patrols.

Perhaps I could pose the above question in a different way.  Nishant says on page 13: “The state’s interest in internet pornography, then, is not in the sexual content of the material but in the way it sidesteps the state’s authorial positions and produces mutable, transmittable and transferable products as well as conditions of illegalities and subjectivities.”  While I think there is that element of anxiety on the part of the state that strives to control the activities and accesses enabled by the internet technologies, I cannot help but wonder: why should the state pick on “sexual contents” as symptomatic of transgressions against the state?  Possibilities of illegalities and criminalities abound in the internet.  But why should most efforts concentrate on sex-related materials?  Perhaps the presence of Foucault in this paper could span further across discussions of governmentality to those of sexuality, from those of the state to those of a governance scheme that is built upon the collaboration between the state and a segment of its people.  Of course, Nishant’s observation may have something to do with the specific situations and conditions of the Indian state, to which I know too little to comment.

The deployment of sexuality as the demonized force on the internet is not without good cause.  When Nishant says on page 17 that state efforts at censorship and containment have been viewed as “part of the state’s larger repressive apparatus that constantly shapes the citizen subject in a condition of extreme surveillance and threat,” I thought of the thousands of internet users who had been indicted and charged with various sex-related illegalities since 1999 when child-protection legislations came into place that gave the police the right to patrol the internet, searching and entrapping any internet user who may be turned into a criminal.  Descriptions of sexual organs, narratives of sexual experiences, inquiries of sexual invitations, even academic archives of sexuality studies have all inadvertently fallen under the panic scares of conservative groups who now have been endowed by the state as watchdog agencies with the power to pressure the police into setting internet patrolling as the priority concern for crime control.  As Nishant points out in his paper, the law has made us all into actual or potential pornographers, a phenomenon that turns around to not only consolidate further state regulation but also justify ever-growing moral vigilance.  Anxiety and fear have driven many internet users from claiming and enacting their citizenship on the internet; indictments and sentences have thrown many a soul into the oblivion of shame and regret.  Worse, the ISP providers have not only offered up private information on individual net users, but are now “voluntarily” setting up self-censorship standards concerning postings and pictures, in order to avoid being charged with “making pornography available to minors.”  The once enjoyable space of the cyber world is increasingly policed and purified.  Nishant has also mentioned a similar case in his discussion.

Marginal sexualities and their activists have risen bravely in response to this encroachment of basic rights to freedom of speech, privacy, information and association, and launched petitions to the constitutional court for explanation and interpretation.  After all, efforts at establishing new legislations to constrain sex-related information and interaction on the internet go hand in hand with increasing demonization of marginal sexualities, which are now all considered pornographic and thus subject to legal charges.  Conservative forces, be it the state or the religious right, have banked on the shame and guilt and stigma that help silence the gender/sexual deviant, as well as the indignation and protectiveness and self-righteousness that easily fire up the general public.  It is at these moments of socio-cultural crisis that Nishant’s research becomes all the more pertinent.