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The Attempted Murder of Digital Culture

As Secret Base's fantastic documentary on the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Fighting in the Age of Loneliness concludes:

If you've made it to the end of this, and you're not an MMA fan, I hope you take one thing away from all this...this will happen to everything you love, nothing you like will remain untouched, and it will get further and further monetized into meaninglessness...

The narrator was talking about the inevitable sanitization of all things pure. One of the purest innovations of technology, one allowing for unfiltered human connection, creativity, and cruelty, was the internet. And around the same time that the UFC got corporatized and sterile, so did the internet. RIP Wild West Internet (1995-2015). Control and censorship are metastasizing.

The World Wide Web blurred the boundaries of traditional media and mass communication as a human enterprise. Revolutionary. Whether it be comedic content, lifestyle vlogs, op. eds., news, or general commentary on whatever topic one fancies, the floodgates opened for everybody to partake in content production. The barrier of entry is comically low (that's why I'm here). But I feel the weight of Golden Age Thinking...that the best days for enterprise (specifically content creation) on the internet have gone by.

The case of YouTube illustrates how content creation has changed and matured in recent times. In society, maturation apparently means external regulation and control, rather than foresight and deliberate discretion. We abandoned a free internet almost a decade ago; best not cry about how the Internet isn't free in India, it's like that the world over. YouTube coming into its own in India implies a similar development - state control.

Let's dig in...

Governmentality After the Gold Rush

The case of political content creation in Indian YouTube, and the cloud over podcasts.

A recent article from Scroll discussed the growing cyber footprint of political journalism on YouTube spearheaded by individuals and independent content creators, competing with traditional media houses - your NDTV, India Today, News18, and so on. We have mavericks like Dhruv Rathee, Noopur Patel, Maridhas, and company. In the safe distant corner of the US, we have a Mohak Mangal.

But, cyberspace is of the eggshell variety in India, creators gotta tread with care. Sarkar - e - Hind loves to show who's daddy - having blocked 94 YouTube channels in 2021-2022. Internet freedom itself is a contested issue in India after all.

Thank god, the internet did not exist in 1947, otherwise one would have required a license to tweet. De Jure license raj is gone, de facto it exists in that one can only post content that agrees with the state or the harbingers of conservative culture. Hark back to the latter half of the last decade, the "Jio revolution" and the proliferation of content creators on YouTube appeared to kickstart a gold rush of independent political journalism on the website. And now, the government of India is bringing in vendetta. The YouTube space mushroomed and bloomed in the short window, but now with the central government proposing new rules and changes under Information Technology Rules, 2021, and the Supreme Court contemplating the matter, a dark age may be imminent.

YouTube is a behemoth of video-sharing, a centralized platform. One of the top digital platforms used and consumed by Indians. Thus, the stern gaze of the establishment can easily observe all the unruly shenanigans going on there. Another new digital industry that India (just like any other nation) has nurtured is most probably the next one to be scrutinized and controlled. Podcasts.

Podcasts are going through a boom time too. But they are more diffused in cyberspace - not concentrated on one particular website/platform. Spotify, Apple Music, and even YouTube may harbor a large share of them, but podcasts are independent of any single website/platform. Like blogs, they can emerge anywhere in cyberspace. Podcasts are seen to be as intimate and non-intrusive, they come in a plethora of different genres and different languages. Control and censorship's shadows do seem to loom over them. This is of course a natural course of things and the way they develop. It's what every social scientist's favourite pervert Michel Foucault termed "governmentality" - or the insertion of government control and rationality into everyday things. In this case, the internet.

When Bo Burnham sang Welcome to the Internet, he satirized the addictive technological soma that is manipulating users into copious consumption. The very late 2010s- 2020s critique, one that wasn't such a point of contention in the Wild Wild West days. While the space for creativity and enterprise still languishes on the web, increased government control (through rules and codes of conduct) and corporate consolidation (Meta, Alphabet & so on) dominate cyberspace physically and psychologically. What fraction of people use Bing?

Ofc, you can still venture into your own creation. But cyberspace as a whole just feels less DIY.

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