The Resistance Ep 222. —A design fiction about the politics of identification and surveillance tech

Thomson Muriyadan
Apr 29 · 9 min read

Introduction

The Resistance is a podcast episode, produced as part of the final output of the Speculative Design Studio at Srishti facilitated by Dr. Naveen L Bagalkot. The aim of the studio was to take a piece of writing from any source (mythology, science-fiction, folk tales, etc.) and render a techno-centric re-imagination drawing from the themes, characters and politics of the original story. I chose to work with Mimi Mondal’s story The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall which appeared in Strange Horizons, a weekly magazine of and about speculative fiction. Mimi is a Dalit woman from India who writes about politics and history, occasionally camouflaged as fiction. The piece I chose belongs to a loose story arc from which The Other People and This Sullied Earth, Our Home have been previously published.

Background

The original story is told from the perspective of an old lady, Pramila, who belongs to a tribe of forest folk and finds herself having to move to the city with her son, Binu, after losing the rights to stay on their land in the village. In the city, overwhelmed by the pressure to keep up with work and unable to find meaningful employment, her son runs away from home. The story then follows the mother as she looks for her son while facing the unfriendly life in the city, a place where she clearly doesn’t feel she belongs.

There are few themes from the story that inspired me to take it up and think of a retelling. Mimi does a great job of capturing the character’s thoughts and feelings and shows how immigrant folk are judged harshly for the way they look and speak. One realises how little they are listened to versus being told what to do and how they seem to have no distinct identity at all (Pramila doesn’t even remember her name and identifies just as Binu’s mother for most of the narration). The story explores the politics and challenges of immigration, the work environments that immigrants usually end up in, where they live, their struggle for survival and the constant feeling of being exploited. It also reflects on the child-like innocence of a person who has lived a simple life in the forest.

Focus of Critique

There are two aspects from the original story that I wanted to focus on in my re-imagination. One is the sense of being watched that is experienced by the central character Pramila Debi — whether it is being watched by her employers or “normal” city folk and how she formed a concept of herself based on these perceptions when she moved into the city. It makes you think about how immigrant populations engaged in jobs like construction and household work are often looked at in a certain way because of the way they dress, their use of language and their mannerisms. The second aspect is the concept of being lost or what it means to go missing. In the original story Binu’s disappearance is only a concern to his mother.

But in my re-imagination I thought about how this could be challenged when put in a context. What does it mean to go missing in the digital age when one can be constantly monitored by the technology one carries around? That’s why I decided to explore ways in which his disappearance could be noticed. This led me to think about identification technology as an element in the story. Through my retelling I have tried to critique the invasive nature of this technology and tried to present issues like the loss of privacy of citizens and the need for control and power that it affords to a stakeholder (in this case, the Government) when such a technology is taken to its extreme. While discussing the idea with faculty I was also told to investigate the politics surrounding the issue of the enforcement of the National Register of Citizens of India (NRC) in Assam which proved to very useful source to draw ideas from.

In addition to the source the following articles/reports were also referred in the process of retelling –

  1. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/no-more-new-documents-to-submit-say-people-left-out-in-assam-list-1899085

Methodology

I started by reading the story a couple of times, looking for overarching themes which I mapped using Coggle (see full diagram here)

Breaking down the story and finding alternate plot routes

In the original story there is an ability that the forest folk possess (the community to which the central character belongs) which Pramila is careful not to let anybody else know about. She is able to climb vertical distances, a sort of supernatural power she inherited from her ancestors who used to live up the trees. Mimi introduces this very subtly and almost makes it seem like a natural ability that humans would have. So following the same lines as Black Panther, I thought of attributing this ability to an indigenously developed technology which is only used secretly by Pramila when she goes out looking for her son. However, as I worked on this angle I found it becoming too similar to Black Panther in terms of the questions it raises about the origin of technology and the politics of its use and consumption.

After a brief discussion with Naveen I decided to pivot and find another angle. While discussing directions that our stories could take he mentioned the NRC controversy in Assam. When I was reading up about it I also noticed that Aadhar cards was brought up in conversation but in this case it was proving to be insufficient for government authorities to reconsider citizenship of those who had been left out. This got me thinking about how Aadhar works as a technology and how much it really knows about us and its ability to vouch for our identity. I decided to use identification technology as the base for my retelling and I started by taking the capacity of Aadhar to an extreme. Looking at the pace at which newer integrations and demands this technology is already putting on Indians, the retelling ended up being rather plausible to audiences I managed to narrate it to.

Artefacts

The re-imagined world has the following two imagined artefacts which help hold the narrative together.

1. The Ring — a device that resembles a normal finger ring, has a single led on top and functions as an identification technology. It communicates with drones, records and stores information about its wearer such as their physiological status, occasionally records thoughts and handles monetary transactions. It’s an extremely invasive technology, deeply embedded into the lives of the citizens and virtually controls every aspect of it — be it health, commerce, employability and social credit. Even removing the ring from your finger was a punishable offence in the city.

2. The Surveillance Drones — These drones hover around the city and are usually stationed at street corners, constantly surveying citizen activity, tracking their movement and communicating with their rings. These drones work exclusively for Centre for Actualisation of Indian Nationality and don’t necessarily replace human police force as they have certain defined tasks that don’t cover all aspects of policing.

A combination of both these technologies makes the citizen extremely conscious of their actions in the city and lets the government, through an agency called the Centre for Actualisation of Indian Nationality (CAIN, inspired by Citizen Kane), have incredible control over the population’s actions and morality. At least that is the idea that drives the existence of this tech.

The Form

Final Output — Episode of The Resistance

The final output took the form of an episode of a podcast series which was run by a group of rebels or hacktivists . Read the script for the entire episode here.

The first decision in terms of form had to be the voice — whose point of view would the story be told from? Early on I felt that I wouldn’t be able to do justice if I tried to tell the story from the POV of Pramila as Mimi had done an excellent job of creating a well layered and nuanced character. Being an amateur writer I decided I would instead try to narrate from the POV of a character I could relate to more easily. That’s when I zeroed in on telling it from the POV of techies, being one in some capacity and having interacted with a many over the years.

I chose podcast/radio story as a medium as it was easier to work with a scripted medium rather than first hand storytelling. After a brief study of the format I decided to give it a try. Considering that a podcast can be used to spread an idea and that the hacktivists were actively trying to fight against one (the control of the ring ergo the State) I realised that they would be the perfect candidates to host such a show. Using the voice of the hacktivists to tell the story had the following advantages –

1. They belong to a technically sound group of people so would naturally focus on the tech and they would be able to use it very effectively and carefully for their purpose like ensuring their communication was encrypted and reached the right people.

2. Being activists they can look beyond the tech and comment on the social/political implications because that is the cause they are fighting for. They had the ability to zoom out and reflect or guide the unsuspecting citizen.

3. They can get access to the data stored in the ring (a very technical feat) thereby giving a unique perspective of what the machine perceives, records and understands. This is something I really wanted to show and with this method I could finally present it.

My first instinct was to look up communication forms explored by the hacktivist group called Anonymous. One startling feature was that they never used any real voices in their messages. It made sense because a human voice could probably be traced using some form of voice recognition software so it made complete sense to mask it. That’s when I decided to use text-to-speech software to create voices which would act out the roles of the hosts and ring data readings to the listeners. This justified not having any human voice actors in the podcast and also adds a distinct character/style to the podcast story.

Reflections

It was an extremely interesting exercise in creative thinking and personally helped open up a lot of new ways of seeing for me. In the beginning I was dealing with a lot of insecurities about my capacity for imagination and often questioned how it would all come together but I am glad I kept going. Some of my key takeaways from the exercise were –

1. Technology doesn’t exist in isolation — it often deeply embeds itself in the lived experiences of users. Social, cultural, political and commercial aspects of people’s lives are constantly being influenced by the technologies that they surround themselves with.

2. Technology can define power structures and its use maintains it. The unwillingness to use a particular technology may threaten this power structure and can cause conflict. This is what I explored in the story.

3. Technology doesn’t always make it a level playing field. Depending on who controls/produces technology it can continue to discriminate along the same lines as humans. So we can debate the often quoted technocratic view of technology being a great “equalizer”.

One thing I would have liked to do further, if given the opportunity, is to refine and explore more nuances in the form. Form allows one to explore who gets to tell the story, how will they chose to tell it, why would they even tell it? In how much time? Under what limitations or constraints? This line of questioning, I believe, the more it is done, will keep improving the quality of the output. So it would be great to spend more time studying both the format and politics of the medium to enhance the message it delivers.


This project was done as part of my coursework in the Speculative Design Studio at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. Got comments and feedback? Feel free to leave your response within and below this medium post. Thank you for reading!

Thomson Muriyadan

Written by

Design Researcher | Student of Technology and Change @SrishtiArtDes