August 20, 2004
We just finished the panel with Michael, Nick/Scott, Jill, and yours truly. Now the keynote for ISEA’s “Histories of the New” thread: Shuddhabrata Sengupta on “The Remains of Tomorrows Past: Speculations on the Antiquity of New Media Practice in South Asia”
Starts with a reading of Kipling’s “The Deep Sea Cables.” (He’s happy to claim Kipling as a fellow South Asia, with a fascination with new media.) We are forced to occupy an eye of the storm called “the new” while waiting to be the ground for tomorrow’s mushrooms. The Remains of Tomorrows Past” — the things that appeared yesterday as though they might credibly grow into a tomorrow. Those that do are indebted to those that do not.
This presentation will offer forays into enquiries and speculations about the possibility of constructing alternative, non-transatlantic histories of ‘new’ media practice, by situating ‘new media’ and practices of information in the context of the nineteenth century, by tracing continuities in terms of ways of communicating on to the present reality of South Asia, and by searching for compasses that can enable a truly global map of different new media practices and forms.
Despair is inappropriate. Similarly, it’s time for cyber-triumphalists to give up the notion that, just because the zero started somewhere in India, south asia is the inevitable home of the new. The internet/web like Indra’s Net, and how this came to Tim Berners-Lee through his Unitarian heritage, and how the original Buddhist text from south asia was lost (we now have only translations — e.g., into Chinese). A different logic of spatiality. Not one that doesn’t require a map, but one which doesn’t posit directions toward a hoary past or an inevitable future.
William O’Shaughnessy Brooke, who experimented carefully and speculatively with cannabis and telegraphic communication. Doing these just as others in the Asiatic Society may have been discussing the translation of the Indra’s Net texts back, in Calcutta. Morse, of course, made a point of saying he didn’t learn anything from experiments taking place in India. O’Shaughnessy is trying to develop something parallel to Morse — if I touch here, can you feel it there? The telegraph operator feels changes in voltage, rather than hearing tap-dash. Bamboo, local iron, and so on, an experiment over 20 miles only months after Morse. Seeing the successes, the East India company decides to lay an advanced telegraphic infrastructure. And it is this network that saves the Company during the uprising — and this importance makes it paramilitary, and O’Shaughnessy’s experiments come to an end.
Then the making of the wired world begins. (Drawing on The Victorian Internet, I believe he said as he opened.) The race from Europe to India, and from there to China, Australia, etc. It wouldn’t have been possible without the undersea and other experiments in India, and India as a hub between Europe and these other spots. While this wasn’t done for world peace, it makes possible the imagining of the networked world. Dependent co-origination.
Another chapter — at a meeting of the Asiatic Society, the first sending of signal without the use of wires. A man who became interested while studying nervous systems. Jagdish Chandra Bose. Marconi was following this work quite closely, especially once Bose came to London to report to the Royal Society. Bose uninterested in money. Refused a patent, even when others filed for him. Marconi not opposed, of course. O’Shaughnessy also worked outside the system of intellectual property, and didn’t cash in. Perhaps this is part of what doomed them to footnotes?
Now, as south asia stands on the edge of another new media moment, intellectual property (and its tightening grip) is again a central issue (along with privacy, etc). Imagining an India with wireless internet devices as ubiquitous as the transistor radio is today. Just as the history of the telegraph in India made the networked world possible, this might become another space of possibility — especially because innovation outside the copyright and patent regimes is imaginable.
See also Jill’s notes.
Best comment from Q&A: “The British Empire was more benign that Microsoft.” A view of intellectual property could be developed from an Indian tradition — but every history and culture has abivalences and conflicts about intellectual property and openness.