Techno-politics of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs): Investigating Material Practices and Social Relations in Indian Public Bureaucracies
Over the last few decades, in many parts of the world, from Mali to Peru, Mozambique to Sri Lanka, Uganda to India, Information and Communication technologies (ICTs) have been employed to foster ‘transparent’, ‘accountable’ and ‘effective’ public bureaucracies. This dissertation asks what do ICTs do even when they do not meet these putative goals? How is the internal infrastructure of governments changing as ICTs encounter the material facets of public bureaucracies? The dissertation employs an interdisciplinary methodological approach, marrying ethnography of bureaucratic offices in southern India and archival research of prior programs to technologize public governance in India. It studies what new people, objects and institutions emerge as the materiality of public bureaucracy, historically predicated on paper, is being increasingly supplemented and transformed by new digital media, such as databases, mobile apps and web dashboards, and the political effects of their mediation on bureaucratic power and knowledge.
Under the over-arching theoretical frame of techno-politics, this dissertation argues that the digitization of public bureaucracies point not just to the possibilities of improved governance but also its risks, as vulnerabilities and breakdowns in the digital system weaken the “iron cage” of bureaucracy and shift the responsibility of repairing digital records onto individuals. Second, this dissertation makes a call for taking seriously a hybridity of media forms, not simply as a transitory phase before a more stable media sets in, but as the material condition of the state after liberalization. ICTs do not simply dislodge paper documents, but paper seems to be undergoing some change as it encounters, articulates, effaces or is effaced by ICTs. Third, querying the relation between “the technical” as an assemblage of new technologies, people and processes and “the bureaucratic”, this dissertation points to the material and discursive work undertaken to maintain the ever-shifting boundaries between the two, arguing that many expert practices are subsumed under an existing bureaucratic logic of authority and hierarchy. The dissertation concludes by pointing to how these arguments can be brought to bear on the dramatic surge of the digital during the Covid pandemic.