Are we all ‘Digital subalterns’ now?

In 1988, the postcolonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak published an essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” about the appropriation of Gramsci’s “subaltern” (the economically dispossesed) term. She was critical of the effort to collect, locate and re-establish a “voice” or essential agency for the neglected citizens in postcolonial India. Efforts to ameliorate their condition from the outside, she argued, would create a dependency upon western intellectuals to “speak for” the subaltern condition rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. In this short piece, I will appropriate concepts and arguments from postcolonial studies to advance the notion that we appear to be observing a new phenomena of the digital subaltern . The digital subaltern lives in social media spaces such as Twitter, the blogsphere and social networks but does not have an independent voice. Instead, the digital subaltern is silenced or limited in what they are able to say because of prevailing coercive modes of governance. Such coercion exists because of the continuous and creeping securitisation that is happening across the world regardless of state boundaries. How does this happen?

Securitisation as a concept originates from the financial sector where illiquid assets are financially engineered (through shared understanding) into securities. I use it refer to the notion of securitisation as a public policy engineering exercise to safeguard the broad wellbeing and welfare of citizens from the viewpoint of a national government and its supporting actors. We are repeatedly told of the need to “balance” the security of citizens with their liberties. Such “balancing” is a rhetorical device and presupposes a causal relationship between security and liberty.

Securitisation manifests itself in various ways and the source remains the dominant and on-going agenda of terrorism and counter-terrorism. In the UK, we have had the overarching counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST). In 2015, we had the Counter Terrorism and Security Act which has implications for schools under sub-government jurisdiction. Part 5 of the act places a legal duty on public bodies to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. The legal duty is backed by statutory guidance and will be monitored by existing inspectorates such as OfSTED. This year, we have the Investigatory Powers Bill published on 1 March 2016 that provides a new regulatory framework for collecting of digital interactions and places restrictions on what information companies can disclose to customers. For example, the recent Apple and FBI public debate would not happen in the UK if the UK government made a similar demand to a telecommunications company. This is simply because of the potential for gagging orders. Putting aside the digital space, physical space is similarly being securitised. City centres are becoming privately owned spaces with their own private security arrangements. We’ve all heard of cases where security guards have prevented photographs from being taken in ostensibly public places .

Individuals too, are modifying their behaviours in digital spaces. Self censorship becomes the norm. Humour (or what one might wish to present as humour) on contentious subjects such as terrorism or religion becomes muted. Expressing frustration about traffic delays can lead to potential criminal records. One might have thought that the 2013 Snowden revelations on the extent of state surveillance activity might have encouraged increased activism to counter the loss of voice of the digital subaltern. Instead, the government response (such as increased powers of collection) have simply continued the downward pendulum swing of the muted voice. And worse, just like the western intellectuals in postcolonial studies who purport to speak for the subaltern, actors such as traditional media seek to create a notion of a zero-sum game in the security versus liberty debate and in doing so claim to represent the views of the digital subaltern. Witness, the gushing links reported in mainstream media between GCHQ and the ’timely’ release of latest James Bond vehicle. So are we all subalterns now?