Monica Narula on Thu, 3 May 2001 01:45:26 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> From the Sarai Reader 01

Posted here is an essay from Sarai Reader 01 - On the Public Domain, 
around the issue of labouring in the New Economy. All responses 
welcome. For more, go to and click on Journal- Reader.

New Maps and Old Territories
A dialogue between Yagnavalkaya and Gargi in Cyberia

Monica Narula + Shuddhabrata Sengupta


We grew up hearing many kinds of stories. Stories of wise animals and 
stupid gods, arrogant kings and generous subjects, magical machines 
and speaking trees.
We grew up hearing the story of the wise man called Yagnavalkya and a 
wise woman called Gargi. And their conversation is a section in the 
Upanishads - texts which started out life as being interesting and 
elegant conversations in places where those in retreat from the world 
could gather (not unlike some chat rooms on the Internet today), and 
ended up dead as part of a formal philosophical canon in later 
Both Yagnavalkya and Gargi were philosophers, natural philosophers, 
and while it was considered odd that Gargi, forgetting her 'woman' 
self should argue about the nature of 'being' itself, she did. And in 
this argument Gargi asks of Yagnavalkya again and again, so what is 
the web on which the world is woven.
This fragment of the Upanishads, the sit-here-and-listen parable of 
secret wisdom, is here re-configured for the third millennium of the 
Common Era. This Neo-Upanishad is a new source code, a manual of 
digital ontology, a map of how we might come to be. Imagine a new 
Brhadaranyaka Section (The Debate at the Crossroads of the Great 
Forest of Cultural Code) where sit two re-configured avatars, 
gendered male and female, named Gargi Vacaknavi (The maker of new 
codes) and Yagnavalkya (Keeper of the sacrificial flame of pure 
code). What we want to say is like the small, unfinished conversation 
between two people who once allegedly occupied finite, distinct 
bodies - one male, one female.
Yagnavalkya talks of how man invented self, and so brought about 
other. He speaks of how self, purusha, atman, Brahman, consciousness, 
mind pursues other, prakriti, speech, body, form and how she (other) 
changes her shape, re-writing her operating instructions, every time 
he (self) makes a new programme, a new release version of her. He 
encrypts, she decodes. She is software, a virus, free to roam and 
pirate herself, he stays hardwired, logged out and locked into 
himself. He pursues her, pins her, wins her, she runs away into the 
jungle of code again. He seeks her out yet again, and in the middle 
of his endless postulation of the real self and the self that is 
virtual, the other, her-self, he says to her: Gargi, silver tongued, 
chat room diva, endless whisperer, cyborg siren, look - the two of us 
are like two halves of a block, hardware and software, one and zero, 
man and machine, and between us dangles the web of the world. The 
World Wide Web. The mesh made of strings of code. Cyberia. 
Then Gargi Vacaknavi began to question him, "Yagnavalkya", she said, 
"tell me - since this whole world is woven back and forth on strings 
of knowledge, threads of code, what then is the net of code and 
knowledge woven on. Where on the map is Cyberia?"
Y:	"Knowledge and code are woven back and forth on the minds 
that made the code, on the accumulated electricity of millennia that 
went into the making of thoughts, that was written down, encrypted, 
encoded, streamed into machines, read and learnt and transmitted and 
taught and downloaded".
G:	"And on what was that woven on, that mesh of thought, how did that get
Y:	"On the little fissures where wealth and meanings, both of 
which we call 'artha', in Sanskrit, gather between keystrokes".
G:	"And where did money and meaning come from?"
Y:	"From the worlds of hands weaving back and forth, from the 
intermittent movement of eyes, both awake and rapidly dreaming, from 
neo-cortical storms, and from the stream of blood, within and 
G:	"And what moves these joints, works these muscles and 
tendons, what makes this flow and ebb and stream?"
At this point Yagnavalkya told her, "Don't ask so many questions, 
Gargi, or your head will shatter apart! You are asking too many 
questions about that (the deity) of which it is
forbidden to ask too many questions. So, Gargi, don't ask so many questionsŠ"
It is said then that "Thereupon, Gargi fell silent".
This conversation arises from a recognition that cyberspace has 
suddenly posed strange and new questions even within those of us who 
live at it's farthest frontier, for whom connectivity and access to 
computers, and to the space they create between them, is not an easy 
dial-up option. We share computers, and e-mail accounts, and navigate 
the private spaces that we have created within our computer. We come 
from a situation where the scarcity of computers, the cussedness of 
phone lines, the fluctuating voltage and the simultaneous rush to be 
on a machine so as not to be rudderless in the world demands that 
several people share the same machine. At one time we were seventeen 
people logging on with the same ID. We are not mere cyborgs; we are 
evolving constellations of cyborgs. This makes for a proximity that 
is not unlike looking into each other's cupboards, and closets, 
catching the whiff of intimate traces of thought and feeling. This 
has made us look at each other and at ourselves in a new way. We, as 
a man, and as a woman, are beginning to ask of each other the 
question "What is the ground we stand on?" What are the conscious and 
unconscious flows of sensory and extra-sensory data between our 
bodies and minds, and within our common machines that shape our 
changing - neither binary nor unitary - natures.
Two clusters of images for two kinds of migration.

A person steps off a train into a city of fourteen million people, 
looking for the
comfort and the freedom of anonymity, wary of loneliness and the 
scrutiny of unwelcome surveillance.
A person finds a patch of wall in a shantytown, off a busy street and 
builds a shelter with tin and packing cases, begins a new 
neighbourhood, changes the map of the city.
A person clocks into a factory, makes up a new name and invents a new 
self, fills in forms saying: single, childless, temporary worker, 
migrant, no permanent address...
A person switches on a computer, logs on and toys with a new 
password. She is looking for the comfort and freedom of anonymity and 
is wary of loneliness and the scrutiny of unwelcome surveillance. She 
builds herself a shelter, calls it a website; she begins a new 
neighbourhood, calls it an online discussion forum, she changes the 
map, she clocks in at work, and a new day begins at the virtual 

In a sense, all those who venture out into cyberspace for the first 
time are stepping out of a train into a new metropolis. They are 
looking for the freedom of anonymity, wary of surveillance, building 
shelters and neighbourhoods, clocking in, changing the map.
Given that the Internet began as a playground for men in suits, lab 
coats and uniforms, all others - women and men without suits, lab 
coats and uniforms, and just about anyone else who is not a part of a 
networked transatlantic matrix, someone who lives in time zones and 
meridians on the outer reaches of cyberia, is really a recent 
It is the malediction of many migrants in the real world that in the 
new destination they are too often forced to become exiles or 
indentured into the workforce, where the act of leaving becomes a 
gesture poised on the thin line between free will and despair. Many 
of us too may have left the everyday battles for survival, dignity 
and recognition somewherein order to chart a new continent of being, 
and the world. But when looking back from cyberspace into the 
everyday, what are the relationships between 'virtual' and real 
'selves' that we now see and seek?
Is the virtual self of the on-line person only an avatar, a 
multiplied polymorphous androgynous cyborg amazon realizing 
liberatory visions, or is she also a networked data-drudge, divided 
and multitasked within herself as she logs on to supply and reproduce 
labour power in a digital pan-capitalist global marketplace. For long 
she has been the vehicle for the reproduction of living labour. Is 
she now in danger of being trapped into being the vehicle for the 
daily reproduction of virtual labour?
Further, is the interface that some of us initially welcomed as the 
possibility of transcending the determinations of biology, also 
returning to menace us with more bionic shackles in the prison house 
of gender. The web, for instance has come a long way from being the 
playground of gender identities. The remaining spaces for play and 
experimentation with online identities are becoming increasingly 
sidelined, as e-commerce, with it's relentless search for marketing 
niches within marketing niches, underscores and amplifies the 
accepted notions of who we are.
Far from the transcendence of gender, we now have a proliferation of 
'acceptable femininities' that address and hard sell safe images of 
'womanhood'. We are not talking of the sex industry on the Internet, 
but of mainstream 'women's portals' because these are the sites that 
women are being asked to walk into by aggressive media campaigns. 
This is where the real action of e-commerce and household linked 
purchases and lifestyle products and the cosmetic industry really is. 
This is really where women are, and are being placed, on the web.
Of course the beauty of pointcast marketing is that every time you 
log on, your gender becomes an issue, and you fill in a form that 
asks you your sex, and while your personal details get farmed by data 
trawlers, you, your gender and your correlative consumer
profile becomes means for the creation of value. Because, every 
woman, every calculable entity, who logs on to a woman's portal is in 
a sense making room for the next customer, just by being a 
taxonomically appropriate female. Her presence is value creation. So 
you are working while you shop on line, and it's such a delight that 
you don't even know it, and nor does anyone else, but for those who 
farm your life. In a way in which domestic labour was always 
'unaccounted for' in the textbooks of political economy, so too the 
shadow-work that is a part of the simple fact of gendered presence on 
the web is an unaccounted reality of cyberspace.
The last six months in India have seen the rise of at least ten 
competing women's portals -,,,,,',, etc . And many more 
are planned as the Internet burst takes hold. These portals target 
different aspects of the online feminine. There is the portal for the 
teenage girl, advice about dating games, parental issues, school 
scores, cosmetics, fashion, and boy bands. The portal for the bride 
to be - how to get your trousseau in order, lingerie, mother-in-law 
issues, dowry issues, how to fake an orgasm on your wedding night, 
conflict resolution, agony aunts. The portal for the mature 
middle-aged house wife - pickle recipes, spirituality and health 
food, and then portal for the corporate woman - how not to antagonize 
your boss, handling emotions in the workplace, the art of writing the 
perfect CV, etc.
Each of these portals has a section called 'Career' where women are 
told about how the brave new world of InfoTech will mean that now 
they can be even better 'good' mothers and wives, and also earn money 
by logging on to piece rate work from the home. The shadow work of 
logging on - pages per view, hits per day, the further creation of 
value. A new version of the putting out system by which you bought a 
sewing machine to supplement the domestic income by converting the 
home into a tiny production unit in a dispersed garment factory. 
"" (bahu=wife/daughter-in-law) is particularly 
interesting in the way in which it invites women to directly consider 
the options of entering the 'Call Centre' or the 'Medical 
Transcriptions' industries. These are really the reasons why the new 
information economy is being pushed in such a big way now in India.
The new economy in our part of the world is cantilevered on a 
fortuitous accident of geography and culture, and a long history of 
reading and writing in the English language. While the Internet for 
some parts of the world maybe 'virtual', its experiential dynamics 
for us are grounded on the geographical co-ordinates of the South 
Asian landmass which make us a workday ahead of the offices and 
factories in many actual hubs of trans-national capital. Which means 
that your secretarial labour pool never ever sleeps, it only shifts 
longitudes. And so you have the emergence of the 24-hour workday, and 
the time stretched worker. This, more than anything else, is why 
there are projections of 4 million Internet users in India by 2003, 
and an exponential growth thereafter.
To give you a simple illustration. You could be calling a General 
Electric call centre in Britain, and the person picking up the phone 
at the other end could be a Sunita or a Madhu in our city. She would 
have been trained to speak in an accent that doesn't give away her 
location (space, time, ethnicity) and she would be working as a 
contract worker.
Similarly, transcription work is secretarial assistance at a 
distance. For example, at the end of the day in the east coast of the 
United States, a doctor in his surgery can record onto disc via the 
phone, and someone sitting in the mushrooming IT cities (Cyberabads, 
we call them) of Bangalore or Hyderabad, or Delhi would take the 
dictation off the transmitted disc, clean up records, and by the next 
morning the day's transcripts would be emailed and ready and waiting. 
Typically, a large number of the people who 'man' the terminals at 
call centers, at transcription factories, at software sweatshops and 
electronic assembly lines all over India happen to be women. Because 
they are cheap to hire, easy to fire. Because the insecurity of their 
lives as young, often migrant, single women in urban environments 
that are extremely hostile to young, single, migrant women means that 
their status can always be used to blackmail them into longer work 
hours, stringent production targets through keystroke monitoring, 
lower pay, and lack of job security. These are lives led in the 
shadow of the glamour and mega bucks of the new economy.
These online lives have their own metronomic rhythm. And this rhythm 
regulates the ebb and flow of labouring on the net to an extent that 
makes the net take on a character very different from the freedom 
that we may be tempted to ascribe to it. Just as the history of 
Internet navigation has been a series of collapsing interactivities 
as proprietary software and mega e-commerce portals reach out to try 
and guide every net event, every act of logging on, thus eroding the 
autonomy of the surfer, so too, if your primary online experience is 
one of finger cracking, eye straining labour, then that is the way 
that the net will trap you, and shape you. And as thousands, and in 
time, millions more log on to the Internet from home-based work 
places in India and China, and as many of these online lives become 
those of networked labouring women, the net itself will change shape. 
The money being made from mouse clicks will change the meaning of 
what it is to be online. This is not the future, this is happening 
even as we speak.
In such circumstances perhaps it becomes all the more important to 
reclaim the categorical imperative of pleasure, and jouissance and 
affinity for those women and men who labour on the net. If critical 
reflection in/on cyberspace can reveal the radical disjuncture 
between work and play in terms of different modes of interacting with 
the same technology, if it can advance protocols of subversive and 
transgressive pleasure in workplaces, then it will have reclaimed in 
some measure the utopian promise of the net. Interventions to take 
control of our online experience can have repercussions in a much 
wider arena than just the Internet.
We return to Gargi and Yagnavalkya, only a few pages later. And so to 
their conversation. If Yagnavalkya wrests the argument, he will walk 
away with all the modems, and set them to graze on the data-pastures 
of the net, make them big info-fat, live-stock options. If Gargi 
Vacaknavi wins, she will re-write every string of code and change the 
world. She will let loose the modems, set free the data-cows. Let us 
Then Gargi Vacaknavi spoke: "I rise to challenge you Yagnavalkya. The 
things behind the terminal screen, and the things between data and 
the body, as well as all those things people here refer to as 
programme, memory, and labour. On what Yagnavalkaya are all these 
woven back and forth?"
He replied: "That, Gargi, is the imperishable. And Brahmins refer to 
it like this. It is
neither coarse nor fine, it is neither short nor long, it has neither 
blood nor fat, it is without shadow or darkness, it is without 
contact, it has not taste or smell, it is without sight or hearing, 
it is beyond measure, it has nothing within it and outside of it".
She responded: "All honour to you Yagnavalkaya. You really cleared 
that up for me. What then is this imperishable?"
Then Yagnavalkya said: "This is the imperishable Gargi on whose 
command seconds and hours, days and nights, fortnights and months, 
seasons and years stand apart. This is the imperishable Gargi at 
whose command monies and meanings flow in their respective 
directions, some to the east and others to the west. This is the 
imperishable Gargi on whose command people move between worlds and 
gods and governors are dependent on sacrifices, on ancestral demands 
and living offerings.
This is the imperishable which sees but can't be seen, which hears 
but can't be heard, which thinks but can't be thought of, which 
perceives but can't be perceived. Besides this imperishable, there is 
no one that sees, no one that thinks, and no one that perceives.
On this very imperishable, Gargi, space and cyberspace, the space between the
terminal and the body, the space between control and enter, abort and 
retry, are woven back and forth. This, Gargi, is the integrated 
circuit of Capital".
Thereupon Gargi Vacaknavi fell silent.
Today, as larger swathes of industrial manufacture become a matter of 
dispersed assemblies, fluid inventories and just-in-time delivery, 
the proportion of networked keystrokes that will assemble everything 
from automobiles to GM foods to fabrics will rise. And, alongwith, 
will rise a new global proletariat of cyborg-women-men, with 
prosthetic arms that marry robotic speed and involuntary movement 
with human faculties of discrimination. So much so, that the cyborg 
will be worker and supervisor split within herself, with instructions 
from a networked-command-control-communications and intelligence node 
delivered via the Internet and made to interface with her own 
neuro-muscular co-ordinates in order to create a complex matrix of 
voluntary and involuntary movements on the virtual assembly line.
In a few years time, prosthetic arms will very easily find favour in 
the factories that ring our cities, and they would re-problematize 
Gargi's nagging questions about the relationship between discrete 
sentient entities and transcendent consciousness, between the 
resistance of the self and the tug of the other on the prosthetic arm.
Imagine tissue farms in South Asia producing bio-technological 
products and organ supplements from a dispersed assembly line of 
networked female bodies. The invasion
of microchips into the human body may have begun at the intersections 
of digital arts,
fashion and cybernetics, but it could with ease find suitable 
industrial applications, giving rise to factories of fertile women 
who will have to tap their key boards, monitor their fertilities, and 
enter, enter, enter data. Is this a scenario that a migrant will be 
soon be leaving her home to enter? A recently uploaded website 
already offers people payment for contraceptive usage, and we know of 
the website that sells eggs from comely, ethnically classified women 
( How far is it in the future that we will 
witness the booming marriage of convenience between e-commerce, 
genetic engineering, eugenics and assisted reproduction? In the place 
where we come from, the take up rate for technological interventions 
in reproduction has always been high, and female foeticide and the 
availability of ultra-sonography have had a close statistical 
relationship. How much longer will it take for websites that 
advertise and guarantee male embryos to get into business in the 
back-streets of Delhi?
A migrant in the real world remembers 'home' with longing and 
therefore participates in a parallel economy of gifts, remitting 
letters and new found resources back home. But is it that instead of 
remembering and remitting, much of our online being is lived out in 
evading the home where we came from? Is the condition of migration 
into cyberspace already becoming a condition of exile? Many of us 
endow the cyberspace we are migrating into with our longings and 
desires for a better world, but this is a journey that we undertake 
not once or twice in a lifetime but once or twice or many times a 
day. What are the letters and gifts that we will send back from these 
There is a lot of money and meaning being made in this world between 
the keystrokes. Money and meaning that imprisons women and men, 
hardware and software, machines and codes. And consequently, there is 
a lot of work to be done to reclaim online presence from the 
territory of an exiled imaginary, and invest it with meaning in such 
a way as to make it mean real things for most real people and for 
some cyborgs.
We believe that we must ask the 'too many questions', even of our own 
assertions, as Gargi has always insisted on doing, even if this 
results in a systems crash, in a shattering of our heads. In that 
shattering may well be unleashed a whole new repertoire of things 
that we might become - incomplete, fragmentary, neither men, nor 
women, nor machines, and yet find ways of situatedness and connection 
more fulfilling than the binary oppositional units that we are 
accustomed to inhabiting.
To lapse into even ironic silence is to be lost to the possibilities 
that await us.
Monica Narula
Sarai:The New Media Initiative
29 Rajpur Road, Delhi 110 054

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