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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 30, New Delhi, July 10, 2021

Pathe on ’Lives of Data: Essays on Computational Cultures from India (ed.) Sandeep Mertiea’

Friday 9 July 2021

Book Review by Vikas Pathe*

Lives of Data: Essays on Computational Cultures from India

Edited by Sandeep Mertiea

Publisher: Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2020
Partner: The Sarai Programme, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
ISBN print-on-demand: 9789492302717
ISBN EPUB: 9789492302700

Almost 25 years after the Internet’s arrival, digital has become a new normal in which data plays a critical role. In the present digital environment, how these data are encoded and mediated affects the socio-political culture of society. What impact has data had on academic research? What are the new techniques to better understand these facts and their link to human life? This book provides all these answers.

The book Lives of Data: Essays on Computational Culture from India by Sandeep Mertia is significant in two ways. It not only presents a historical context for computational data in postcolonial India, but it also discusses the hurdles and obstacles that the individuals behind this idea have faced. From Mahalanobis to the contemporary digital Aadhar number, this book traces the evolution of computational data in India. How have these efforts at data collection and analysis affected policy formulation in the country? The information economy and governance model of the twentieth century have universalized data and its sociotechnical context. The book provides a new perspective on data, in which technical objects and cultural-economic objects should be viewed as intrinsic to life in general. The book is organized into five sections: Histories, Forms, Political, Practices, and Fields. It is divided into fourteen chapters, excluding the introduction.

Sandeep Mertia’s Chapter 1 explains the history of the data from early independent India to modern India. Mahalanobis, the man behind the data’s historical transition from mechanical to digital. The chapter begins with a remark from Mahalnobis, who states that "statistics is not a branch of mathematics, but a technology that is fundamentally concerned with the contingent realm of reality" (26).

Mertia chronicles Mahalanobis’ contribution to the data journey in India. Mahalanobis foresaw the need for electronic computer-based large-scale data processing for national planning. Under his leadership, India emerged to become one of the world’s leaders in statistical research, notably in sample survey techniques (p.27). This assists India not just in data maintenance, but also in nation-building and government planning.

After conducting numerous large-scale surveys in Bengal to estimate rice and jute output, Mahalanobis recognized that correct data could not be obtained without an effective human organization with trained workers. It resulted in the establishment of the National Sample Survey Organization in the 1950s, which was regarded as the world’s largest statistical and computational exercise of its sort at the time. It was a social-technical imaginaries of material virtues of data for post-independence India’s national planning and governmentality. The emphasis in this chapter was on India’s position as the world’s first computer, both human and electronic. It chronicles the history from the 1930s to the 1960s while highlighting the function of statistics generation in India.

Karl Mendonca’s Chapter 2 extends this argument and examines the influence of computerization in the 1980s on a big advertising business in India. Previously, the firm was in the cinema distribution industry, but after the government de-monopolized the whole system of cinema distribution, the firm repurposed itself as a courier service. For their new endeavor, they created a website that allows consumers to check the status of their deliveries. Mendonca goes on to explain that the software required for data analysis has been envisioned by Wendy Chun’s Media theories (2013). He claims that software is a famously complex notion that must be understood as a discursive construct that is both material and ideological, rather than as a given social and technological entity.

Chun’s study shifts between a material examination of software and hardware and a historical examination of computation, with a concentration on the post-World War II period. Software is both a physical object and an ideological construct that must be built within a historical framework. Chun saw how digital processes have an agency that acts independently of humans and how the software’s immateriality is a component of its operational logic. Data, software, and algorithms are all socio-technical and material constructs.

Sivkumar Arumugam’s Chapter 3 examines the Duckworth Lewis Stern Data (DLS) model used in forecasting revised cricket targets and situates it in modeling and governmentality. The DLS model is an algorithm that is optimized against a dataset of all recent one-day cricket matches, despite the fact that the model is driven by small data. Ranjit Singh delves into large-scale data construction in Chapter 4. He used Aadhar for his research to better understand how the data infrastructure is built. How does this data infrastructure work as an additional layer on top of the old bureaucratic system? Singh defines Numero-politics, a concept developed by Martin and Lync (p.52), in the Indian context by situating it in the context of the Aadhar; in order to comprehend who is counted? How are they counted?

The chapter gives methodological indications for any research that captures the lives of data in terms of paying attention to the processes involved in creating data categories and records, as well as the consequences of utilizing them. Text is a fundamental element in humanities studies. Puthiya P Sneha’s Chapter 5 focuses on how text may be used as data in the digital age. The chapter focuses on data-driven research in the humanities. How can a researcher use a computational approach to investigate text as new data in the digital era? The rise of Digital Humanities provides an approach to gaining a deeper knowledge of the text as an object of study.

Sneha investigated three digital platforms, including Bichitra, Indiacine.ma, and Pad.ma, to better understand the changing objectives of humanities research. The process of creating humanities texts in the digital era is the process of creating data. These text-based digital platforms are changing and evolving. Anumeha Yadav’s Chapter 7 is an extension of Mahalanobis’ vision for data processing in India for national planning. Yadav investigates Aadhar’s function in the welfare state system. The government has presented Aadhar as a tool for the welfare of society’s underprivileged citizens. She recounts Aadhar’s evolution from a trial project in 2011 to the world’s largest biometric initiative for welfare programs. Without any thorough pilot trials or analysis of findings, the government proceeded with this endeavor and began to enroll residents in the Aadhar data bank. The legality of this was challenged in the Supreme Court, which ruled three times between 2013 and 2015 that the state could not make Aadhar a prerequisite for obtaining any public services.

Preeti Mudilar’s Chapter 8 explains it more in the light of its failure and poor implementation. Mudilar refers to her fieldwork in Ajmer, Rajasthan, to learn about the difficulties individuals have in connecting their Aadhar cards to their PDS systems. She shows the beneficiary’s experience with a failure in authentication with food security supplies. Chapters 9, 10, and 11 contain unique first-hand experiences of the labor involved in developing and deploying data-driven systems. Prerna Mukharya and Mahima Taneja outline the hurdles and obstacles that each researcher faces during data gathering fieldwork in Chapter 9.

The chapter discusses the numerous methods and argues that the processes, lessons learned, and obstacles encountered in the field should be documented with the same rigour as methodology and data analysis (p.106). Guneet Narula’s Chapter 10 focuses on development sector organizations and their initiatives and activities. How can the data acquired by these organizations be released under an open license, which is referred to as open data, and can be used by anyone?

This book is unique in its nature as it brings all the aspects of data to one place. The contributors’ diverse backgrounds have enhanced this book in such a way that the reader may gain a holistic view of data in the digital age.

(Reviewer: Dr Vikas Pathe Assistant Professor School Of Media and Journalism, Maharashtra Institute of Technology - World Peace University (MIT WPU), Pune. Email: pathe.vikas[at]gmail.com)

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