Voicing Bureaucracy, Enacting Authority: App Based Telephony in India

Authors: NAFIS HASAN*,
Topics: Political Geography, Qualitative Research, Asia
Keywords: state spatiality, bureaucracy, digital media, orality
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 53
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In a district, south of Bangalore, Covid-19 and its lockdowns have literally brought the peripatetic state to a standstill. For decades, the office jeep motorized and spatialized states, driving bureaucrats for work requiring corporeal presence. Now its drab, unwashed presence in the driveway of a sub-district office is a grim reminder of our enforced isolation. As government offices in my ethnographic sites began to wind down physical travel, they simultaneously thronged Google’s Play Store to download a conferencing app called grptalk that would allow 1500 people dispersed across space to get onto to the same call at the same time. Even before the pandemic, grptalk made great sense to bureaucrats in charge of a large number of field staff, too distant to be marshaled into the office at a beck and call.
Grptlk’s centering of voice as a form of communication over historical media of internal communication – printed office circulars and government orders, and its ability to dissolve distance and scale – markers of classic Weberian bureaucracy, opens up some questions about the form and practice of public bureaucracies. First, how does the materiality of grptalk – politicians, engineers, bureaucrats, leased lines and databases organized around the logics of telecommunications and platform capitalism, re-territorialize bureaucracy and bureaucratic practices? Second, how can digitally mediated voice, as a cultural specific positional practice (Weidman 2014) and a legitimate analytical category to interrogate social space (Kunreuther 2014), be usefully deployed to understand the social construction of bureaucratic states in south Asia?

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