Bangalore and Back - Reflections on World-Information City, Bangalore
Bangalore is a mythical city. Once a quiet "garden city" it is turned upside down by local, regional, national and international forces at break-neck speed. But what is it turning into? In the absence of any way to fully grasp of the city's emerging shape as it continues chance, myths are growing. They are taming contradictory and complex stories into easy, instructive narratives that can bolster a wide range of already existing views. If the mirror is broken, there are many images to see.
In the Western press, Bangalore stands for both a promise and a threat. It's the promise of globalization gone right, of a world where the hierarchies between the "first" and "third" world have collapsed. It is a symbol of the new world which is flat, an even playing field rewarding the hard-working wherever they might be. Rising middle classes are becoming the new political actors of democratization. Stepped up international competition is ushering Western governments down the beneficial path of streamlining their bureaucracies and upgrading their own economies.
In this new world, neo-liberal booster and NYT foreign policy columnist Thomas Friedman puts it, "you have to run faster to stay in place".1 Here, the promise seems to morph into a threat. After many manufacturing jobs have move eastwards, jobs higher up the value chain are coming under pressure from out-sourcing. After all, there are millions qualified programmers in India ready to do coding for a pittance and thanks to the internet, geographic distance no longer matters. Like all myths, this is a powerful story, with a kernel of truth, yet more educative than descriptive.
"World-Information City" – a series of events and an international conference held in Bangalore in November 2005 – set out to examine this mythical place through interventions by artists and activists, and through analysis by a wide range of scholars from Europe and India, working in fields such as history, surveillance studies, cultural and media studies, urbanism, and political theory.
For me, an avid reader of the Western press and well attuned to their myth making and coming to Bangalore for the first time, the most important realization came early: Being in Bangalore would not get me much closer to the facts behind the many myths of this city than reading the European press. Rather, the artists and scholars were multiplying the myths. Or, to be more precise, it turned out that much of the material they worked with, were locally produced myths about Bangalore itself. In other words, Bangalore is no less mythical to locals than it is to foreigners, though the myths are different. There is the myth of American suburb, narrated in countless soap operas flashed around the world on satellite TV and ingrained in the cultural make-up of Indians returning from the US to work in the expanding software industries. These myths provide the blueprint for Bangalore's own newly constructed suburbs. In his installation "Melrose place" Christoph Schäfer investigated an actually existing suburban development, modeled closely after the American TV series of the same name. Here, in self-contained islands, gated and guarded, people live out their dreams and fantasies about what it means to lead a good life in a globalized society, yet still claiming to have rightful place as the future elite of India (rather than being immigrants in the US). The surveillance mechanisms securing such upscale islands were examined by Taha Mehmood. On the other end of the social scale, there are the myths about the gray markets, the vast sections of the economy which seem to function largely outside the regulatory framework. They are refusing to accept the mythical and counter-intuitive notions intellectual property and dispense with the legal system for enforcing contracts, in favor of more robust and hands-on notions of physical property and kinship relations, as Lawarence Liang and Shuddhabrata Sengupta analyzed. These gray markets serve the vast sections of the city that are not included official fantasies of the middle classes, yet are still living in a fully mediated, translocal networks. Shaina Anand explored the semi-legal network of neighborhood cable-TV operators by producing her own programming for them. Then there is the myth of physical space, of development, where land speculation on gigantic scales (the area set aside for development around the international airport is the size of Paris, the French capital) displaces entire villages and communities, as the urbanist Solomon Benjamin explained. Yet, even to him, probably the most astute observer of Bangalore's urban transformation, it remains entirely unclear whether anything will be ever built there. Auto suggestive processes that we know from the financial markets are playing themselves out on the ground, in the ground. They are powerfully fusing the myth of "emerging countries", an investment category, with shady, and highly corrupt, private-public partnerships. Then there is the myth of the local identity, where Bangalore joins other Indian cities reinventing itself by dropping the English name and taking the more authentic local name, Bengaluru. Globalized as it may be, it is positioning itself not just against colonial history, but also against the tradition of the fairly liberal nationalism of the federal government in favor of more xenophobic, local identity politics, as Arundhati Roy critically remarked. This is fueled, at least in part, by another myth, that of terrorism, lurking underneath a seemingly calm surface, ready to be mobilized by whomever agenda it serves, maybe even terrorists, as Konrad Becker explained through an exploration of the psycho-geographies of the contemporary security landscape.
Perhaps, this is what can be learned from the exploration of artists, activists and scholars, all highly trained to work at the intersection of the empirical and the imaginary. Our cities are becoming complex beyond even the specialists understanding, and are fracturing under contradictory pressures into physical and informational spaces representing extremely different cultural, economic and political trajectories. The city becomes a series of special zones. I suggested as much in my editorial (co-authored with Konrad Becker) to the World-Information City newspaper, of which 40,000 copies were printed and distributed in Bangalore and at the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) which took place in Tunis at the same time. In such a situation, and this was one of the things emerging from our investigations on the ground, myths are one way of making sense. They enable us to tell stories – combining some of the empirical fragments swirling around us into educative tales – in which we can appear as actors. Viewed like this, Bangalore is not catching up with the Western cities, but is representing their future. Yet is can only be an another myth, one that the city boosters are embracing with a vengeance.
1. Friedman, Thomas (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux