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Creating Machine Readable Men: Legitimizing the 'Aadhaar' Mega E-Infrastructure Project in India


DOI: 10.1145/2516604.2516625

Srinivasan, Janaki, and Aditya Johri. “Creating Machine Readable Men.” Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development Full Papers - ICTD ’13 - volume 1 (2013). CrossRef. Web.

p.1: The UID project comes at a time when ‘e-infrastructure’ is being recognized as “genuine infrastructure.” Edwards argues that digital infrastructure has reached a point where it comprises “robust, reliable, widely accessible systems and services that are beginning to look in form and centrality like the digital equivalents of the canonical infrastructures of telephony, electricity, and the rail network — a resemblance scarcely credible even two decades ago ” [17: 365]. It is precisely this argument that Nilekani makes when he refers to a UID system as a “necessity,” not a luxury, and as “plumbing” that has farreaching implications for education, democracy, livelihood, and financial inclusion in India [42]. -- Highlighted mar 16, 2014

p.1: In this paper, we argue that the UID project survived because its proponents successfully championed the project’s technological artifacts, promised benefits, and project team to gain legitimacy. They drew heavily on the intangible symbolic value associated with the project, effectively representing the UID as a metaphor for progress and development to a large population of technocrats, politicians and the public. Using symbolic value to gain legitimacy for mega infrastructure projects has a long history in India. We situate the UID project in this historical context and compare its strategies to gain legitimacy with those involved in the building of the Indian railroads (initiated 1850s) and large dam projects (initiated 1950s). -- Highlighted mar 16, 2014

p.2: Furthermore, the distinct periods in Indian political history in which the three projects commenced – under British rule, in a newly independent India and India after economic liberalization – allows us illustrate how their operation was not solely about technology. We show that UID’s representation strategy closely resembles that of these earlier infrastructure projects that too could not sustain themselves by highlighting their tangible benefits alone. However, we also find that a project centered on digital infrastructure faces unique challenges. In particular, we find that the absence of a technological artifact with imposing physical form makes it harder to associate symbolic value with the artifact and demands a different strategy than in the earlier cases. -- Highlighted mar 16, 2014

p.2: We draw on these examples of useful symbols, as well as the components required to present a positive image (how/ by who a project is being built, what is being built, and why) to argue that the process of legitimizing mega infrastructure projects includes showcasing: 1. The personalities of project proponents and all that they represent, 2. The scale and splendor of the technological artifact, and 3. The tangible and symbolic benefits of a project. -- Highlighted mar 16, 2014

p.2: The awe and almost religious fervor inspired by new technologies has long been acknowledged and also been labeled the ‘technological sublime’[39],[44]. In recent times, this concept has been extrapolated to give us the idea of a ‘digital sublime,’ which refers to similar feelings of awe that are evoked in the context of digital technologies and cyberspace [40]. While the positive perceptions of a technological project is crucially about how the technology has been presented to potential users, at least part of this awe inspired by digital or other technology draws on the form and affordances of the technology itself. This is particularly true of the large-scale artifacts that are involved in mega projects, where form is also leveraged to gain legitimacy. -- Highlighted mar 16, 2014

p.2: Linking and leveraging “an intangible set of symbolic meanings” such as ‘progress’ or ‘modernization’ in relation to the technology can help overcome both these problems [60]. Indeed, the importance of such symbolic meaning has also been examined in ICTD studies to explain the use of computers in rural areas and in low-income communities at a smaller scale [33],[34],[46]. -- Highlighted mar 16, 2014

p.2: As Steinberg [63] notes, once such projects come to be seen as evidence of progress and modernization, they then function as politically neutral and unifying symbols in divisive polity. -- Highlighted mar 16, 2014

p.8: The project was also re-christened ‘Aadhaar,’ meaning ‘foundation.’ This was partly because the acronym ‘UID’was proving to be confusing [52]. But equally, Nilekani described the new name as giving “more character to the high-profile project” and signaling its “transformational potential” [66]. -- Highlighted mar 16, 2014

p.10: Mosco argues that ‘mythmaking’ has been part of the introduction of many technologies around the world. He further suggests that typically, only after these technologies have lost their novelty and become too banal to be remarked upon, have their more grounded promises been realized [40: 19]. Thus, while the railways could not break the caste system, they did make travel easier and faster, contributed to an increase in trade, to an expansion of the banking sector and to the training of individuals as railway employees. But much of this happened after the technology ceased to be novel and became invisible to their users. -- Highlighted mar 16, 2014

p.10: The UID case emphasized the importance of making e-infrastructure visible and material in order to leverage it and gain legitimacy. By situating the UID project within a longer tradition of technological projects that sought to ‘improve’ society, we illustrate continuities in how such projects are leveraged as political symbols and show how intangible association of progress with a project centered on a novel technology is as pertinent today as it was 150 years ago. -- Highlighted mar 16, 2014