Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and Research Director at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, India. He is an International Tandem Partner at the Centre for Digital Cultures, Leuphana University, Germany and a Knowledge Partner with the Hivos Knowledge Programme, The Netherlands. He is committed to producing infrastructure, frameworks and collaborations in the global south to understand and analyse the ways in which the emergence of digital technologies have shaped the contemporary social, political and cultural milieu.
What topics interest you and what questions drive your current work?
I wish there was a key-word generator which actually answered this question for me. My current work is influenced by the various hats that I wear and it is often difficult to figure out what binds all my interests together. But if I had to list the three chief topics that inform most of my work, they would be questions at the intersection of body and technology, digital activism and social change, and critical practices of knowledge production. In all of these, the central concern is about the ways in which these intersections are created.
If you look at the larger discourse in the field, it revolves around a conjunction between two separate areas: Body and technology, for instance, refers to the ways in which people use technologies, the different interactions that technological apparatus and prostheses have with the biological, and the everyday negotiations that bodies perform as a part of the mechanics of urban survival. This results into a litany of practices which get understood as identities. My own interest is in trying to figure out how to do away with the dichotomy between body and technology that is inherent in such a discourse. Or, in other words, instead of thinking of the body and technology as two separate entities, which now need to be juxtaposed against each other, forced to coexist, how do we think of our bodies as shaped by, through, and with technologies? How do we understand the technological through the metaphor of the bodily and the human.
Similarly, with digital activism and social change, my interest is not in the tools and applications and platforms that orchestrate new spectacles of social change. Instead I am more curious about how new modes of measurement, documentation and archiving help in defining conditions, contexts and catalysts of change; and further, how imaginations of future change lead to innovation within the technological domain.
What makes you interested in the digital or interdisciplinary aspect of your field? Also, would you call yourself a field expert?
So, to build on my first response, my interest in the digital is actually inspired by the fact that digitality or digital cultures or digital studies is not a field. It is not a self-contained discipline from within which certain questions need to be asked. It is a framework or a lens, and it cuts across and intersects with every other domain of knowledge production and discourse that exists. I see the digital not as contained within tools, apps, technologies, code and infrastructure, but as a way of thinking that questions earlier modes of inquiry, understanding and knowledge production. So, interdisciplinarity is not something that the digital has to work towards. But, in fact, working on the digital is necessarily to be interdisciplinary.
And hence, it resists the idea of a field expert or an omniscient guru. Instead, it promotes the more democratic digital aspect where everybody is simultaneously a novice and an expert. I have my experiences, interactions, negotiations, practices and engagements with different activities and discourses. These are rich. They might not always be academic and they might not always adhere to codes and conventions of ‘research methods’. But they do inform my everyday practice, and hence they give me some expertise. However, the function of that expertise is not to establish myself as a preceptor who shall now enlighten the rest of the world. The function of that expertise is to realise what are the other new conversations and dialogues which need to be built and opened up so that my knowledge become stronger. For me, this is the true potential of networks – where each node has specific knowledge that is important, but its real value is only in the ways in which it can interact with the other specialised knowledges distributed across the network.
How do you see your field (academia and more) changing? What excites you most about the future of humanities?
I was recently given the most important career advice of all times – the only way to be an academic is to not be an academic. And in many ways it makes sense to me. Within academia, especially within people engaging with the digital technologies, there is a clear idea that we need to reshape our understandings of learning, knowledge production, ownership and expertise. I increasingly see people not only incorporating the now accepted dialectics between theory and practice in their work, but also about transforming this knowledge into prototypes. The DIY nature of the digital is where the future of the academia seems to be heading. We still have excellent tools for producing knowledge, but how is this knowledge going to be useful, and relevant, legible and intelligible, accessible to the larger publics. This, for me is the challenge to Humanities, and this is hopefully the direction that Digital Humanities will take us in – not about merely replacing older skills with new skills, not trying to reinvent the Humanities by making it ‘professional’ and catering to job markets, but by developing new tools that will help transform the knowledge of the Humanities to everyday social and political contexts.
Has your HASTAC experience altered your conceptions of online communities? What would you like to see happening differently here?
As an online community, HASTAC is unique. It brings together a distributed mass of people who have very different thematic and theoretical interests but are bound together by faith and trust and common belief systems. And that is interesting. Because it actually reinforces the ideas that communities are not just brought together by practice and performance. Communities develop affective and ephemeral forms of functioning and proximity, which play out in interesting collaborations and conversations. The one hope that I always have, with all knowledge communities, and so also have with HASTAC, is that the discussions and knowledge that are captured here, have a life outside of the community. The ability to make it travel, in different forms and formats, and to track the kind of conversations it opens up, is an ideal state dream. And while it might be difficult to achieve it, it is definitely something to aspire for.