As our ‘real’ and ‘cyber’ lives increasingly merge into one another, what can be done to make cyber spaces safer for all communities?
The time when our cyber lives existed only during office breaks and after-work hours have become a thing of the past. The pandemic has rendered a large part of our existence virtual. The increasingly blurring boundaries between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ bring up an abstruse question – Do we characteristically exist in two different worlds of “real” and “virtual”, or is “Cyber Existence” just an expanded version of the same world, with biases and norms replicated from our non-virtual societies? Are the two lives we carry in the assumed real and digital, intersectional in any way?
Legacy Russell says yes, in her book ‘Glitch Feminism’ which offers revolutionary insights on how one perceives their existence and social climate. Russell’s ideas stem from her own experiences growing up with the internet and getting acquainted with ‘Cyberfeminism’.
Cyberfeminism can be described as bringing a feminist approach into the relationship of women with cyberspace, the Internet, and technology. This perspective emerged from the criticism of denying women their dignity in online spaces and barring them from discussions about technology and policies which continue to dictate what we experience online. Glitch feminist thought process goes further and progressively applies it to marginalised communities of Black and Queer lives.
Russell revoltingly inspires lives to protest the status quo of digital dualism. According to her, our digital and non-digital presence are aspects of one flawed reality as they shape one’s identity. This identity which is formed through the Internet, remains invisible, like many others, even in this age of surveillance. These invisible or not accounted for identities, and online lives are defined as ‘glitches’ in the system. However, Russell positions ‘glitch’ as a kind of non-performance that creates space for marginalized people to form their own identities. While theorising regarding the question of our digitally abstract identities(race, gender expression) and labels designated to our avatars, Russell asks,
“Who defines the material of the body? Who gives it value — and why?”
While our lives are being increasingly curated by marketing techniques and targeted ad campaigns, the algorithms and our digital advances continue to progress on primitive approaches of thought, not recognising the faultlines. In the Indian context, while the introduction to digital spaces may have given newer avenues for marginalised groups to organise, discuss and form collectives, helping them to collectively empower and help the oppressed in need, they’ve also introduced no mechanisms to check the harassment of queer, Bahujan and disabled communities online. The ‘Report’ features do little to keep a check on the formation of violent, abusive communities online which specifically target identities that defy the heteronormative or conservative thought stream.
According to a 2016 research for women internet users, Japleen Pasricha, the founder and director of Feminism in India discovered that 36 per cent of respondents who had experienced harassment online took no action at all while 28 per cent reported that they had intentionally reduced their online presence after suffering online abuse.
Some respondents found it hard to think of online harassment on par with violence, even though 30 per cent of those who had experienced it found it “extremely upsetting” and 15 per cent reported that it led to mental health issues like depression, stress, and insomnia.
Moreover, 30 per cent of survey respondents said they were not aware of laws to protect them from online harassment while only a third of respondents had reported the harassment to law enforcement; among them, 38 per cent characterized the response as ‘not at all helpful.’
Not much has been done in the past few years, to address the online experiences of communities including Bahujan, Queer, Neurodivergent and those experiencing varied disabilities. There is no single silver bullet to solve this dilemma. Multiple steps on multiple fronts need to be taken in consultation with representatives from these communities, to make technology more inclusive and accessible.