‘Skipping the Party’ – Interview with Lawrence Liang

Wikimania2007_day_1_teresa_malango_and_lawrence_liang

Lawrence Liang (Photo courtesy: Wiki Commons)

Mr. Lawrence Liang, an alumnus of St. Joseph’s College of Commerce, is a researcher at ALF (also a co-founder). His academic interests are many: law, popular culture and copyright issues take a lot of his time. A speaker who can shock and surprise the audience, Mr. Liang is also a very good conversationalist. Here is Mr. Liang’s wiki persona http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Liang   

Student editors Maya Krishnamurthy and Pritika Sood spent time at Alternative Law Forum conversing with Mr. Lawrence Liang on issues related to Social Media. This interview was conducted as part of Blue Chip 2013-14’s (college annual magazine) theme ‘Social Media’.

We would like to thank Mr. Liang for giving us time. Below are extracts from the interview.

Blue ChipWhy did you choose Law as a career after Commerce?

Lawrence Liang I actually decided I wanted to be a lawyer pretty early but I didn’t know why. The assumption for a number of people was that you like to engage in certain kinds of intellectual discussion or you’re argumentative so you want to become a lawyer. NLS was just about to start when we were in Commerce College. It seemed that the place promised something new. It was a bit of a gamble because there hadn’t been a single batch that had graduated yet from that Law School yet. Only two other people till then from Joseph’s had done law. If this place could deliver even 20% of what it was promising, it would be a significant step upwards for our education. So that was primarily the reason.

BCThe areas you specialize in- why did you choose the fields related to piracy, copyrights etc?

LL- In terms of the areas of work, I specialise in copyright law. I do a fair amount of work on Intellectual property, Public interest aspects of IP, Free speech and censorship and Media laws.

BCComing to specifics, you are working on the case of Wendy Doniger’s book and I wanted to know about your role in it.

LLIt is pretty straight forward. In Indian tradition there is a rich history of upholding free speech. There have been a number of controversies from the 20’s on what can be uttered and what can be read in the public domain.  Indian courts have consistently held in favour of authors and in favour of freedom of speech. This is a rare instance where without a court order or a judicial announcement on the issue, the publishers voluntarily went ahead and withdrew the book. We found that to be particularly offensive. So we sent a Legal Notice, as from an aggrieved community of readers. If you see the tone of the notice, it is half serious, half performative.  Over the last 10 years this has been on the rise. With the release of any book or movie, there is a chance some one’s sentiments will be hurt. What about the sentiments of the ordinary readers? What happens to sentiments of atheists?  As a reader and a bibliophile, I am gravely offended when someone says you cannot read a book.

Part of the notice was also to articulate on a new jurisprudence of what we can read or write. Because, typically censorship involves a state and an author or the speaker, it does not involve the public. Although public always has the right to claim that their sentiments are hurt, but what does it mean for the public to claim participation in free speech?

So I suppose one of the reasons I continue to enjoy the legal profession is it stands for the ideal of a certain intellectual because of the use of creativity in the work done. You normally think that lawyers are dull drab boring people – 99% are and the rest 1% are Ally McBeals. Every once in a while the possibility of actually trying to figure out the problem and trying to figure out different ways of looking at the problem remains the motivation of being in the field.

BC – How do your campaigns use social media? What do you think is the impact of social media on your campaigns?

LLI run away from social media for different reasons. As campaigns go, we obviously recognize the absolute efficacy of social media. You can look at it as a paradigm shift in communication. Communication traditionally has been a one-to-many approach, it’s about single channel broadcasting to many parts of the world. In the Indian context, this is a typical Doordarshan model. The state determines what you can see. So the paradigm with social media is that we are moving from a one-to-many to many-to-many, peer-to peer unfiltered communication. In a way there is nothing new about it. There have always been forms of social media. Rumour was the first form of unfiltered peer-to-peer communication. Rumours were very important; if you look at the etymology of the idea of “rumours”, rumours were sought to be regulated during the French Revolution because these were the ways in which the citizenry mobilized themselves. There have always been ways in which the noise of the public has been controlled by the state.

“One of the things that you need to remember is that censorship, in terms of the debate around censorship, always happens for an imaginary other person.”

 So if you look at the first model, it gives rise to the idea of paternal access to information. In paternal access, when you treat the citizenry as children, there is a paternal manner in which you allow forms of speech between citizens.

The paradigm shift of social media is where you move from paternal access to defiant access. The debate around censorship is ridiculous. Copies of Doniger’s book are available everywhere online. So you really can’t stop anyone from getting it. What is this facade of maintaining the idea that it can be controlled?   You are talking about a situation where people have moved away from being treated as children. From controlled regulation in terms of a paternal access to a defiant access, you have your information, you want it immediately, and you don’t want people to determine what you can read. One of the things that you need to remember is that censorship, in terms of the debate around censorship, always happens for an imaginary other person.  It’s never for you and me. If I ask you, do you believe that I should control what you read or your parents should control what you read and your answer to me would be No. You are an adult and you can make up your own mind.

So who is censorship for?

The argument will be that censorship is for an X category. And the X-category is the illiterate person who is not us. They are more passionate. They cannot distinguish reality, illusion etc. Censorship has been around for more than a 100 years. The British introduced censorship in India precisely on these racial grounds that Indians were not mature enough to make up their minds. If we continue to recycle these oriental myths about ourselves, what kind of a democratic country are we?

The idea that social media brought about such a massive change, we were interested in it right from the beginning. Internet came into India in my final year of college, around 1995. Till then all the research was hard work, going through dusty shelves, huge books, etc.

 “You sent a letter and you waited… Now if you send an sms and you don’t get a reply within 10 seconds, you get anxiety.”

 Take the example of something as simple as conducting a romance with someone.  Can you imagine romance without a mobile phone or without email? For your generation, in a way, that would be inconceivable. Your parents wrote letters. You sent a letter and you waited. You waited for the letter to reach which took 10 days; you waited for the letter to come back to you, which took 20 days. Now if you send an sms and you don’t get a reply within 10 seconds, you get anxiety. You refresh on your email. So in a way, technology has become a part of an intimate aspect of how we deal with life.

So when one talks to me about social media as though it is a radical new thing that has happened, I think every generation experiences its own sense of time and technology as unique to them, but it is important to draw continuity between different kinds of technological movements. The introduction of print technology and the introduction of books radicalized the idea of knowledge; you look at the period before books, i.e. before it became a mass commodity when books were copied by hand. That meant an immense amount of labour and took an immense amount of time. The value of the book was very, very kind of high and only the rich could afford books. So you had books that were literally chained- they were that valuable. Then the print revolution came and changed the way people accessed books. That brought out an entire understanding of literacy in a new way.  The digital movement changes how you read and write, I know that the language my nieces speak is very different from my language, I don’t understand a lot of what they say because most of it is SMS language. But you have to look at the fact that this is how it is. Campaigns and social movements have always used social media. There has never been a moment in history when a campaign hasn’t used media. Even in campaigns like the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which was a movement against the building of a dam, they used pamphlets, they used the radio and they used trunk calls, phones and newspapers.

With social media, obviously the ability to reach out to people becomes much wider. So you think you can start a campaign on change.org and get 20,000 signatures. But it also brings up the question on what the campaign is, because if you have 20,000 people signing on to your campaign that’s nice, but it’s very easy to click on something and say that you are in solidarity and you support it. It might be a nice kind of well-meaning gesture, with no content and substance.

How do you translate the mobilizing technology of social media against what you see in the real world? That’s a tough challenge. I don’t think people have figured it out entirely. There’s a rapid transition and we are learning as we go on. It was a kind of reporting that we saw, including TV media, it was primarily the kind of reporting and writing we saw, primarily in Times of India and electronic media, it was depressing. So we felt we needed a forum where we could discuss and respond on all kinds of political issues, which was not based or dependent on mainstream media. And you can do it now.

BC So it is big media vs new media according to you?

LL There is a very nice image that Arundhati Roy has mentioned when she talks about ants with microphones. Ants are what I think characterize social media.

BC When you speak about everything becoming spontaneous and instantaneous, supposing you post something political (as happened with two girls in Maharashtra) and you have a like on it, how much can we regulate?

LL – Here’s something we need to figure out. The State is always nervous about new technologies. From cinema to radio to print, every time there is in change in communication technology, it increases the potential for people to participate in public life and that means new kinds of political formations can happen like the AAP. So the law in responding to social media uses the only language it knows, which means repressing, controlling and shutting down. So what is the problem with, for example, say Facebook and people being criminalised for likes; it equates the individual blogger with the press. But the individual blogger does not have the same sovereign force as the authority. That is one problem.

Then again what social media has done is that it has collapsed the distinction between event and narrative. Earlier we had an event happening and there was a certain time before it was narrated. So when Indira Gandhi was assassinated there was time till it sank in with people, but that has collapsed with social media. We also had the case of the N.E. people migrating from Bangalore, without even a single killing or injury, we had the Rapid Action Force holding flag marches. This was unheard of.

“the social media acts as the nerve and the law is something which regulates the body”

 This is the kind of language or political idiom that social media introduces. As mentioned earlier, these are intimate technologies. The devices you carry are so much like an extension of the human bodies. If we look at in physiological terms, the social media acts as the nerve and the law is something which regulates the body. So when we have the body acting in a hyper nervous condition (as the nerves are sensitive), there is a heightening of the conflict; the media is dependent on sensation. We talk of sensational media. Sensational news is when the sensation is 24X7 and pleads your attention; think of a state when a person is constantly excited, a state of disorder or when somebody is breaking down. In the context of social media, what is the answer? We need to figure out how to practice withdrawal from the media. The law cannot do anything.

BC Another aspect of social media is of course, how much you are giving out about yourself and the loss of privacy.

LL – Yes. We have reached a stage where you don’t need to hire a private detective. The lines between public and private are disappearing. At one level we have the big brother snooping on us. On the other we have a massive invasion of rights. On Facebook, we have created a culture where we talk a lot about ourselves and make it available to strangers. This is why the media does what it does and gets away with it. There is a bomb blast and they shove the mike on someone’s face and ask him how he is feeling. Someone is getting married and they jump onto trees and try to record them. So you create a culture in which there are no boundaries, there is ethical dilution. Everything is about public consumption.

“Most people take it for granted that I am who I am on Facebook. But what does it mean for you to be who you are, as a performance?”

There are three distinct histories of the internet. Initially, it was the Multi-User Dungeons, it was just textual, imagine an internet with no images, there’s only green text. People were creating artificial and virtual worlds there; they were creating a persona- a voice that comes from behind a mask. In a way, the mask that we wear of who we are has always been mediated by technology. The second phase was that of a second life, where you created an avatar for yourself. And then you have Facebook. On Facebook, you’re supposed to be who you are. And therein lies a big challenge. What does it mean to pretend to be who you are? I think it is a deeply interesting question.  I think the performance itself raises deep philosophical problems in a way in which people who are doing it are not answering. Most people take it for granted that I am who I am on Facebook. But what does it mean for you to be who you are, as a performance?  It is a performative space where you are creating various avatars of yourself.

It is interesting in what it allows us to think about. There are both pros and cons. I can’t imagine living without the internet. The world was a little less interesting without the internet. But at the same time, it had more depth. Surface has become everything. Technology as a representation of the world and also as a mirror that provides you with a self-image, what you have is a proliferation of screens or mirrors constantly reflecting forms of yourself back. But when you have so many screens reflecting so many images, what you have is the equivalent of a shattered mirror, from which you are refracting into a million pieces. So there is a splintering of the self that is happening, which I think is the key challenge of thinking about the self on the internet.

BC Is there a message that you have for college students regarding social media?

LL I think it’s for you to figure out for yourself. Be in it, do what you want to. But you need to learn to withdraw from it from time to time. It is an immersive world. Especially when the internet is available on your phone, there isn’t a moment when you aren’t connected.  Then you have to ask yourself the question: what is the virtue of being connected all the time? If even in the deepest cave that you go to and the highest mountain that you climb you remain connected, how do you withdraw? I think it is crucial to withdraw.

“But sometimes, it’s good to skip the party.”

Reading books is also an immersive experience. There’s something called the F rule of reading. Look at the capital F. This was a world that required your absolute attention and creative imagination and I used to read non-stop for 6 hours without a break. But I don’t remember the last time I read a book completely, it is almost impossible now. We all read many books at the same time and the demand on our attention is multitasking. There is too much information which we are constantly filtering and perceiving. The F Rule in reading is that you have moved away from reading culture to scanning culture. That is a loss of a certain kind of experience. The only thing that you can do is recognize that you are not a slave of technology. But at one level, you are a slave, in the sense that, if you’re the only one from your class not on Facebook, you’re likely to be the only one not in the joke or not in the party. But sometimes, it’s good to skip the party.

The interview was conducted by Maya Krishnamurty and Pritika Sood – Student Editors

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