Digital Desis

Diasporics have generally favoured the technologies that allow for narrowcasting to target specific audiences over those that provide the means for mass communication.

Diasporic communication networks are sometimes viewed as forming alternatives to the structures of corporate globalisation. Commentators writing from the perspectives of cultural studies and postcolonialism tend to see them as "the empire striking back". The diasporic site becomes the cultural border, Homi Bhabha's metaphorical "third space", lying between the country of origin and the country of residence.

This is the zone of intense, cutting-edge creativity born out of the existential angst of the immigrant who is neither here nor there. She is Abdul JanMohammed's "specular border intellectual" who "caught between two cultures…subjects the cultures to analytic scrutiny rather than combining them". One could cite from just within the South Asian diaspora a growing list of accomplished writers to support these ideas: it would include Michael Ondaatje (Sri Lanka/Canada), Moez G. Vassanji (Kenya/Tanzania/Canada), Rohinton Mistry (India/Canada), Anita Desai (India/Canada), Cyril Dabydeen (Guyana/Canada), V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad/England), Salman Rushdie (India/England), and Hanif Kureishi (England).

The media of diasporic groups have frequently been at the leading edge of technology adoption due to the particular challenges they face in reaching their audiences. The relatively small and widely scattered nature of communities they serve have always encouraged them to seek out the most efficient and cost-effective means of communication.

Diasporics have generally favoured the technologies that allow for narrowcasting to target specific audiences over those that provide the means for mass communication. Marie Gillespie notes about the Indian community in Southhall, England, that many families obtained VCRs as early as 1978 "well before most households in Britain". This is probably true for other parts of the South Asian diaspora which voraciously consume movies from India and TV serials from Pakistan.

Having little input into the content of dominant national or global media, transnations (cultural theorist Arjun Appadurai's term) have also found new technologies like digital broadcasting satellites (DBS) and the Internet as particularly appropriate in maintaining active links among their far-flung members. Indeed, diasporic groups in North America and Europe were among the earliest to adopt DBS for cross-border transmissions. But at the same time, these very market-based technological solutions, which are enabling transnational communities to overcome structural communication barriers, are also drawing them into the dominant global structures.

Corporate providers of digital broadcast services in the West have realised the viability of ethnic channels and are making them a significant part of their offerings. The India-oriented Network Asia appears on DirectTV in the US and Canada's ExpressVu carries the (South) Asian Television Network (ATN), which telecasts Doordarshan programming.

That "Asian Indians have the highest per capita income and educational level of any US ethnic group" has been an important part of ATN's North American marketing strategy. Diasporic DBS broadcasters carry out market research, programme scheduling, and advertising similar to those conducted by major networks. Apart from certain differences in the modes of narrative, the only major difference in these broadcasts, compared to Western mainstream programming, seems to be in the languages and cultures of the content.

There is a price to be paid in adopting a market-based model of diasporic broadcasting. Given the lack of public media content for cultural minorities in the West, they become reliant on commercial ethnic broadcasters. This has led to the tacit acceptance of production values that are frequently at odds with artistic integrity. There is often convergence of programme content and advertised products in the shows put out by several commercially-based ethnic broadcasters. Creative cultural programming appears to be a low priority in much of diasporic broadcasting, and the primary problem does not seem to be Western cultural imperialism. Adoption of the market model of broadcasting appears to belie the cultural studies view of minority media in the West as uniformly resisting dominant structures and discourses.

Diasporic groups are also making extensive use of on-line services like Usenet and Listserv. These global networks are allowing for relatively easy connections for communities living in various continents. Unlike the one-way broadcast model of communication, on-line media are interactive and less hierarchical. The ability to exchange messages with individuals on the other side of the planet and to have access to community information almost instantaneously changes the dynamics of the diaspora, allowing for qualitatively and quantitatively enhanced linkages.

Access to the Net remains limited, however. Even in Western countries with the highest connectivity, those who are poor, elderly, lack higher education, or live in rural regions are not likely to be linked. The situation is much worse in the poorer countries. Whereas South Asians are increasingly using the new media, exposure seems largely limited to an information elite which is creating diasporic directories of individuals, community institutions, and businesses. Interestingly, this cybercaste has also extended their endogamous search for future spouses from diasporic newspapers to websites.

For those who wish to obtain free Internet-based services, several corporate giants are willing to oblige as long as patrons agree to become captive audiences to the growing amount of advertising on electronic sites. This becomes yet another way by which the diasporic who seeks to re-establish community by digital means is snared in the (World Wide) Web spun by global corporations.

Who is a desi?

Himal's poser to the discussion group of the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) led moderator Sreenath Sreenivasan to draw our attention to the SAJA Stylebook , which listed desi as: A colloquial name for people who trace their ancestry to South Asia, especially India and Pakistan. Pronounced "DAY-see", it is the Hindi word for "from my country". Added Sreenivasan: "In an article about the South Asian party scene in the Big Apple, New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta described the word as a "Hindi version of homeboy or homegirl" (NYT, 6/30/96: "To Be Young, Indian and Hip").

The following two reactions are from other SAJA discussants:

When I use the term desi, I mean: "of my people". I feel a camaraderie with a desi. A desi is someone who's like me. Someone who experiences the same cultural fusion, gender role bewilderment, and racism, while wearing a brown-is-cool attitude.

Ushma U <>

As an American-born Indian, I stick with the definition "of the country". On a personal level, to be desi connotes some sort of ancestral affiliation with the Subcontinent and some sort of desire in crafting a sense of identity or feeling of community with others who share that ancestral affiliation. I guess I also associate it with things like enjoying dal and rice, not getting unnerved by the things that unravel many foreigners and NRIs who return to India—like beggars, no toilet paper, that kind of thing.

Himanee Gupta
Honolulu, Hawaii

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