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In Folklore, Public Sphere and Civil Society, M.D. Muthukumaraswamy and Molly Kaushal, eds., Chennai: National Folklore Support Centre, 2004.


"The Public Sphere, Folklore, and Interactive Telecommunication in Rural India"

by Eric Miller

This paper asks and begins to answer the question, “What is occurring in regard to the public sphere, folklore, and interactive telecommunication in rural India?”  First, the terms will be defined, and then some general principles and issues, and data about specific projects, will be presented.  At the outset, I must admit that it is my premise that interactive telecommunication activity in rural India can involve participation in the national public sphere, as well as in smaller, narrower public spheres, and that experiments are taking place to this effect at present.  It is also my premise that it is conceivable that public-sphere-oriented folkloric activities can occur through interactive telecommunication, and that all of this can strengthen the nation and its democratic nature.  “The cultures of the forest and the city must be brought into harmony with each other” (Ganesh 11), and interactive telecommunication is one way that this ideal can be realized.


In 1962, Jurgen Habermas, a member of Germany's Frankfurt School, published The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.  Only in 1989 was this book published in English.  Since that time, it has become one of the most widely referred to books in the Social Sciences. The book is primarily a history of national public spheres in Europe.  Habermas' conception of the public sphere was largely based on his perceptions of activities in London and Paris from the 1600s to the 1800s.  Those activities involved the writing and reading of newspapers and journals, and the public discussion of such writings, especially in coffeehouses. 

The people of the world are greatly in debt to Habermas for raising the subject of national public spheres, and for raising the possibility that there could be such a thing in today's world.  It would seem that nowhere in the world today is there anything that can honestly be called an accessible, functioning national public sphere.  Voting offers opportunities for selection and acclamation, but not for discussion and debate.  Opinion polls are notorious for being manipulative, depending on who asks, who is asked, what questions are asked, and how the questions are asked.  Newspapers and electronic media present very limited versions of "news."  Increasingly on television -- from CNN, to programmes in local Indian languages -- viewers are invited to express their thoughts by placing written messages on websites, and/or by sending in e-mails, and some of this text is read aloud on-the-air, but obviously the parameters for communication here are extremely tightly controlled and limited.

One is then led to ask: what might a functioning public sphere look like?  For one thing, I would posit that there is no substitute for discussion in small groups, groups of, say, six or seven citizens.  Such discussions could be held in-person, via audio- or videoconference, via e-mail or text chat, or by other means.  The deliberations of each group would then need to be reported in a public place, on a website for example, where the public could access the material and incorporate it into ongoing discussions.

To return to Habermas:  Although he stresses the importance of discussion in coffeehouses, his vision of the public sphere is decidedly print-centric.  He feels that the writing and reading of print provides certain healthy restraints on the thinking process.  Says Habermas: "A world without print -- imagine it!  The level of articulation and analysis would be left to drown.  Print is necessary for maintaining the public sphere" (as cited in Navasky, p. 121).

According to Habermas, the rational-critical approach is inherent to print culture, and rational-critical debate is the antidote and alternative to commodity-consumption culture.  To Habermas, humans dominating others is most clearly exhibited in the dominators preventing the subordinates from communicating publicly.  "For Habermas, our alienation from the world, the self, and others is largely a by-product of the exigencies of institutional life which have denied us the opportunity to freely, openly, and honestly communicate in the form either of initiating or challenging validity claims" (Huspek, p. 269). To flourish, democracy demands continuous conversation, open argumentation, and debate.  "At the core of deliberative democracy is political conversation.  It is in conversation that citizens can bridge the meaning of their personal experience...with the meaning of political worlds" (Kim, p. 4).  Emancipation can only be achieved through a regeneration of the public sphere. 

In discussing the speaker’s/writer’s presentation style, Habermas uses the term, “rational-critical,” to mean that the speaker's/writer's argument should be independent of the status or cultural background of participants; there should be a minimum of references to personal experiences and feelings; tradition, authority, and group identity are not legitimate supporting factors; evidence should be given to support all claims; consistency and causality should be adhered to; passionate expressions should be omitted as much as possible; and discussion should proceed in a cool and calm manner.  According to Habermas, public sphere speech should convey only facts and ideas. Phatic speech (speech that serves purposes of social bonding), and artistic and performative speech, have no place in Habermas' public sphere. 

In discussing content, Habermas states that public sphere speech/writing relates to civic matters (a contested term), and all must strive for the common good (never merely the interests of one's self, or of a particular group).  The discussion process must be limited to the forming of public opinion; it can never become one of actual decision-making and self-management. 

However, as numerous scholars have pointed out, the style and content of discourse that Habermas describes is quite elitist, having been learned especially by upper class men who are for the most part comfortable with the status quo.  From Habermas' perspective, "Persons whose speech is richly colored with rhetoric, gesture, humor, spirit, or affectation could be defined as deviant or immature communicators" (Kulynych, p. 321).  Critics have also replied that people should not be forced to constrain themselves to speak within the limits of an existing political vocabulary, for "It is moments of defiance and disruption that bring the invisible and the unimaginable into view.  Attitudes of defiance, chaos, and spontaneity...are counter to Habermas' strictly dialogic and procedural approach" (Kulynych, p. 320).

In terms of content, a feminist reply has been:

Only participants themselves can decide what is, and what is not, of common interest to them. There is no guarantee, however, that all of them will agree.  For example, until quite recently, feminists were in the minority in thinking that domestic violence against women was a matter of common concern and thus a legitimate topic of public discourse.  The great majority of people considered this issue to be a private matter between what was assumed to be a fairly small number of heterosexual couples (and perhaps the social and legal professionals who were supposed to deal with them).  Then feminists formed a subaltern counterpublic from which we disseminated a view of domestic violence as a widespread systemic feature of male-dominated societies.  Eventually, after sustained discursive contestation, we succeeded in making it a common concern.  The point is that there are no naturally given, a priori boundaries here.  What will count as a matter of common concern will be decided precisely through discursive contestation.  It follows that no topics should be ruled off-limits in advance of such contestation.  (Fraser, p. 130)

Actually, in 1992 Habermas himself admitted that his original stipulations had been unfairly exclusionary, stating that "The growing feminist literature has sensitized our awareness to the patriarchal character of the public sphere" (Habermas, 1992, p. 425), and acknowledging that "the bourgeois public sphere was oriented not just toward the defense of civil society against the state, but also toward the maintenance of a system of domination within civil society" (Calhoun, p. 39).

It must be remembered that in writing his book, Habermas had been reacting against the domination of the public sphere by monarchies in Europe in times past, and, by subtext, against abuses of power by leaders in Germany and Italy in the WWII period, and against mass media in his own time.  (Critique about, and lament over, the corporate control of mass media, and thus of the public sphere, has been a major project of the Frankfurt school.)  Habermas was not really out to exclude from the public sphere individuals with different communication styles.  It seems that what he really meant by calling for rational-critical discourse was for people to be open to questioning authority (be critical), to try to back up their arguments with facts (be rational), and to take turns in a fair manner.  Stated in these terms, these are hardly injunctions to which most people would object.  Actually, they are reminiscent of the four maxims of H. Paul Grice's Principle of Conversational Cooperation (Grice, p. 45):

1) give the appropriate amount of information (quantity).
2) be truthful (quality).
3) give appropriate information (relevance).
4) be clear (manner). 

Habermas has stated that "When we cannot see the assembled public at once -- no Forum -- we look to its symbolic substitute in the media" (as cited in Peters, p. 16).  He seems to be optimistic about the potential of new media experiments, stating that the public sphere is "a linguistically-constituted public space," formed not by physical presence, but by "a communicative structure" (Habermas, 1996, p. 360).


A time-honoured definition of folklore is that it is traditional expressive practices of oral-centric people in the countryside.  In recent years, numerous new definitions have been added, including Dan Ben-Amos' suggestion that folklore is "artistic communication in small groups" (Ben-Amos, p. 13), and Alan Dundes' suggestion that whenever any two or more people have anything in common, they develop folklore around that common experience (Dundes, p. 7).

For the purposes of this paper, the "folk" will be defined as people living in rural areas, that is, in the countryside.  This includes a wide range of peoples, including those living in villages near cities, and also tribal people living in forest areas.  "Folklore" will be defined, following Dundes, as the folk's general culture, and also, in indicated instances, as their traditional expressive practices.

Folklore has often been performed for and presented to those outside of one's group.   In addition, one function of the traveling professional storyteller is to visit markets, fairs, and festivals, where people have come from the four corners of the earth.  The storyteller can then include in his/her performance reports about, and imitations of, the foreign and the novel.  Thus, it can be said that representation of, and commentary about, that which is foreign and new is one of the most archaic and traditional practices of folk culture.  Also, in many cases, it is a traditional folk practice to use for expression whatever materials are available.


"Tele," from the Greek, means, from a distance.  Thus, to telecommunicate is to communicate from a distance (through the use of electronic technology, for the purposes of this paper).  Telecommunication is interactive if each party has the ability to transmit as well as to receive.  Mass media such as radio, television, film, and the printed word, are one-way and are not directly interactive.  On the other hand, telephone and Internet communication is interactive.


Six factors facilitating rural participation in public spheres via interactive telecommunication are that, increasingly,

1) some members of folk communities are becoming literate in various languages,
2) e-mail and websites can be in local languages,
3) audio and video can be used ("secondary orality," as Walter Ong puts it), and
4) automatic systems for voice recognition (voice-to-text) and translation are becoming available, 
5) as are wireless internet,
6) and small-scale local production of electricity.

The sociological impact of this activity is manifold.  For one thing, the hierarchies of local communities are being renegotiated as the individuals who learn how to operate online computers find themselves in the position of helping community members to communicate and interact with people and institutions beyond the village.  Those who held such roles in the past, either via orality or literacy, are joined by the interactive telecommunicators.  (When Internet technology is brought to rural areas, some local people tend to learn how to operate the equipment very quickly.) 

To date, it seems as if rural people in India use the Internet mostly to keep in touch with relatives and friends.  They also use it to access birth and death certificates, land records, examination schedules and results, and information regarding agriculture, loans, development activities, water harvesting, health and veterinary services, etc.  Forms can be downloaded, filled out, and uploaded.  Such access may slow the rush to cities -- both for specific visits, and for permanent relocation.  Ways for rural people to work via the Internet are just beginning to be developed and deployed: kinds of work may include data entry, re-formatting of data, and translation services (typing text in local languages).

I have yet to witness, or hear reports of, rural people using the Internet explicitly for discussion of civic issues (local or national), although they have used it to report perceived abuses by local government officials.  Websites of fan clubs of movie stars, and of movie stars turned politicians, are effective organizing tools in rural areas, as they are throughout India. 

There may be some marketing of folk arts and crafts, and eco-tourism, on websites, but rural people in India have yet to present, or offer training in, traditional expressive practices such as performing arts via interactive telecommunication on a broad scale.  A question raised by the New Delhi Symposium on Folklore and the Public Sphere is:  How do people around India converse in various public spheres through their folkloric performances?  How are social, political, civic, environmental, and other issues raised and discussed in the course of these events?  Folkloric performances could possibly eventually occur via audio- and videoconferencing and webcasting, but this is not yet happening very much in rural India.

Among the questions that arise regarding use of the Internet in rural areas are:  Will rural people want to participate in a national public sphere?  Perhaps, especially if their interests are directly involved.  But can one actually conceive of a conversation between the very disparate elements of India, with all participants addressing each other as equals?  Would rural people want to communicate as individuals, or only as members of a group?  Each folk community is composed of many sub-communities (people of different genders, social classes, etc.) -- will diversity be permitted by the groups themselves in regard to how they present themselves to the world beyond the village?  Will community members be interested in the so-called critical approach, in which one is encouraged to question all authority and tradition?  Can people retain their identities (as individuals and as group members) in such a theoretically critical and self-critical atmosphere?  Answers to such questions will emerge only in time, and may vary widely according to each instance.

There is often a great deal of information management and regulation within oral-centric communities.  For any number of reasons, community members may prefer to not share aspects of local folklore with, or explain it to, people outside the sub-group, or outside the group altogether.  Such sentiments should always be respected and abided by.  People should be allowed to practice interactive telecommunication according to their own styles and customs: for example, if community members prefer that women have their own browsing centres, women-only hours at a browsing centre, and/or women instructors, this should be arranged.

It would seem that a nation is strengthened by enabling all of its citizens to engage in public discourse.  To do so is to help each citizen to develop -- intellectually, creatively, as an entrepreneur, etc.  Multiple perspectives and styles of thinking are extremely useful for problem-solving.  What a functioning public sphere would make clear, however, is that the paradigm that the “pant-shirt person” (whether of academia, education, medicine, religion, non-government organisation, etc.) is always the teacher and the rural folk person is always the student, is a relic of the Age of Imperialism.  Rural people have a great deal to teach urban people, and many urban people might benefit greatly from such education and cultural exposure. 


Numerous projects are underway to make the Internet accessible in rural India, but my thinking about many of the principles and issues presented above has been stimulated by a visit I made in September 2000 to a site in the Kuppam district of Andhra Pradesh (website 1), where wireless Internet technology developed by TeNet (Telecommunication and Computer Network Group; website 2) had been deployed.  TeNet is composed of faculty of the Chennai Indian Institute of Technology’s Dept. of Electrical Engineering, and Dept. of Computer Science and Engineering, and is headed by Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwalla (website 3).  The wireless Internet technology is called CorDECT (Cordless Digitally Enhanced Telephony), which is a Wireless in Local Loop system.  The Internet is brought via underground cable to a town, where a transmitter-receiver then makes it available wirelessly for up to 1000 users within a 25 km radius.  Internet and telephone communication can occur over the system simultaneously.  Systems are presently in use in Madagascar, Brazil, Fiji, Nigeria, Kenya, Yemen, Angola, Nepal, Egypt, and numerous other countries. 

In May 2000, a company called n-Logue was established, under the aegis of TeNet, specifically to use the CorDECT-WLL technology to provide Internet services to people in rural India (websites 4 and 5).  (The name, n-Logue, as opposed to dia-logue, indicates that an unlimited number of parties can participate in the conversation.) 

In India, the CorDECT-WLL technology is presently being used in 300 villages, 150 of which are in Tamil Nadu.  In the Madurai district, 30 villages have "public access Internet kiosks" (a kiosk is simply an Internet station, often in a shop).  In this district, scholars from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, and Harvard University’s Center for International Development, have joined n-Logue to help with the project, which was is called SARI (Sustainable Access of Rural Internet); the The Tamil Nadu Government is extending the project to other districts, where it is being called RASI (Rural Access to Services through Internet). 

In deploying Internet technology in rural India, Dr. Jhunjhunwalla has stated that he has been influenced by the very successful models presented by STD and cable TV operators.  n-Logue sells franchises to Local Service Providers.  The LSPs provide the wireless services to private individuals, and also help individuals to apply for loans to buy computers with which they can establish public Internet stations.  In return, the LSPs and the station operators receive percentages of the revenue.  Each station operator also receives website space.  n-Logue is planning to introduce a rural e-newspaper, which would feature audio and video components.

Setting up telecommunication infrastructures is a very expensive and complex job that is best accomplished with mutually-supporting and encouraging participation by people in government, academia, business, and other sectors.  Non-Resident Indians, eager to help bridge the digital divide and give something back to the people of their homeland, find that they are also developing a labor pool, and markets for goods and services, when they participate in such projects.  Many former Chennai IIT students, now living all over the world, are assisting the technology deployment efforts in various ways. 

In November 2002, in Andhra Pradesh, three women from a local women’s self-help group used an N-logue Internet station in Mudigonda village to videoconference with the Chief Minister of the state, N. Chandrababu Naidu.  In January 2003, using other Internet technology, the Chief Minister of Karnataka, S. M. Krishna, videoconferenced with people in Genihal village, near Bellary, and announced that he planned to videoconference with citizens throughout the state on a weekly basis (New Indian Express).  Both Chief Ministers have said that many more rural villages will be getting Internet stations in the coming months. 

Another project relating to interactive telecommunication in rural areas is the Simputer (website 6).  The Simputer is being developed by professors, their students, and others, based in Bangalore.  The Simputer, which is not yet on the market, is a palm-size mobile computer, projected to sell for approximately 900 Rs. The Simputer utilises the Linux operating system and features a monochrome LCD display.  A Simputer can be shared by various members of a community, each of whom could have a password so that data could be kept private.  It will feature voice-to-text and handwriting-to-text capability (that is, voice and handwriting recognition).  Thus, the Simputer "ensures that illiteracy is no longer a barrier to handling a computer," for “a key to bridging the digital divide is to have shared devices that permit truly simple and natural user interfaces, based on sight, audio, and touch."  Like n-Logue, the Simputer project is conceived of as being both a business venture, and a social service effort that will profoundly transform society.

Outside of India, one rural interactive telecommunication project underway is the Tanami Network, founded by members of the Warlpiri, an aboriginal people, in 1992 (website 7).  They have been videoconferencing since that time, first using satellites, and now underground ISDN lines.  Robin Japanangka Granites, a leader of the community, envisions an annual global indigenous-people-based videoconference-webcast festival of music, dance, and storytelling.  Members of the Tanami Network have videoconferenced with Native-American people in Canada and in the western USA, and with Saami people in northern Scandinavia (Norway and Sweden).  Videoconferencing and webcasting over the Internet – available by pay-per-view, video-on-demand, and subscription – will become a reality as broadband access arrives in more and more locations.

The Dandin Group -- led by Dewayne Hendricks, an African-American man with a background in ham and shortwave radio -- is another developer of interactive telecommunication in rural areas.  Using radio and other technologies, the Dandin Group provides wireless Internet services to Native Americans, to the people of the Republic of Tonga in the South Pacific, and others (website 8).

A field in academia called, Indigenous Media, has grown in response to all of these activities.  Indigenous Media concerns the uses of media by indigenous, aboriginal, and rural peoples (Worth and Adair; Michaels 1984, 1986, 1994; Ginsburg 1992, 1993). 

In many cases, it is difficult to deliver electricity – necessary for computer operation and transmitting-and-receiving -- to rural areas.  Among the possible alternative energy sources that are being developed are human-powered electricity-production devices.  In the 1980s, Trevor Bayliss, an Englishman, created the first wind-up radio (receivers), specifically for use in Africa.  Today numerous companies make human-powered electricity-production devices (for example, Windstreampower, based in the USA; website 9).  Stationary-bicyle-type equipment is one of the means used for creating the electricity, which can then go into a battery cell, which in turn powers the appliances.


Interactive telecommunication -- especially e-mail, websites, webcasting, and audio- and videoconferencing -- is beginning to enable members of rural folk communities to communicate with people beyond their villages.  In the age of print, it was often the scholar alone who introduced, framed, translated, paraphrased, summarized, and interpreted folk cultures for the general public.  Today, some members of the folk are adding their own perspectives to the discussion, as interactive telecommunication is helping to put folk artists in the position of being co-researchers with academic folklorists, co-presenters with public folklorists, and business partners with entrepreneurial folklorists.

Today, thanks in part to interactive telecommunication, members of folk communities can speak for themselves, directly to the public.  Folk communities can market crafts, art, and audio-video recordings; and can arrange for tourists to visit, and attend performances.  Opportunities are developing for performing arts presentation and teaching, and language teaching, via interactive telecommunication.  In addition, traditional methods of association and communication may be useful as models in the designing of interactive telecommunication systems.

No one should "demand that the folk remain things of the past, with imposed notions of purity and authenticity”; they need not remain "exotic others of the...imagination of a bygone era" (Muthukumaraswamy, p. 3).  Many folklorists now acknowledge that even in the most rural of communities, some people have often practised some reading and writing, and thus that the purely oral society, at least in the past few hundred years, is largely a creation of the scholar's imagination.  Today, interactive telecommunication has joined orality and literacy as an option for communication, as well as simply an idea, in folk communities of India, as elsewhere.

The mass media -- that is, one-way media such as radio, television, film, and print – have anti-democratic tendencies: many people tend to passively consume mass media presentations, and may in part be brainwashed by them.  On the other hand, the give-and-take and conversational nature of interactive telecommunication seems to have much in common with aspects of oral-centric culture, as well with the project of democracy, as developed in Ancient Greece, and by the American and French Revolutions.  It would be wonderful if India could lead the way in continuing to improve the concept and practice of true democracy, by assisting rural folk to participate -- via interactive telecommunication and all other means -- in a national public sphere.  This splendid Indian identity -- tolerant and diverse, multi-dimensional and multi-textured – could present the world with a blueprint for ever-finer democracy. 












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Eric Miller is a Ph.D. candidate in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, USA).  His e-mail address and website are  and .