ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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No Limits to ‘Jugaad’

Ratnakar Tripathy (tripathy.ratnakar@gmail.com) is with Asian Development Research Institute, Patna.

Jugaad Time: Ecologies of Everyday Hacking in India by Amit S Rai, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019; pp xix + 208, US $24.95/UK £19.99 (pb); $94.95/ £79.00 (library cloth).

The word “jugaad” evokes images of improvised contraptions and their varied quixotic and unforeseen usages, such as a very basic washing machine that is used to make lassi in Punjab, or a bicycle commonly used for the mechanised sharpening of knives in the city lanes by full-time professionals. But, this small book is devoted to the hi-tech version of jugaad in the electronic and digital realms, often considered as less open to the wily manoeuvrings of the innovative folk. The jugaad practitioners find new ways of mastering and wielding new technologies generally thought to be rather unyielding to the lay users. The work may well be the first attempt at a systematic ethnography in the field covering a number of cities and sites in the country, such as Delhi and Mumbai. Unlike the business and management-oriented works on the subject that are based on synoptic case studies, the work tries to seek insights into the very life-world of jugaad by “entering the minds” of its practitioners through the “ecologies of everyday hacking,” rather than providing a flat description of the vast range of jugaad practices as a mere technical inventory of micro and macro innovations. It does that chapter to chapter turning from one kind of terrain to another.

To quote the author from his preface,

While contemporary neo-liberal discourse has focused on jugaad as an innovation, Jugaad Time seeks to develop a political philosophy of jugaad as an embodied ethics of becoming in India’s caste- and gender-stratified smart cities.

Stretching jugaad into a virtual worldview is indeed a tall order and places a near impossible target for the book. To take an example, the author discusses “missed calls” as a jugaad trick used by both the telephone company Airtel as well as the consumer. Even with near zero balance, a user is able to remain a part of the enormous communicative network that could have been rather
unaffordable otherwise. The fact, however, is that the value of a missed call depends on the willingness of the recipient to respond with sufficient eagerness instead of ignoring the call. A lot of village romance and misdemeanours (according to the elders or the Khap) in rurban India operate through missed calls not simply to save money but to also convey an appropriate ambiguity since a missed call could always be disowned as an inadvertent error when the caller gets into trouble. There is thus, on the one hand, a “jugaad” of a business model put in place by Airtel, the company case studied by the author as well as the consumer who proves fully complicit through his own jugaad strategies of usage behaviour.

Jugaad Behaviour

The volume makes an attempt to go beyond the user to examine the pervading ethos that leads to jugaad behaviour in response to technologies meant to dictate the manner of their usage. How human beings refuse to be dictated and instead domesticate the often-awesome powers of new technologies require due attention to what may even be termed as “technological culture” with a great deal of variation despite the globally standardised nature of technologies.

The book is based on open-ended interviews conducted in Mumbai and Delhi during 2009–17, bang in the middle of the period when we witnessed the digital technologies in their fulsome impact. The chapters carry case studies, semiotic analysis of advertisements and promotional and other audio-visual material in order to make the points that nevertheless rarely emerge with sufficient sharpness. Lavishly peppered with citations and references from a wide variety of fields ranging between philosophy, science and anthropology, the volume succeeds rather partially in integrating its often unwieldy theoretical ­reflections with the ethnographic and empirical material. The result can be bewildering for a student of technology and culture who may fail to grasp the theoretical moorings or the basic thrust of the book altogether.

Admittedly, the variety within the realm of jugaad can be overwhelming for a researcher. For example, in some cases, a phone may predominantly work as a source of music or FM entertainment or even as a leash used by an employer to keep a tab on the employee’s activities. The widespread use of smartphones by the state government in India has lately turned the least savvy employees into experts who must find innovative ways to avoid surveillance and detection. In this case, the state and the employee become complicit in a gigantic exercise of record keeping through snapshots, videos and excel sheets stored in smartphones provided by the government. There is thus a “sarkari panopticon” version of jugaad as well that has acquired great prevalence in low technology contexts like local governance set-ups in India.

In a chapter titled “Neoliberal Assemblages of Perception and Digital Media,” the author discusses two different professionals, one of whom performs the “immaterial” or profitless labour of photographing nature through his phone camera. Another female professional, on the other hand, handles her meetings and conferences through the smartphone, scans documents, listens to music, and of course, uses the phone as a torch when necessary. None of these seem outlandish enough to be termed jugaad till you reach a list where the phone image is used for combing hair, the desktop to keep the coffee warm and the procuring of a medical certificate through the internet. But as you walk deeper into the thicket of uses of digital technologies, the difference between “normal” and jugaad seems to blur. It seems very tempting to term every startling use an instance of jugaad and often rightly so. Consider for example the details of the NDTV–Samsung collaboration with the following claim:

We collaborated with NDTV, … to create a revolution in media centring around content engagement. Inseparably embedding Samsung into NDTV’s content and creating talk-ability around 4K Camera technology, became our primary task.

This comes very close to “official” jugaad talk, if jugaad can at all be defined with any rigour. The purpose here, do not forget, is to emphasise not the convenience alone, but also the technical sophistication of the good old phone. It is near impossible to determine what is primary here: the ease of use or the high professional quality of the mundane phone images.

Utility of Phones

In a section “Hacking Ecologies of Social Reproduction in Delhi,” the author discusses how vitally the housemaids depend on their phones. The dependence may be of two divergent sorts—for their essential daily work and their professional networks but also for “timepass,” a way of whiling away time pleasurably or painlessly. In fact, those familiar with the lives of watchmen, night guards and drivers will vouch for the value of this phone timepass without which these service providers may have breakdowns due to boredom and prolonged inactivity. There is a need to mention how the element of piracy forms an integral part of the universe for those who depend on their improvisatory abilities in a state of precarity. Piracy when understood in narrow legal terms can be quite limiting but when placed in the lively existential context, it acquires a richer meaning, bringing us closer to how it permeates the daily lives of those who depend on it and whose innovative abilities constantly draw on its resources. Towards the end of the volume however, the author tries to relate jugaad to misogyny and rape in an attempt that brings home the underlying slipperiness of jugaad. At some point, it becomes impossible to distinguish between technology and the all-pervading jugaad around it. There is, thus, a great contrast between the prescribed technological recipes that appear to be fairly standardised and its actual uses observed on the ground. There is this realm widely open to jugaad where the technologies are wielded for reasons and purposes unforeseen and often quite invisible despite their prevalence. If successful in its arguments and illustrations, this volume should motivate a student to disinter this invisible realm lying right under her nose with the myriad technological usages, practices, innovations and improvisations. So much so that you may begin to wonder if there is any technology without hacking!

 

 

 

Updated On : 28th Jul, 2020

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