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Reconfiguring Mobile Media Assemblages: Download Cultures and Translocal Flows of Affective Platforms

In: Asiascape: Digital Asia
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  • 1 Assistant professor of television and new media studies at the University of Pennsylvania
  • | 2 PhD candidate at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in a project collaboration with the NHL University of Applied Sciences, Netherlands
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Abstract

Memory cards are flash memory devices that enable storage and circulation of music in audio and video formats. In some regions in Asia, the bandwidth to stream musical content is unavailable, and people go to ‘download vendors’, who add content to their memory cards. We investigate regional standards/formats that allow Chinese dvd players to be sold in India and North Korea that can play not only vcds/dvds but also memory cards. Contemporary platform discourse disproportionately studies algorithm and-interface-based online platforms that support streaming cultures. We explore offline digital platforms that enable download cultures by considering memory cards as medial objects that are attached to various platform ecosystems. Such ecosystems based on informal business models and network logic act as both intermediaries and foundations that provide users with opportunities to share and participate. Going beyond instrumental uses of platforms, we discern their affectivity: their ability to provide pleasurable entertainment and aesthetic experiences.

Abstract

Memory cards are flash memory devices that enable storage and circulation of music in audio and video formats. In some regions in Asia, the bandwidth to stream musical content is unavailable, and people go to ‘download vendors’, who add content to their memory cards. We investigate regional standards/formats that allow Chinese dvd players to be sold in India and North Korea that can play not only vcds/dvds but also memory cards. Contemporary platform discourse disproportionately studies algorithm and-interface-based online platforms that support streaming cultures. We explore offline digital platforms that enable download cultures by considering memory cards as medial objects that are attached to various platform ecosystems. Such ecosystems based on informal business models and network logic act as both intermediaries and foundations that provide users with opportunities to share and participate. Going beyond instrumental uses of platforms, we discern their affectivity: their ability to provide pleasurable entertainment and aesthetic experiences.

Ever since the cassette boom in the late 1980s, media formats and gadgets have proliferated among India’s subaltern populations, creating vibrant technocultural landscapes. After this cassette boom, in the 1990s came the rise of informal and piratical markets for cds, vcds, and dvds. Due to the continuing growth in cheap mobile phone handsets since the 2000s, the music economy has gradually shifted to mobile media assemblages, which led to the ascendance of memory cards in India.1 Memory cards are key flash-memory devices that allow storage and circulation of music in audio and video formats (see Figure 1). In some regions in India, North Korea, and Bangladesh, the bandwidth to stream music or videos is not available, and people thus go to ‘download vendors’, who download songs onto their memory cards (colloquially called ‘chips’).2 These cards are then inserted into mobile phones or memory card-enabled iPhone knockoffs made in China. Music enthusiasts maintain personal archives of songs on these memory cards and share them with one another. In rural India, new Chinese audio players have become fashionable which have plastic cases in the form of cans of Pepsi, Mirinda, and other soft drinks and are often referred to as ‘Pepsi’ players. These Pepsi players also have slots for memory cards and usb sticks.

We have ethnographically studied two vernacular music video cultures in India, in the Mewat region, southwest of Delhi, and in the town of Gaya in the state of Bihar, where Bhojpuri music is dominant. The Mewati and Bhojpuri music mania is sustained by the (micro)infrastructure of the microSD card. The article discusses the memory card phenomenon in Asia, but we begin by telling a story from the recent history of digital media distribution in the United States. This gives an idea of what platforms would look like if downloading, rather than streaming, were the norm.

Around 2008-2009, Blockbuster was fighting a losing battle with Netflix over the movie rental business. Blockbuster had physical stores and vending machines, where people could go to rent a dvd. Netflix mailed dvds to its customers that had to be sent back to the company. The next big move at Netflix was streaming services, but at this point that had not yet crystallized because the bandwidth required for such a service was still not in place. During this interim period, Netflix and Blockbuster assessed various digital distribution strategies. James Keyes, the chief executive of Blockbuster, speculated that: ‘movies are increasingly going to be downloaded rather than purchased on discs’ (quoted in Hansel 2008).

figure 1
figure 1

A memory card or microSD card with a usb adaptor.

Citation: Asiascape: Digital Asia 4, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/22142312-12340080

photo taken by the authors in 2012.

Keyes proposed that Blockbuster have self-service kiosks in the company’s stores, where people could download digital copies of movies onto their memory cards. Burning movies onto dvds in these stores was not a viable option (or satisfying experience) because it took too long. Blockbuster also hoped that more people would watch films on mobile phone screens and that such mobile handsets would have card readers. When asked whether he had some concerns about the popularity of such a distribution strategy, given that the memory card format was not yet standardized across various electronic media, Keyes replied that he hoped that both the entertainment industry and the electronics industry would take the necessary policy decisions such that movie studios would find it acceptable to have movie files on memory cards and expected that ‘televisions and Blu-ray players will all have slots for memory cards’ (Ibid.).

Blockbuster experimented with two such kiosks in its stores at the Preston Royal Center in Dallas, but the idea did not go a long way (Wilonsky 2009). The rest is history, as Netflix revolutionized the movie distribution industry through navigable online interfaces that offer users choices and recommendations based on algorithms such as collaborative filtering. Netflix, along with Google and YouTube became one kind of ‘digital platform’, which is much touted and studied by scholars in new media studies (Gillespie 2010). In excavating a future anterior (or an alternative) to this dominant platform story, we return to Keyes and Blockbuster’s plan. The plan to download movies onto memory cards had a short lifespan (or, rather, did not work) in the United States but seems to have had sensory and popular afterlives in many purportedly developing countries, including India. Memory card downloads are one of the primary ways of circulating vernacular songs and music videos in India’s rural hinterlands. Of course, the Blockbuster idea in its Indian avatar is somewhat different: India has no proprietary Blockbuster stores; rather, such music and video downloading to memory cards happens at thousands of places (mobile shops, music shops, download markets, and multipurpose hardware stores selling anything from shoes to clothes to hard drives) in each small town facilitated by ‘download vendors’.3 With regard to equipment, all that such a download vendor needs is a laptop full of songs and videos, a dongle to connect a memory card through a usb port, and some format conversion software. Thanks to memory cards, a contingent informal economy of digital music and video reproduction and circulation emerged in India.

Furthermore, just as Keyes predicted, in India and many parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia, television sets, audio players, and dvd players have now appeared that have memory card slots. Part of what we study here is the emergence of such tv sets and dvd players with the popularity of mobile phones and memory cards, thus creating a mobile media assemblage or a platform ecosystem, which supports download cultures. If Blockbuster’s card kiosks had survived, we might have had a downloading platform ecosystem alongside the (dominant) streaming platform ecosystems that currently exist in the United States.4 That said, such platform ecosystems that support download cultures exist in other parts of the world. We demonstrate in this article that a platform ecosystem based on memory cards, unlike music-sharing platforms such as Spotify, Napster, and Match, has emerged in India and other parts of Asia.5

We elaborate on the memory card phenomenon through the vocabulary of platforms and, in the process, add to and contest existing discourses on platforms. Economists and digital media scholars agree that proliferating digital platforms drive the economy. Both academic and industry observers suggest that for products to succeed, they now need to be platforms that tie together two/multiple distinct groups of users in a network (Eisenmann et al. 2006). The word ‘platform’ is so common nowadays that more academic conferences are dedicated to the ‘platform society’ than the ‘network society’: the point made at such conferences is that every aspect of our society is being touched by platforms, whether in transport (Uber) or accommodation/hospitality services (Airbnb).6 Part of our motivation in thinking about the memory card–enabled informal economy of music circulation in juxtaposition with the discourse on platforms is to explore what happens to the concept of platforms if we shift their location of operations and unmoor them from their ontological fixities.

When we think of digital platforms, we imagine the Windows, Apple, or Android operating systems as platforms or foundations that allow software applications to work. These operating systems connect application developers with a phone or computer users. The prevalent discourse on platforms considers YouTube and Uber platforms that serve as intermediaries among users, producers, and advertisers (see Gillespie 2010). At one level, memory cards are platforms that consist of hardware and software components that permit music to be recorded, stored, and played. At another level, memory cards span different emerging platform systems of audio/dvd players, mobile phones, and tv sets and become part of these various sensory infrastructures. Memory cards reconfigure various mobile media assemblages and create an ecosystem of platforms around them. We further analyze the agency of actors involved in such a platform ecosystem and in what ways they can be considered intermediaries.

‘Platform’ has emerged in the discourse on digital industries as a way to showcase the computational infrastructure that supports social media applications and user-generated content (Gillespie 2010). While retaining this understanding, we stress platform’s characteristics that are foundational for and supportive of user expression and sociality, its ability to cross national contexts (Jin 2015), and its regional specificities (Steinberg 2014). We investigate regional standards and formats that allow similar Chinese dvd players to be sold in India and North Korea that play not only dvds but also videos on memory cards. While mapping digital memory in relation to music in the ‘First World’ makes us think of platforms such as Napster and Spotify and then about cloud computing and server farms, the story of memory cards in the rural hinterlands of India gestures toward a different trajectory of informal circulation. Digitalization has led to the micromaterialization of music: the mp3 phenomenon plays out in different ways in different parts of the world: on the one hand, streaming and cloud computing; on the other, the flash memory of microSD cards and usb drives7 .

Little work has been done on memory cards because they are considered either part of piratical economies or merely a transient phenomenon that will soon disappear with the coming of seamless internet connection for all.8 This is the case despite the transformation in the music industry since the beginning of the use of memory cards in conjunction with mobile phones: many research interviewees in Neha Kumar and Tapan Parikh’s (2013) ethnography of music practices in Bikaner, a town in the province of Rajasthan, India, emphatically declared that cds and dvds are gathering dust since the emergence of mobile phones equipped with memory card slots.

Although music audio and video downloads to memory cards are often considered ‘illegal’, they have become part of informal economies and the practices of mobile phone repair, format conversion, and sim card and phone battery recharging services (see Kumar & Parikh 2013; Mukherjee & Singh forthcoming). In 2009, the Indian Music Industry (imi) promised to address ‘mobile chip piracy’ by marketing a license specifically for ‘download vendors’ or ‘download operators’.9 Aditi Deo (2013) explains that this license, called ‘mobile music exchange’, was a ‘blanket license that allowed vendors to legally sell downloads of music and media that were within the copyright of imi members’.

Some of the download vendors we met had an imi license, as well as other licenses, and they even posted anti-piracy notices as a mark of credibility. That said, other than in big malls in cities, everywhere else we went, downloading to memory cards took place quite openly and without any fear of the authorities. Thus, the memory card phenomenon is marked ‘by a dynamic push-and-pull between formal and informal activities, and between authorized and unauthorized transactions’ (Lobato & Thomas 2014: 114). Indeed, the platform ecosystem consisting of Chinese dvd players, audio players with Pepsi or Axe cases, and iPod knock-offs that memory cards inhabit are accompanied by untaxed services, counterfeit goods, fake accessories, and unlicensed goods. Nonetheless, these informal platform ecosystems also grow and innovate just like industry platforms, albeit in different ways and through different channels.10 And just like digital algorithm-and-interface-based online platforms, the not-always-online or rather offline digital platforms that we study in this article operate according to (informal) economic/business models, are characterized by an ecosystem/network logic, and provide spaces for users to participate and interact.11

To provide a roadmap for our discussion: we begin with a brief discussion of memory cards and then move on to discussing how they are part of mobile media assemblages or platform ecosystems. At the end of the article, we discuss the affect generated by these platforms. Affective intensities have a tactile, immediate, and sensory quality and thus encompass a range of sensations beyond emotions (Massumi 2002). When we discuss affect in relation to these platforms, we want to foreground the rush of emotions that North Koreans feel when watching K-pop or that Bhojpuri speakers experience while enjoying music in their vernacular language. Beyond this, we also argue that the affect of the platforms should be taken seriously, including the intensity generated by holding a Pepsi-case player in hand while walking the streets of Gaya or the ability to surreptitiously and inconspicuously share music through memory cards. These sensorium(s) of listening and watching enabled by platforms are a key part of their affectivity.

Memory Card and Archiving Practices

Memory cards and memory sticks use nonvolatile flash memory, thereby retaining data for an extended period of time, even when the device is powered off. However, the number of read-write cycles on flash memory devices is limited. Memory cards are differently valued by our research participants not only for the data they can hold (2 gb, 4 gb, 8 gb, 16 gb) but also for their varying warranty periods (see Figure 2). Consumers have noted that some memory cards stop working after a couple of data downloads/transfers, while others have continued to function. One shopkeeper in Gaya who deals in memory cards said, ‘Chinese products do not have a guarantee for how long they will function. It also depends on how people use them. It may happen that you buy a product and it gets damaged the very next moment’. People seemed to accept the (perceived) ephemerality of memory cards, and this ephemerality was consistent with the precarious but tenacious quality of the Plaza electronic store complex in downtown Gaya, where we encountered memory card enabled iPods made in China: the Gaya municipality notice board at the entrance noted that the building this complex was housed in was prone to disaster. Because memory cards are inexpensive, the people buying them assume they will not last long. The wages these people receive are low; hence their purchasing capacity is put towards present contingencies and not long-time futures.

figure 2
figure 2

4 gb and 8 gb memory card packages.

Citation: Asiascape: Digital Asia 4, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/22142312-12340080

photo taken by the authors in 2016.

As with vcds/dvds, there are legal memory cards, and there are pirated memory cards, but not all consumers are equally discerning, and often they do not seem to care. Memory cards come in colourful packets with labels which explain how many photos, how much time’s worth of videos, and how many music files will fit on them. Despite the ease and seamlessness in streaming music, the content remains with the content providers, which is not the case with memory cards. People have a personal attachment to their microSD cards; they keep them safe from scratches, they love to talk about their content (unless some of it is censored/pornographic), and, as such, it perpetuates a personal archiving practice. These personal archiving practices are marked by variation in the frequency of visits to the download vendor and a preference regarding the type of uploading. The archiving practice also has a performative dimension when it is done in the presence of others. Consider some exchanges that we had (interview excerpt, Gaya, Jan 2016):

Interviewer: How many ‘chips’ do you have?

Taxi driver: I have an 8 gb and also a 4 gb [chip]. I use one of these on my mobile phone and the other in [the music player in] my Jeep.

Interviewer: How frequently do you load your microSD card?

Taxi driver: Well, I load my card once a month or two.

Construction worker: Once a week.

The following excerpt is from another interview (Gaya, Jan 2016):

Interviewer: So, when you visit a shop to ‘load’ the cards, do you add all new content or is there a content which you never delete from your card, for instance, your favourite songs?

Taxi driver: I choose at the shop from whatever is available [in the computer of the shopkeeper] and then let the shopkeeper completely ‘format’ [delete existing content from] these cards.

Interviewer: How much do you pay for complete ‘loading’ of an 8 gb card?

Taxi driver: 50-60 rupees to load all songs [i.e. usd 0.77-0.92].

Interviewer: And how much for uploading films?

Taxi driver: [Uploading] one film could cost from 5 to 10 rupees [i.e. usd 0.08-0.15]. An hd [high-definition] film costs 10 rupees.

Memory cards as storage technologies are shaping vernacular languages and cultural memory. At one level, studying them as platforms enables us to make a case that, even though they are small (‘micro’), they are not just what they appear on the surface. If we dig into memory cards, as media forensic experts and media archaeologists do, we find digital information inscribed in the form of electromagnetic substratum (see Kirschenbaum 2008). Memory cards are part of the trend towards digitization, in which digital memory technologies aim to achieve greater compression and resolution to create a feeling that there is, in theory, ‘capacity for everything’ (Blom 2015: 13). At another level, treating memory cards as medial objects that are part of various platform ecosystems helps us learn how they circulate and how vernacular musical traditions in India circulate with them. Such vernacular music cultures are enjoying a new resurgence because of cheap (and affordable) memory and circulation technologies. Memory cards are part of low-cost mobile media assemblages, what Ravi Sundaram (2015) felicitously terms ‘post-post-colonial sensory infrastructures’, that have afforded India’s subaltern populations opportunities for creating horizontal networks that bypass state and corporate power.

Emerging Platform Systems, Mobile Assemblages, and Regional Specificities

In this section, we briefly trace the movement of the memory card as a medial object which is part of – and moves across – various platforms. This moving into and out of various politico-aesthetic platforms makes memory cards reconfigure dynamic mobile media assemblages.

Sometime in 2012, seeing the popularity of microSD cards, the local electronic equipment shops in Mewat began selling new Chinese-made dvd players capable of playing videos not just from dvds but also from microSD cards. MicroSD cards can be inserted into a usb adaptor, which in turn is plugged into the usb slot in these Chinese dvd players. So now, dvd players no longer just support dvds, and microSD cards do not remain exclusive to mobile phones (and their users), as they were previously. Further still, to make the microSD card compatible with new dvd players, various cheap usb adaptors have flooded the local market in the Mewat district (for more, see Mukherjee & Singh forthcoming). We saw some of these dvd players in New Delhi’s Nehru Place market, from where they go to Mewat (see Figure 3). Similarly, during our field visit to Gaya in 2016, many shopkeepers noted a considerable decline in the sale of dvds and cds as a storage format, but dvd players are still being sold, even though fewer than before. As the following interview excerpt indicates, the cross-platform operability of microSD cards has contributed to their popularity (interview excerpt, Gaya, Jan 2016):

figure 3
figure 3

dvd player with memory card slots.

Citation: Asiascape: Digital Asia 4, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/22142312-12340080

photo taken by the authors at New Delhi’s Nehru Place market in 2016.

Interviewer: Has there been a change in demand for cds or dvds?

Shopkeeper: There is no demand for cds or dvds.

Interviewer: What is the reason for this change?

Shopkeeper: This ‘chip’ is the reason, this [micro] sd card has become very popular and widespread. Not everyone has cd ‘cassette’ [referring to cd/dvd as storage formats], but everyone definitely has ‘chip’. And most of the systems [media players, such as tv, dvd players, mobile phones] have become compatible with ‘chips’. This has hugely increased the demand for ‘chips’.

The emergence of these new dvd players, in a process that the feminist techno-science scholar Karen Barad (2007) calls ‘iterative intra-activity’, is crucial for the dynamism of the circulatory assemblage of Mewati digital content (videos), which continue to shift from one contingent stable configuration to another. Barad defines ‘iterative intra-activity’ within a relational system in which each new reconfiguration is a reiteration of the earlier configuration with some rearrangements of component parts, leading to dynamic ‘intra-actions’.12

Although one approach presumes that Chinese-manufactured electronic devices are popular in India merely because they are inexpensive, another line of inquiry in the interviews we conducted during our fieldwork suggests that Chinese dvd players are better equipped to provide specific local populations in India with the kind of audiovisual devices they desire. MicroSD cards and usb sticks are small, inconspicuous, and easy-to-carry for the particular communities we study, such as the people of the Mewat district, where the content (Mewati music videos) they want to watch, share, and carry is partially censored or looked down upon by religious elders. Similar uses of the Chinese portable dvd players can be seen in North Korea, where they are called ‘notel’ or ‘notetel’, which literally means ‘notebook plus television’ (see Figure 4). Notel devices have usb and sd card ports, along with the ability to play dvds, and this multifunctional versatility allows Notel users in Pyongyang to evade state censorship and surveillance while watching K-pop videos imported from South Korea (Pearson, in Reuters 2015).

Thus, memory cards act here as circumvention technologies. The North Korean government surveils these Notel users, but it is only able to register what is played on the dvd player (often North Korean documentaries) and thus is unable to find out what is played from the memory card (often K-pop). Similarly, the young men in Mewat evade surveillance by religious elders who want to track the mobile phone consumption activities of younger members of their community. The mobile phone is shared by several members of a Mewati family. MicroSD cards are external to phone memory, and using them leaves no trace on the phone. Thus, young men or teenagers can insert a memory card into a mobile phone used by their family and watch music videos out of sight from anyone else, and then take out the memory card when they give the mobile phone to another member of the family.

figure 4
figure 4

Notel.

Citation: Asiascape: Digital Asia 4, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/22142312-12340080

photo courtesy of Reuters. Copyright: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters Pictures.

Annabelle Gawer (2014), writing about platforms from an industry perspective, explains that platforms are a common feature of complex systems in which the core building blocks are kept stable so that the other parts can emerge through various permutations and recombinations among/between them. The dvd as a platform continues to exist because it can both retain its core structure and add other complimentary products and services, such as memory cards and memory sticks. Because of such new arrangements and associations, Chinese dvd players with the ability to insert memory cards become platforms that support affective content in two very different regions of Asia: K-pop in North Korea and Mewati music videos in Haryana, India. The traffic in memory card–enabled dvd players from China to North Korea and India suggests an intra-Asian regional specificity.13

Finally, like Annabelle Gawer and Michael Cusumano (2014: 420), we are interested in products as platforms when they are one component of an evolving technological system, and strong functional dependence exists between components. Although our analysis is aligned with Gawer in this respect, our approaches and empirical sites are different. Gawer researches technological platforms from an industry perspective, in which primary actors are platform producers (large organizations) and organizations that utilize those platforms to build upon. Our work does not take this perspective. We are limited to the consumption and local distribution platforms. What we bring to the discussion is situated sociocultural understanding of mobile media platforms by studying peer-to-peer sharing practices.

Chinese Audio Players: Platforms as Foundations

New Chinese-manufactured audio players sold in rural Gaya (in India) are made of metal cans or plastic cases from Gillette shaving cream or Coca-Cola equipped to play music from usb sticks and microSD cards (but not cds or cassettes). Other casings include those from deodorants such as Axe, known as ‘Perfume’ players. Some of these casings/cans also have on them images/scenes from the latest Bollywood film. What the soft-drink, deodorant, and Bollywood can cases have in common is that they are all audio players that possess the same basic circuitry/foundation (think of a platform as a foundation): identical configurations of slots/ports for microSD/TransFlash cards, usb thumb drives, headphones, chargers, and auxiliary cable ports for connection with mobile phones, tablets, and car stereos. Thus, the basic foundation, the platform, is the same even as different can-cased players have different affects and facilitate listening to popular vernacular songs. Again, the Chinese aspect of these dvd players is crucial: the mobilewala (popular term for mobile shop attendants/workers) who helped us see the internal circuitry of these audio players mentioned that even the screwdriver he used to open them was made in China (the screws, too, were Chinese) (see Figures 5 and 6). He further explained that, while people in India often consider Chinese electronics inferior in quality, the Chinese actually offer the best technological quality in the price range available as highlighted below:

Shopkeeper: [Referring to Chinese-made ‘Pepsi’ players] these are popular also because they look nice. It is not the case that they cannot be made in India. Indian companies are also making these, but they cannot provide this quality or quantity at this rate [price].

He said no Indian company would be able to make the ‘Pepsi’ audio player for Rs 150: it was simply unthinkable. Another shopkeeper who praised Chinese electronic goods added, ‘it is kind of a revolution of Chinese products’, indicating the huge popularity of Chinese-made products in the local urban and rural markets of Gaya.

In an influential book on the Atari Video Computer System, Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost (2009) discuss game systems as platforms. They state (Ibid., 2),

a platform includes an operating system. It is often useful to think of a programming language or environment on top of an operating system as a platform, too. Whatever the programmer takes for granted when developing, and whatever, from another side, the user is required to have working in order to use particular software, is the platform.

figure 5
figure 5

The circuitry or foundation is same in different audio players.

Citation: Asiascape: Digital Asia 4, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/22142312-12340080

photo taken by the authors in 2016.
figure 6
figure 6

Chinese screw drivers used to open the container.

Citation: Asiascape: Digital Asia 4, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/22142312-12340080

photo taken by the authors in 2016.

Thus, Montfort and Bogost highlight that (commercially available) media platforms are layered and encapsulated. These platforms are layered in that they have a hardware layer consisting of various electronic components as well as a software layer that comprises software coding and logic. Both layers are necessary for the functioning of the platform. Similarly, the platform’s hardware and software layers are bundled and packed inside a ‘product’ available to consumers. Further, the layered and encapsulated nature of platforms enables a platform to work with other platforms and media. Following Montfort and Bogost (Ibid.), we consider both ‘Pepsi’ music player and microSD cards distinct platforms.14 The ‘Pepsi’ player includes a hardware layer consisting of an array of electronic components, such as led indicator lights, a usb port, an on/off switch, a volume controller and a ‘song changer’ interface, memory card slots, a headphone port, speaker(s), a battery, a charging port, and a small electronic board (colloquially referred as ‘kit’) with an embedded ‘chip’. The software layer comprises embedded software coding inside the ‘chip’ on the electronic board. This software coding is critical for the functioning of the audio player, which includes logic to respond to various user commands, such as changing audio tracks or volume levels or detecting audio files. The hardware and software layers are packaged inside a container, such as that of a Pepsi can, and this encapsulated unit is sold in the market.

A microSD card is also a platform. It consists of various hardware components, such as a flash memory chip and circuitry, along with a microcontroller built inside its tiny container. The memory chip holds the data files while the microcontroller contains software coding to read and write data on the chip.

Intermediaries in Memory Card’s Platform Ecosystems

Although microSD cards are most often used with mobile phones to listen to music or watch music videos, other possibilities in the form of memory card-enabled iPod look-alikes and can-case audio players (discussed above) have emerged. Earlier, the necessary format conversions and downloading took place in mobile phone shops and electronics equipment stores. The mobile phone shopkeeper or repairman, also known as mobilewala, performed the crucial format conversion using video converter software to transform MPEG files into MP3, MP4, or 3GP versions, which can then be played on mobile phones via microSD cards. Answering our questions, the mobile shop attendant in Mewat clarified that the resolution in video files copied from a dvd is high (and of necessity these files are extremely large) and is not compatible with being displayed on mobile devices. The shopkeepers convert the files into various formats, depending on customer’s type of mobile handset. They know that ‘x264.mp4’ format indicates better video and audio quality, which are compatible with the high-end mobile devices that are now becoming popular in Mewat, while ‘.3gp’ is compatible with older mobile phones (Mukherjee & Singh forthcoming).

Earlier the download vendor used to be a mobilewala, an electronics store employee, or a cd/dvd shop keeper. Now, however, the download vendor can just be a person with a laptop sitting in front of a cinema in Bhojpuri. We saw one such vendor in Gaya sitting opposite the Prem Talkies cinema (in the Dulhingunj neighbourhood), where the Bhojpuri film Jab pyar kiya toh darna kya? (When You Are in Love Then Why Be Afraid?) was playing (see Figure 7).

figure 7
figure 7

Prem Talkies cinema in Gaya.

Citation: Asiascape: Digital Asia 4, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/22142312-12340080

photo taken by the authors in 2016.

The download vendor had chosen a prime location for setting up shop. Young people from nearby villages who came to watch Bhojpuri films could also have their chip filled with more songs, music videos, and films. All that the download vendor requires are format conversion software, and an archive of songs, videos, films, and wallpaper stored on the hard drive of his laptop. Above his desk hung memory cards, headphones, and audio players for sale (see Figure 8).

The download vendor across from Prem Talkies had folders organized based on musical genre, file type, file size, and date of the songs. He had Bollywood songs and Bhojpuri songs. The subcategories of Bhojpuri songs were nirgun, kajri, and biraha: the differences between them are based on the season and mood invoked and the difference in the kind of instruments that accompany the singing. The users of memory cards we saw asked the download vendor to copy Bhojpuri songs, Bhojpuri cinema, Bollywood songs, Bollywood films, and even some photos and computer wallpaper.15

figure 8
figure 8

Download vendor in action.

Citation: Asiascape: Digital Asia 4, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/22142312-12340080

photo taken by the authors in 2016.

Recent platform studies scholarship includes frequent framings of Facebook and Uber as intermediaries between two different groups of users: respectively, between users and advertisers, and between people needing car rides and those ready to offer them. In the platform ecosystems created by memory cards, the download vendor can be considered an intermediary between music lovers and music producers. Just as YouTube connects amateurs and professionals, users and advertisers, volunteers and employees (van Dijck 2009), the download vendor connects song enthusiasts and song producers, and memory card seekers and memory card manufacturers.

In drawing these intermediary-related analogies, we realize that we are collapsing distinctions of human and software. After all, many interactions and connections on social media platforms generated between different kinds of users arise because of the work of algorithms. That said, these algorithms need user metadata (and user data) to keep running efficiently. Thus, as Ananbelle Gawer (2014) points out, different users of platforms conceptualized as two-sided networks do not have the same rigid functions. Facebook or Google users are not just content consumers; they are also content creators. Similarly, the music enthusiast coming to a download vendor depends upon the expertise and wisdom of the vendor, but such a customer might also suggest that the vendor listens to a new song that the customer (as not only a music consumer but also a music enthusiast) has stored on his memory card. If the vendor likes that song, he might upload it from the customer’s memory card into his inventory, that is, his laptop’s hard drive.

figure 9
figure 9

Downloading files from vendor’s laptop to customer’s memory card.

Citation: Asiascape: Digital Asia 4, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/22142312-12340080

photo taken by the authors in 2016.

Beyond being intermediaries, download vendors are also gatekeepers or curators of content for this memory card platform ecosystem. For instance, a download vendor was observed refusing to load ‘sexy’ music videos for teenagers. Other vendors firmly stated that they do not ‘download’ and offer ‘adult’ content to teenage boys. In these cases, the vendor saw his work as incorporating ethical concerns about the circulation of certain content using this platform.

So far, we have discussed how platforms support affective content. Now, we move on to discussing how platforms also generate affective associations with other popular consumer products.

Affective Platforms

For many users, the mobile phone (into which the ‘chip’ fits) is an object of intense emotional investment. Since one tends to carry the mobile phone everywhere and use it for so many different purposes, mobile phone users think of it as part of themselves, as part of their performance of themselves, as extensions of their bodies. Moreover, mobile phones can be customized in many ways, by modifying their features and affordances such as ringtones, wallpaper, and case.

The memory card-enabled iPod look-alikes and Chinese audio players are portable but do not have as many features/affordances as phones and thus are not as omnipresent. That said, mobile phones have inaugurated taste cultures, fashion trends, and aesthetic evaluations, which seep into the Chinese audio players. It makes a difference whether a young man is strutting on the streets of Gaya with a Pepsi can-case audio player, an Axe can-case audio player, a Kingfisher (a beer company) can-case audio player, or a Piku (Bollywood film) can-case audio player (see Figure 10). He will be judged in different ways by onlookers, and his persona as the owner of the audio player will be evaluated differently.

figure 10
figure 10

Axe can-case audio player.

Citation: Asiascape: Digital Asia 4, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/22142312-12340080

photo taken by the authors in 2016.

Our interviewees, who were often electronics store owners, revealed that, when they first emerged in the city, the audio players were considered trendy and were even used by yoga instructors in their classes in New Delhi, but interest in them soon died down, and they became kids things or toys. The respondents in Gaya said that after five to six months, the only people using the audio players were people of low caste (neechi jaat) or ‘small caste’ (chhoti jaati or those who belonged to the ‘labouring class’.

Gaya is known for its hierarchical caste system and for people who invoke caste hierarchy to explain taste cultures as part of everyday conversations. Our high-caste interviewees assumed that the Chinese audio player, which was inexpensive, was used by people in socioeconomically backward castes. Consumers of audio players were seen as those who could not afford mobile phones but needed good sound quality to enjoy Bhojpuri songs. This kind of caste-based explanation of taste cultures was not given in Guraru (a neighbourhood in Gaya with a considerable rural population), where people from various castes had bought these players. We also observed construction workers, both in Gaya and Guraru, using these audio players so that they and all their co-workers could listen together as they continued working. The following are among the responses we received on the profile of users of the Pepsi can audio player (interview excerpt, Gaya, 2016):

Shopkeeper 1: These [Pepsi players] are bought only by chhote log [small people], like Harijans [Dalit, lowest caste]

Respondent: Choota jaat [low caste] like Bhuiya and Chamar use such things. You will see these in small and poor people’s homes. They cannot afford tvs, so they keep and use these things.

Another shopkeeper stated, ‘mostly “low-quality” people buy these’. When asked to clarify what he meant by ‘low quality’, he replied: ‘Low-quality people such as labouring class. They keep the player wherever they work. So, they listen to music and also keep doing their work’. Another shopkeeper specified, ‘if we [educated people from a better socioeconomic class] roam around holding this “Pepsi” can, it will look absolutely rubbish. Everyone will ask, why are you holding this?’ Some other shopkeepers mentioned that they have also seen children in rural Gaya using them.

Bhojpuri music and cinema are related to debates over caste as well as debates over the vernacular challenge to the hegemony of Hindi in the Indian heartland. Caste politics are also entangled with the affective platforms that enable listening to Bhojpuri music. As we have argued, the consumption politics of these ‘cheap’, ‘chip’-enabled audio players in a place such as Bihar cannot be divorced from caste politics. The affective impact of holding a Pepsi or Kingfisher can–case audio player in public should be read within the context of taste cultures, which are heavily marked by caste hierarchies.16

Through our focus on affective platforms, we also develop a framework distinct from that espoused by the information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) paradigm. ICT4D approaches have been preoccupied for too long with functional uses of digital media, focusing on the potential uses of mobile platforms to develop or track literacy and public health. We aim not merely to discuss the instrumental uses of platforms (i.e. the use of cybercafes earlier and now microSD cards to find out crop prices, weather forecasts, record health data) but also to examine their ability to provide pleasurable entertainment and meaningful aesthetic experiences. Unfortunately, studies of digital/mobile cultures in locations with limited connectivity/bandwidth have been captive to the language/framework of shortages, (under)development, and the digital divide. Here, we provide an alternative approach to studying digital/mobile cultures.

Part of our intention is to push the ICT4D scholarship to understand that mobile phones and memory cards are not just making efficient ‘transmission’ of information possible but also enabling (benign) ‘transgressions’ and informal economies (see Wasserman 2011). However, another goal is to push scholars of vernacular cinema and music not just to examine the representational politics of such works but also study circulatory assemblages and new reception contexts opened up by mobile phones, portable audio players, and memory sticks/cards. Much discussion has taken place on the representational politics of vernacular cinema and music (see Tripathy 2012) as well as how Bhojpuri film is consumed in cinemas (Kumar 2015). That said, a more careful examination of the ‘aesthetic contours of this vernacular resurgence’ (Kumar 2015) is incomplete without a discussion of the download cultures and ambient and ephemeral reception contexts of consuming vernacular cinema, music, and music videos. Such an examination should also include the politics and affectivity of platforms that enable such music audio and video as well as film to be stored, consumed, and shared.

Elaborating on these examples of audio and video players, we posit that texts and formats, content and platforms, representation and distribution need to be studied in their radical entanglements as we think of not only affective movements of content across East Asia and South Asia but also the translocal flows of platforms. Here we understand ‘affect’ as both emotions and sensations. Although the music or video content might generate affective feelings in audiences/viewers, the mobility and devices offered by the multimedia platforms contribute to making possible particular contexts/situations and phenomenological worlds of watching and listening in the everyday lives of platform users.

Young men in Mewat can get together, away from the prying eyes of family members and relatives, insert the chip (mSD) in the mobile phone, and entertain themselves to the partially censored Mewati videos. Middle-aged married men, reluctant to visit cinemas in the face of social censorship, now eschew such public spaces and increasingly and surreptitiously carry microSD cards. There is even gossip making the rounds that Mewati videos are watched by young married couples (on tv using Chinese-manufactured cd/dvd players) after midnight after everyone else in the house has gone to sleep (Mukherjee and Singh, forthcoming).

Michael Bull (2005) has canonically explained the ‘creation of a personalized (protected) soundworld through [the] iPod’ against the chaos of urban environments in first world countries. An aspect of ‘micromanagement of personal music’ can be observed in the ways in which the microSD card was handled by music listeners in Mewat and Gaya. However, the Chinese audio players as well as the memory card–enabled iPods could also be used as speakers, and hence the activity of listening is part of socializing and sharing practices. Although the usual archiving practice for an iPod listener involved (and still involves for that matter) the solitary (and anonymous) experience of downloading from the iTunes library, download vendors actively engage with Bhojpuri music listeners by downloading music into their memory cards.

Conclusion

In this paper, we attempt to examine the reconfiguration of mobile media assemblages in India as they have been reset by the increasing popularity of memory cards as the key media or platform for storing music, especially vernacular music and music videos. Memory cards seem to thrive in places where streaming is not a viable option and where there is demand to access digital content, sometimes even under a repressive media environment or regime in which censorship occurs.

At this point, we distil some of the arguments in this paper. We respond to two interrelated questions: (1) Why apply the conceptual framework of platforms to mobile media assemblages ushered in by memory cards? (2) How does thinking of memory cards as platforms and memory cards as part of platform ecosystems contribute to existing discourses/scholarship in platform studies? To answer the first question: borrowing ideas of platforms as foundations and platforms as intermediaries from industry and academic discourses on platforms has helped us to trace how memory cards as medial objects move across various platform ecosystems (of dvd players, Pepsi can audio players, iPod knockoffs) and attach themselves to these platforms. To answer the second question: the platform ecosystems realized in tracing the trajectory of memory card usage suggests that platform studies need to engage with newer kinds of platforms from the perspective of mobile repair persons, download vendors, and music enthusiasts living in much of the ‘developing world’ who negotiate digital platforms in places that lack sufficient streaming bandwidth. The notions and practices of sharing, interaction, socialization, and business models embraced by platform scholars studying streaming cultures of the ‘developed world’ can be seen to manifest differently in the download cultures that operate under different political economies and cultural epistemes. By borrowing and inflecting the vocabularies of the existing platform scholarship, we foreground these differences as a necessary course correction.

In the deluge of contemporary digital media scholarship, we tend to forget the other histories of analog-digital connections. Cheap audio-recording media technologies that are portable and small, particularly audiocassettes (including audiocassette recorders), have been theorized as ‘small media’ (Spitulnik 2002). These ‘small media’ are a hybrid form of mass media and interpersonal media, more appropriately thought of as alternative media, that are deployed by small groups to express themselves, not necessarily for political mobilization, but to foster group solidarity and identity formation in many parts of the world from Iran to Zambia and from Nigeria to India. It is crucial that dominant strains of platform studies take into account such historical and anthropological work done in studying ‘small media’ if they have interest in understanding how people in ‘most of the world’ encounter contemporary digitality and emerge with new participatory cultures.

From audiocassettes to cds/dvds to memory cards, all these different storage technologies have been key in sustaining the linguistic and cultural influences of oral traditions in India. There is certainly this continuity as Bhojpuri music increasingly is listened to with mobile phones/chips rather than dvd players/dvds. That the vcd/dvd continued to be referred to as ‘cassette’ itself for a long time shows how continuities are stressed in vernacular speech. Despite these continuities, significant differences exist in notions of public/private, experiences of listening, circulation dynamics, and taste protocols associated with the new affective platforms, of which we have provided a glimpse.

In a recent article, Jackie O’Neill et al. (2016) argue that although in 2009, microSD cards and Bluetooth were key file-sharing technologies, by 2015, because of the easy availability of low-cost smartphones, WhatsApp has become the primary sharing app among even lower-middle-class groups in Indian cities such as Bangalore. Much of our study on memory cards in Mewat was conducted in 2012, and since then much as changed, including among many of our interview participants, who now use WhatsApp to chat with us. That said, during our January 2016 fieldwork in the peri-urban regions of Gaya, we still observed wide use of memory cards on feature phones for music sharing/listening among the working class. Furthermore, as discussed in this article, memory cards are useful circumvention technologies in North Korea and India because their use does not leave any digital trace. Also, someone who has a 8 gb memory card with 20,000 songs owns a personal music archive. The archival culture around memory cards would suggest that it involves a different kind of music-sharing experience compared to using Bluetooth or WhatsApp. That said, we hope it is clear that Bluetooth, WhatsApp, and memory cards are all part of intersecting sharing economies and participation cultures.

The new micro-sd–enabled Coke/Pepsi bottle audio players represent contemporary digital media in places in India where streaming internet content cannot be presumed. These are digital platforms and economies that operate in places that are ‘extranet’, that is outside the internet (Neeves & Sarkar forthcoming). For instance, these microSD audio players can be found in mobile phone shops that also sell solar-panel–enabled mobile phone chargers because such shops are located in regions that are off the electricity grid in India. This context is critical for understanding the dynamism of emerging digital platforms in the ‘developing world’, where people continue to express themselves in a world not of digital divide but of differentiated digital access.

Acknowledgements

We express our gratitude to the villagers and shopkeepers of Mewat and Gaya for actively participating in this research. We thank the editors of this Special Issue, Marc Steinberg and Jinying Li; and Asiascape: Digital Asia’s editor-in-chief, Florian Schneider for their supportive, critical, and encouraging comments that have significantly improved this article. Abhigyan’s field travel and stay were funded by the research programme of University Campus Fryslân (ucf), which is financed by the province of Fryslân in the Netherlands. Rahul’s fieldwork was funded by Wolf Research funds and the Mellon H+U+D Forum.

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1

By ‘mobile media’, we primarily mean mobile phones, but ‘mobile media assemblage’ includes other portable devices, such as memory cards and usb sticks.

2

We discuss memory card practices in India and North Korea in some detail in this article. The anthropologist Lotte Hoek once mentioned to us that she encountered Hindu devotional songs being circulated using memory cards in Bangladesh. Media Anthropologist Brian Larkin noted people who download Nollywood videos are called ‘downloaders’ in Nigera. We refer to memory cards as microSD cards, mSDcards, and chips interchangeably in the article.

3

A download vendor is a shop attendant who facilitates various tasks associated with downloading digital media onto a customer’s mobile phone.

4

By asserting this, we do not discount media practices in the United States, where students copy movies from the external hard disks of other students or people share music or films using usb sticks or Airdrop. The distinction is that in the United States such a downloading culture has not taken the form of local and informal business economies, as in the case of Mewat and Bihar in India, which we discuss in this article.

5

Our use of the term is somewhat similar to that of Amrit Tiwana (2015), who examines how the modularity of platform architecture allows for extensions by other parties to interoperate with the platform. Indeed, many of the slots and outlets created for memory cards might be considered extensions to mobile phone platforms. That said, unlike Tiwana, we are interested in the informal distribution and consumption of such interoperable extensions in the platform ecosystem. Tiwana’s ecosystem includes mostly industry players; ours includes informal media users.

6

For example, the ‘platform society’ conference at the Oxford Internet Institute in late September 2016.

7

Peer-to-peer sharing is somewhere in between these two practices.

8

We resist technological linearity and any kind of modernization-theory-inflected teleology that envisions progress as an onward march towards higher and higher bandwidth.

9

imi is the most prominent association of music producers in India, representing labels that produce 75 per cent of copyrighted musical recordings.

10

China and India are often considered the world capitals of piracy, and such piratical citadels are then framed as impeding the growth of viable global cultural industries, such as (predictably) Hollywood. Such views have been perspicaciously refuted by Jinying Li (2012), Laikwan Pang (2004), and Ravi Sundaram (2009), among others.

11

These are three characteristics of online digital platforms that José Van Dijck (2016) mentions in her keynote presentation on the platform society at the Association for Internet Researchers Conference in 2016.

12

In Barad (2007: 33)’s model ‘relation’ precedes ‘relata’. Barad critiques ‘interaction’, which assumes that ‘there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction’, and endorses ‘intra-action’ which ‘recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-actions’.

13

The regionalism we have unearthed in terms of translocal flows of electronic media from China to India and North Korea needs further investigation. Although detailed work has been done on how tight knit the formal and informal economies of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China are, less research is available on widening this regional space to explore other intra-Asian flows and speeds of ever-shifting circulating media networks. Some of the most fascinating scholarship on this region is in the work of Shujen Wang (2003) on vcd piracy in Taiwan and China.

14

It might appear that we subscribe to the technological notion of platforms put forward by Bogost and Monfort. To some extent that is true, because we believe platforms are, at one level, technical systems. That said, we are interested in platforms as sociotechnical systems, in which cultural use and perceptions enact novel changes in technological platforms.

15

Such downloading cultures can also be observed in places such as Cuba, where, every week, Cubans fill their memory sticks with the latest internet ‘package’ (paquetes) containing films, American television series, antivirus software, and even ads for local Havana hotels/restaurants (see Pertierra 2012).

16

Most of our interviewees were men who went to mobile phone shops, download vendor stalls, and electronic stores, and we give an account here of mostly men’s use of audio players, memory cards, and mobile phones. That said, we were told that women are digitally curious and actively interact with mobile phones. We observed women using mobile phones on busses and occasionally go to mobile repair shops. That said, more research needs to be conducted regarding gendered aspects of memory card usage in small towns in India. Although access is differentiated based on gender, it would be wrong to assume that women in small towns are digitally illiterate when it comes to handling mobile phones (see Neha Kumar 2015).

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