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Digital Imperialism through Online Social/Financial Networks

Arguing that digital capitalism and digital imperialism function through the digitalisation of finance and the continuing financialisation of the globe through the apparent "inclusion" of the subaltern, this essay looks at the phenomenon by examining two online microfinance social networks. One is a non-profit website while the other is a for-profit one and their approaches differ to an extent. However, the ideological divide is very thin and both are complicit in and contribute to the digital imperialism that "produces" the subaltern online. The writers suggest that reflecting on this might be a step towards imagining alternative modes of online inclusivity.


Digital Imperialism through Online Social/Financial Networks

Radhika Gajjala, Anca Birzescu

Arguing that digital capitalism and digital imperialism function through the digitalisation of finance and the continuing financialisation of the globe through the apparent “inclusion” of the subaltern, this essay looks at the phenomenon by examining two online microfinance social networks. One is a non-profit website while the other is a for-profit one and their approaches differ to an extent. However, the ideological divide is very thin and both are complicit in and contribute to the digital imperialism that “produces” the subaltern online. The writers suggest that reflecting on this might be a step towards imagining alternative modes of online inclusivity.

Radhika Gajjala ( and Anca Birzescu (abirzes@bgsu. edu) are at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

hat technologies of power, literacy, and culture play into the “inter-nets” that weave the online and offl ine through the rural and urban, through the private and the public, and through the nation state and scattered hegemonies? When, how, and why do these “inter-nets” contribute to the production of “trans” flows of capital? What kind of communicative and technical labour shapes and structures these so-called “flows”? When is the subaltern brought online and for what purpose? For the subaltern to access capital or for capital to access the subaltern?

In this essay, we examine microfinance in online social networked settings to show how the social networked online space and the micro-transactional abilities of the interface work t ogether to further enhance the financialisation of the globe. This is possible because of the increased digitalisation of fi nancial practices, which also means that “financial literacy” is moved into virtual space, taking it further away from the subaltern’s daily praxis.

What online socially networked microcredit websites do visually and through the use of multiple tools that are embedded in the discourse of interactivity is to make it seem as if the subaltern is participating in these networks. Thus the appearance of a subaltern presence is created. In this creation of the appearance of a subaltern presence in online contexts, just as in other visual and static contexts, the complexity of sociocultural and economic intersections are not clearly revealed or accounted for. This reproduces exotic notions of an authentic, mummifi ed Other and o ffers the subaltern image up for consumption. In turn, because Web 2.0 tools are set up to actually reach the

o ffline subaltern via non-profi t or for-profi t representatives that connect to these o nline networks, the subaltern is tapped as a consumer for capital.

These contexts, framed by the rhetoric of interactivity and participation, are trickier than the static representations in print or the distanced visual representations on film and television. Here, the claim is made that the authentic subaltern is making her own choices in representing herself. Indeed she may be making her own choices in what she represents, but when those choices do not translate into a clearer picture of the complex, layered and n uanced context of her everyday life, it still serves to authenticate her as the subaltern Other. Individually, this may serve her well. But structurally, and in relation to hegemonic practices, it remains problematic. We argue that this staging of the subaltern presence as a participant online continues a legacy of digital imperialism fostered by the logic of digital capitalism (Schiller 1999).

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In this essay, we use examples from the websites and to show how this staging of the subaltern happens and how it plays into the financialisation of the globe. We start by pointing out the theoretical problematic by laying out the context of globalisation, non-profits and the marketing paradigm, and the digitalisation of global finance. This is followed by an examination of the websites and the use of examples drawn from a larger continuing study where we have looked at 35 profiles in the microfinance social networks described (Gajjala V et al forthcoming July 2011). Through this analysis we illustrate the modes in which digital imperialism operates in online networked settings, pointing to the implications and consequences of this process.

Theoretical Problematic

Online presences and absences are shaped by the marketing and labouring needs of the emerging global digital economy. Current forms of online networks and communities are transitional, but the transitional, shifting, updating nature of these networks, technologies, spaces and places is in itself a condition on which this global marketing process relies. The continuous production of newness generates continuous consumption. This too is not an altogether “new” phenomenon – the automobile and apparel i ndustries have done it in various ways even in pre-internet times. Now, in the internet era, it has been speeded up. This

o bservation on the continuous production of newness is not new either, and neither is globalisation. Colonialism openly set in m otion a logical force that justified the global circulation of r esources for consumption by the few. Soon, the masters of i ndustry realised they were producing more than the elite few could consume and learnt they could sell more in the name of sharing and providing empowerment. The global circulation of raw material and labour was the basis for the industrialisation of the western world (Couze 2009).

Software design, like railway tracks and overpasses, allows the mapping of globalisation only through certain routes, and only for some populations. It allows chosen mobility for the transnational elite, which is predicated on the immobility or the forced mobility of others. As has been noted often enough, it is no accident that the metaphor of the information superhighway is what is most often bandied about when the internet is mentioned. Manuel Castells, for instance, cautions against the s ocially and functionally selective diffusion of technology. He identifies one of the main sources of social inequality as the “differential timing in access to the power of technology for people”, and thus acknowledges, in contrast to the laudatory rhetoric about globalisation of technological systems, that its outcome is “large areas of the world, and considerable segments of population, switched off from the new technological system” (Castells 1996: 32-33).

Even when the issue is no longer that of lack of material access to technology, a power distribution and hegemonic negotiation of technologically mediated space is always at play. Thus, along with the opportunities for countering power in a networked society through alternative politics, counter-social movements and so on that seem to be available through horizontal communication networks, there are still attempts on the part of the powerful to rearticulate new forms of hegemony. Such reassertion of dominance in this new public space of communication occurs through acts ranging from legislation labelling some internet users “ pirates”, to purchasing social networking sites “to tame their communities” (Castells 2007: 259). These obvious and not so obvious exclusionary practices are tokens of a modern reorganisation of imperialist projects. In particular, these are contemporary tokens of an ongoing discourse of imperial indifference that relentlessly and interestedly/strategically hierarchises people and cultures to facilitate the normalisation of empire (Chopra 2011).

Current manifestations of the global village have no real or virtual roads to places where there is no software, thus making it possible for us to make the claim that all roads lead to software. Roads are built for and towards software production and consumption, as we can see with the increasing urban encroachment on rural and related production communities. However, neither can we assume some exotic Other or subaltern, who sits around unconnected and unliberated by the wonders of the information superhighway. The logic of global business and the necessity to connect to mass markets will certainly ensure that connection – of some sort – not only happens, but becomes essential. In addition, the digitalisation of finance (a process that actually predates the public social availability of the World Wide Web) has allowed capital itself to be commodified so that first world nations, transnational venture capitalists, businessmen, and more powerful investors worldwide can now sell packets of capital to subaltern Others in exchange for real estate, equity and social capital – in the name of corporate social responsibility, among other things (Deetz 2007).

We can no longer talk about the global as urban, the city, or the developed world. The “rural” local exists more in the romantic imaginary of the urban elite than it does in actual geographical reality. We can no longer even point to rural regions in the developing world as somehow outside modernity (if they ever were). Romanticising the rural of the developing world in the media, fi ction, travel writing and nationalist or diasporic writings has been going on for a long time – and now we can add to it the production of the rural in online settings. This rural appears in icons, texts, dialogues, interactions and even Wikimapia markings and Facebook groups through the nostalgia of the urbanised worker. However, when examined offline, these rural sites have shifted and contain as much urban encroachment as any other place in the world. So what does the binary of rural and urban stand for in literal terms anymore?

Writers such as Thrift and French have pointed out that “wherever we go in modern cities, we are being directed by software [and] these programs have come to run cities in very strong ways, and to direct human bodies around them” (2002: 323). A key factor to note in relation to software is that while the ways in which software is prevalent in urban locations can perhaps be mapped through circuits of software use, the hidden ways in which software is routed around certain other (even rural) geographic, sociocultural, and economic spaces is not as obvious. Therefore, the implications of software becoming a key technology of government and world economies continue a “modern”

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and colonial legacy of eliminating skills, communities, and cultures based on modes of production, and everyday life that is not connected to or finds no entry point to the software networked “global” society. Subjectivities are reconfigured and appropriated through an interaction of economic and cultural factors. Hierarchies are shifted and maintained in ways that work for the select few who have access and control over ownership and the cultural capital that shapes constructs of identity and ignorance as well as definitions of skilled and unskilled workforces. This is how digital imperialism plays out through the weaving of the online and offl ine.

Thus the interweaving of sociocultural and economic activity in relation to e-commerce and various other types of cyberspace invokes multiple connections and complicities within the processes of globalisation. Kumar points out that “it is precisely the Internet and computers, which were supposed to produce a borderless world, that have thrown up…a racially marked sense of the local” (2001: 85). Such racial marking is perpetuated not only through labour and immigration patterns in the US and other western regions, but also through education policies to do with technological training in countries such as India. As Kamat, Mir and Mathew have pointed out, while the

...growth of the IT labour sector was based on changes in the immigration policies of the US … these policy changes reflect how nation states alter their national policies to meet the demands of the global economy. … [and] are indicative of the unique political context and culture of each country. In the case of India, the education policy changes relate to caste politics while immigration policy of the USA shares the legacy of US race politics (2004: 5).

It appears then that in relation to the internet, the relationship between economic forms and cultural forms is complex and multidirectional. Taking a look at this complex multidirectional relationship between economic and cultural forms in the context of globalisation leads us to ask various kinds of questions about how social formations are manifested online and offl ine. How are “diversity” and “multiculturalism” defined within an increasingly “global” digital economy, for instance? We have always been “global” and “local” in various ways through history, as p eople travelled, colonised and migrated. Why is there such an emphasis now on the “globality” of the world? Questioning the uneven power relations involved in the global circulation of literacies, material, labour, and cultural capital, we reiterate a question asked by Spivak, “In what interest, to regulate what sort of relationships (material, social, political and cultural) is the globe evoked?” (1998: 329). Similarly, what sorts of relationships

– material, social, political, personal and cultural – are being regulated within the current hegemonic definitions (whether implicit or explicit) of diversity and multiculturalism? What kinds of imperialist discursive production processes are being re-insinuated into the dynamics of the financialisation of the globe?

In current manifestations of globalisation, neoliberal logic reframes this hidden logic in terms of increase in access and opportunity. Thus we are offered increased access and opportunity to consume and work, while the management of labour, skills, literacies, and modes of production as well as the circulation and fl ow of capital are still controlled through particular socio-economic hierarchies. We are told how empowered we are to consume and

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l abour in internet-mediated environments as we “fl exibly” multitask, opening windows to shopping, coding, grading, instructing, learning, writing papers, banking, giving charity, sharing h obbies, whispering daily sweet-nothings, and even providing sexual pleasure.

Euphoria about the “new” media and internet connectivity conceals the crucial political and economic shifts that have been enabled by the ways in which digital technologies have become key players in the processes of globalisation. For instance, in our academic investigations of identity online, we rarely link the fact that financial instruments and transactions happen through digital networks to the question of who is online and why. In our celebration of online youth cultures and the simultaneous social panic over teenagers and children having online access, we sideline issues of how the internet and related social media shape f uture generations of consumers.

Against this backdrop, in what follows, we address the reshaping/reinstatement of imperialism in the forms of digitalisation of global finance. Next, we instantiate our argument with a brief discussion on the discursive production of the third world versus western subject positions as they take place on the technologymediated platform of development and microlending.

The Marketing Paradigm and Social Movements

In trying to answer why only a few among countless local social movements succeed in making their voices heard and have real prospects for empowerment in the global arena, Clifford Bob discusses how the marketing model provides the motivations for disparate levels of international success and support/activism for local challengers, insurgencies or movements. He argues that marketing concepts such as “demand and supply” and “marketing strategies” are applied to activities of local political movements and that their ability to be heard and noticed is framed by an implicit global marketing logic. They are compelled to compete for entry to this global marketplace for support and popularity that transnational non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the developed world have been granted. The competitive market paradigm is veiled, however, in a discourse of empowerment and altruism. This veiling produces an “analytical blind spot”. The blind spot perpetuates a deceivingly simple understanding/ rationale for the growth of transnational NGO assistance, while, in actuality, “winning NGO support is neither easy nor automatic but instead competitive and uncertain” (Bob 2005: 4-5).

This neoliberal-marketing-for-empowerment framework which pervades even radical social movements online is set in the c ontext of the financialisation of the globe and the digitalisation of fi nance. Neoliberal creativity becomes boundless in a context where information and communication technologies (ICTs) are the backbone, basis or infrastructure of an already well-formed global market system – a context that allows an amazingly rapid spread of “political, economic, and cultural ideas” (Calabrese 2004: 325). This combination makes possible a virtual economy familiarly defined as a reference “to the exchange of symbols a ssociated with international monetary and fi nancial markets” (Peterson 2003: 114). It is precisely within this particular global reconfiguration that global finance represented by transnational diverse capital flows (credit, money, and the like) becomes most crucial, given “the phenomenal growth in these fl ows and their relationships to the ‘real’ economy of goods and services” (Peterson 2003: 114).

Neoliberal economic marketisation and deregulation has thus given an impetus to financial trading (transnationally) that was difficult to conceive two decades ago. These fi nancial transactions, through their influences on prices worldwide, unquestionably affect all aspects of life globally. Peterson highlights the comprehensive nature of global financial trading outcomes. Among others, the financial markets infl uence “investments (short-term or long-term; in trade, financial instruments, or h uman resources), the production of goods and services (material-based or knowledge-based; labour-intensive or capital- and technology-intensive) and the structure of labour markets (what types of labour, where located, with what compensation and u nder what conditions)” (Peterson 2003: 115). Wade also provides useful insights into the meaning of fi nancialisation when he defines it as

the growing dominance of the financial economy over the real economy, as seen in (a) the tightening institutional interlock and normative congruence around the interests of wealth holders, (b) the rapid redistribution of national income towards capital-owners and away from labour (dependent on wages and salaries), and (c) the rapid redistribution of national income towards the richest 10%, and 1% of households (2005: 4; qtd in Orhangazi 2008: 4-5).

By the same token, a critical approach to global fi nancialisation must also explore the ways in which it reshapes the functioning of civil society. An evaluation of how civil society is being transformed by fi nancialisation is prompted by the growing authority of transnational corporate elites – or by the corporatisation and privatisation of governments – on business decision-making, which implicitly has consequences on public policymaking.

The mode of digital imperialism that circumscribes the formation of the new subaltern in the current international division of labour is aptly described by Spivak as “a displacement of the d ivided field of 19th-century territorial imperialism” (1999: 274). It is easier to grasp the reconfiguration of empire digitally if we see the “Third World” as a “displacement of the old colonies”, and if we understand that colonialism “displaces itself into neocolonialism”, while recognising that neocolonialism stands for “the largely economic rather than the largely territorial enterprise of imperialism” – all these interconnected with the dynamics of the financialisation of the globe (Spivak 1999: 3).

Online Microfinance and the Image of the Subaltern

We now turn to the role that the production of a subaltern voice in online networks plays in relation to the increasing fi nancialisation of daily life (Martin 2002) through internet-mediated microtransactions and niche markets. We link the complexities of the production of a subaltern voice to the preceding discussion about the logic of financialisation and digital imperialism. We refer mainly to two online networks that have been formed around the micro-transactional abilities provided by Web 2.0 internet technologies. These networks are and, which are online microfi nance networks. and

(and networks like them) use the micro-transaction tools and Web 2.0 social communicative tools for financial and communicative transactions that result in microcredit loans for the subaltern who is on the margins of the mainstream modes of production and consumption.1

These types of online networks are made possible through a continuing digitalisation of financial organisation and practice enabled by software such as In addition, through their social, interactive, textual, multi-mediated, and visual features, they also infl uence, reflect, and emulate preferred models of civil society, social movements, and development projects. They become entry points for both alternative and parallel producers and consumers by providing a global interface for model multicultural identity performances and standardised fi nancial practices (culture and economics). In addition they carry discourses of empowerment, altruism, and individual entrepreneurship and success. Such discourses, produced both by the participants (be they borrowers or lenders who use the networks) and the managers, producers, owners, voluntary and paid workers of the network itself contribute to the overall marketing of the network, whether it be or Depending on the social variations in different processes, the overall picture is one of empowerment and global savviness. versus and are apparently similar, but on close inspection, we can see that their approaches to the idea of poverty alleviation through microlending are slightly different. Their operating systems reflect the current polemics regarding the practicality (pragmatism)/ethics continuum. Each visual i nterface clearly negotiates the possibility of juggling both practicality in relation to global financial processes as well as the ethics of microlending and philanthropy through such fi nancial frameworks. The ethical dilemmas faced within the microfi nance d omain are manifested in the semiotic contradictions and negotiations visible in the ways that each of them positions lenders and borrowers through their online public (inter)face. Their business manifestos subscribe to two opposing views on microlending – interest-making microlending and not-for-profi t microlending.

To better understand the difference, these two views are best articulated by two prominent figures in the world of microfinance. Promoter of not-for-profit microlending and founder and managing director of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, the Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus “believes in the goodness of mankind…calls us to rise above our baser instincts…and warns that microfinance cannot return respectable financial returns and s imultaneously remain responsive to the impoverished”. Vikram Akula, founder and chairperson of profi t-making SKS Microfinance, on the other hand, “believes in the goodness of market forces…channels our greed into economic opportunity for the downtrodden” and therefore “questions a microfi nance system which, crimped and corralled by limited philanthropic capital, is powerless to serve the next creditworthy poor person in line” (Lewis 2011).

On examining the Web presence of these two online microlending enterprises, we see that each conveys one of these two

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ideologies more clearly than the other to the prospective lender. While, in actuality, both the sites can be said to be negotiating the two views and even sometimes simultaneously representing both views, we see that one (Kiva) privileges altruism while the other (MicroPlace) privileges the financial returns motive. It is possible to see how this is portrayed visually in the screenshot where we have juxtaposed an image of a lender from Kiva and an investor from MicroPlace. There is a difference in the way that each site represents the person who is contributing the money for the loan. The Kiva lender image is a straight frontal shot, taken in a conventional manner, with the lender looking fairly “nononsense”. The image seems like it is meant to draw the attention of the serious philanthropist and activist. In other lender images on Kiva, there are images of couples in what are culturally viewed as “honest” and “clean” looking postures in the western world. Through a close look at several such images in our larger project, where we examined up to 35 lender profiles and 35 borrower profiles (V Gajjala et al forthcoming July 2011), we began to understand that Kiva works through a visual and textual (through Kiva fellow journals) appeal to the altruism of potential lenders (lender as philanthropist, do-gooder, and so on).

MicroPlace, on the other hand, seems to be representing the lender as a go-getter, an investor who is making a profit – the young smart investor and global citizen who can do philanthropy and profit all at once. The discursive mechanisms apparent in both textual and visual content of the websites produce specifi c subjectivities, suggestive of both lenders/investors and borrowers, informed by the general objectives of the two organisations. While the two microlending websites discursively cater for the humanitarian aspiration of global poverty alleviation and sustainable development, they help shape and reinforce somewhat distinct subject positions along the lines of particular needs and desires. The subaltern Others and the western subjects are simultaneously constructed, and sometimes, one subject position is implied in another’s discursive design, as is the case in the visuals (both photographic texts and videos) on the websites.

What is suggested here (in particular, digitally enabled development as the new form of the civilising/modernising mission of the west in the third world) is merely a form of technological benevolence that conceals newly reconstituted imperial tendencies in the digital age. For, as Spivak explains, “the great narrative of development is not dead…the well-meaning raps upon raps upon the global electronic future that we often hear is to provide the narrative of development (globalisation)-democratisation (US mission) an alibi” (1999: 371). Producing Westernised and Global Subjectivities is a person-to-person microlending website that emerged in 2005 as a social entrepreneurship venture. In pursuing its mission to “connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty”, the site offers individuals the possibility to lend money to entrepreneurs/borrowers of their choice. Most lenders tend to be from the developed world and the borrowers tend to be from developing countries or from poorer populations in first world countries. The borrowers are

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also entrepreneurs who need funding for their small businesses, but are not bankable.

As a prospective lender, any internet user can browse entrepreneurs’ profiles uploaded on the website, and can choose someone to lend money to. For instance, a prospective lender may choose to lend to a woman in Sierra Leone who needs the loan to buy peppers, cooking oil, fish, and onions in wholesale quantities for her small food market business. S/he may choose to loan $25, and s/he will be repaid within six to 12 months. The lender may then decide to relend once s/he is repaid. Onsite, in the offl ine location, when the borrower is from a developing country, Kiva partners with local microfinance institutions (MFIs). These MFIs are responsible for selecting qualified entrepreneurs as prospective borrowers. They also upload entrepreneurs’ profiles onto so that future lenders can access their pictures and descriptions to decide whom to loan to. The website is designed along online s ocial networking models popularised in Web 2.0 Internet culture through sites such as Facebook, Myspace and others.

In accordance with its not-for-profit philosophy, Kiva makes up for the unfulfi lled fi nancial profit-making desire of prospective lenders by emphasising networking and promising lendersborrowers so-called unmediated relationship building as tools for the empowerment of the non-global Other. This apparently “unmediated” relationship is created through online journals and videos about individual borrowers and the impact of the loans they received on their livelihoods, which are uploaded and u pdated regularly by Kiva volunteers termed “Kiva fellows”, who report from the offline site where the borrower lives. These diaries, written by Kiva fellows, and the online profiles of the lenders, each contain an inventory of all the borrowers who have received loans from a lender. Together, this visual cluster produces a westernised subject position that seems to have the ability to directly supervise and manage the process of empowering the impoverished Other from the other side of the computer screen. The lenders attain a panopticon-like positionality, whereby the borrower and lender may feel that the lender has control over the trajectory of the loans. They are thus produced as powerful imperial agents with the ability to manage the lives of the Others through their direct monetary contributions. Thus they are i nvited to become part of a mission to change the world into a better, more westernised (even implicitly Christian) place. The persistent recurrence of several terms on the website is intended to further advance the idea of a networked, horizontal agency/ empowerment process, which goes beyond the traditional topbottom empowerment paradigm. Words like “entrepreneur”, “lender”, “borrower”, and “(small) business” are thus a discursive confirmation for lenders on that their actions are not just simple charity or donation, but rather investments in what is going to yield a social return. For instance, James, a restaurant manager from Oregon, explains the reasons he loans on, “I’m not a wealthy person, but I get a great feeling by being able to help the Kiva entrepreneurs a little bit at a time. It’s nice lending money to people in need and watching their progress and then helping someone else!” (“Kiva Lender: James”, Kiva).

On the other hand, these same terms are pivotal in revamping the older philanthropic image of the westerner into the image of an investor, which is now far more appealing to western lenders since it is strongly anchored in a neoliberal capitalist ideology/ mindset. Further, one can also decode this as a discursive repackaging of the older image of the coloniser carrying out violent interventions to civilise the “uncivilised”. Rather, this has been now replaced by the more palatable figure of the western entrepreneur who, driven by capitalist ideals of progress and development, contributes to the alleviation of poverty in the third world. This is the figure adapted to contemporary globalisation that S pivak describes as “an impersonal ‘Economic Citizen’, site of a uthority and legitimation, lodged in finance capital markets and transnational companies” (1999: 276). A Kiva fellow argues that “you’re a venture capitalist when you’re on Kiva…you are financing somebody who is an entrepreneur in the developing world” (“Sheel Mohnot:”, Internet Archive). Nevertheless, the visual inventory of borrowers’ locations in the lending history of each lender acquires a particular semiotic value recalling/suggesting imperial conquering and colonising desires. The Google map view option one can find in the lenders’ profi les makes possible a mapping of the receivers’ geographical locations for all the loans made by a lender. The seemingly empowering networking attributes of the internet, which would ideally help transcend spatial metaphors and epistemes underlying hierarchical geopolitical sites, are being re-inscribed into the hegemonic space and place-oriented conceptions of the World Wide Web. Originally intended to help network people in seemingly deterritorialised online spaces, the Web 2.0 can therefore easily reposition the Other within a territorial conception of the internet. As Enteen explains, “rather than recognising the networks formed through online information exchange, the prevailing images of the Internet and World Wide Web locate individuals, not to mention data, within spatial coordinates” (2006: 299). The discursive choices made on are a case in point of the subtle ways in which imperialism manages to insinuate itself within the capitalist framework of progress and global development.

Referring to the novel development paradigm promoted by, co-founder Jessica Jackley emphasises that the “Others” on have an active voice in the process of gaining empowerment. They actively take part in this process and therefore cease to signify a remote, monolithic “Other”.

It’s about giving ourselves an opportunity to engage that validates their dignity, validates a partnership relationship, not a relationship that’s based on the traditional sort of donor beneficiary weirdness that can happen. …I hope Kiva can blur those lines, like I said, between the traditional rich and poor categories that we’re taught to see in the world, this false dichotomy of us and them, have and have not… I think we can feel free to interact in a way that’s more open, more just and more creative, to engage with each other and to help each other. … Second thing that I’ve learned is that loans are a very interesting tool for connectivity. So they’re not a donation.2

However, a more cautious reading of the textual and visual content on highlights that even though they are not s ilent and frozen in time and space as “Others”, these emergent voices turn into monophonic third world markets for western venture capitalists/investors. The subaltern Other, a composite of economic class as well as racial, ethnic, geographical Otherness, is indeed allowed a space to emerge into global space through Nevertheless, the visibility of the Others is b eing constructed as an exception to the rule. The technical d esign and interface produces their voices as mainstreamed, and thus their possibly initial subversive nature is neutralised. This discursive strategy at play on the Kiva website reminds us of the Barthesian concept of inoculation, a rhetorical form attributed to the bourgeois representation of the world. As Barthes explains, “One immunises the contents of the collective imagination by means of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil; one thus protects it against the risk of a generalised subversion” (1972: 150). The exposure of the western subjects to the subaltern Others at the website interface makes the western, capitalist imagination come to terms with their difference but only to the extent that that difference can be framed by the western context as nonthreatening. Juxtaposed in relation to the numerous images of the Third World Other as terrorist or criminal, the framing of this Other within such philanthropic contexts allows the western and/or global internet user to feel in control. Further, this process of exposure, which prompts the Third World Other to become known/knowable to the western subject in a relationship of subordination, may be attributed historically to the experience of imperialism and colonialism.

The networking/partnership relations fostered on can also be exposed when considering the mediated representation of the borrowers. The individual in need of a loan is fi rst chosen to be represented as an adequate borrower by a local MFI, that is, the appropriate and token native informant. Next s/he is represented by the Kiva fellows’ diaries, and, finally, the Web 2.0 tools themselves are filters which shape the final representation of the borrower. Thus the borrower image is managed at multiple levels so that the borrower appears deserving of the loan. By comparison, the lenders are far more in control when negotiating their representation on the site, having direct access to the website and related digital technologies.

The knowledge and representations implied by the profi les discourse can be further understood when taking into consideration their implications in real social power relationships. In this sense, there are particular discursive formations contoured in the Kiva profiles. At work here is a practice of unidirectional cross-cultural encounters which encourages and reinforces a western gaze at the “Third World”, but denies the back-talking or the Other’s gaze at western subject positions. However, in the context of Web 2.0 technologies, the claim of interactivity is made as evidence of willing participation and choice on the part of the subaltern Other. “Third World” and racialised subjects are thus produced as empty/fl oating signifiers always ready to hold the meanings dictated by a neo-imperialist world view and, implicitly, to reinforce a particular westernised subject location.

The symbolic function of the visuals is highly relevant to the degree to which the contrast between absence and presence in the discourse produces othered subjectivities characterised by powerlessness, poverty, and piteousness. In comparison to lenders’ profiles, there are borrowers’ profiles where the snapshots represent the borrowers looking down or in any event not making direct eye contact with the camera, certainly not just a simple coincidence. The photographic discourse thus refuses agency and

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the possibility of scrutiny to the borrowers, objectifying them and eclipsing any real opportunity of “looking back” in a dialogic encounter with the camera. The camera stands here for the eyes of prospective lenders since the photographic perspective substitutes the lenders’ perspective. In contrast, in the lenders’ profi les, the snapshots show these looking directly at the camera eye in an individualised, uncensored process of knowing and scrutinising. Producing the Socially Conscious Global Capitalist Investor

If the interface stands for a milder discursive output of the neoliberal ideology of development, seems to more openly embrace the capitalist ideology and its neoliberal principles of progress. One subject position above all acquires a particular symbolical weight at the interface of MicroPlace. The capitalist (westernised) entrepreneur (with variations such as “venture capitalist” and “investor”) is assigned saviour-like attributes here, along with the power to fight poverty in the (mostly third) world. The identity of the entrepreneur is produced in line with the attributes and purposes of the for-profi t/interest-charging MicroPlace company. The paternalistic, condescending Western gaze focused on the Third World Others, or, for that matter, the discursive othering of third world subjectivities, do not, however, disappear. Rather, they are suggested in a more subtle manner when compared to the discursive formation of the global entrepreneur. The image of the global tech-savvy entrepreneur takes precedence in the signifying practices at work on

A subsidiary of eBay Inc and a registered brokerage fi rm, m is a microfinance investment website. Unlike, it offers prospective lenders returns on their loans and codes them “investments”. The returns range from 1.25% to 3%. Thus lenders can enjoy a dual return – financial and social. As an investor/lender on, you can open an investment account of $20 and up. Unlike on, the lender cannot choose individual micro-entrepreneurs but they can choose m icrofinance projects to invest in.

That MicroPlace is an affiliate of the giant e-commerce company PayPal should not be neglected in a larger discussion addressing the increased presence of global financial services in the development sector. This is further suggestive of the signifi cant ways in which financialisation shapes and affects development policies and practices. The website acknowledges the creative ways in which e-financial services can be harmoniously combined with microlending investment activities.

We want to unleash the capital in people’s investment portfolios and harness it to make a difference in the fight against poverty. Imagine the possibilities if PayPal’s 70 million users were to each commit $500 to MicroPlace – making $35 billion of financial services funding available to the world’s working poor. By engaging with you and its community of partners, merchants, and consumers, PayPal believes it’s possible to realise that kind of radical, positive contribution. Similarly, microfinance is about creating ways for the world’s poor to access the same financial tools that we enjoy in order to help them cope with the unpredictability of their incomes and life circumstances (“MicroPlace: A PayPal Company”, MicroPlace).

One of the short introductory videos embedded in the Micro-Place home page provides a condensed overview of the way this

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march 26, 2011 vol xlvi no 13

online microlending platform functions in relation to its promised outcomes. It also clearly underlines the harmonious cohabitation of profit-making business and social responsibility in the context of digitalisation of finance and the globalisation of neoliberal economic practices.

Once you invest, your money is bundled with other investors by USbased groups, then directed to local Microfinance projects in the region you selected, whether in the US or around the world. As with any investment, there is some risk, but these US-based groups work hard to manage that risk, and make sure your money gets to those in need. Investing in Microfinance projects lets you compound your money and the social good. Here a glimpse at the difference your investment can make: … Your investment might help Pablo. He’s a fisherman on the Amazon River. Your investment could help support a Microfinance project that enables Pablo to buy insurance for his boat. With Microfinance, you now have a sustainable way to invest in people and the world you want to help create (“Overview – How It Works”, MicroPlace).

The sense of newness in the online presentation of the profi les of MicroPlace investors, when compared to lenders’ profi les on, is brought about by a more contoured sense of business ability and “entrepreneurial” world view. These qualities are made apparent through both their photographic and textual representations. This is in keeping with an entrepreneurial, “selfmade man” philosophy of individualised progress. In such a view, the investors need to be able to clearly appreciate the entrepreneurial creativity of the prospective borrowers, rather than a ttending exclusively to the altruistic aspect of poverty alleviation in their decision to invest money. For instance, Kalyani, who is an investor interviewed in a promotional clip about Micro-Place, shares her ideology of individual success and progress.

I believe in people. I believe in people who have drive, who have motivation, who have passion, who are hard workers. And I’ve met a lot of people in developing countries who, with very little, could do so much. My family is from India originally… I know personally where I’ve been successful has not been just when somebody has given me the answer. They’ve given me the tools to find the answer… I love clicking on the stories on the Micro-Place website to see some of the women, for example, who’ve been able to take the investment, and are able to do something to provide for their families… I would love to see more people go to MicroPlace and invest. I think it’s a valuable product that’s out there both in the investments’ space and in the social good space (“Overview – Buzz”, MicroPlace).

The clip presents an investor whose family is originally from India. This speaks of the company’s purpose to promote a more inclusive, multicultural image of the global savvy investor, who is westernised but not visually white or of European descent. The third world subject position is shaped to form a particular segment of global consumers – through digitalised fi nancial services and microfinance projects, they seem to become active participants in capitalist market processes. In contrast to borrowers’ profiles on, the borrowers on are featured as happy looking, independent, enthusiastic individuals, always smiling in their profi le photos.


In current forms of globalisation, the connected and unconnected no longer represent the only kind of digital divide there is. Even when the divide appears to conform to this pattern, it is more complex than that. What appears to be connectedness or even participation, may be mere representation within a neo-more people – young and old – work and play in these spaces imperialist framing. On the other hand, what appears to be exoti-that they inhabit. Cyberspaces have become the nodes at which cisation may be necessary marketing for survival. What appear as various locales connect and disconnect in the production of the individual authentic voices are those that are produced performa-global. Thus those of us who inhabit online networks are also tively through an interaction of invisible interface design and po-networked into processes of globalisation through the interplay litical, economic and discursive hierarchies that have coded the of online global audiences and offline located/situated producsubaltern as data and/or as consumer of global capital. Digital ers. And no matter where we live in the world we are both – glocapitalism and digital imperialism function through the digitali-bal audiences and located/situated producers – in varying desation of finance and the continuing financialisation of the globe grees. Reflecting on the ways in which we might be complicit in through the apparent “inclusion” of the subaltern. and contribute to the digital imperialism that “produces” the

There is a continual interplay of economics, politics, culture subaltern online might be a step towards imagining alternative and everyday life in these online environments as more and modes of online inclusivity.


1 “Creating an account is the first step in using your investment dollars to help in the fi ght against poverty” (“User Registration”, MicroPlace).

2 This is a transcript from the video of Jackley’s talk filmed at Ted Global 2010 (“Jessica Jackley: Poverty, Money – and Love”, Ted).


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June 26, 2010
Labels for GM Foods: What Can They Do? – Sangeeta Bansal, Bharat Ramaswami
Agricultural Price Policy, Farm Profitability and Food Security – S Mahendra Dev, N Chandrasekhara Rao
Climate Change and Water Supplies: Options for Sustaining Tank Irrigation Potential in India – K Palanisami, Ruth Meinzen-Dick,
Mark Giordano
Changes in Land Relations: The Political Economy of Land Reforms in a Kerala Village – Suma Scaria
Pesticides in Agriculture – A Boon or a Curse? A Case Study of Kerala – Indira Devi P
Social Organisation of Shared Well Irrigation in Punjab – Rakesh Tiwary
For copies write to:
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Economic and Political Weekly,

320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. email:

march 26, 2011 vol xlvi no 13

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