Media technological change and advancements have a concerted impact on the ways in which our everyday lives are governed and assembled. As this change is gradual and incremental, rarely do we become cognizant of its lasting impact on how we conduct our affairs, and the reconfigurations of social relations it manifests. I became confronted with the social ramifications of changing configurations of Pakistani life after I had to move to Karachi from Lahore for a temporary assignment, when I became reliant on the popular ride-sharing app Careem for my daily transportation needs.
Although I had used similar algorithmic GPS-based ridesharing apps such as Uber and Lyft in New York and London, the novelty of such an incarnation in Pakistan bore peculiar inflections reminiscent of the postcolonial and developing worlds’ adoption of technological change. In western metropoles, rideshare apps like Uber behave seamlessly with almost pinpoint accuracy, they also simplify and rearrange the ride-hailing process to create other efficiencies and determinacies — this fragmentation and reconfiguration of useful processes is a hallmark of the wave of neoliberalism sweeping the world. In the postcolonial periphery, almost the exact same algorithmic technology is often glitch-ridden and full of abnormalities, informalities and moments of social reinterpretation, which expose ethical valences of technologically mediated interactions with others.
As I came into contact with a vast array of humans from different walks of life while navigating the somewhat unfamiliar urban terrain of Karachi, every ride would have its own uncanny distinctiveness. Oftentimes GPS glitches or faulty mobile hardware would cause issues in the pickup or the ride, other times technological illiteracy of the driver would convert the ride into a collaborative venture — “sir zara guide kardein” — where I would provide navigation assistance, giving the rideshare process a whole different Pakistani flavour. Some Careem captains would be very conversant, often chewing paan and vivaciously sharing all kinds of life stories and insights, other times they would conduct themselves in silence almost like a robot.
The fact that I was paired with these individuals through an algorithmic process made the transactions seem different from regular social interaction; it made me question what our ethical obligations were to these vehicle operators who were in fact part of a larger technological and informational assemblage.
This stems from a larger debate over the question of ethical obligations to technological assemblages such as artificial intelligences, androids and robots. Not to imply robot in the pejorative, but a Careem captain isn’t simply a human being. Rather, they are a human component of a larger machine that preforms a routine or task towards a particular outcome. The French poststructrualist philosopher Gilles Deleuze has argued that machines don’t exist in hermetic isolation, in fact they are couplings of human and non-human components that come together in what he has termed “machinic assemblages.”
In Deleuzian terms, the Careem captain is in fact a vehicle-driver-mobile-GPS-satellite-algorithm assemblage, for it is all of these technologies and interlocking machinic assemblages that make possible any given Careem ride, incorporating the human passenger in its fold as a part of this very assemblage.
In these novel configurations made possible by a convergence of different technologies, at times it is the hardware that is faulty, at other times the human-component is at fault. In the terminology of American theorist of technology and ethics Donna Harraway, these glitchy and at times faulty Careem Captain assemblages can be recognized as “Cyborgs” — assemblages that modify the human organism with technical and prosthetic extensions.
A cyborg, according to Harraway’s cyberpunk Cyborg Manifesto, is hence “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction,” which mediates “the relation between organism and machine [that] has been a border war.” Though this border between human and non-human is precarious, mobile apps reorganise the terms of the human-machine-human relation. Essentially according to Harraway’s formulation, we are all becoming-cyborgs — at the same time we are all being rewired into the itinerant re-articulations of fragmentary neoliberal circuitry.
The affordances and conveniences produced by the Careem ridesharing app are in fact produced through various checks and curbs—fragmentation of processes—along with a mix of incremental rewards and punishments that govern the productive lives of Careem Captains. The human components of these transportation vectors and intensities are made to conform to strict regime involving 10 seconds to reject a ride, bonuses on weekly five star ratings, achieving a certain number of benchmarks, and constant technological surveillance.
Glitches and informalities form a significant part of the Careem experience in a peripheral technological zone like Pakistan that makes it different from the metropoles. Sometimes, the app glitches due to a mix of internet bandwidth, mobile connectivity, or GPS systems and urban mapping issues; other times the Pakistani driver is unable to operate the GPS technology, or is unable to understand the artificially intelligent robotic accent of the Google Maps assistant which in term botches up names of Karachi roads like “Kha-Ya-Ban-East-Stickbol Road”. These glitches are peculiar to a broader pattern through which media technologies are incorporated into the postcolonial periphery.
Anthropologist, Brian Larkin in Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria, considers the technologies of radio and cinema in Nigeria and the fact that these are ridden with glitches, low fidelity content, and noise. These glitches, according to Larkin, are not only the articulation of designed obsolescence of postcolonial media technologies, but are symptomatic of the peripheral status of the postcolonial and developing worlds.
The glitches prevalent in Careem rides, the inconsistencies of the cyborg Captains, and the larger assemblage which points us on vectors from approximate pickup to an undesignated drop-off are all parts of this unique experience of a postcolonial media-technological assemblage. Our role as passengers implicated as human parts of these assemblages should make us reconsider whether we treat these human-others as merely an apparatus, an instrument, or simply a household servant.
So when Careem captains say at the end of the rides, “Sir, rating, sir, five ishtaar hee dijiyega na?” I actually have to think twice, whether it is more ethical to be accurate and confront the glitches in this new hyper-fragmented economy of transaction, or to be nice and help someone make the benchmark for their weekly bonus despite the glitches. Such techno-ethical dilemmas will no doubt become more and more prevalent in urban Pakistani life as impersonalised algorithms begin re-arranging the circuits of our day-to-day activities.