Technology is often considered a great equaliser. You would always find someone detailing the benefits that would accrue to the poor when technology will be introduced. “The world would change; technology would aid the poor and lift them out of poverty,” they will foretell. Same was the case for internet. Internet was supposed to be a great saviour of the masses. The developed world assumed that internet would aid people in developing areas to eke their way out of a life of drudgery and join civil society. Instead, what internet has done is exposed the biases of developed and the rich as regards to technology. Much to their disdain, technology is being used by the poor in a similar fashion as the rich. Not that technology has not aided in lifting people out of poverty or plugging leakages in a corrupt system. But internet is as much a tool for development, as entertainment.
Payal Arora’s work The Next Billion Users: Digital Life Beyond The West details these biases as the world gets ready to connect three billion users —population that lives under $2 a day-to the internet. A digital anthropologist, Arora does not limit herself to ideas of poverty alleviation, but discusses the state of internet in countries such as India, China and Saudi Arabia to explain how internet perception is not too different or radical from the western world. Although there are some distinctions, citizens in each of these countries have found their freedoms within the confines of technology. These people are exploring entertainment, leisure, love and privacy all within this digital habitat. The author does not limit herself to the idea of internet from people’s perspective but also provides a picture from the corporate side on how monetisation of ideas and data is taking place given the widespread use of internet. In the eight chapters that follow, the author discusses examples of internet in each of the countries and under different scenarios and settings. She does so by detailing her interviews and research, drawing from anecdotes and instances from the past.
Although the author does try to cover most biases, her approach towards digital is one on generalising the poor as a homogenous group. The poor do wish to play, but it is not that they do not wish to do anything besides playing. More important, in the context of the internet they want to do much more. Internet does represent hopes and dreams for millions. And, stories of slumdogs do inspire millions. It is not by happenstance that a lot of companies have cropped up from rural India, or use of agri-tech apps have increased amidst farmers.
Yes, Facebook and YouTube are mediums of entertainment for millions, but they are also platforms for many innovations and circumventions. Take #MeToo for instance. Those dismissing it as a western phenomenon would be surprised to find that the move found as much resonance in India as it did with the western world. Technology has fascinated billions and would continue to do so, but that is not to say that it is not to be used for fun. After all, breads and circuses can only take you so far. Even if there are more phones in Nigeria than toilets, these phones may lead to a revolution that goes beyond toilets. YouTube by showing a million stupid cat videos, also shows videos where you can point and say why don’t we have that in our country. Arab Spring is a classic example.