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Monday, January 02, 2006

Parallel Trajectories of the WWW: an Anecdote

Pleasure and entertainment, I claimed, were not a part of the vocabulary of ICT4D initiatives in rural India. Let me recount a story. I was in Madurai, visiting different kiosks with another academic (an American professor) and were accompanied by two people who had done wonderful and painstaking work to set up the kiosks and were responsible, in many ways, to ensure that the kiosks functioned well. One kiosk, we were told, was proving to be a problem because in the evenings, the PC there was being used to watch films and sometimes, porn. The professor I was with clicked his tongue and asked what was being done about this “problem.” And I recall being amused that no one anticipated something like this happening in a kiosk run by two young men!

I bring this up to point to how a certain mode of using the computer and the Web was construed as being a disciplinary issue and clearly outside the ambit of “development.” How could these boys watch films and porn when the kiosk was set up with the goal of helping the village and its denizens “leapfrog the industrial revolution?!”

I don’t mean to underplay the project leaders’ concern – a space that gets associated with a group of men watching porn isn’t one that women are inclined to visit on a regular basis, to consider one very obvious dimension of the problem. And I am not suggesting that ICT4D initiatives think creatively about using porn as a hook to getting rural India online! There are many serious problems to be addressed (English as the language of the Web, for instance) before the Web as a medium becomes a part of everyday life.

The question is, are there lessons to be learned from the way other “new media” are now as much a part of rural as urban India?

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