Monday, January 02, 2006

Parallel Trajectories of the WWW (Part I)

I spent last summer (2004) in rural Pondicherry talking to people in villages where the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation had set up information kiosks (thagaval maiyyam) with Internet connectivity. And the year before that, I spent a summer hanging out in the outskirts of Tiruppur (near Coimbatore, in Tamilnadu) trying to understand how people made sense of the Web. My own experiences with the Internet in India has been via cybercafés in Bangalore and now, through interviews with a number of media execs running dotcom companies. I am struck by the very different careers that one communications technology has had in India over the same period of time. It seems that India’s experiments and experiences with the Internet can be traced along two parallel trajectories. (It is also clear that a community of practitioners, funding agencies/venture capitalists, policy-makers, and academics has developed around each path. There are some very interesting points of intersection, but more on that later).

On the one hand is the emergence, over the last 6-7 years, of the dotcom sector in India. Spurred on by the development of the IT industry as a whole over the last 10-15 years, a number of India-specific websites and portals have established themselves as key spaces in the world wide web. Portals and sites such as Indiatimes, Rediff, Sulekha, Yahoo-India, and Indiafm are all established players in the Web business. Further, while PC penetration in India is still very low, there is little doubt that the Internet, as a new medium of communication, is firmly entrenched in the urban imagination. In a city like Bangalore, cybercafés are ubiquitous – so much so, I’d even claim that they rival the darshinis in terms of presence!

Much of the urban middle class is now conversant with cyber-terms such as email, chat, surf/browse, webcam, and so on. I’ve been using cybercafés in Bangalore for nearly 7 years now and can confidently say that the demographics of Internet usage, while dominated by the 14-30 age group, has gradually expanded to include middle-aged parents who correspond with their relatives in different parts of the world (if not within India). The Web now is as much a part of these folks’ media ecology as satellite TV and FM radio.

Now consider another life that the Internet has had in India. In rural India, the Internet has been enmeshed in the
discourse of
ICT4D – Information and Communication Technologies for Development.There have been a number of interesting and high-profile experiments carried out, with varying degrees of success, by a range of actors. Some of the well-know ones include MSSRF’s work in the Pondicherry region, n-Logue/Tenet/IIT-Chennai’s work in the Madurai region of Tamilnadu, the Akshaya project in Kerala, and Drishti’s project in Haryana. [for a more comprehensive listing, see this report]

In rural India, the Internet has largely been introduced as a wonderful new tool for “development.” Radio and television failed us, but the Internet, now this is going to be revolutionary, has been the general sentiment. It is another matter that we are yet to witness an ICT4D project that has succeeded either in terms of usage or financial sustainability. Again, please go here to read more about these and other problems.

So powerful has the rhetoric of “leapfrogging the industrial revolution” been that info-kiosks and telecenters in India are viewed exclusively in developmental terms. The burden of “leapfrogging,” it would seem, was placed squarely on rural Indian. Millions of dollars have been spent on ICT4D initiatives, vast rural tracts have been “integrated” into the new communications network, software programs have re-worked to suit different local languages, and hundreds of volunteers have painstakingly set up IT centers in hundreds of villages. Yet the question of pleasure and meaning is never asked. Pleasure and entertainment, it would seem, are the province of urban, English-speaking elites.