Rural Social Media – A Meta-Digital Divide


This is the third research note from Sandeep Mertia, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.

 

Of all the progenies of contemporary technological development, Digital Divide fascinates me the most. Its iatrogeny — problem inducing ways of problem solving — and capacity to reinvent is matched only by a few other problems of our age. Many scholars have tried to reconceptualise digital divide as a socio-technical problem, by pointing out the continuum of gradations between the information haves and have-nots [1], still there are several nuances left to be grasped. One such subtlety which I have come across in my fieldwork is that of an intra-technological divide between telecentre’s computers and individuals’ mobile phones.

As I mentioned in my previous post [2], the dominant mode of Internet access in Rampur is through mobile phones, rather than the telecentre’s computers, which have optical fibre based high speed Internet facility. Such technological choices are hard to understand. Why would anyone in a resource constrained environment pay from his pocket for a mobile Internet pack rather than avail the free and much faster Internet service at the telecentre? A major part of the answer lies in the social and political positioning of the two technologies in the village.

I

In my field sites — Rampur and Chandpur [3] — as well as in many other villages in India, the telecentre is located within the village panchayat building, where not everyone feels welcome. While on paper it is equally accessible to all villagers, in practise more often than not, only a few – students enrolled in the digital literacy class, friends and relatives of the telecentre agent, manage to get access.

On a typical day at the telecentre in Rampur, three small batches of five to seven school and college going girls, including those from nearby villages visit to take the digital literacy tutorial of 60-90 minutes, during which most of the time they are free to browse the Internet. For the rest of the day, the computers are occupied by friends of the telecentre agent, who browse social media websites, watch movies, play games or just hang around for a few hours daily.

The few villagers who have to access Internet for work, i.e., to get some information on land records, fill an online form, check exam results, etc. prefer going to the e-Mitra shop or a private computer repair shop, instead of the telecentre which is supposed to provide these facilities for free. But on the other hand, the digital literacy class, for which the agent has to maintain an official written record, seems to be unaffected by the closed club like functioning of the telecentre.

The telecentre agent, a former IT worker in the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) division at Rampur’s Panchayat Samiti, holds that this anomaly in perceptions about the telecentre is due to people’s unawareness. But a large section of my respondents, especially active Internet users who have tried in the past to gain access to the telecentre, took a contrary position and denounced the telecentre’s utility for common villagers.

Interestingly, the telecentre’s public Wi-Fi was discontinued earlier this year after the agent and the franchise owner felt that it was improper for so many villagers, mostly young boys, to hang around in the panchayat premises for long hours, accessing Internet via their phones. Now, the password protected Wi-Fi is accessible only to some friends of the agent.

The point I wish to make here is that the telecentre, in general, seems to be embedded in the social network of the private franchise owner or the village panchayat, depending upon the administrative model of the e-governance scheme. The reasons for non-inclusiveness of the panchayat are part of larger debates on decentralization and local governance, but I would just like to mention here that access as understood in neo-liberal terms like ‘transaction’, is inadequate to grasp the complexities of caste, gender, reciprocity and politics of technology. Unlike cities, social capital of technology and actors associated with it in the villages is an important factor which influences access.

Another crucial factor which affects access is the larger framework of e-governance in which the telecentre is situated. A common subtext in the responses of the non-users of telecentre, which I observed, is that of the bureaucratic texture of telecentre’s computer – which instead of demystifying technology is adding to the barriers. To understand this appropriation of technology, we first need to grasp the distinct meanings of rural citizenship, the state’s relevance and presence at the village level, and how e-governmentality [4] (in Foucauldian sense of the term) is changing both. I will discuss these in detail in future posts.

II

The mobile phone story in Rampur, just like in other rural areas, is in such stark contrast to the computer story that in the beginning it almost seems like the two technologies belong to different cosmos. All the obvious rationales behind the meteoric rise of cell phones like economic affordability, technological simplicity for users, lack of dependence on electricity supply, rise of individualism, etc. are correct, albeit partially. While I acknowledge the comprehensive works of Castells, Miller and Horst, Jeffrey and Doron among others, in explaining the great rise of mobile phones globally and in India as well; my field observations push me to think that there is something more than what has already been said.

In Rampur, one of the major difference in the telecentre ecosystem and the mobile shops ecosystem, is that of social ambience. Despite the much higher affordances a computer can provide for media consumption than a mobile phone, almost all mobile shops in Rampur seem much more technologically versatile and socially hospitable than the telecentre. Most of the shops offer retail, repair and reselling of mobiles, and sell media content—mostly Hindi and Marwari songs and movies—on memory cards. The content is sometimes downloaded from the shopkeeper’s own computer but mostly it is bought from the nearest town. These shops can also provide free advice and literacy on how to use a phone.

Mobile Shop
Credit: Author.

The phone shops have a chaupal (commons) like feeling to them (see above image). Of course the business interest of the shopkeeper is a critical factor which is not really served by the gossip at the shop, still the flexibility of socializing which one can see in a village mobile shop is unimaginable for a city. For me, the most glaring aspect of the mobile shop conversations is the way it allows for re-working the language of ICTs in the village. Amidst the state’s context insensitive text of development and the market frenzy posters of mobile phone companies, the vernacular idioms and ways of knowing and using technology, signal the existence of a subaltern imagination.

III

The meta-divide between computer and mobile phone in Rampur extends to the nature of technology and use as well. Many users access Internet through only mobile phones with basic Internet browsing facility. Their interaction with the technology is quite different from the ones who visit the telecentre. For instance, the web interface, basic mobile interface and smartphone application interface of Facebook differ significantly, and so does the user experience. Also, the differences in Internet speeds, materiality of devices, required literacies, cultural capital, etc. add to the socio-technical divergence between the computer and mobile phone.

There is also a third ‘ICT’ in the village which is perhaps less hep than a computer and a mobile phone, but I think, it provides rich cultural humus for the other two to grow. It’s the television in its digital avatar! It’s hard to find a roof in Rampur which does not have one DTH dish. The frequent references to social media in news and entertainment shows on television have perhaps led to a new kind of technological convergence, wherein Facebook instead of being a platform for gossip is more of a subject of gossip in the village. I’ll discuss this in more detail in the final paper.
 

Notes


[1] Warschauer, M. 2003. Technology and Social Inclusion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Wilson, E. 2004. The Information Revolution and Developing Countries. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Selwyn, N. 2003. Apart from Technology: Understanding People’s Non-Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Eeveryday Life. Technology in Society. No. 25. Pp. 99-116.
Wade, R. H. 2004. Bridging the Digital Divide: New Route to Development or New Form of Dependency? In C. Avgerou, C. Ciborra, and F. Land (Eds.). The Social Study of Information and Communication Technology. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 185-206.
This is just an indicative list.

[2] Mertia, Sandeep. 2014. Rural Social Media and ‘Timepass’: Theorising Non-Instrumentality. Sarai. Retrieved from http://sarai.net/rural-social-media-and-timepass-theorising-non-instrumentality/.

[3] Name changed. My second field site, Chandpur, is a religious minority village in Alwar district (Mewat Region) of Rajasthan, with an approximate population of 4500. I’ll share the observations specifically pertaining to Chandpur in future posts.

[4] It connotes an emerging interplay of technological affordances and nation state’s politics, wherein governance is increasingly enframed by the world view which ICTs disclose or reveal, and ICT adoption is imagined as an act of citizenship. I will develop this concept further in the final paper.

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Published on: August 30, 2014


2 Comments

  • Dear Sandeep,

    I find your work very interesting. Your findings in rural areas on mobile phone usage and the social entities that have emerged in relation to such usage intersects with my findings in urban areas and small towns. The most interesting takeaway from your work that directly feeds into mine is mobile phone shops. It seems that these shops are playing similar roles everywhere in India. I have also noticed that shopkeepers of mobile phone shops and other users who gather at such shops develop a sort of camaraderie over a period of time and instruct each other various functionalities and uses of their devices. These shops also act as ‘addas’ for different kinds of tech related knowledge exchanges. As you rightly point out, the uses they find of their devices at such shops, and the skills they learn are not always in conjunction with the state imagination of skills and knowledge constituting digital literacy. This is the point at which my project is also situated. Though my analytical frame is not ‘digital divide’ I feel we are trying to understand an emergent social reality in its urban and rural variants through slightly different lenses. My work is an attempt to investigate and understand creative media consumption practices mainly via mobile phones.

    I would also like to know more from you about the gendered nature of these shops. Do women come to such shops and participate? What is nature of conversations at such shops? What are they about? Are they around songs, movies and some popular videos? What is the most common purpose (that you can cull out of your observations) of visiting these shops?

    Looking forward to your next post.

  • Dear Rashmi,

    Thank you so much for the comment.

    Yes, I agree with you on the point of resonances in our findings. I also find your project extremely interesting. There are certain similarities in the way the mobile phone shops work, however, I would like to add a caveat that the above description of mobile shops is in a way specific to Rampur. There is an interesting socio-geography to these mobile phone shops in rural areas, which I’ve come to observe during my travels and exploratory fieldwork in other villages.

    As you might know, these shops have emerged from the retail network of FMCG, esp in rural areas. So, the villages which had prominent ‘bazaars’ — mostly the ones which are on or nearby important highway routes or are junction villages for nearby villages, have many such shops but the remote or smaller villages have at max a shop with recharge facilities. For eg. I went to 6 small villages in the Rampur tehsil, none of them had a ‘mobile shop’ in strict sense of the term. They had mostly general stores which provided mobile recharge — and they didn’t show the kind of ‘social ambiance’ I have mentioned in the article. Nonetheless, the mobile phone usage is flourishing in these villages as well.

    Also, in my second field site – Chandpur – the digital literacy program is a big hit, going only by the numbers of students who have completed the course, still the village has just one recharge shop! I was quite surprised to see that there is no real link between the ecosystems of telecentre and mobile shops.

    Coming to the point of gendered access to these shops. Yes, there is a very visible co-relation here. Female customers and visitors at these shops are very less in number as compared to males. In Rampur, the shops are distributed throughout the main road which runs almost through the village. Most of the female customers, visit only the shops which are in the main market area near the bus stop. They, especially the school going girls, visit the shops in groups. Also, it is very rare to see a female buy or sell a phone at any of these shops in Rampur on her own. Other than the usual patriarchal reasons, I think, the record keeping process at the mobile shops in which they note down the mobile numbers of customers could be strong discouraging factor.

    The most common purpose to visit these shops is to get a frugal prepaid recharge. The nature of the conversations at these shops is fairly casual, as I’ve mentioned in the article. The topics discussed there vary from weather to politics and from bhajans to Honey Singh! The shops are definitely important centres of information access.

    Please let me know if you require more details.

    Regards,
    Sandeep

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