Understanding Rural Techno-Culture and Social Media
This is the fourth and final research note from Sandeep Mertia, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.
I have consistently found, through my fieldwork and those of other scholars, that ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) projects in rural areas are context insensitive. However, I am yet to come across a sound description of the invoked rural ‘context’. The ethnographic studies on ICTs in rural areas, including my own earlier work, have often focused only on those factors which seem to most directly affect success or failure of technology led development. This was perhaps for a good reason, given the millennial euphoria of ICT4D. Moving forward however, one needs a broader understanding of socio-technical changes in rural life, which have outpaced scholarship . In this final research note, I would like to introduce some important features of the ‘rural’ socio-technical context by presenting a comparative picture of my two field sites, briefly discussing the emerging discursive practises of social and digital media access and uncertainties which characterise ICT ecologies in the villages.
My two field sites Rampur and Chandpur (names changed), are two fairly different villages in terms of geography, local language, demography and formal literacy rate. Rampur, as I’ve described in the previous posts, is a slightly semi-urban junction village. On the other hand, Chandpur is a somewhat remote, small religious minority village amidst the Aravali hills. Chandpur’s gram panchayat consists of two adjoining hamlets as well, and their combined population is less than 4500. It is a part of the NCR (National Capital Region) and is very close to the Alwar city however, there is no appreciable migration as a large majority of villagers do not depend on the city for their livelihoods. As compared to Rampur’s twenty five mobile shops, Chandpur has only one shop which offers recharge and some basic repair facilities. Chandpur is the only pilot project site for a special ICT4D program for minorities, started by the central government in February this year in partnership with a NGO .
The ICT4D project in Chandpur is aimed at making every household in the village digitally literate in one year’s time. Going purely by the number of students enrolled in the digital literacy class by now, unlike the government run projects it has certainly managed to engage the villagers. Community mobilisation by the locally trained volunteers of the NGO and a project lead—a doctoral student in Delhi who was in the village for the first five months, ensured that almost all the villagers aware of the project and most of them were willing to send their kids to the telecentre. However, the perceptible success story of the digital literacy class does not conceal the deeper problems with such technological intervention in rural life. The villagers, including a couple of volunteers, are beginning to ask – ‘now that we’ve made so many kids digitally literate, what next?’ There are several other problems associated with the ICT4D project in Chandpur, I will discuss them in the final paper . The interesting aspect to note is that despite the change in the implementing agency of the project and the village ambience, there are huge similarities in the usage pattern of computers and internet access. School children and some friends of the volunteers are the major users at the Chandpur telecentre. Apart from gaming, their motivations to visit the centre are same as those in Rampur . Also, despite the great difference in number of mobile phone shops, the mobile internet usage pattern in Chandpur is more or less identical to that in Rampur.
One of the basic questions with which I started this project was – how do the villagers manage to use social and digital media? Over the course of one month, I observed the usage patterns of the three daily batches of five, five and seven school girls respectively in the digital literacy class at the telecentre in Rampur. And had several group discussions with them . All seventeen girls did not have prior knowledge about computers nor did they know English well. They had seen boys in their families and others use Facebook on mobile phones with internet facility, but none of them had an account. In less than a month’s time sixteen of them became active users of Facebook, and all of them learned to use YouTube, Google image search, maps, etc. comfortably. They looked up the location and pictures of their village and nearby town and city on Google Maps, liked Bollywood celebrity pages on Facebook, watched television serials and makeup tutorials on YouTube, etc.
The government’s curriculum of the digital literacy program did not have anything on the internet except email and Google search. With time though, social media access became an organic part of the course. When the telecentre was started last year, the instrumental usage – learning typing, notepad, paint, etc. dominated the class. Students were allowed to use Facebook back then too but the usage was much restricted. Now, the main attraction for students to come the telecentre is social media access. This can be gauged from the fact that the class attendance fell to almost nil, at a stage when several MS Office lessons were pending as per the curriculum, when the internet was down in Rampur for several days.
Interestingly, learning how to do a Google search and emailing are placed in the last two weeks of the curriculum. However, one of the first things which the students learned after learning how to operate a computer was Google search, and they used it in surprising ways. Anything which the students wanted to access on the web began with a Google search, even if they knew the website’s address for e.g. say Facebook, they would type it in Google to get the search results and then click on the link. Many times when they were using a browser with its homepage as Google, they still ended up searching Google on Google itself.
They managed to learn and explore so much, without much assistance of the telecentre agent, by finding their ways around the signs and symbols on the websites, exploring Hindi interface of Google, using Facebook as a sort of ‘Picture’-book, and by sharing and gossiping about it with each other as they explored more. Surprisingly, they created the ‘social’ of social media more in the physical world than the virtual, by using Facebook in a group! They constantly looked at each other’s Facebook timelines and talked about how to comment on a post, adding new guy friends, messaging someone, sharing others’ pictures, etc. Sometimes the telecentre agent was also part of these chats and they often interacted on Facebook sitting in one room .
I would like to theorise such usage as a set of discursive practises—meaning making processes, of the girl students who were learning how to use computer for the first time. They were actually trying to create a context for their internet access by looking up maps of their village, videos and images of their favourite actors and shows, gossiping with their friends, etc. Their discursive practises reveal not just their expressions of agency or cultural appropriation of technology, but also an active re-working of the narrow concepts of ICT4D.
These discursive practises are also visible in the usage pattern in Chandpur (see image below). Among other things worth noting, there is a group of five-six children in Chandpur who know about more than a dozen gaming websites, and a couple of them have more than thousand friends on Facebook. I’ll explain their specific bold use of technology in the final paper.
During my first round of fieldwork in Rampur, a student had to submit his IIT counselling documents online. He and his father – who is a school teacher and a friend on the telecentre agent, were trying to get this work done at the telecentre. Their attempts to upload the documents were failing continuously. Just as I was observing this, the telecentre agent, knowing my background, asked me if I could help. The boy’s father immediately asked others to step away and requested me to take on the computer . I shrunk the image file sizes and uploaded them. However, there was one more problem. The IIT website didn’t display any confirmation of receiving the documents when one tried to log in again. So I resubmitted the files and took screenshots of the webpage which showed the acknowledgement of successful upload. The boy’s father was not satisfied with this, and he insisted that we print the screenshots. He even bought a new A4 paper ream for the telecentre to get the print outs. He said he can’t trust this computer work and wants the proof on paper.
This anecdote on trust issues with technology might be relatable to many of the urban people as well. However, in the village such issues exist on different planes of meanings, as the conditions of access and use of technology are fused with uncertainties. Rural ICT ecologies have uncertainties of every shape and size – from unreliable electricity supply to socially contested access to telecentre’s computers, from economic doubts about their next mobile recharge to anxieties due to lack of cultural capital and know-how of computers and internet, etc. These uncertainties associated with ICTs in the villages are ecological in nature, i.e., they are interact with each other at different levels of complexity.
The ICT4D discourse instead of addressing these doubts, complicates or even reproduces them. Full page advertisements in newspapers of a college student in Jaipur clearing the first round of interview at Google, news and gossip about elopement of a young couple in different towns who met on Facebook, peculiar interest of youth and disinterest of elders in social media, etc. are among the other factors which further affect the meanings of technology in the village.
In such conditions of uncertainty and hegemony of developmental discourse of technology, the alternative discursive practises and non-instrumental usage by rural people compels to rethink the dominant concepts of both ICTs and development. The definite exercise of agency by the villagers, which subalterns like them are not generally identified with, and their reconstruction of meanings of ICTs, indicates a certain socio-technical subaltern imagination . This imagination, though tentatively, can help better understand the villagers who despite being at the socio-technical margins are able to contextually adopt ICTs and quietly re-work the developmental meanings . The processes by which they do so might appear like those of domestication of technology, but that would lead us to ignore the gross asymmetry of power between the ICT4D discourse and the alternate discursive practises in the villages.
The ‘subaltern imagination’ needs better storytellers to grasp the playful Facebook-ing and YouTube-ing in the villages along with the deeper socio-technical emergences and their politics of knowledge. I, for now, can conclude that the seemingly casual use of social and digital media has given us a new epistemic lens to understand complex relationships of technology and society. And from this lens, both ICTs and village society appear more holistic than what the ICT4D lens portrays.
 Understanding ICT diffusion and emerging material culture in rural areas, can also provide significant new insights into normative issues of caste, gender, migration, etc. which are at the core of rural sociology.
 It is common knowledge in the village that the sudden commencement of this program by the minority affairs ministry was not a coincidence. I do not wish to discuss sensitive issues of politics of religion here, but the intermingling of politics of technology with mainstream electoral politics is worth noting. Similarly, Rampur’s selection as a pilot project site of the optical fibre network pilot program is no coincidence either, as it is a part of the constituency of the then minister of state for IT. Both these facts are well known to people on ground.
 To put it briefly – there are problems of more than equal access to relatives of the volunteers, loss of enthusiasm in the volunteers and the students as there is nothing new left to be taught in their digital literacy curriculum, there are hardly any new registrations and all the scheduled batch timings including the separate timings for girl students have been annulled, etc. I’ll discuss these in more detail in the final paper.
 There are some differences due to disparity in infrastructure. While Rampur has high speed broadband internet, Chandpur has a slow WiFi connection which is beamed from Alwar. The latter is more often than not inadequate to view videos on YouTube or browse Facebook without patiently waiting for the website to load. Nonetheless, the craze for these two websites, and other things like downloading torrents is same at both the places.
 I will discuss the ‘gender’ related aspects of Rampur’s digital literacy class in the final paper.
 Such usage, by the way, challenges the ethnocentric perspectives on ‘privacy’ based on ‘networked individualism’, ‘networked self’ etc. which many new media researchers have mastered in the west.
 Besides this I was an unobtrusive ethnographer during most of my fieldwork.
 The term ‘subaltern’ is used here in a limited socio-technical sense, i.e., to highlight the socio-technical nature of the problem of limited ICT access and non-instrumental use in the villages viz-a-viz the prevalent notions of leisurely use social and digital media use.
 I am not judging whether such re-working of developmental meanings of ICTs and social media use is for good or not.