media, information, the contemporary

Rural Social Media and ‘Timepass’: Theorising Non-Instrumentality

Sandeep Mertia - TV Commons

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


Sandeep Mertia - TV Commons
Source: Author.


Q. So, which one do you like more, your school classes or the digital literacy class here at the telecentre?
A. Yeh toh timepass hai, school mein toh padhai hoti hai! (Translation: This is just a time pass (fad), real learning happens in school)


This is an excerpt from one my field interviews with a boy studying in secondary school, who visits the telecentre (or Kiosk) regularly.

His response, similar to many other Internet users in the tehsil (block) village Rampur [1] in Rajasthan, suggests that using social media in particular is not really considered to be a productive thing in the village. However, this inference is not as simple as it seems. As I spent more time in the field following the actors [2], the fairly visible interest in digital media, especially the ones accessible via mobile phones, moved me to question the authenticity, and thus the layered complexity, of what so many of my field respondents consider ‘timepass’.


Rampur is an exciting site for studying the seamless web of relations between technology and society for multiples reasons, which I will briefly introduce here and expound on in future posts. First among them is its political and administrative system. Being a fairly large tehsil, its Panchayat Samiti (governing body of a cluster of Village Panchayats) is always abuzz with local politics of the constituent villages. Secondly, its proximity to the nearest big town, city and over a dozen villages, ensure a sizeable daily two-way migration. Both these factors heavily influence the social world and media ecology of Rampur village, and thus create a context for technology diffusion, adoption, access and use.

I would briefly like to touch upon two contrasting changes that have occurred at my field site from my May 2013 visit to now. The entire Rampur tehsil with its 30 villages was the first Indian tehsil to get optical fibre based broadband connectivity, last year. Now, 25 of those 30 telecentres are closed. Last year during my visit, the then newly started telecentre at Rampur was hosting its first batch of digital literacy classes [3] for female students. Eight such batches, of size 5-10 students each, have completed the course till now. Still, to my surprise the 100 mbps Internet service is largely an unknown entity in the village.

The same village had around 12 mobile phone retail/repair shops in May 2013. Now, that number is 25. With an exception of very few below poverty line families every family has at least one mobile phone. Majority of people are aware of the mobile phone functionalities, tariffs and schemes. The village has already crossed the Chinese cell phones hype cycle [4]. Except for the few who have access to the telecentre, rest of the Internet users in the village – roughly ten percent of the population – depend on mobile Internet. Interestingly, it was during my fieldwork in the last month that 3G mobile Internet service got activated in the village. While the actual 3G users were handful due to cost reasons, the buzz surrounding it was fascinating to say the least [5].

In both, the telecentre sub-ecosystem—which failed due to many reasons, unsustainable policy and disemebedded epistemology being the central ones—and the burgeoning mobile and smart phones sub-ecosystem, Internet in the village is largely being used for entertainment purposes.


The above details can be interpreted in multiple ways. In absence of a thick description of the rural socio-tech system/network/ecology, which of course I aim to provide in my final paper, we will have to begin the discussion on tentative grounds. I am resisting providing more ethnographic details in this essay because I first wish to deal with a mild techno-cultural [6] shock I got in the field – called ‘timepass’ – which is critical to my future engagement with the field.

The little ethnographic data here might lead someone to fancy M4D (Mobile for Development) as a career, or think of a rural sociology of leisure, etc. However, the diffusion of digital media in the village and people’s reconstruction of meanings of technology, I think, is a narrative of rejection of instrumentalist technological frames (or paradigms), and creative usage of ICTs—from downloading torrents to making memory cards social, from the chaupal’s television commons [see image] to caste and gender influenced behaviour on Facebook, and from innovative subsistence of mobile phones to jugaad for a WiFi zone—by so called illiterate villagers.

To understand and analyse such diffusion, adoption, access and use – which does not conform to the instrumental technological frames of ICT4D – we first need a language to entertain the thought of entertainment as a valid if not serious use of technology which is worth studying. Currently, the binaries of use-misuse of technology dominates the discourse. I do not intend to step on the slippery slope of cultural relativism in arguing for the relevance of non-instrumental use, nor do I wish to exaggerate a modest figure of roughly ten percent villagers directly accessing the Internet in my field site. However, my preliminary findings have convinced me that the potential banality of terms like development, e-governance, digital literacy, technology adoption, innovation and even Jugaad, does not allow one to grasp the wider cosmology in which digital media is being appropriated in the village.

The question then is – what informs the villagers’ technological choices to be productive or not? If they are investing their time and resources to access social media and are creating their own meanings of it then why are they granting so much more legitimacy to instrumental use?

I completely agree with a research report by HCDE, University of Washington [7] which strongly argues for a nuanced, context specific understanding of non-instrumental usage – which can lead to equally competent computer or information skills as instrumental usage. My field observations re-confirm this. I also agree with Rangaswamy’s [8] argument that non-instrumental usage is an active expression of agency by the marginalised user and is an act of broadening the limited definitions of development which ICT4D presupposes. But I guess there is more to non-instrumental usage than agency and competence building – perhaps there could be a structural subaltern imagination of using digital media. I will now further investigate this possibility.


[1] Name changed to maintain anonymity. For contextual clarity, I shall mention that the tehsil is in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan, and its population is nearly 7200 as per the census of 2011.

[2] ‘Actors’ here are not just the people who use ICTs and digital media, but also mobile phone shop owners and repairers, panchayat members, migrant workers who travel from nearby villages for work, school teachers and students, etc.

[3] Initially, it was monitored from Delhi. English and basic computer skills learning video modules were shown to students via streaming from the website of a national agency in informatics. Now after the pullout of that agency, the local attendant (data management associate) teaches the same through other popular websites. Social media access is allowed after first 30-40 minutes of the class, and it has been so right from the start.

[4] The people in the village have already passed the phase of choosing cheaper Chinese mobile phones – which have less durability – over other phones. This implies a certain socio-tech maturity in the village.

[5] Some even linked it to the new central government’s promise of ‘Ache Din’ (good days) – in a light vein, I hope.

[6] “Techno-cultural” because the chaupal socializing with endless beedis and cups of tea is not considered as much waste of time as social media access.

[7] See, Kolko, B., Racadio, R., Deibel, K., Krause, K., and J. Prempeh. 2013. The Value of Non-Instrumental Computer Use: Skills Acquisition, Self-Confidence, and Community-Based Technology Training. Global Impact Study Research Report Series. Seattle: Technology & Social Change Group, University of Washington Information School.

[8] See, Rangaswamy N., and E. Cutrell. 2012. Anthropology, Development and ICTs: Slums, Youth and the Mobile Internet in Urban India. Volume 9, Number 2. ICTD 2012 Special Issue. Pp. 51–63.