(Un) Digital India: Voices from the Margins

Digital technology has revolutionised common lives. Source: grameenfoundation.in

These days, the various terms that circulate regularly in the developmental discourse are ‘smart city’, ‘eco-city’, ‘future city’ etc. Development or progress are politically charged visions, being the most common plank of Global South politics. Technology, too, is never politically neutral. Technological research is aligned towards a greater purpose, than the very tool it tries to manufacture. Any technology diffusion curve would reveal that specific decisions influenced by geopolitics have led to the adoption of one technological platform over its alternative. 

Digital is more than a technology; it is a political vision. In India, digital is touted as a platform for progress. India has grown into a software development hub over the last four decades and has fashioned itself into a leading technological power. 

With the advent of cheap data, affordable mobile phone devices and the computing power of a laptop in one’s palm, the catalysis of an entire digital ecosystem for a billion consumers has been on the advent. The power of the digital is prevalent in the bottom-up configuration of geographically distant communities with the global marketplace.

Google’s Next Billion Consumers program tries to bring in communities previously unserved to the digital grid. Digital anthropologist Payal Arora has written an insightful tome on how consumers in the Global South make meaning out of technology to leverage the maximum in their daily lives. Whether it is the use of social networking or mobile phone enabled payment systems, digital has changed the information dynamic. 

Digital works on the bedrock of many other enabling factors: from providing start-ups access to capital, to acquiring market shares for a value chain resource which is ready to accept technology. It is predicted that there will be a universal steady power access for data, enabling it to be a level playing field for all contingencies. 

In my research on digital ecosystems, I have conceptualised a continuum of the digital; from core digital to the peripheral digital. Banking and financial services have brought retail to the app, transforming banks to digital e-wallets whose prevalence is felt right from the Kirana shop to a renowned mall; an auto rickshaw connected to Ola and Uber is peripheral digital as the person driving the auto rickshaw can run his business in a hyper local manner, without the intervention of the technological platform. 

The entire narrative regarding digital engagement with various communities of practice such as taxi/auto rickshaw drivers and local hotels has been one of empowerment in the business media. Recently, there was an article in the New York Times regarding Softbank’s funding impacting the offline participants in a digital ecosystem. It was disruptive in the narrative sense: it demonstrated the deleterious impact of easily accessible venture capital from the West, catalysing a digital ecosystem in the hope for greater market share without understanding the fundamental character of business in India. Here, business is built, painstakingly, ground up (over many years, if not generations), and any top down attempt would be overbearing, or in common business jargon, disruptive. Disruptive, as in here, does not contain inherent positivity all the time. 

I recently took an auto rickshaw from Fergusson College Road to Fursungi in Pune. The driver, originally from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, was insistent that I pay him in cash even though I had chosen the e-wallet option on the ride-hailing app. On enquiring what was the real reason, he told me that as an auto rickshaw driver, he depended on daily income for both, his meals as well as to fill up the CNG tank of his auto rickshaw. However, the e-payment made on the e-wallet of the ride-hailing app would reach the driver in a week. 

I had a similar experience on a holiday during which the owner of the serviced apartment I had rented was keen to receive the payment via cash rather than through the payment system of the hotel aggregator website. The reason he stated was that the website was not transferring the payment to the hotel even after many weeks of the actual stay. 

The digital economy is not the cash flow positive economy it seems. The digital story is narrated from a top down perspective. The decision-making power resides with the investor set. However, the end user and the delivery partner are not just balance sheet numbers; they are voices as well.

Digital provides the common man an identity, such as Aadhar, to access government services. It is massively empowering, but the bureaucratic enrolment is sometimes a challenge. If appropriate documentation is not available, digital can also be disempowering. In such circumstances, there must be platforms for the grievances to be noted. The element of privacy and data protection must be addressed even for the end user, who is not the most law-savvy, and who clicks on the ‘Accept’ icon of privacy statements, sans any clue. However, there is no free access to this data; companies trade user data for sales. 

The digital juxtaposes and envelopes the offline everyday to make offline processes more effective. The strength of the digital is its information tracking mechanisms available real-time. As the management maxim states, what can be measured, can be managed. If the top-down decision-making in digital incorporates the offline as well, then digital will become holistic. There needs to be greater awareness on data protection matters in this digital native era as listening to the voices on the margins.  

Digital will evolve to a level where it is quotidian, and the culture itself will possess digital as a core value. Such a culture will result in unexpected curve balls, which would need to be tackled through the offline mode, most likely through legal mechanisms and an effective civil society educating the larger public in vernacular. The new digital divide will be characterised by communities which have the appropriate tools to address the flip side of the digital, such as dealing with fake news (i.e. the haves) on the one hand, and communities without the resources to detect criminal activities (the have nots) on the other.

The need of the hour (and the hope) is that society evolves as seamlessly as the default software upgrades on our smart phones.

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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