Elderly women using tablet computers in rural Thailand

Book review: ‘The Next Billion Users’

Image credit: Dreamstime

An uncomfortable challenge to the West’s collective superiority complex that questions the way we see technology in the connected world.

The next wave of digital media adoption will come from the three billion people on the planet who live on less than two dollars a day. These are the global poor. They live in India, Africa and China, among other places, and their lives will be transformed as they embrace social media, internet research resources and mobile telecommunications.

The industrialised world, says digital anthropologist Payal Arora in her superb ‘The Next Billion Users’, can see a clear path to a bright future in which subsistence farmers have access to weather data. Families will have exposure to best healthcare practice via YouTube. Rural teenagers will gain degrees in engineering sciences through distance learning while planning their lucrative oversees careers with the click of a mouse. The disenfranchised will find a new way forward, and all shall be well.

What’s wrong with this model, says Arora, is that for all its heartwarming elegance, it does nothing other than describe prejudices that are exposed the minute you give poor people access to the global network. Just like their counterparts in the developed world, they watch pirated movies, spend huge amounts of time on social media, gamble, play games, follow sport and generally, to use her word, ‘play’. This bothers western liberal sensitivities with their ingrained colonial expectation that these people should be using technology exclusively for poverty alleviation.

It’s a breathtaking hypocrisy. But rather than get angry, Arora takes a hard look at the issue to understand deeper issues such technology’s role in the relationship between poverty and happiness, wealth and guilt. Why, she asks, should we expect the poor to leverage technology to their social benefit, when they can have fun? Why is it so unpopular to find that when aid agencies fund internet cafés in remote outposts, the locals are using their terminals to watch fashion shows and Manchester United?

Arora observes this discomfiture has its roots in the assumption that the poor are somehow utilitarian beings, whose only aim in life is not to be poor. Happiness, play and fun are a distraction from their real purpose, which is essentially to stop embarrassing the West. What we need is a “new narrative that authentically represents online behaviour of the global poor, who are rapidly becoming a centre of interest in the growing digital economy”.

Make no mistake. While we wring our hands in anguish over how we are somehow being let down by the fact that Dryden’s ‘noble savage’ is neither of those things, developers of social media platforms will be working out how to monetise the pleasure of the poor. Uncomfortable, myth-busting and compelling, ‘The Next Billion Users’ challenges our collective superiority complexes and questions the way we see technology in the connected world.

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