The global poor go online for the same reasons you do
News flash: Internet users in the developing world have the same motivations you do. They go online, as digital anthropologist Payal Arora explains in her new book, because they’re hungry, horny, happy, lonely, or bored.
Efforts to promote the adoption of technology in poor countries have over-emphasized the potential economic and health benefits. Tech visionaries have focused on projects such as One Laptop Per Child, which aimed to transform children’s education by providing them with affordable computers.
Yes, technology also means that a farmer in Africa or Brazil can look up water prices and rain forecasts for his crops. But, Arora argues in “The Next Billion Users,” you’d be remiss not to think he’s also watching his favorite TV show or sending messages to a potential love interest. The poor, just as much as people living in rich Western countries, use the Internet and technology to watch pornography, play games, chat with friends, and find love. To recognize that, Arora says, is to recognize the humanity of people in impoverished countries around the world. Agencies and organizations hoping to help these nations advance must ground their growth and development projects in reality, and not a lofty caricature of the poor, if they want to be successful.
Arora is an associate professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Ideas spoke to her by phone from her Airbnb in Mumbai. The transcript has been edited and condensed.
What don’t people in rich countries understand about the next billion Internet users?
I’ve been working as a liaison between academia and industry for about more than a decade and a half. Technology companies will go to rural India or Brazil and South Africa. They go to check out how people are using the Internet and mobile phones and push them into the right direction. Somehow, technologies are going to help leapfrog these populations into better futures.
Underlying this is a premise that of course they’re going to use these technologies for what we consider utility-driven ends — education, checking health information, et cetera. But time and again, every single time when I’ve gone into the field, the majority of what [real people] do has been leisure-oriented. It is all about entertainment, romance, gaming, chatting. That has been, I would say, the bargain.
We also have the data to prove it. About 85 percent of it is based and entrenched in that kind of activity. India came up with this whole template — an ABCD principle. Astrology, Bollywood, cricket, and devotion. These are the four main drivers of the data economy.
What perplexed me is: We keep writing up these project reports saying, “These farmers did XYZ work and checked crop prices themselves.”
Why do we pretend that people are only acting in virtuous ways?
Look, I also understand where this came from. It was really refreshing to get away from another construct [of poor people as] these perpetual victims of history. The chronic reproduction of inequality, the absolute black hole of hopelessness. The idea that they are basically beneficiaries that are sucking the wealth out of the United States.
Then you have this group of scholars say, “Hey, you know what? They’re not. Let’s flip it and say these guys are actually deeply entrepreneurial, and they’re the consumers, and they have a lot to contribute, and we should capitalize on them.”
Surely that is, in some sense, a more positive narrative. I do appreciate that. But [we] somehow now have gone to the other extreme, to a point where they’re supposed to cure everything. [Poor people are] supposed to fix everything because of their expertise.
People in the West have experienced data hacks and had their data sold by tech giants. We see creepy targeted ads. What concerns do people in poor nations have when it comes privacy online?
These populations, particularly low-income communities, have for the longest time been invisible to the market. No company would touch them because they’re too high risk a clientele. They’re invisible to [their governments] because they often live in informal settlements, which are not really registered, and thereby the state doesn’t need to provide them day-to-day social services.
The bulk of this population does not have access to basic markets, banking, or any of these supporting institutions. They are hardly represented.
Then you have this new technology that allows you to not only curate yourself and your communities. It’s so hard if you are living with your mom, dad, grandparents, brothers, and sisters in one room and you’re constantly being watched by your neighbors because you live in very tightly knit communities lacking in space. You’re always being told what to do, but you don’t get the opportunity for self-actualization or just discovery.
You and I got to discover who we are by getting that time to grow. These guys, they don’t get that time to grow. And then you have a platform that allows you to play around with who you can be, who you want to be, what your aspirations are. What attracted you? Why did you like that?
Each culture has their own kind of thing that they do — what’s really popular. But the bottom line is self-actualization.
When you say, “But don’t you want to be anonymous? Don’t you worry about this and that?,” it doesn’t speak to them because the trade-off is that “Hey, guess what? I get to be visible for a change.”
When I asked about the ads in my field work, people were actually quite thrilled that at last companies look at them as consumers. They thought targeted ads are cool. They also have some limited data plans. They can’t just go browsing.
That’s a privilege. They like the targeted ads because they know what’s out there.
Visibility is really important for them, and rightfully so.
Is asking about those types of fears around privacy just a sign of how Western-centered we are when we think about technology?
Absolutely privacy is essential, every human being wants privacy. The question is: What is it measured against?
For example, I’m always impressed by these activists in Brazil. They speak out about gang violence. There’s a very high likelihood they will get gunned down. In spite of that, they’re not naive, they know the price of visibility, and yet they choose to not be anonymous because it is the deepest form of courage. We would probably not make that choice.
How important is online romance?
If we want to understand what privacy means to the young people outside the West, we need to look at the romance economy.
I did research in India, in favelas [in Brazil], in Cape Town. It was romance that was a key lens through which you could understand what drives them. Why are they taking these unbelievable, extraordinary risks to their own safety in conservative cultures?
For what? For love and romance and this opportunity for, maybe, your soulmate. It shouldn’t be surprising. These are teenagers, beyond and above anything else. It goes back to de-exoticizing them. They’re like any other teenager, except they are taking these extraordinary risks for stuff which is so mundane for others.
It seems to bother people that the poor would use their precious Internet access for the sake of play. Why is that?
What is intrinsic in play is you have unstructured time. You’re also giving agency to a person to be able to structure that time. This means that they can think about possibilities outside of the given social structure. That’s what play is: It’s navigating outside the rules of the game. The moment you start playing, it can be deeply threatening because you can come up with an alternative to the current regime.