Exiled to Cyberia
By Kunda Dixit
5 August 2013
A retrospective on a 1998 view of the internet’s potential, and a look forward to journalism’s next challenge.
Rewinding to 1998 and my piece ‘Can the South Asian Toad Leapfrog’ was a sobering reminder of just how fast technology is moving forward, even in our part of the developing world.
It was nice joke ten years ago to say: “90% of Indians are waiting for phones, and 5% are waiting for dial tones.” Look at where we are now: The number of Indians with mobile phones is about to cross the one billion mark. In November 2012, the number of people in India who accessed the internet through their smart phones and tablets exceeded the number of people who accessed it through their PCs or laptops.
In that 1998 article, I poked fun at a minister who said India should graduate from making potato chips to making microchips. I ridiculed Bill Gates and his remark that India could “leapfrog” into the future by turning Bangalore into the digital sweatshop of the internet age. Today, Gates himself has been left trailing behind by embarrassingly young internet billionaires who have adapted to the new mobility that the internet has provided with the spread of i-Phones, Androids and other smart phones.
When that article appeared in Himal, I was making a living being a cyber-skeptic. Before talking about levelling the playing field, I argued, it was important to ensure there was a playing field. Before sticking a computer into a classroom, we should first make sure it has a roof. Or electricity. Or text books. Or qualified teachers. Or that the school-children are not stunted because they don’t have enough to eat. We were being carried away by a technology that promised to set everything right overnight. We actually believed that convergence would change the world.
But the coming together of telephony, computers and television has actually changed the world, whether we like it or not. We may have doubts about whether the transformation in the way we communicate will make a difference, but the speed of the spread of communication technologies has metamorphosed society. The medium is the message, in a way that Marshall McLuhan, the visionary media theorist of the 1970s and 80s, probably never imagined. It is the end of geography.
The moment of truth came to me in 2010 on a mountaintop overlooking Rara Lake in a remote part of northwestern Nepal, a week’s walk away from the nearest road. I had just got myself my first smartphone, with which I took some fairly decent images of the stunning scenery of a crystal blue lake spread out below me with the snow-covered mountain beyond. By coincidence, right behind me was a telecom tower, and I could transmit that picture out immediately into the worldwide web through Twitter, Facebook and email. Suddenly, here was a technology that was immediate, and which could magnify and extend the journalists’ reach way beyond what old timers like me thought was possible.
Since that epiphany on the mount, I have become a born-again proponent of the potential of new information and communication technologies have for transforming society. I am not yet sure where all this hype over bandwidth and speed, all the breathlessness of social networking sites, is going; I doubt it will solve problems of governance, equity and delivery of basic services to the poorest in poor countries. But I am now convinced about its ability to transform at least journalism. Indeed, it already has.
There are examples from around the world that information can empower. Ease of communication opens up doors for business, cuts out middlemen, and lessens the transactional costs of trade. The vast corpus of knowledge stored and archived on the internet has also changed the way people around the world access knowledge. Crowd-sourcing has made the whole process more participatory, with built-in capacity for self-correction. Falsehoods don’t have a long shelf-life on the internet, as the Wiki effect allows the public to correct mistakes.
The challenge now is to ensure that the information available on the net is available to those who need it the most to catch up. Information does not necessarily spread knowledge, and informed people are not necessarily wiser. The latest scientific information on tuberculosis is all over the internet: how to prevent it, which therapies work, the antibiotics that bacilli have become resistant to. But this information needs to get where it is needed as cheaply as possible, it needs to be relevant to the needs of the people it is meant for, and it must be packaged so that it is easily understood. In Southasian countries, where most people die of communicable diseases, the first line of defence must be the communication of preventive measures and the generation of awareness of their causes. But is it absolutely necessary to spread that knowledge via Google search, or is old-fashioned radio more effective?
To be useful, information must help people communicate and participate, and allow them and their rulers to make informed choices. Recognition of the power of knowledge may be as old as civilisation itself, but what is different now is the speed and capacity at which we can move that information. At present, this speed and capacity are concentrated in the same countries in which wealth and power are concentrated. The global spread of mobile phones has proven that the technology has the capacity to ‘leapfrog’. Now we just have to make sure that the message we are communicating will help improve lives.
After all, the corporate and political structures that governed the Knowledge Revolution are the same ones that governed the Industrial Revolution. The main impact of e-commerce, in fact, is an enhancement of the same old consumerism, allowing access to digital mail-order catalogues with online payment and global home delivery. We have just added the ‘e-’ prefix to commerce.
In terms of numbers, it may not look too bad. There are over 540 million internet users in China, over 130 million in India. But in terms of the percentage of the population using the internet, Southasia still falls far behind the rest of the world. The digital divide doesn’t exist just between the US and China, it is glaring between China and India, too. Nearly 80 percent of people in the US use the net, 40 percent in China and 14 percent in India. There even seems to be a digital divide between the US and Iceland, the only country in the world with nearly 100% internet penetration rate, which must mean that even newborn babies in Iceland are web-savvy.
These figures are changing so rapidly that they will probably be outdated by the time this article is published and read. The gap is narrowing between the US and China in terms of per capita internet users, but it is growing between China and India. The proportion of people going online in India is growing fast, but in China it is growing faster. Even within Southasia, you see gaps in per capita internet usage. A proactive government policy on internet literacy has made the Maldives surge ahead, but because of its sheer size things take longer to change in India.
It’s the content, stupid!
But there is a game changer, and it is mobile telephony. India is set to cross the one billion mark in the total number of mobile phone users. Even though China is surging ahead, in India, mobile penetration is reaching saturation and has collided with the poverty threshold. If Indian politicians were less greedy and let the real free market operate freely, more and more of the phones sold will be smart, and a spreading 3G and 4G network will boost mobile internet penetration.
Only 20 percent of Indian cellphone users also used their mobile devices to access the internet two years ago; in the next two years this will shoot up to 80 percent. So, who are the people already browsing on their mobiles? They are young, and for some reason mostly guys, so far. What are they using their smart phones for? Mostly entertainment, to get breaking news on sports matches and to download videos and tunes: They are not reading the sports and celebrity sections of newspapers and magazines. The eyeballs are moving, and sooner or later, advertisers will move with them.
This has happened elsewhere, of course, and we know what mistakes not to make. Here in the Subcontinent we have a window period: The old media isn’t dead yet, and the new media has just been born. Just about every media conference I have attended in the last five years has flogged to death the debate between old media and new media. But it’s not, it shouldn’t be, an either/or choice. The two need to coexist and complement each other. Paper media will bring in the revenue to subsidise online content until online media can generate its own income, as it is beginning to do. That income will first come from advertising, and then from paywalls.
Still, we have to step back sometimes and make sure that our infatuation with delivery doesn’t make us lose sight of content. Are we communicating just for the sake of communicating? We are so obsessed with data speed, penetration rates, numbers of followers and friends, by retweets and mentions, that we forget what it is we are communicating. It brings us to that same debate about whether media should have a higher calling. Is it just another industry, or does the media have a public-service role in a democracy? Freedom of expression and democracy are two sides of the same coin, where one strengthens the other. But in a democracy it is not enough to be free to express ourselves, it is also important to use that freedom to solve society’s problems of inequity, injustice and deprivation.
In just about every country in the Subcontinent today, freedom is threatened by the state, by extremists, by fascists, bigots and chauvinists, by demagogues masquerading as democrats, and dictators who use the institutions of democracy and populism to get themselves elected and then dismantle those very institutions when they get to power.
New media can be an ally in our struggle against the enemies of open society. Social media networks, citizen journalism and online media can help bypass mainstream media when it becomes inert due to inertia or commericalisation. When traditional media doesn’t do enough to uphold citizens’ right to know, citizen journalists step in to get the information across. The convergence of technology is making online journalism possible, and it is filling the gap left by the mainstream media.
What is important is not the platform, it is content. And you determine the delivery mode depending on content: You chose the medium that best reaches the public that the message is meant for. Whether it is new media or old, there are still just two challenges: to enhance credibility, and to protect freedoms.
Authoritarians and tyrants are also using the same technologies and networks, but for control, surveillance, and disinformation. It’s not just in dictatorships that there are enemies of press freedom, our democracies also have them (cut to Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, the Indian police who arrested two young Facebook users for their postings).
We don’t just need a new media, we need a new internet. The over-connected, old internet fragments and compartmentalises public opinion, with virtual thought-ghettos populating cyberspace. Online media tends to be an echo chamber, hardening opinion and working against the politics of compromise that is essential to making democracy work.
So let’s invest not just in the hardware of delivery, but also in the software of content. Let’s train practitioners so they can turn out more credible, relevant and agenda-setting content. After all, as someone said at a conference I attended recently: Content is still king, but delivery is king kong.
The digital divide has not gone away; the real digital divide is between delivery and quality of content.
~ This article is one of the articles from web-exclusive package for ‘Online-istan’.
~ Kunda Dixit is the editor of Nepali Times, and author of Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered.