Yes, that is exactly what we believed. Hugely expensive projects have been established by philanthropists, NGOs, governmental agencies and technology companies, based on the assumption that people in developing countries will spontaneously overcome their hurdles if only they are provided with the right technology. Payal Arora saw such projects all over the world. But if there was one thing she learned during her many trips, it was that this assumption is nonsense. Poor people, she says, are no different from us. “As soon as they are given access to the Internet, they want to do the exact same things on it that we do – play video games, chat, listen to music, watch YouTube videos and watch porn.”

Payal Arora (1975) works as a digital anthropologist at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication. She was born in India, lived in the United States for a long time and worked as an art dealer and consultant before obtaining a PhD from Columbia University for a thesis entitled Social Computing in the Central Himalayas. She has been affiliated with Erasmus University for ten years now, and was a columnist for Erasmus Magazine until last winter. Her book The Next Billion Users: Digital Life beyond the West was published in February.

Eradicating poverty

It is one of the myths digital anthropologist Payal Arora refutes in her book The Next Billion Users: Digital Life Beyond the West (just published by Harvard University Press), using a combination of amusing anecdotes, figures and an enormous amount of field work.

“People have become convinced that technology may do a great deal more for developing countries than for us,” says Arora. The projects they set up are ambitious: improved education, a fair rule of law, the elimination of poverty and suppression. Many people believe that apps or devices may solve societal issues that have seemed irresolvable until now. “Obviously, technology can do many good things for us. But when you look at how the Netherlands became such a prosperous, relatively egalitarian country, you’ll see it was because of the will of man, because of a shared wish to create an honest society and the willingness to enshrine it in law. So why do we expect developing countries to go about it any differently?”

Their own worst enemy

Arora says this expectation is typical for this era, which is dominated by a belief in progress born in Silicon Valley. Of course, the tech giants are coming in for a lot of criticism in the Western world (Privacy! Cambridge Analytica!), but the belief that technology can make the world a better place has by now become firmly entrenched in our collective consciousness, meaning that we would rather invest our money in a start-up whose education app is designed to elevate people all over the globe than in a decent salary for teachers.

“We put greater trust in technology than we do in people. It helps that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Zuckerberg Foundation have become major players in development aid. They feel that poor people are their own worst enemy. They are miserable and make irrational decisions. They are caught in their own traps. But technology is believed to be capable of restructuring an entire society. And everyone believes it.”

Playing video games and watching porn

Payal-Arora-3-Geertje-van-Achterberg
Image credit: Geertje van Achterberg

In her book, Arora describes the digitisation wave she observed in Brazilian favelas (slums) and Chinese mega-cities. She travelled to South Africa, to the Himalayas. She says one-quarter of the world’s population are young, and 90 per cent of these young people live outside the West. As a result, their dynamic is entirely different.

She chuckles when she tells us about a project carried out in 2004. Remote villages in the south of India were going to be exalted by the installation of public computer terminals, called ‘ATMs for information’. In terms of visitor numbers, the computer terminals were a resounding success. Young people, particularly boys, huddled around the computers for months; they even played truant to go to the terminals. But it was found later that they had mostly used them to play video games and watch porn.

She also mentions Internet cafés in the Himalayas where adolescents, seated at their own computers next to each other, were supposedly doing their homework. In conservative Himalayan communities, where social control is oppressive and nearly all marriages are arranged, these Internet cafés turned out to be one of few places where boys and girls were able to meet. While their friends stood guard outside – because it was a little scary – they got in touch with the opposite sex for the first time, through their keyboards, using chat forums and perhaps throwing occasional glances at each other.

“There were boys there who saved up the money with which they were supposed to buy their meals to chat online to girls,” says Arora. “Is that irrational behaviour? Frankly, I’m having difficulty imagining anything makes more sense to a teenager.”

Inappropriate arrogance

Payal Arora grew up in an atypical Indian middle-class family. Her father was a highly driven and somewhat isolated intellectual who discussed philosophy with his two daughters at dinner time. Her mother rebelled against all sorts of societal expectations. “She didn’t wear saris and didn’t have a bindi – you know, the red dot on the forehead. She hates other people telling her what to do.”

Arora was seventeen when she ran away from home. She was as rebellious as her mother, and as fascinated by big ideas as her father. She established a commune with a few of her peers. “We thought all manner of things were wrong with the Indian education system, and we set out to change them, inspired by Thoreau and Krishnamurti.” After that she lived in San Francisco for a while. “A German boy had told me: ‘You should go there, it’s just like India.’”

She tried to establish a career as an artist, earned her living as a waitress for a few years, graduated from university, started working as an art dealer at an American chain of art galleries, got a PhD and ended up on the interface of technology, society and science more or less by accident. “At one point, just like a great many immigrants, I felt the need to go and give something back to society. I found myself thinking: I’m the lucky one who managed to get away, but my family are still there.”

As a tech consultant, she ended up in the Himalayas with exactly the same type of inappropriate arrogance she now criticises Western politicians, philanthropists and intellectuals for having in her book. “I’d become 50 per cent American, but since I had an Indian background, I thought: I know what these people need.”

Spoiled

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Image credit: Geertje van Achterberg

Nevertheless, The Next Billion Users does not wallow in cynicism. We, living in the West, have come to take the Internet and everything it allows us to do for granted in a relatively brief space of time. In a way, we are spoiled. And no matter how justified our concerns regarding privacy, information overload and data ownership may be, they also stop us from enjoying the fun, the new meetings and the emancipatory power that the worldwide web also engenders.

“People in developing countries are so optimistic,” says Arora. In a way, they remind her of herself, back in the days when we were first introduced to the Internet. She cites a study on the overlap between real-life friends and online friends. The study showed that in Europe, the number of Facebook friends who are complete strangers does not exceed 4 per cent on average. In developing countries, over half of people’s Facebook friends are complete strangers. In Europe, 25 per cent of people regard themselves as global citizens. In Africa and Asia, more than 80 per cent do. “These are people who never leave their villages. But they will discuss ‘my friend Jess’ and ‘my friend John’ with me as if they have known them for years.”

Propaganda and censorship

Is it only a matter of time before African smartphone owners, too, will be concerned about their privacy, rather than optimistic about the opportunities afforded by smartphones? Arora does not think so. Poverty is ‘a sticky thing’, she says. The same is true for a country’s political situation. Because, ‘mind you’, less than 5 per cent of the world’s population live lives in what The Economist describes as a ‘full democracy’ (even countries like the US and France do not meet the requirements). Among the rest is a considerable group who in one way or another have to deal with repression, propaganda and censorship.

“For people like these, the Internet does on a daily basis what it was meant to do. It allows them to meet other people, possibly through encrypted chat forum software. It allows them to explore new worlds and have fun. It provides small nooks and corners where people can be themselves to some extent.”

She pauses for a moment. “So why are we bashing WhatsApp again?”

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