On The Grid

When the first television set arrived in my father’s former home, it changed routines, and the lives of the family, which had never been exposed to a screen before. That one TV brought people from the entire neighborhood together. There was one channel: Doordarshan, but the aspirations that were riding on it, were unquantifiable. Technology has penetrated into the roots and core of India today, but the impact it has on societies remains the same. Whether it is a television, a mobile phone, internet access, or even a tractor.

Only 17 % of the Indian citizens have a mobile phone and only 15.1 % have Internet access. The definitive role that technology needs to play in India is to bring this massive country together. This translates into making communication easier, faster and more widespread. Yes, bringing your Nani, Dadi and the security officer at your gate under the umbrella of technology is what all South Asian countries need. Looking at what can be achieved if the millions missing from the galaxy of technology are onboard, is what makes it all worth it.  Potential breeds excitement.

What lies in the digital age ahead of us is data. The developed countries of the west are sitting pretty with plenty of information about how people interact with online content. The story is rather different in South Asia. India is represented by one in every sixth individual in the world, yet most of it’s people are off the grid. Here, off the grid simply means, shut off from the digital world, with no web identity and beyond the reach of people elsewhere in the world. With data being the end, technology must be the means to support that end and pull South Asians into the light, into the digital age. Working backwards, it is clear what prevented this from happening thus far: poverty and lack of basic infrastructure such as electricity and widespread telephone line connectivity. Somehow, to most people in India, Internet still seems like a luxury, or something that just comes as an added perk of having a mobile phone.  Yet the extremes of the spectrum of digitalization tell a useful story. While you might find a desperate job-seeker in rural India struggling to find a computer in his or her village, it will not be difficult to find a “new age” 3-year old Indian dabbling all day on iPad apps in Mumbai.

The answer to why these gaps exist tells another story of technology altogether. To get these millions of off the grid population of India and surrounding countries on the digital map, they need technology: electricity, computers, Wi-Fi. In order to do justice to having these privileges, they need to be educated, at least to a certain extent. Education then becomes one of the key pillars of technology in India, as in any nation. However, what is key here is the part technology plays in perpetuating and penetrating education itself. What if an 8 year old, trying to learn English as a second language got access to read anything he wants, through the Internet? What if every Government University student in South Asia was given a tablet for free, the first in his or her life? In November of 2012, the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee launched a $20 Tablet, “Aakash 2”, produced by an Indian start-up called Datawind (Christopher Mims). The government could potentially order 5.86 million of these tablets and provide it at almost no cost to schools and colleges. This is in line with the central government’s ICT scheme and aligns with their effort to increase Wi-Fi coverage in educational institutions. This reduces textbook distribution costs for government institutions, provides revenue to private developers and opens up Internet access to millions of students who have never used it before. Hence technological innovation and its distribution are two ways technology is shaping education in India. Further, online lessons, tracking of scores, teacher-student communication are becoming definitive aspects of education in South Asia, making it more enriching and transparent.

So now that our rural Indian is educated and his education has been enhanced because of technology, what does he do next? He looks for employment. Notice however, that as a result of his technology- driven education, he is already on the grid. Employment brings him income, which in turn allows him to consume technology. There is another dimension to this cycle however. There would be no “Aakash 2” tablets if there were no workforce skilled enough to manufacture consumer electronics at this level. A skilled workforce stems from education, which in turn, has to be embedded in technological literacy.  In other words, a better education (presumably with a technological component) is bringing better jobs to Indians, ones that require better skills and offer a higher pay in return.

    Our Indian now has a better job and better salary. He then decides to buy a computer for his home, the first he has ever owned, which opens up a new world for his children, who will now be exposed to much more at an early age, than his or her father were. The only jobs South Asians without these amenities would be qualified for involve unskilled labor; the kind of work, modernized parents would prefer their children not be involved with. Farmers sending their children to cities to find work is a common phenomenon in India, where an increasing proportion of jobs are being created in urban areas. Thus, technology is perpetuating itself down family chains in a fastly developing country like India. Digitally, everything is easier. Governments realize this advantage, and are trying to leverage the benefits of technology for those that have not historically have not had much access to. Government-led campaigns like Digital India are the pre-cursors to what will eventually be a digital turnaround in India where citizens will be able to complete all government paperwork online, have digital monitoring of their bank accounts and even receive access to more jobs through online databases.     

    In South Asia, where such a significant proportion of the world’s population lives, technology may be the only answer to distributing something consistently to all of these people, and at the same time, bring them all together for a common purpose. There is not only potential for economic value to be consequently generated but also of the ability for millions to dream; about a better education, a better job and more information about our world. However, today technology is also, of course at the heart of your local Kirana Wala in Mumbai or the average, median income earning local banker, who are both seeking to do things quicker and better, so that we can get more out of our typical day.