Arora concludes that the people of Almora are very much like the rest of us in their fundamental attitudes toward new technology. But the path that she takes to get there brilliantly illuminates the particular meanings of digital media in the Central Himalayan context, thus making her conclusions all the more insightful and important. In Arora’s eyes, and in those of the reader blessed with the privilege of taking in this book, the common humanity that unites the rural poor in Almora with the digitally privileged in San Francisco or London is not based on a denial of our different needs for and uses of technology, but rather on an understanding and appreciation of them.
From the Foreword by Mark Warschauer, Professor of Education and Informatics, University of California, Irvine.
This book is an eight-month ethnographic work in Almora, a town of 56,000 people in Uttarakhand, Central Himalayas. It focuses on relations between old and new technologies, how people harness physical, social, economic and cultural resources to facilitate their understandings with these artifacts, the nature and consequences of this learning as well as perceptions and beliefs about the artifacts – its situated spaces and activities within the larger context of development policy and practice. Investigating practices amongst a relatively remote and new group of users of the computer and the Net allows for possible new perspectives to emerge and perhaps old views to be reinforced and revisited. The book moves beyond the hype of new technologies by delving into the spectrum of human imagination and enactments with computers and the Net. Technology can be viewed as an artifact and technique of human invention that shape and is shaped by social learning with often unpredictable consequences. Technology is seen as a material embodiment of an idea. What constitutes that idea depends on who and where it is framed and to what ends. Social learning is viewed as a dialectic process and enactment of human ingenuity. We cannot make meaning of technology without understanding its place and space, its boundaries, frames of reference, its coordinates of interpretation, functionality and optimization. After all, technology usage is a situated social practice. This study indexes technology in realms of a learning context, however temporarily so, to best understand its enactment.
2. Frogs to Princes: Taking the Leap
Chapter 2 starts with a broad overview of shifts in development policy and practice and relations of technology to social change, leading to the more narrowed lens of technology in India. In other words, by understanding how tools of human endeavor have been perceived and instigated as well as undergone change, we may gain a stronger foothold to situate our findings from this book. As new technologies come to the fore, it is tempting to get swept by the euphoria of novelty, looking for answers within this innovation to ancient and chronic concerns of human communication and human learning. The doctrine that new technologies have unique and often meliorating characteristics and consequences on human life, determining cultural values and mindsets, is seen to lie at one end of the debate spectrum. The other end rejects pegging of human communicative activity along lines of competencies and task-oriented accomplishments. Instead, there is an embracing of complexity, richness and historicity of human life that is socially situated and contextually embedded, defying linearity of change. In other words, we have on our hands the battle between technological conditioning versus social construction with technology, with this book biased towards the latter.
3. This is India Madam!
Chapter 3 takes the reader on a journey through Almora, recreating some of the flavor and feel of the place, making familiar the topographical and contemporary personality of Almora. The interspersing of episodes and events, of people and places are positioned to give the reader some of the complexity of this place with the key purpose to make messy the dichotomies of the local and global, rural and urban, or for that matter, traditional versus modern ethos. Consumption was not born in the modern era; it just gained a new form. Neat demarcations of the societal and cultural in modernity are confronted with ways of living that engage with and consume Sony and Airtel alongside Kishore Kumar Bollywood hits of the 1980s. Do we see paradox because of our discomfort as urban readers, fed on a staple of village norms that are bucolic and idyllic, primitive and romantic, overexposed to images of farm fields and herds making their way through sunsets by the barefoot villager? And what if this picture does come alive but for a little addition, a cellphone in hand, perhaps a watch on the wrist given by a cousin who has immigrated to Dubai to work in the oil fields, a T-shirt on a farmer that says Harvard? And what does “local” mean when Bihari immigrants run grocery shops and mend roads here, when woolens are imported from China at a cheaper rate than local handicrafts, and Sonia Gandhi is a household name? Can contradiction not be the definition of society and society an amalgamation of townships, and rur-towns? In this work, expectations of modernity and technology for social change, of (over)interpretations of rurality and urbanity, of secularism and westernization step aside while the story here walks by.
4. New Technology, Old Practices
Chapter 4 extends the prior chapter by making known how a family of technologies, be it the plough, voting machines, cellphones, ATMs to smart cards, come together in tremendously creative and surprising ways, underlining the persistence, innovations and shifts in social practices with technologies in this area. This lens reminds the reader that the computer is but one tool added to the cauldron of existing technologies, and the unique history of interactivity and engagement in Almora. With hardware comes an emphasis on “software” – the people. There is a need to capture an ongoing dialectic between technology and the people to see what is being learnt, at what points and for what purposes. And if there is a need to produce a certain desired outcome, we need to first see what organically happens when the two intersect; differences in needs and positions of actors produce a range of outcomes. The outcome is less about the technical affordances that a tool comes with but about the actual social process it undergoes. This book asks the readers to remind themselves that computers are not just tools but a social phenomenon. They are continuations of past tools and approaches to these tools, resistance and embracement, perplexity and simplicity that circulates and surprises. Technological predictability is but a development myth.
5. Goodbye to the Patwaris
Chapter 5 closely examines discussions among farmers at an NGO on the issue of “relevant” information as key to socio-economic mobility. This chapter questions the premise of current development policy, emphasizing computers as tools to supplant “patwaris,” middlemen in the agricultural sector, by empowering farmers through direct access to crop prices and other “essential” information. This helps situate the popular e-chaupal national technology initiative where farmers supposedly can access such information from the computer. This is meant to help them reach markets directly and sell their produce fairly by circumventing middlemen of this trade. Instead, we find that decision-making is not based primarily on “relevant” information. And even if farmers overcome institutional and technical hurdles in accessing computers, these tools will continue to be weak intermediaries in agricultural decision-making until larger systems of agricultural production, consumption and market choices along with equity in access to other concerning institutions and agencies substantively change with the interests of the farmer at the forefront.
6. Excavating Relics of an Educational Idea
In Chapter 6, we move from the agricultural domain to the educational front where a different kind of intermediary is being circumvented – the school. This chapter investigates how the famous “Hole in the Wall” (HiWEL) World Bank funded “minimally invasive educational” model plays out in Almora. Here, computer kiosks are designed specifically with children in mind to provide “free” learning through direct access to these tools away from schools. The idea behind this is that schools tend to restrain children from exploring their true learning potential. Computers are seen to provide a window to learning that is not shackled by the much documented poor state of government schools and their teachers. Instead, this chapter reveals the failure of this project in Almora and investigates the possible reasons for such a downturn. In doing so, the relationship between “formal” and “informal” learning spaces and activities and social learning is explored. What constitutes “free” learning is at the heart of such analysis. The role of formal educational institutions in the democracy of learning gets played out and juxtaposed against HiWEL’s ideology.
7. Copycats and Underdogs of the Himalayas
Chapter 7 is concerned with a range of learning that goes into the harnessing of multiple online resources to accomplish schooling tasks at rural cybercafés. There is a general awareness of the “cut & paste” culture being non-acceptable in schools amongst the students and the cybercafé staff, as they systematically eliminate signs of the source, such as that of Wikipedia from the assignments. This awareness extends to institutional settings as teachers lament on the current “behavior” of their students, expressing their knowledge of not just the acts but the location for such acts – the cybercafé as a hotbed for plagiarism. In trying to situate, condemn and/or rationalize what constitutes as plagiarism, the enormous accomplishment of computing, by a relatively nascent group of IT users in a small town, in a developing world, can get overlooked. The sophistication in strategizing comes to play as students learn to draw upon the multiple resources available to them- technical, human and socio-cultural and thereby, exercise their authority over the authored. While this is not to romanticize acts of copying, this chapter provides a forum to unearth and question some popular contemporary assumptions in user-interfacing and education literature: collaborative learning as cooperative, indirect usage as disempowering and a signal for “digital illiteracy,” and the separation between formal and informal contexts for learning with new technology. While plagiarism underlines these revelations, it is deliberately de-centered.
8. Let’s Go Shopping!
Chapter 8 turns to a learning event at the cybercafé where girls shop for western and Indian painting images on Google for their art portfolio. Their interactions with these images reveal their criteria for what qualifies as “Western” and “Indian” art. This provides a good basis to investigate actual learning engagements with online “global” content. In this process we delve into the nature of information versus knowledge, consumption versus production of knowledge and globalization of content through the Net. The point here is to emphasize that interaction does not necessarily equate to understanding, learning engagements with new technologies can be peripheral and fleeting and that which gets learnt can diverge far from what is expected to be learnt. By drawing arbitrary boundaries around a subject matter, it contains as much mis-information as information itself. To convert information into knowledge and apply it, the learner needs to engage in higher-order thinking. While information is often free, knowledge is not. It costs time, effort and inclination to convert random information into that which is needed, desired and is most relevant for one’s goal. Hence, while there is no guarantee that learning will happen, browsing through online content does promise learning if we pay attention to what guides us in our search.
9. Leisure. Labor. Learning
Chapter 9 reveals that there is an intricate relationship between leisure, labor and learning based on the fact that these cybercafés are primarily sustained by not pragmatic tasks but by what is discovered to be mainly entertainment and social endeavors. From Orkut, a social networking site to music downloads and instant messaging and dating, this space transforms into a recreational hub. The argument thickens as we recognize that much effort is required for leisure. Through a survey across different colleges, it is found that youth, regardless of economic status, share common ground on career aspirations as well as the will and capability to play with new technology. Overall, utilitarian notions of development are challenged, gently reminding us that poor people do have a lot more in common with the rest of us, more so than we credit them with. Leisure is a demand and a necessity amongst one and all.