“World Wide Web. A place that breaks down national and cultural borders. A place that blurs the boundaries between generating and exchanging ideas. A place that toppled regimes and created new economic models. A place that has radically changed the way we work, play, shop, socialise and otherwise participate in society. But above all, a place that is for everyone.” begins Jim Boulton, Digital Archaeologist, in his 100 ideas that changed the Web.
The Internet (the physical infrastructure) and the Web (the content) have changed the way the world communicates in a very short span of time. Today many of us cannot imagine life without the Internet. There's a humorous drawing going around the Net that puts the Internet right there in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This feeling that Internet access is essential is not just among the haves or the more educated upper class elites. It is keenly felt even among the urban poor as articulated by Kajal Joshi, a resident of Bhim Nagar, Vaiduwadi, a low-income settlement in Pune. She says, “Nowadays everyone needs the Internet. I would even go as far as to say that we need it the way we need water, the way we need food. Internet has overlapped our needs and necessities. It has become a part and parcel of our life. At some point or another everybody needs the technology, because it really helps.”
It is clear that access to technology, access to the Internet, eases life and enriches it – from simplifying our life to gaining information and knowledge, to managing a better livelihood. McKinsey Global Institute’s report Internet Matters: The Net's Sweeping Impact on Growth, Jobs, and Prosperity (2011) spelt out its impact. Digital India has been growing in leaps and bounds. Though initially very slow -- it took 10 years for India to go from 10 million Internet users to 200 million users, it has picked up pace – the 2nd 100 million users have come in the last three years.
In 2014, over 5 million new users are being added every month. Facebook has 100 million Indian users. For every social platform like FB, Twitter and Google+ India is the second or third largest market in the world. In spite of bandwidth constraints, YouTube had 10 million Indian users three years ago; and over 60 million active users today.
Small businesses too are coming onto the Internet in the thousands. India has about 10,000 advertisers on television, and around 7,000 companies advertise on radio; but India is adding more first-time Internet advertisers compared to TV every quarter.
The most definitive change in the Internet scenario is that access is more and more through the mobile device. But as Atul Shinde, a resident of Mahatma Phule Nagar, Vaiduwadi, Pune says, “There are limitations to using the Internet on a mobile phone. Filling forms for eg needs a big screen, and long pages take time to download. So, when we need to do some work we go to cyber cafes. But it is expensive. It costs Rs 15 for half-an-hour. So I go to a cyber café only if it is absolutely necessary.”
There’s a serious problem here. As more and more of our lives are conducted online, people with a hi-speed and stable Internet connection, the hardware to use it, and the education and ICT literacy to use it to its maximum potential, are on one side of a digital divide which separates them from people who don’t benefit at all -- or as much -- from greater connectivity. There is a very real danger that these people might end up with even less influence than they had before, or completely marginalised. If you’repoor, or not connected, or can’t read, it’s hard to take advantage of the connectivity that most of us take for granted.
But being disconnected isn’t just a function of being poor. These days, it is also a reason some people stay poor, says a 2012 article in Huffington Post that discusses the repercussions of the absence of a level digital playing field, even in New York. As the Internet has become an essential platform for job-hunting and furthering education, those without access are finding the basic tools for escaping poverty increasingly out of reach.
"The cost of being offline is greater now than it was 10 years ago," said John Horrigan, vice president of policy research at TechNet, a trade association representing high-tech companies. "So many important transactions take place online. If you don’t have access to high-speed Internet, you're missing out on a lot."
This is corroborated by Kajal Joshi in Pune; she says that nowadays when you want information or a service you either use Just Dial or google it; and it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor or live in posh colonies or slums. So being online for a small business or service will become important if they want to be found. As Rajan Anandan, Head of Google India says, India has 47 million small businesses, but only about 100,000 of them have a decent website. As India adds more Internet users, the reasons they go online will be very local; and not the reasons for which the first 100 million came online. Google’s research shows that one of the first things new users do online is use the Internet to express their entrepreneurial spirit, grow their businesses and share their culture. Nelson Mattos, vice president of product and engineering for Europe and emerging markets, Google Inc, believes that poverty is a problem connected closely to a lack of information.
In CCDS's study in low-income areas of Pune we are seeing the enthusiasm with which younger residents are embracing the Internet. While at present most of their everyday access on mobile devices is for entertainment, using Facebook and downloading songs or movies, it will not be long before the need to access the Internet for education and livelihoods will become paramount within these communities.
www.netpehchaan.in, September 2014