Making a difference, online and offline

Making a difference, online and offline
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First Published: Tue, Sep 27 2011. 09 00 PM IST

Digital AlterNatives with a Cause? By Nishant Shah & Fieke Jansen, Hivos and CIS, 322 pages.
Digital AlterNatives with a Cause? By Nishant Shah & Fieke Jansen, Hivos and CIS, 322 pages.
Updated: Tue, Sep 27 2011. 09 00 PM IST
The Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, and The Hague, Netherlands-based Hivos Knowledge Programme recently launched a four- book collection, Digital AlterNatives with a Cause?, edited by Nishant Shah and Fieke Jansen. Jansen is the knowledge officer for the Digital AlterNatives with a Cause? Programme at Hivos. In the book, researchers look at the identities, networks, actions and role of the “digital” generation. The researchers talked to people identified as “digital natives” about the way in which the Internet has shaped the way they interact with the world. We spoke to Nishant Shah, co-founder and director-research for the Centre for Internet and Society, about the collection. Edited excerpts:
The research this book talks about is based mostly in other countries, such as Chile, Taiwan and South Africa. How does this connect to the situation in India?
Digital AlterNatives with a Cause? By Nishant Shah & Fieke Jansen, Hivos and CIS, 322 pages.
The researchers looked at young people’s use of digital technologies to make changes in their immediate environments within the information landscape of the “Global South” (countries with low to medium rankings in the human development index). We were interested in looking at macro structures that would help us understand what is happening globally.
We did not impose our frameworks and concepts on the communities we were working with. Hence, we did not have the expected discussions of digital divides and digital access. What they found interesting across locations was the question of connectivity and dis-connectivity. In the ubiquitous, unforgetting world of the Internet, we leave traces all the time. This incessant connectivity can come with its own pressures, problems and repercussions, and hence there were discussions around “right to disconnect”, “right to be forgotten” and “right to be non-digital”.
In the early 1990s, there were people who did not have phones, could not make national and international phone calls and had poor communication infrastructure—that changed in less than 10 years. Instead of focusing on access and infrastructure, it became more important to look at the ways in which they shape people’s usage, behaviour, engagement with technology, and with their larger physical realities.
When we consider the “digital landscape” of India, whom are we really discussing?
Popular definitions—somebody who is born with technologies, who did not have to make a transition to digital—are inadequate to account for the realities we experience every day. We made a more inclusive identity, which gets inflected by questions of age, sex, location, class and politics, et al.
The way we understand a digital native now is somebody whose life has been significantly restructured because of their relationship with digital technologies and their ability to see the potentials of change in these technologies. Just having access to digital technologies is not enough. Their purposes, causes, ambitions, intentions are what is going to change the way they use technologies. People are not “born digital” but they “become digital” and the processes of becoming digital are more complex than merely getting access.
New devices and cheaper connections have granted access to a huge number of people—what impact has this had on people’s choices?
Netizen: Nishant Shah says the process of ‘becoming digital’ is about more than just access.
The “natives” belong to different communities, families and regions. They are influenced by the cultural practices in their everyday life. They depend on different structures of work for their economic survival. They live in differently marked political regimes—from the extreme liberal to the highly authoritarian. Their ways of thinking and engagement, influenced by their practices online, change the larger realities within which they live. For example, digital natives who are used to the peer-to-peer processes of knowledge production online are already changing the ways in which classroom learning is happening in schools around the country.
At the same time, the larger structures of education, literacy, economic choices, cultural productions like TV and cinema, all influence the content and expectations from the Internet as well. What really matters is how the capacities and capabilities of one medium, the digital, for example, influence and are influenced by the experiences and knowledge in the other—the physical, for instance.
Would the addition of more Indian-language content on the Internet make a difference to the digital landscape in India? Would it spur greater engagement and therefore have a bigger impact? Is this what’s holding back technologies like telemedicine and distance education?
There are many user-generated content platforms like Wikipedia and other blogging platforms like WordPress that are promoting the localization of content. It is good that we are offering some resistance to the very quick “Englification” of the online world. But with the current flow of globalization, there is no denying the fact that English is a language with the highest currency and that in our physical realities, it is getting a stronghold in our everyday practices.
The Internet is a tool, a process, a technology but not a solution. The mere presence of the Internet is not going to lead to social change. Just introducing the Internet to existing structures is only going to lead to a more flawed model of development.
For example, telemedicine has exciting possibilities but the basic problem of healthcare is not the unavailability of medical resources. What is missing is a universal health Bill to make it affordable to all.
This is why in this book, we pay specific attention to how and why people engage in processes of change. We have been trying to address the questions of how people see themselves as agents of social change and what are the ways in which digital and Internet technologies enable them to make changes in their immediate environments.
Digital AlterNatives with a Cause? is available as a free download at http://www.cis-india.org/digital-natives/blog/dnbook
gopal.s@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Sep 27 2011. 09 00 PM IST
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