A Conversation with Payal Arora

Payal Arora is an Associate Professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, and the Founder and Executive Director of Catalyst Lab, a centre that focuses on relations between academia, industry and the public using social media campaigns on social issues of contemporary concerns. She talks with Somto Mbelu on her recently published book ‘The Next Billion Users: Digital Life Beyond the West’ with Harvard University Press.

 Q: What inspired you, to write ‘The Next Billion Users?’

Payal Arora: I served as a liaison on a number of tech-for-development projects for a number of decades. I worked mainly in rural and slum areas in India and then later on in Brazil, and South Africa.

I left India as a teenager and typical of a person that leaves her country and later on wants to give back, I thought naively, “why not use technology with all its potentials to lift people out of their poverty”. Because, when you go to a place like India, you see all these areas of poverty. You see the enormous obstacles in place. Whether it’s the conservativeness towards women, or just in terms of access to capital or even infrastructure, the list is endless. It is tempting to think that technology can leapfrog these problems and even tackle chronic issues such as teacher absenteeism or poor teaching. Aid agencies can design tech applications that can ensure that at least the next generation doesn’t lose the opportunity of schooling. In spite of this good intent, over these years what I learnt was that we as members of aid agencies, charities, and ICT oriented public-private initiatives were creating more obstacles in some sense.

We came with a paternalistic mindset towards these communities, focusing on their needs and not wants. We earmarked technology for specific socio-economic purposes and didn’t allow for a broader spectrum of understanding of what motivates people to adopt and use technologies. If we did, we would find out that, contrary to our thinking, low-income communities are very much like us. You and I don’t mainly spend our time on laptops and on our mobiles looking for information on jobs or health care. What we want most often is to be entertained. We want to keep in touch with our family and friends and also keep up with the gossip through Facebook and WhatsApp. Youngsters on Instagram and Tiktok regardless of class are constantly trying to curate themselves as they are in a critical adolescent stage of self-discovery. In spite of the economic and cultural differences in a global context, there are some underlying universal aspirations driving these next billion users So, I wrote this book to humanize these users and demystify their preferences, their desires, their needs and wants so we can start with realistic points of departure. By doing so, we can actually start to envision what the future of the internet should be, and how to design future tech applications that are genuinely inclusive of a global public.

Q: So, do you also think, before one implements any development project lets say for example in middle-income countries, we shouldn’t just think with the ideas we have, that they should have more research? Does that mean that organizations don’t conduct research and surveys before actually implementing these programs?

Payal Arora: Well I don’t think it is so much about that, but of course being a researcher, I see research as important, but in this regard what I am talking about is often the assumptions of people in power rooted in long-standing stereotypes on entire communities at the margins in developing countries. Often, people who are in decision-making capacities are usually middle-class, white male and live in the West, and their views are shaped by these factors. For instance, I was conducting a project on global privacy around the time of GDPR- the European data protection regulations that came out in May 2018.

I saw it becoming not just a golden standard but also a global standard, as many developing countries started to adopt these policies into their legal frameworks. The GDPR is designed around European values centred on individualism and consent. Law is sacrosanct in this context. However, in most parts of the world where privacy is a luxury and laws are often instruments of oppression, I wondered how the ground-level realities of people’s perceptions and practices in the global south would be different from those in the west. What I found was that if you want to understand what privacy means to low-income young people in different non-Western communities, you need to understand their romance behaviour. For instance, a young girl in Saudi Arabia would unveil her face to a total stranger on a personal message on Twitter after a lengthy courtship online because she hopes for love. This leap of faith made me realize that teen-hood triumphs class in many ways. What does a typical teenager want after all? What do they care about? They want to discover themselves, they want to get away from their family, the enormous pressures they face from their culture, and play around with who they are and who they can be and digital media offers them rare access to a space that enables them to do this. So, in this sense, they are typical teens; however, the privacy risks and potential harms they face when making themselves public and exercising these freedoms differentiates them from those from more liberal and better off societies.

Q: Looking at the Next Billion Users, does that mean that apart from the young people, the older generation do not apply to this particular concept of thoughts that the book provides?

Payal Arora: Indeed, we haven’t given sufficient attention to older people. While a substantive percentage of the next billion users are young people, the senior demographic is also quite active online but on different platforms usually and for different purposes. They tend to stay on few applications but are highly driven with connecting to family. There is a growing sense of isolation and loneliness and digital media like WhatsApp can really give a boost to the elderly to keep them informed, connected and more importantly cheered up through the everyday sharing of jokes and motivational and often religious saying. Times are changing in societies like India and China, where due to internal migration, smaller families and the urbanization trend, families are sometimes broken up and this can often leave the elderly behind. So digital media platforms can help to reduce depression and boost the mood among the elderly. Sometimes, we see grandchildren making their grandparents into online influencers and celebrities by documenting their cooking practices or their daily yoga or some such, as we all strive for inspiration and what better inspiration than to see people grow old with dignity and joy.

Also, if aid agencies and tech companies want to intervene and design mobile healthcare apps for the elderly, they need to keep in mind that old people don’t want to keep talking about their health, it depresses them. So, on the contrary, if you are to design a health app for this kind of population, you need to start thinking in terms of providing them a multifunctional and fun social space where they can share their own wisdom and at the same time, learn from others. Should be less of a top-down space.

Q: Then the Next Billion Users would also become the old people of tomorrow. So, if you also look at concentrating on building them as also a market in regards to understanding and taking them in through how this application works, off course it’s the future. Like you are also looking out calling them the next billion users. Then, I also want to ask, what is the reception for the book? Who are the people reading it? organizations or individuals, the next billion users especially the “young people”, do they actually have access to this book? Have you ever had any feedback from them?

Payal Arora: The book was released in March of this year (2019). So, it is just a few months old. Am very happy that my Harvard editor Sharmila Sen pushed me on the title as I think that was very timely with the launch of Google’s labs and the whole NBU (Next Billion User) market strategy among many tech companies. I have been pleasantly surprised by the global media coverage this book has received – been already covered by The Economist, The Nation, F.A.Z, Vrij Nederland, NRC, De Standaard, El Confidential, Tech Crunch and many others. Was thrilled to see Engadget (Top 5 in the “Technorati top 100” and reported by Time for being one of the “best blogs” on tech) state that my book is “the most interesting, thought-provoking books on science and technology we can find.” What is particularly great to see is that as a digital anthropologist, I am able to speak to the tech industry and policymakers and I truly hope this means that I can actually help shape policy and tech design in a more meaningful and inclusive way.

Q: There is this quote I came across in your book- ‘I would expose how and why fictions and falsehoods are perpetrating regarding the online behaviours of the global pore’. So, in some keywords, what does this line really mean?

Payal Arora: There is a power in fictionalizing marginalized people, especially with contradicting narratives because then you make them very confusing to the public. They become un-relatable – they become people to be feared, to be angry with, and people who need to be disciplined. There is a long history of this from portraying the vast poor and disadvantaged as stupid, primitive, lazy, incompetent, criminal, morally bankrupt etc which goes all the way into colonial times and beyond. This helps to justify ruling over them and imposing social orders designed to “civilize” them. So it is no wonder then that these marginalized majorities have been deliberately miscalculated, misinterpreted and miscommunicated about– in short, they become fictions that circulate and lead to bad policymaking.

In recent years, another fiction has emerged to harness these vast populations as data generators and as future consumers – so now they are desired, they are capital, and they are even hackers of their own poverty. Therefore, from degrading to romanticizing them, we keep perpetuating fictions of their extraordinariness. Depending on who the audience is, different fictions are evoked to serve different purposes.

Another example in the tech world is the obsession on self-organized learning, perpetuated by Sugata Mitra and Negroponte. The idea that these vast young low-income people can teach themselves anything with mere access to mobile phones, tablets and the internet. We have vast evidence that this is not true. They are kids like other kids and would rather game online than learn math. This self-organized trope translates to self-responsibility and thereby self-blame when they don’t learn. In the meantime, a large number of devices get sold in the name of education instead of funding schooling with scarce resources in poor countries.

Q: Looking at this book, do you plan on going on book tours in Africa? What are your next steps?

Payal Arora: I would love to do so and hopefully I will get a chance to visit different African countries and talk about this book to diverse communities there. I know a lot of great work is being done already out there so would like to learn from them too. As for book tours, the book is being translated into Chinese and am starting a tour next week in East Asia -to Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. I am going to be speaking at the Jaipur Festival in India in January 2020 which is the largest free literary festival in the world today, drawing a crowd of about 400,000 in a week so that should be an amazing experience. Am, of course, engaging with the tech, telecom and media companies in Europe and the US through a number of cool tech festivals so let’s see what the future holds.

 

 

 

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