Back in my Peace Corps years, we were all eager to change the world. At least over a thousand of us who were in India in the mid to late sixties, but that all changed when Indira Gandhi sent us home. I have been back to India on two different occasions over the past decade. Technology has played a major role in India’s economic growth as a source of customer service and technical support to the rest of the world. But now many current local Indian authorities are increasingly clamping down on Internet and telecommunications access across the country. They have cited national security as the primary reason for restricting access. It also seems that local and state officials can conjure up other rationales. In one case, officials suspended social media apps to prevent cheating during a state exam for government accountant positions.
If India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to show American investors that his country has “the most open economy in the world,” he would do well to address these local practices from the national level. As I was often reminded during those Peace Corps years, India is the world’s largest democracy! The Indian government has taken steps to bring the country into the 21st Century: Its policies to reduce red tape, attract foreign businesses and expand digital services have enormous potential. It would be a shameful regression if these reforms fail to reach that potential because of suspended WiFi.
I know that Prime Minister Modi is not trying to change the world like those idealistic Peace Corps Volunteers of the sixties, but I believe that he can do something to preserve India’s digital future.
Ray Myers India 29
India and the United States are separated by thousand of miles of land and ocean unlike our Mexican neighbors whom the “so-called” President fears will flood into our country across our southern border. Let’s build a wall. You are not welcome in Trumpland! Whether perceived or real, many potential Indian emigres to the United States also now see a different America where they had hoped to work in the Information Technology sector. Many of their countrymen are already here by virtue of the H-1B visa program. More than 85,000 such visas are granted yearly, the majority to Indians.
“Generations of Indians have admired the United States for almost everything. But many are infuriated and unnerved by what they see as a wave of racist violence under . . . Trump, souring American allure. The reaction is not just anger and anxiety. Now young Indians who have aspired to study, live and work in the United States are looking elsewhere (NY Times, 4/24).” In their eyes, they soon saw that the anti-immigrant rage in America did not discriminate. In what was once seen as the promised land, “they now might just think that we’re terrorists.” Is this really how we will Make America Great Again? I think we will be going in the other direction, making America a bastion of prejudice and nativism that will make us a lesser, NOT greater nation.
As expressed by one Indian businessman: “The U.S. has been such a good country with such good policies, and this guy comes to power, and you don’t know what he might actually do.”
I guess there are a lot of ways to obtain inner peace, or to let go of the material world in order to enter a more spiritual place. Yoga seems to be the most popular alternative today. And then of course, there is always virtual reality which is a whole other “place.” It seems like creating and seeking these alternative realities is becoming a 21st Century obsession. Whether you want to travel to an ashram in India, or immerse yourself in interactive technological experiences, the desired outcomes seems to be the same: literally or figuratively going to another “place” that is not your everyday reality.
Or maybe there are so many optional realities available to us today that we can chose to live in multiple realities in any given day. And that seems to be true for most of us. From the time we turn on the TV, or settle into our work-a-day routines, we become immersed in our personal “reality shows,” not to mention our connected networks of social media, etc. But I may be getting a little carried away here. The basic point of going to an ashram for a year is to leave our “normal” lives behind, and I am aware that this is a luxury that most of us can not afford to do.
I think I have some sense of what yoga can do for you in terms of introspection and meditation, but I am still at a loss for fully appreciating virtual reality? Please understand that I am still a true believer that technology can change the world, but I think the hard part is understanding ourselves and how we live our lives in an ever-changing world.
Some may remember that I wrote about Facebook’s efforts in India at the end of December, and was not overly optimistic about their chances of success since the Indian government was just then instituting a “review” of Facebook’s practices. Please belief me that I am not posting this follow-up blog with any sense of joy or vindictiveness. India is a country with 1.2 billion inhabitants in a country approximately a third the size of the U.S. While it may have 130 million Facebook users, second only to the U.S., telecommunications experts there note that more than ten percent of the country does not have mobile phone coverage, and that India’s progress in extending fiber-optic cable to village centers is proceeding at a glacial pace.
The current Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi has set a goal of linking 250,000 village centers with fiber-optic cable and extending mobile coverage under his “Digital India” plan by 2016. Well 2016 has arrived, and reaching that goal by the end of this year, appears to be an impossibility. According to a recent Indian government report, only 25,000 village centers have cable so far, and it is ready for use in only 3,200. But maybe Facebook (Zuckerberg) is actually being used as a scapegoat for the failure of the Indian government to provide the basic technological infrastructure that is sorely needed. Government broadband access often sputters, wages are low, and hours are long. Girls and women have disproportionately been excluded from the educational and employment opportunities that technology offers.
Facebook has certainly captured the imagination of younger generations around the world. It clearly provides students with individual access and connectivity on a global scale whenever they want and wherever they are. As one young Indian villager noted: the first thing he would do when the Internet finally arrived is to sign up for Facebook.
So this past week and a half I have written about government intervention in the operations of Facebook in India and Egypt. Now it looks like we have a trifecta with China’s regulators raising new questions about Microsoft’s business practices there. Of course, we do not yet know what those questions may be, but I am sure that Bill Gates and company are not looking forward to being on the answering end. Over the past several months Microsoft has appeared to have mounted a charm offensive, such as hosting a prominent meeting of Chinese and American tech leaders in Seattle in September. During that meeting, Microsoft announced several partnerships including a cooperative effort with the China Electronics Technology Group (mostly in support of the Chinese military).
Interestingly, the PC maker Dell has now begun shipping more machines to China that come with a Chinese-made operating system, NeoKylin, installed on them. Some experts have termed this Chinese strategy as “de-U.S.A” in an effort to dethrone Windows from PCs in China. In 2004 Chinese officials with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce stormed four Microsoft offices in China, questioning executives, copying contracts and records, and downloading data from the company’s servers, including email and other internal communications.
Maybe this is all about how businesses operate in two very different economic systems, capitalism vs. communism. No one can really be sure how this will all end, but clearly China is not ready to experiment with free enterprise, preferring to play by their own “rules?”
Last week I posted some commentary on Facebook being shut down in India because the government is planning to require additional information from the Facebook provider there. I didn’t actually talk so much about the shut down itself as much as I reacted to the overwhelming challenges in that country to making mobile connectivity available to the vast majority of the Indian population. Good luck again, Mark Zuckerberg. Now the Egyptian government is shutting down Facebook access for its citizens just prior to the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising on January 25th. Another challenge for Facebook in a different kind of economy and cultural system.
The Free Basics Facebook program in Egypt is similar to that being offered in India. More than three million Egyptians have signed up for the service. It offers cell phone users free access to limited services including Facebook’s social network and messaging, news, health and job information. As was similarly expressed by Facebook in India, they also hoped to “resolve the situation soon.”
I remember being told early in my life that nothing is ever free. In this case it seems that this may be especially true when hearing offers of free Internet and free elections!
Over a billion people connected to each other in India (and beyond?) on Facebook. All I can say is good luck, Mark Zuckerberg! Or maybe not! Let’s face it, is this really going to help the vast majority of Indians living in rural villages with minimal access to reliable human and social service infrastructures. Maybe that is why this Facebook project is targeted to the larger numbers of mobile phone users in more urban settings. Mobile phone ownership and usage in India remains a privilege for the more economically empowered.
I think the reality of Indian history and the persisting disparity of resources between the “haves and have nots” presents a daunting challenge to anyone trying to use social media for real social and political change in such an ancient culture and economy. Perhaps I should be more optimistic as we approach a new year, and I stand ready to admit the error of my pessimism if things turn out the other way. Please believe me that I will gladly welcome any impact that results in new opportunities for upward mobility for those who have historically been told there is no upward path.
Gandhi led a peaceful revolution against foreign domination and freed his countrymen in the last century. I believe that the economic and social challenges ahead for India in this century and beyond can not be overcome by social media alone. True political leadership must seek to empower all Indians, regardless of their economic or social status.
It’s all in the palm of your hand. Or is it really? Many tech experts and forecasters see the smartphone as being the technology tool that will connect rural America, and perhaps the rest of the world to the Internet. For example, eighty-five percent of the Choctaw Nation in rural Oklahoma stay connected by using them. Similarly, many rural citizens in India rely on this mobile service for enhancing their children’s education and their own communications with family and friends. Half-way around the world from each other yet relying on these small digital devices as their best resources for knowing more about the larger world. Is it really that simple?
I am always amazed at the amount of “palm-gazing” I see everywhere I go now (not as widely traveled as I used to be, but I still think far enough to give me a good sample size). I first noticed this phenomenon in the summer of 2008 when I returned to a part of India where I had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-sixties. Mobile phones were quickly being adopted as a preferred means of connecting with others. There were clearly technical limitations to their use in the most rural areas of India, but I think most users were learning how they could become more active participants in the Information Age. Their formal educational system was simply becoming less relevant in the dawn of the twenty-first century.
But is something being lost as we gain something new. Are our mobile devices our new “best friends.” They will always be with us, and really don’t demand too much from us. Maybe they are really outsmarting us, if we let them?
There are a lot of challenges in this government-led initiative in southern India. Bangalore University in Karnataka is now offering free undergraduate and graduate courses to the visually impaired, as well as widows, jail inmates, and transgenders. Unfortunately, the biggest hurdle seems to be the requirement that these visually challenged students (and other eligible groups’ members) must have completed pre-university level training, or have participated in the Open University program and have reached 18 years of age. While government officials tout that they have created a distance or open learning mode, there still seem to be many layers of bureaucratic prerequisites creating challenges themselves. I lived and worked in Karnataka for two years as Peace Corps Volunteer in the late sixties, and returned to Bangalore in 2006 to attend an international conference on educational technology for the disabled. And for the month of July 2008, I returned to the Karnataka town where I had worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer to assist the Deshpande Foundation in its inaugural work there.
I have been very fortunate to have had these opportunities to work in India over the course of my career. From my perspective as a recently retired federal employee, which included many conversations with other countries’ representatives as they explored the appropriate uses of technology within their educational systems, I believe that technology empowers learners of all different levels of abilities to create options for learning that works best for them. Government bureaucracies can help, but sometimes I think they can get in the way. For individuals with disabilities, however, governments should still continue to play a role in supporting their citizens’ access to the most appropriate learning tools they may need.
One program funded by the federal government that works domestically and internationally to provide such support is Bookshare (www.bookshare.org). They are very actively involved in India as part of their international outreach. Please take some time to visit their website and find out more about their initiatives for learners with print disabilities.