Week #7 Digital Disparity in India

Continuing on from my last blog post, it seems to me that I have already covered this week’s brief (that of analysing the narrated experience) within it. So, I took this week’s post as an opportunity to delve deeper into India’s digital divide.

Athique notes that to capture the most from a market, platforms require substantial national infrastructure (think Amazon and the US postal system+ digital network or our very own Covid check-ins and smartphone ownership + the mobile network). In underdeveloped areas, close working relationships with the state and private organizations are often developed. As transnational corporations like Facebook and Google, whose expansion plans are decelerated by infrastructural breakdowns and scarcities (Mukherjee, 2018), rely on a certain level of infrastructure to support the use of their platforms (how can Uber work without sufficient network coverage and bandwidth). So do governments with national developmental goals in mind. As such both parties benefit from such public/private arrangements.

This is certainly evident with the Digital India initiative which, in turn with foreign investment has shown great progress in developing the nations digital infrastructure. So, what does foreign investment look like in India? Well… in the first half of 2020 around $17 billion was invested in India by US tech firms alone. (Iyengar, 2020) $5.7 billion of which was from Facebook backing telecommunications company JIO (Pham, 2020) which has been developing India’s mobile network. In a slight digression, this isn’t the first time Facebook has invested heavily in Indian businesses either. (Pham, 2020) With the nation being home to the largest Facebook and WhatsApp communities in the world. The company has had much involvement in the development of the region. In 2014 Facebook was embroiled in controversy when it partnered with mobile network operator Airtel, whose was found to be giving preferential pricing and coverage to Facebook owned sites. Especially, since Airtel provided internet coverage for rural and peri-urban areas which often had limited Internet infrastructures and as such digitally disadvantaged populations. (Mukherjee, 2018)

And so, India is marred by a great digital disparity. With the second-largest group of internet users worldwide, still half of its population lacks internet access.(Beniwal, 2020)The regions that have internet access roughly equate to 64% of urban areas & only 20% of rural areas. (Rajya Sabha TV, 2019)For the last 20 years India has been synonymous with the digital service sector. (Athique, 2019) Consisting of a large well-educated work force located around historically advantaged areas (in the context of greater India) which in turn, see higher levels of development and more employment opportunities. This has led many young people to move out of their villages towards the successful cities. (BBC, 2021)

These trends have led to many villages being left developmentally behind urban areas. This technological divide has been accentuated by the current pandemic. Notably, the roll out of the official vaccine booking app Co-WIN, which Indians aged 18-44 have been required to use to book vaccine slots since May 1. (Jain. 2021) Despite the fact that less than 50% of Indians have access to an internet. (Beniwal, 2020) Additionally, Covid related school closures has led to the requirement of online schooling. However, of the kids that don’t have access to the internet or internet connected devices it has so far equated to roughly a year-and-a-half of missed school. Moreover, students who were in year 3 before Covid-19 are now in year 5, and will soon enter high school, but with reading abilities of a year 1 pupil. (Mukherjee, 2021)

Students without internet access going to makeshift school underneath overpass construction. (Sky News, 2020)

India consists of 28 separate states, 8 union territories and is currently the largest democracy in the world. The population is made up of many different ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups, spread across the sub-continent which climate ranges from tropical in the south to temperate and then alpine in the north. With such a large population, the network effects of platform adoption and the chance for capitalisation is enormous. However, the rapid digitalisation of certain areas has thrown inequalities yet to be mitigated into sharper relief. It seems the progression of high-development areas grows further ahead of their poorer counterparts every day with a furthering disconnect between India’s reality and the government’s. Perhaps it can be summed up then by the words of a rural doctor.

They make policies in the cities and think the entire country runs on apps.

Regi George, Tribal Health Initiative

Athique, Adrian., 2019. Digital Transactions in Asia. Digital Transactions in Asia: Social , Economic and Informational Processes. (pp. 1-22) edited by Adrian Athique and Emma Baulch. New York, NY United States: Routledge

BBC. 2021. A brief introduction to India – Case study – development in an emerging country – India – Edexcel. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zc72frd/revision/1&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Beniwal, V., 2020. As digital divide widens, India risks losing a generation to pandemic disruption. [online] The Print. Available at: <https://theprint.in/india/education/as-digital-divide-widens-india-risks-losing-a-generation-to-pandemic-disruption/568394/&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Iyengar, R., 2020. Why Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are investing billions in India. [online] CNN. Available at: <https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/17/tech/google-facebook-india-investment-jio/index.html&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Jain, M., 2021. Why India’s digital divide is hampering vaccine access. [online] Devex. Available at: <https://www.devex.com/news/why-india-s-digital-divide-is-hampering-vaccine-access-99943&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Mukherjee, R., 2018. Jio sparks Disruption 2.0: infrastructural imaginaries and platform ecosystems in ‘Digital India’. Media, Culture & Society, 41(2), pp.175-195.

Pham, S., 2020. Facebook is spending $5.7 billion to capitalize on India’s internet boom. [online] CNN. Available at: <https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/22/tech/facebook-india-reliance-jio/index.html&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Rajya Sabha TV, 2019. In Depth – Digital India. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyTS84yRgHM&ab_channel=RajyaSabhaTV&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Sky News, 2020. India’s digital divide magnified in coronavirus pandemic. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0TVwrzOmGY&ab_channel=SkyNews&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Week #5 The First 5 Reflected

Enrolling in BCM320 ‘Digital Asia’ I did not think I had any preconceived ideas of what the subject would entail. My background (currently in the final year of an IT degree) didn’t really afford me any insight into the innerworkings of a BCM subject either. However, upon scrolling through the Moodle site on week 1 I discovered an innate bias, realising that I had made a de-facto assumption thinking that within the scope of this subject “Digital Asia” was really going to be shorthand for “Digital China”. From that somewhat dim starting point, the move away from typifying Asia as a collective same in the realm of digitalisation was a marked shift. As I had never really considered Asia’s digital scape under any form of scrutiny, be it personally or within a uni subject.

In the first week, I found myself incredibly responsive to the screening of Hao Wu’s The People’s Republic of Desire (2019). The cultural paradigms being challenged and the social dynamics at play felt far more personal than I had previously expected. I suppose I had figured that this subject would leave me feeling in a somewhat removed position from such content. But in considering the film I could see many similarities to my own life here in Australia and our US dominated Internet and media scape. Outside of this initial reaction, through the screenings of India in a Day, Alpha Go and Under the Dome the overarching themes that I found myself considering and reconsidering is as Athique observed, the infrastructural turn in Asia, the push towards ‘virtual’ business models and the subsequent socio-cultural effects of such rapid digital acceleration. Athique notes in reference to digitalisation and the level of infrastructure developed that regional differentiation in autonomy and capacity can be clearly seen.

Nowhere has this been more apparent to me than within the film India in a Day (2016). Directed by Richie Mehta, produced by Ridley Scott and funded by Google. The film consisting of over 16,000 videos shot by the public weaved a tapestry that depicts everyday life across India.  Upon viewing, it became increasingly evident of the regional differentiation within India (never mind the rest of Asia). That of the technological development in the metropolitan areas and the lack of infrastructure present in rural India. The social, political, and economic divides on display in the film are in turn, typified by the digital divides presented.  Beyond the screening I found that the continued push to increase digitalisation by the state has been bolstered by the effects of the pandemic which has seen greater numbers of businesses moving to digital platforms (Sharma & Sengupta, 2020). However, this shift has also exacerbated rising tensions surrounding technological in-equalities (Jain, 2021).

Going forward in the subject, I think I’d like to delve into the social ramifications of such rapid and inconsistent technological development across class and geographic location in greater detail.

Jain, M., 2021. Why India’s digital divide is hampering vaccine access. [online] Devex.com. Available at: <https://www.devex.com/news/why-india-s-digital-divide-is-hampering-vaccine-access-99943&gt; [Accessed 27 August 2021].

Sharma, A. and Sengupta, H., 2021. COVID-19 has accelerated India’s digital reset. [online] World Economic Forum. Available at: <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/08/covid-19-has-accelerated-india-s-digital-reset/&gt; [Accessed 27 August 2021].

Week #3 AI Investment in Asia

In 2016, a program developed by Google’s DeepMind to play the ancient game of Go versus a human prodigy ranked second in the world and wins… convincingly. A few years later the prodigy retires lamenting “Even if I become the number one, there is an entity [AI] that cannot be defeated”. The eponymous documentary film, AlphaGo (Greg Kohs, 2017) chronicles the events surrounding these series of matches specifically following the team behind the AI as they endeavour to best champion player Lee Sedol and prove the power of their program.

AlphaGo itself is an AI system designed to mimic aspects of human cognition, specifically intuition a feat that had not yet been accomplished convincingly. Since the achievements of AlphaGo and its successor AlphaZero the field of AI research and development has seen greater interest and acceleration. For some this technology appears a threat for others an opportunity and as nations in the region continue to redefine themselves within the global digital space many have begun to position themselves in an attempt to take full advantage of this exploding sector.

Many lauded the success of AlphaGo as having a profound effect on the perception of AI technologies in Asia, oft described as a “Sputnik moment” in China. Helping to not only, persuade the government to increase funding to AI but prioritize its development (Mozur, 2017). Since 2016, China has developed national AI strategies, surpassing the US in annual research & development spending. Currently, China allocates just above 2% of its GDP (approx. $275 Billion) to the sector. This percentage is similar to other Asian nations such as Japan, Korea and Singapore which spend above this mark as well.(Khanna & Khanna, 2020)

Singapore and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines have found that successful development in AI could add $1 trillion to the region’s GDP by 2030.With much of this industry being driven by major investments from Chinese firms and the ever-growing start-up culture in countries like China and India. (EG, 2021) It is evident that the fast-growing economies and populations of such Asian nations combined with the rapid adoption of digital technologies in the banking, retail, and healthcare sectors due to the pandemic has provided an effective platform for the adoption & integration of AI’s.  Regardless of the ethical fears surrounding this technology, Asia is investing heavily in the sector. With the combined cooperation from state and technology companies (Athique, 2019) and both the developing infrastructure and mass of people to truly leverage such an opportunity, Asia seems poised to emerge world leaders.

Athique, Adrian., 2019. Digital Transactions in Asia. Digital Transactions in Asia: Social , Economic and Informational Processes. (pp. 1-22) edited by Adrian Athique and Emma Baulch. New York, NY United States: Routledge

EG, M., 2021. Asia: Becoming a Powerhouse of Artificial Intelligence. [online] Analyticsinsight.net. Available at: <https://www.analyticsinsight.net/asia-becoming-a-powerhouse-of-artificial-intelligence/&gt; [Accessed 13 August 2021].

Khanna, A. and Khanna, P., 2020. Forbes Insights: Where Asia Is Taking The World With AI. [online] Forbes. Available at: <https://www.forbes.com/sites/insights-ibmai/2020/05/21/where-asia-is-taking-the-world-with-ai/?sh=1b33cbfc7947&gt; [Accessed 13 August 2021].

Mozur, P., 2017. Beijing Wants A.I. to Be Made in China by 2030 (Published 2017). [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/20/business/china-artificial-intelligence.html&gt; [Accessed 13 August 2021].

Week #1 The People’s Republic of YY

I’m sorry just give me one more year… please just one more year.

A defeated Big Li pleads to a faceless audience (The People’s Republic of Desire, 2018)

Hao Wu’s 2018 documentary The People’s Republic of Desire paints a grim picture of a new digital reality. Following a glimpse into the lives of those at the very top and bottom of the YY social scape. Wu shows us an increasingly isolated society that upon closer inspection begins to resemble its very own kind of corporate dystopia.

YY is a leading real-time video-based social network in China. During a stream users can join the audience, participate in a shared chat room, and purchase virtual tokens to gift to the host. These hosts can, in turn trade these virtual tokens for real money.  As streamers become more popular, they attract greater numbers of followers, receive more gifts thus increasing the money they earn and their perceived social standing. In this way YY facilitates the commercialization of sociability (Athique, 2019)as a host’s financial success is directly tied to their popularity. A host’s popularity, itself hinges on how well they are able to engage their audience. On YY, essentially anyone can stream anything, as such we witness people from ordinary backgrounds interacting with their audience in increasingly personal ways in pursuit of success, blurring the line between the personal and the public, the social and the economic.

Every interaction bears an implication: audiences members receive content, the chance to feel connection, community and to invest in status symbols. Whereby the host, in effectively engaging their audience receives popularity, success and all entailed within. On one end of this social transaction we see the Diaosi. Shown as isolated lower class young men who look to their online communities for the interpersonal connections they crave but cannot find in their ‘real’ lives. They do not have the means to improve their own standing in society, so they look for fulfillment and escapism in the rooms of hosts, and they regard these hosts with passion. Be it the idolisation of a ‘Diosi made good’ in Big Li or perceived intimacy in Shen Man.

However, looking down from the top, it doesn’t seem to be a peak rather a precipice typified in an anxiety producing precarity. These hosts have a short lifespan and the pressure to become & remain relevant drives some content creators to questionable actions. The online personalities of these hosts are intertwined with their personal perceptions, and it is evident that although the hosts provide a connection for their audience, they themselves are just as isolated.

Every actor in this transaction seems to be locked in an addictive pursuit of gratification. All individuals yearning for social connection & freedom however lacking the agency to realise these dreams in a traditional sense. Robbed of this opportunity they turn to YY which provides the necessary platform for actualisation be it real or fantasy. But what is the cost of commodifying these interactions? How can our lives be both enriched and exploited by this technology? For me this film seemed to provoke more questions than answers (which seems fitting for week 1).

Regardless of the answers to these questions, The Peoples Republic of Desire (Wu, 2018) declares that the platform is here and as Big Li laments “This is reality, this is YY… We can only accept it.”

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