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‘Timepass’ Development

Situating Social Media in Rural Rajasthan

Sandeep Mertia ( is with the Sarai Programme, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

​Significant empirical gaps between the technocratic discourse and the grass-roots experiences of technology are exemplified by the growing usage of social and digital media in rural areas where Information and Communications Technologies for Development and e-governance pilot projects have failed to meet their goals. Based on an ethnographic study of information and communication technologies in two villages of Rajasthan, the paper aims to situate social and digital media in the complex rural society and media ecology using co-constructivist approaches. Focusing on context-sensitive meaning-making of icts, the paper seeks to contribute to an empirically sound discourse on media, technology and rural society in India.

The research on which this paper is based was supported by the Sarai Social Media Fellowship 2014. I am grateful to Ravi Sundaram, Aakash Solanki, Sarah McKeever and an anonymous reviewer for their valuable feedback. Thanks to my teachers Madhumita Mazumdar, Vishvajit Pandya and Shiv Visvanathan, for introducing me to the “field.”


All technologies incite around them that whirlwind of new worlds. Far from primarily fulfilling a purpose, they start by exploring heterogeneous universes that nothing, up to that point, could have foreseen and behind which trail new functions.

—Bruno Latour

(Qtd in Burrell 2012: 10)

Yeh toh sirf time-pass hai (This is just timepass).

—A rural youth on his new preoccupation with Facebook.

The uncanny presence of social and digital media inremote villages of Rajasthan, in 2013, amidst developmental failures of e-governance and Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) projects, left me puzzled during my earlier fieldwork on information and communications technology (ICT) adoption (Mertia 2013). On the one hand, the government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) directly or indirectly blamed villagers’ illiteracy, unawareness, and resistance to change as reasons for low adoption of ICT4D and e-governance services. On the other, I found a surprisingly large population of rural youth using ICTs at both the public telecentre computers and private mobile phones for entertainment and social networking purposes. This paper is an attempt to ethnographically situate non-instrumental usage of ICTs in rural areas, using a context-driven co-constructivist approach.

The introduction consists of two ethnographic vignettes on sociotechnical emergences in my first field site—Rampur1village in Rajasthan and a brief summary of the paper. The next section discusses the problematic of ICT4D in India and contextualises technological interventions in rural areas. I will then discuss the analytical approaches relevant for understanding alternative sociotechnical emergences beyond ICT4D. The subsequent section will cover my methodological approach and issues involved in studying ICTs in rural areas. I will then present findings of my ethnography in two villages of Rajasthan, with a thick description of the sociotechnical context and meaning-making of ICTs in the villages. Using social and digital media access in rural areas as an epistemic lens, I will conclude by arguing for more ethnographic attention to technology.

Two Vignettes from Rampur

Kishan is a young boy studying in Class 8 in one of the private schools in Rampur. His father is a relative of the telecentre agent, granting him full access to the telecentre. He can barely speak English and does not know what the Internet or even a website is in layman’s terms, but Kishan spent his entire summer vacation watching movies and videos on YouTube at the telecentre. Though he has no connection with Southern India, he is a big fan of South Indian action movies dubbed in Hindi. On his own, he found the relevant content by searching for names of actors and movies on Google and YouTube. He also likes to listen to Marwari songs and bhajans (devotional songs), and occasionally downloads them in a memory card to take home for his father.

Over time, he has learned how to download videos using YTD Downloader. He was too shy to answer my questions, even after knowing me for two weeks, on why he does not watch other kinds of movies or why he is not interested in Facebook like others who visit the telecentre. After some persistence, he told me that at home he cannot watch these movies daily because other people also use the television, but at the telecentre he can watch a couple of movies everyday easily. For Kishan, computer and YouTube have become an extension of the television.

My second story is about Bablu, who did his schooling in Rampur and attended college for some time in a nearby town. He does not openly admit of being a dropout. Bablu is the most active user of Facebook in Rampur, as unanimously opined by more than 20 other active Facebook users. He accesses theInternet through his smartphone with a high-end camera, which he uses to regularly click and upload pictures of himself. Bablu has two active Facebook profiles. The one with “cool” in his middle name is what he uses frequently, primarily to connect with his town and city Facebook friends. He rarely adds any of his village acquaintances to this account, which contains false information about his education, location, etc. Bablu’s reason for being so active on Facebook is that he wants to become a model and no one in the village understands or appreciates this. He claims he is trying to get in touch with people in Jaipur through Facebook and he needs his profile to look “cool.” Facebook for him is a space for a different projection of self, more than anyone else in Rampur.

From an ethnographic perspective these vignettes signify certain sociotechnical emergences that warrant more reflection on techno-developmentalism—its unintended outcomes and contingent and generative potentialities. Particularly, in the Global South where infrastructural limitations are often tackled with paternalistic solutions such as Free Basics, exploring non-instrumental usage of ICTs open possibilities for a more grounded understanding of technology.

This paper is an exploratory attempt to map the emergent potentials of ICTs in rural areas by looking at the sociotechnical conditions of access, adoption and usage in two rural field sites. By describing users’ and non-users’ ways of meaning-making of digital and social media, and their curious notion of Internet usage as “timepass,” this paper will highlight the need for ethnographic attention to technology in rural India, and Global South at large, where the debates on “access” are far from settled.

The Great Indian ICT4D Problem

The ICT4D movement has generated several tensions in the already problematic relationships of technology and development (Smith 2009; Warschauer 2003; Schech 2002; Wade 2004). The millenial euphoria of ICT4D has certainly subsided. Avgerou (2010) notes that there are now two competing discourses in ICT4D research: one of an universalistic perspective of technology transfer and diffusion, and the other of social embeddedness of technology. The former discourse, however, still wields far greater power than the latter, especially in the developing world.

In India, it remains difficult to judge whether the “hype-cycle”2 of ICT4D has passed the peak of inflated optimism. The current government’s enthusiastic restarting of the dormant ICT4D and e-governance projects is an important case in point (Seetharaman 2014). The “empirical vaccum” in knowledge of grass-roots ICT projects in India, which Keniston (2002) pointed out more than a decade ago, has been filled to some extent (Saith and Vijayabaskar 2008; Thomas 2012; Madon 2009; Mukerji 2013). However, Sreekumar (2011) and others have ethnographically demonstrated that much of the ICT4D literature suffers from macro-level assumptions about technology and/or development, which make complex grass-roots experiences of ICTs more inaccessible.3

In addition, the conceptual connections of ICT4D with our previous—colonial and postcolonial—experiences and encounters of technosciences and media infrastructures are yet to be adequately explored (Visvanathan 2001). The ICT4D discourse appears indifferent to the history of technology adoption in rural India. Television, for instance, which the state believed would promote “national integrity, scientific temper, education” was culturally embraced in unexpected ways even in the Doordarshan era in rural India (Johnson 2000). Juxtaposing these prehistories of technology alongside the contemporary information technology revolution, the symbolic modernity of new media, urbanisation and the surge of an aspirational society (Upadhya 2011; Jeffrey and Doron 2013; Sundaram 2008; Sarukkai 2008) throws up serious challenges for any attempt to understand the “social” of digital technologies in India. The agrarian crisis and the marginalisation of the “rural”4 in the Indian imagination (Gupta 2005; Nandy 2001) further complicate the relationships between ICTs and rural societies.

How to Study Sociotechnical Emergences?

Critical scholarship on technology and society has long moved past positivist and deterministic modes of thought. It is now well established that technology reconfigures and mediates the social order and vice versa (Bijker and Law 1992; Jasanoff 2004). The theories of co-construction or co-production of technology and society inform us that all sociotechnical ensembles, whether fact, artefact or societies, are interpretively flexible. They can have different meanings, interpretations and materialisations for different groups or individuals. Interpretive flexibility affects not only the usage but also the design and trajectories of technology (Bijker and Pinch 1987).

From a technology studies perspective, the symbolic dimension of social and digital media further problematises the interpretive flexibility of ICTs for users. As Gillespie et al (2014) claim, “all technologies have a symbolic dimension, but media technologies have distinctive, material capabilities to embed, transform, and make accessible symbolic content such as news stories, novels, movies and songs.” In other words, social and digital media can be simultaneously seen as both “cultural material and material culture” (Boczkowski and Lievrouw 2008). This has also been demonstrated in anthropological studies of cultural appropriation of social media like Facebook in different communities (Miller 2011).

Thinking through these analytical frames and moving beyond the developmental success and failure of ICT4D projects in rural areas can allow us to engage with some of the emic meanings of technology. As William Mazzarella (2010) has pointed out, despite failures in meeting their stated goals, ICT4D projects have led to some fragile but “emerging information ecologies.” The unprecedented juxtaposition of expansive affordances of social and digital media alongside the proble­matic of access and development in rural areas is disturbing the normative ties between appropriate techno­logies and non-instrumental usage. Payal Arora (2010) and Rangaswamy and Cutrell (2012) have argued through ethnographic studies on new media practices in resource-constrained environments that the boundaries between categories of users like western and non-western, rich and poor, rural and urban are far more porous than what they appear from the narrow utilitarian or instrumentalist lens of ICT4D. Moving forward, the need for rethinking such categories and their conceptual horizons cannot be overstated.

Methodology—Approaching a ‘Rural’ Sociotechnical World

What is authentically “rural” in sociotechnical terms? The diverse answers to this question are work in progress. Given the presence of various grey areas, including the “otherness” associated with rural India and the sociotechnical complexities of ICT4D in villages where the Internet access is only beginning to get streamlined, it is imperative for an ethnographer to design his/her inquiry in an open-ended way, which is sensitive to both the history and politics of technology and its contextual, contingent, and tentative materialisations. As Jenna Burrell notes, studying peripheral technocultures “means confronting discontinuity and some odd and novel surprises in technology’s circulation and interpretation” (2012: 14).

Though context insensitivity is often identified as one of the major reasons for failure of ICT4D projects, thick descriptions of the invoked rural “context” are yet to emerge. The baggage of perceptions of technologies and technological interventions for development in rural areas, adds new terms to be negotiated for an ethnographer. For example, initially many of the villagers imagined me to be a government officer on field inspection of the village telecentre. Many of my respondents were not completely comfortable with their interviews being recorded, and so I was left with the option of taking field notes. On the other hand, very few objected to getting their pictures taken. Surprisingly, I received a lot of questions on how to crack password-protected Wi-Fi networks, solve routine computer bugs, and my Facebook profile name, among other things. These occurrences demand more reflection on one’s presence in a “field” that is experiencing rapid changes in its material culture.

For my research, I chose two villages of Rajasthan, where I had previously conducted fieldwork in 2013–14. Rampur is a tehsil (sub-district) in Ajmer district, and Chandpur is a village in Alwar district. Both sites host unique ICT4D pilot projects. Rampur is the first tehsil in India to get optical fibre-based high-speed Internet connectivity, and Chandpur is the only ­Indian “minority cyber village,” which is a part of a special ICT4D project for religious minorities. The socio-geographical differences in the two sites allowed for a certain diversity in grass-roots experiences. I also did exploratory fieldwork in nine neighbouring villages of my two main field sites, to develop a deeper comparative understanding of the region.

My choice of field sites is based on my search for new sociotechnical emergences in rural areas which are pilot sites for major ICT4D projects. Further, my knowledge of Marwari and Rajasthani languages, as well as the specific projects and policies in the two villages, shaped my research design.5

My research is based on open-ended and semi-structured interviews with a wide range of people across many caste, gender, and class divisions in my field sites. I also conducted group discussions with active Internet users and digital literacy class students, alongside participant observations at the telecentre and mobile phone shops. The fieldwork was conducted in the months of July and August 2014. Unintentionally, my research has also benefited from social media connections with some of my field respondents.6

Rampur—A Tale of Two Technologies

Rampur is a big village with a population of approximately 8,000 people.7 It is a junction village for a dozen nearby ­villages. Located on a state highway, and just 25 and 55 kilometres (km) away from the nearest town and city respectively, it is comparatively well connected via road routes. There is a sizeable daily migration of labour in and out of Rampur. The buzz in everyday life because of the panchayat samiti office—the interface government body between the district headquarters and Rampur’s 30 villages—and a large market area with over a 100 shops, provide it a slightly semi-urban atmosphere. Over time, the presence of migrants in this village has led to some tapering of traditional caste boundaries.

The ICT4D pilot project running in this village is part of the central government’s e-governance programme which aims to connect all the village panchayats in India with their district headquarters through optical fibre-based high-speed Internet. Started in May 2013, the project has now almost lapsed with more than 25 of the 30 telecentres shut down. Rampur’s telecentre is the only fully operational one left.

The telecentre was meant to offer a range of e-governance services like tele-medicine and tele-education but the project failed to take off. The only service which it has managed to continue over the last year is free digital literacy class for female students, which teaches basic computer skills like using notepad, paint, Microsoft (MS) office, email, and Google search. Eight batches of size 5–10 students, from Rampur and nearby villages have completed this 45-day long course. While technically it is open for all, the telecentre is mostly frequented by the friends and relatives of Tinku, the telecentre agent and Kapil, the franchise owner, apart from the female students.

Surprisingly, the telecentre’s 100 mbps Internet facility is largely an unknown entity in the village where the only other computer-based Internet access available to general public are the e-Mitra centres, operated out of a stationary shop and a computer repair and accessories shop. At both these shops, a desktop computer is used by the owner to deliver information services like access to land record certificates and exam results on payment of small fees.

Access to mobile phones has grown tremendously over the last year in Rampur. In between May 2013 and July 2014 of my visit, the number of mobile phone shops almost doubled. There are now 25 profitable mobile retail and repair shops in Rampur, which also cater to users from nearby villages. Most people buy basic mobile phones but the number of General Packet ­Radio Service (GPRS)-enabled mobile phone and smartphone users is rapidly rising in Rampur.

This growing mobile phone ecology has no visible link with the telecentre project. I asked many active Internet users how they first learnt about mobile Internet and what sources of information they referred to use it more effectively. Except for some of the friends of the telecentre agent, everyone else’s first sources were their friends and acquaintances in the city or in the village, or the village mobile shop owners. In spite of this “meta digital-divide” between the telecentre’s computer and individuals’ mobile phones, there is one striking commonality in how these technologies are being used by people—who constitute approximately 10% of the population—for accessing Facebook and streaming or downloading media content like songs and movies.

Digital Literacies at Telecentre and Mobile Shops

The curriculum of the digital literacy programme, as conceived by the government agencies, does not have anything on the Internet except email and Google search. However, over the course of time, social media training has become a core part of the course. When the telecentre was started in 2013, instrumental usage like learning how to type, using notepad, paint, etc, dominated the class. Now, the main reason which attracts students to the telecentre is social media access. When the Internet was down in Rampur during my fieldwork for ­several days, the attendance of the class fell to almost zero, at a stage when several MS Office lessons were pending as per the curriculum.

Following the digital literacy class of three daily batches of schoolgirls for over a period of one month, including several group discussions with them, I observed numerous usage patterns. None of the 17 girls had prior knowledge about computers, nor were they fluent in English. Five girls were in secondary school and the rest were in senior secondary. Some had computers in their schools, but they never had access to a computer teacher or a training course. Seven girls were from nearby villages who came to attend school in Rampur. Four of them had basic mobile phones. Though, none of them had a Google or Facebook account before coming to the digital literacy class, they had observed others using Facebook on mobile phones.

Being a regular Internet user for over a decade, I had little insight into the meanings a simple Google search can have in a different context. In the digital literacy class, and in rural areas in general, Google search is used as a web navigator. Anything which the students want to access on the web begins with a Google search, even if they know the website’s address. Many times when they are using a browser with its homepage as Google, they still end up searching Google on Google itself. Such usage was not limited to this group or to the telecentre. Even the people with GPRS phones first open Google in their phone browser and then search for the website.

Learning how to do a Google search and emailing are placed in the last 10 days of the digital literacy programme. However, one of the first things which the students learned after learning how to operate a computer was Google search. By the end of first two weeks, 12 girls had a Google and Facebook account. They used their new skills to identify the location and pictures of their village and nearby towns on Google Maps, “like” Bolly­wood celebrity pages on Facebook, watch television serials and makeup tutorials on YouTube, among other things.

How did they do it? By finding their ways around the signs and symbols on the websites, exploring Hindi interfaces of Google, using Facebook as a sort of “picture book,”8 and by sharing and gossiping about it with each other as they explored more. They created the “social” of social media more in the physical world than the virtual, by using Facebook in a group. They constantly looked at each other’s Facebook timelines and talked about adding new male friends, messaging someone and sharing pictures. Sometimes, Tinku, the telecentre agent, was also part of these chats and they often interacted on Facebook. By the end of five weeks, all students had a Google account and 16 of them had a Facebook account. The students, and rural Internet users in general, often forgot their passwords and ended up creating more than one account, in some cases up to five accounts, and that too without any grave sense of anxiety or loss.

Such non-instrumental usage of computers opens possibilities for a ground-up understanding of digital literacy. The government’s view on such usage can be gauged from the fact that they recently blocked all the video streaming and downloading websites at the telecentre. Beyond the official, techno-developmental structure of the ICT4D programme, the collective playfulness and agency through which Tinku, all the girl students, and other regular users at the telecentre, interact and make-meanings of the Internet is indicative of certain gaps in the conceptualisation of technology and development. For example, I asked the students that why they keep looking up their own village and nearby villages on Google Maps as opposed to some other famous places in the world. They did not have any specific answer except a casual appreciation of what the computer can tell them about their own village. This curious “sense of locality” (Nardi and O’Day 1999) in a quickly evolving rural information ecology, is an important aspect that shapes their sensibilities of non-individualised access and discursive practices onsocial media.

Internet access via mobile phones in Rampur is a story somewhat similar to that of the telecentre. I looked into the mobile-based access by interviewing 10 mobile shop owners and several active mobile Internet users, as well as observing people as they learned different things about mobile phones in the casual social ambience of mobile phone shops. The differences in technological affordances of a computer with broadband Internet and GPRS-enabled mobile phones, which most Internet users have, certainly affect usage. Phone users have bandwidth and economic limitations of Internet packs as most of them only do frugal recharges, and rarely on a daily basis. But the mobile phone shop owners and users have co-constructed a way out of it by making memory cards social, that is, widely sharing media content through them. A major source of income for shop owners is selling media content—songs and movies, including pornography, which is mostly procured from a nearby town. The mobile shops are also spots for informal “digital literacy,” and address a wide variety of concerns of people. These include how to use a phone, repair issues, recharge plans, downloads and media content recommendations.

Sociotechnical Remediation at Rampur

Both the telecentre Internet and mobile phone usage patterns signal towards sociotechnical remediation of a rural society. ICTs, however, are not merely appropriated by sociological factors in the village, but they simultaneously appropriate or rather remediate9 individual and collective media experiences, kinship ties, and thus the village society. The mobile–computer divide, for instance, has additional complexities. The majority of Internet users in Rampur prefer going to the e-Mitra or computer repair shop or use mobile phones instead of availing the free and much faster Internet service at the telecentre.

I found that the telecentre, located in the panchayat building, is embedded in the kinship ties of the telecentre franchise owner, agent and panchayat members. Officially, everyone has access to the telecentre, but the relatives and friends of the telecentre agent are the only users apart from the ­digital literacy class students. The relationship between technology access and kinship ties is extremely dynamic. The ­telecentre franchise has been changed three times since the project was started, which added more flux to the already ­socially contestable domain of access. A friend of Tinku, the current telecentre agent, happily mentioned to me thatTinku running the centre is like a “lottery” for him for downloading movies.

There are several other such anecdotes involving access. Ramesh, owner of the only private computer training shop in the village, had to remove the Internet connection from his shop. He explained, “I can’t afford to allow so many people, with whom I’ve social ties, to just access the Internet here all the time for free, and I can’t even say no to them.”

In contrast, the business of mobile phone shops is dependent on how many people casually hang out there. Suresh, owner of the oldest mobile phone shop, explained that in order to maintain business they have to be very patient when teaching customers how to use different features of their phones, including tips on using Facebook and details of different Internet packs.

While ICTs in the village have offered a first touch of Internet and social media to the few who have access to them and have ushered new kinships with technology, they have also re-mediated the more structural ones. The digital literacy class’ gender exclusivity is a striking example. Girl students are given free training, and boys are not allowed even if they are ready to pay. Although, this resulted from failure of different telecentre schemes rather than any specific gender-sensitive policy,10 it has altered the gender equations by granting ICT access to women which they were not likely to receive otherwise.

Another generative site of sociotechnical remediation in Rampur is Wi-Fi. The telecentre’s public Wi-Fi was made password-protected earlier this year after Tinku and Kapil (the franchise owner) felt that it was not appropriate for too many boys to hang around in the panchayat premises accessing ­Internet with their Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phones. There have been a couple of experiments by private companies and market research organisations, which provided free Wi-Fi in Rampur for a month and then disappeared. There was also a public access Wi-Fi at the police station, which was discontinued recently. Knowing the passwords of available Wi-Fi networks is considered an asset in Rampur. The quest for Wi-Fi to access Internet through mobile phones—which are popularly considered ultimate symbols of rise of individuality—has actually led to new forms of collectives of friends sitting together and surfing on Facebook or listening to music on mobile phones. This includes sharing of Internet packs and in some cases, even Facebook accounts.

Rural Information Ecologies, Timepass and Uncertainties

The total number of people who regularly access Internet in Rampur is approximately 10% of the population, which is less than 1,000 individuals. What about the large number of people who do not access the Internet? Technology use and non-use both characterise a sociotechnical context (Wyatt 2003). The interaction between new and old media technologies, and their users and non-users, provides a holistic view of the rural information ecology. The “sense of locality (Nardi and O’Day 1999) in an information ecology, I found, affects not just the discursive practices of ICT usage, but also the network of relationships between technology, users and non-users.

One of the critical factors affecting ICT4D in rural areas is its lack of correlation with the rural economy. Unsurprisingly, most of the regular ICT users are youth. The most widely used terms for social and digital media usage, both by users and non-users, in Rampur is “timepass,” meaning non-serious use of technology to kill time. Intriguingly, playing cards in village chaupals (commons) or watching television with endless cups of tea and beedis (cheap local cigarette), is not referred to as timepass. This term reflects the broader meanings associated with the Internet access in Rampur. While the notion of ­“timepass” among rural youth in North India is tied to broader poli­tical–economic changes and insecurities in face of unemployment (Jeffrey 2010), the temporal anxieties that I observed in the field were also grounded in particular material experiences of technology.

A tacit connotation of the term “timepass” is related to another defining feature of rural ICT ecologies—uncertainties. Urban slums have often been imagined as parodies of villages, particularly in studies of technology use in low-income communities, but such comparisons ignore rural space-time ecologies, their own diverse rhythms, kinships, and complexities. Uncertainties that emerge from unreliable electricity supply, socially contested and mediated access to telecentre’s computers, economic doubts about mobile recharge, and anxieties due to lack of cultural capital, and know-how of computers and the Internet are constitutive of rural ICT ecologies.

These uncertainties run far deeper than a binary epistemology of knowing or not knowing, and are ontological in nature. They are not wished away by more cultural exposure or technical training. Rather, they continue to co-evolve with technological affordances, and interact with them at different levels of complexity. For example, Tinku, the telecentre agent, despite his formal training in computers, is constantly bothered by computer viruses—which are a norm for computers in rural areas, given the craze for downloading free media content. He had no surety about the Internet connectivity, and if it breaks down it might not get fixed for weeks. At another level, many regular Internet users in Rampur had uncertainty about other Facebook profiles, especially in case of those of seeking romantic friendships. Facebook’s friend recommendations often threw them in a tizzy over the authenticity of some of the user profiles they came across from their own or nearby village or town.

Non-users have their own varieties of sociotechnical uncertainties. Myths and gossips about social media are available in plenty in newspapers, television and even in personal interactions. Full-page newspaper advertisements for a city engineering student clearing his first round of interview on Facebook, constant mentions of social media in TV news and entertainment shows, anecdotes about young couples from different village or town eloping after becoming friends on Facebook, have led to new forms of chatter, wherein Facebook is more of a subject rather than a medium of gossip and “timepass.”

Such forms of meaning-making, particularly the notion of “timepass,” in conditions of rapid sociotechnical change and uncertainties, open a broader field for reflecting upon digital technology, social media, and rural societies.

Chandpur—A Comparative Perspective

Less than 300 km from Rampur, in a similar telecentre, amidst the Aravali hills, I met two secondary school students, Raju and Neelu. In a village of population less than 4,500, they have more than 1,000 friends on Facebook each. Their village, Chandpur, is quite different from Rampur in terms of geography, local language, religious demographics and formal literacy rate. It is only 17 km away from Alwar city but it is not at all a semi-urban space, as a large majority of people do not ­depend on the city for their livelihoods. The market area in the village has less than 20 shops, with only one mobile recharge shop. The village is not very well connected to nearby villages via roads.

The conditions for Raju and Neelu’s outstanding social media presence emerged when their village became the first “minority cyber village” in India in February 2014. The ICT4D pilot project in Chandpur is run by a non-governmental organisation (NGO), supported by the Ministry of Minority ­Affairs, Government of India.11 Similar in design to Rampur, the telecentre in Chandpur is also located inside the panchayat building. The centre has 25 laptops but the Internet, beamed from a nearby town, is mostly very slow. The main aim of the ICT4D project is to make every household of Chandpur digitally literate in one year. Judging purely by the numbers, the programme was a success with more than 900 enrolments througSh August 2014. Though most of them have not actually completed the course, attracting so many people to the telecentre in the village is an exceptional occurrence.

The major reason behind this perceptible success is community mobilisation by the volunteers, who were local villagers trained by the NGO. The project manager here for the first four months was a doctoral student from Delhi, whom I met during my first visit to the village in March 2014. The resistance to change in the village was overcome by reaching out to every villager with the help of a “digi-van.” The van has a large LCD (liquid crystal display) monitor mounted at the back, which can be connected with a laptop, and is used to show small ­introductory modules produced by Google on the basics of computer and Internet usage.

Despite the perceptible success of the project, the telecentre is not an all-inclusive place. Many villagers complained that the friends and relatives of the volunteers have far more access than others. The relatives of the volunteers often watch movies in the night at the telecentre, when the official closing time is five in the evening, creating ill will among other users. Some parents complained that children got exposed to pornography, which the volunteers were viewing at the centre. As the project approaches its goal, questions are now being asked by the villagers and the volunteers on what to do next, now that so many schoolchildren are “digitally literate.” Also, over the course of time, the scheduled batch timings, including that of a separate girl’s batch, have been annulled, subsequently very few girls return to the telecentre. Nonetheless, given the quasi-state nature which most NGOs have acquired in India in recent years (Chandhoke 2007), Chandpur does offer an element of surprise.

The demographic divide between users and non-users of ICTs is much sharper in Chandpur. With an agro-centric economy and growing shortage of water year after year, digital literacy does not seem to be a priority for a large section of villagers. Consequently, schoolchildren and the friends of the telecentre volunteers are the most regular visitors to the telecentre.

A key contrast between Rampur and Chandpur is based on the difference in the state’s and NGO’s approach to digital literacy. While the curriculum is nearly the same, the NGO in Chandpur encourages social media usage among rural people as opposed to the government’s move for banning YouTube in Rampur. The prosocial media stance of the NGO also culminates in more likes and shares on the Facebook pages of the NGO and its other projects. The NGO volunteers have also been trained to click pictures of every field trip of the “digi-van” and within the telecentre using a high-end camera, to both create and capture the grass-roots experiences becoming “digitally literate.”12 Nonetheless, the grounded meanings of ICTs in the two villages have many commonalities.

Gaming is a bigger attraction for the schoolchildren to visit the telecentre compared to Facebook and YouTube, which are mostly inaccessible due to slow Internet speed. The “social” world inside the telecentre resembles that of Rampur, as children learn computer and information skills in largely similar ways. Using Facebook in a group, using Google search as an Internet navigator especially for finding myriad gaming websites, looking up pictures of Bollywood actors, downloading lots of virus with free games and media content, among other things, indicate the similarities of emergences in Rampur and Chandpur. The mobile phone Internet access in Chandpur also shows similar patterns of Facebook and other media content usage. The sole mobile recharge shop also functions as a place for people to learn about mobile phones.

There is a small group of five children in Chandpur, including of course Raju and Neelu, who have mastered the use of computer. They know about websites where they can modify and add filters to their pictures, before uploading them on Facebook. They have the distinction of having Twitter accounts, though they do not tweet much. They have also learned to use Google translate to better understand English on the web. Two of these students have four Facebook profiles each because they regularly forget passwords. Others are also trying to emulate Raju and Neelu’s 1000+ Facebook friend list by sending requests to anyone and everyone who appears in the friend suggestions tab of their profile. This group claims they have learned most of these skills on their own and by exploring new things with friends. The most fascinating aspect about their computer use is the fact that they are almost always surrounded by other children who chat and observe these master users at play. Such bold and collaborative use of the Internet, in a region which has one of the lowest formal literacy rates in Rajasthan, is thoroughly intriguing and challenges the narrow developmental perspectives on technology.


In this paper, I have attempted to problematise the existing ICT4D discourse to create possibilities for reimagining techno­logy, development, and rural society. Going beyond ICT4D ­criticism, the literature reviewed in this paper discusses the suitable analytical approaches for understanding the emerging non-instrumental usage of ICTs in rural areas. Given the lack of precedents of rural ethnography of ICTs, the section on methodology presents some insights on how to grasp the emic meanings of social and digital media.

Through my ethnographic observations, I have tried to outline some of the sociotechnical emergences in two ICT4D pilot villages of Rajasthan. The grounded insights from the field and their analysis presented here are aimed at contributing to an empirically sound narrative of ICTs in rural areas, which is sensitive to the technological choices and context of the people in these areas. The field observations on sociotechnical remediation, timepass and the uncertainties in rural information ecologies, described in this paper, highlight both the emergent potentials and “situatedness” of ICTs in rural areas.

Dwelling on non-instrumental usage of technology in ressource-constraint environments, Arora and Rangaswamy (2013) have rightly called for a “paradigm shift” to have an “open-ended, explorative and pluralistic” perspective on new media audiences in “emerging markets.” Some steps which they suggest for this paradigm shift are to position ICTs as social artefacts before these can become development tools, focus on individual aspirations of “digital leisure” rather than “community development,” and disregard the paternalistic morality with which we imagine poor to be virtuous users of technology. While I agree in principle on the need for a paradigm shift, the history of such paradigms and the exalted projections around “Digital India” and the “Next Billion” users have a lot of ambiguities and contradictions to offer. As Mazzarella, in his brilliant account of the “Beautiful Balloon” of ICT4D in India notes, “being attentive to the emergent potentials of a social context undergoing remediation means recognising that transformation often comes masked as repetition” (2010: 798).

To achieve an epistemologically new paradigm and avoid redrawing the centre–periphery models, the precursors to the paradigm must be theorised with inbuilt awareness of their own politics of knowledge, especially at a time when the market, the civil society and the state are extremely enthusiastic about solving the digital divide, irrespective of their potential hegemonies and grass-roots experiences. Bruno Latour once said, “India is a reservoir of alternative interpretations of what the global is, and these ways of viewing the world need to be exposed” (Datta-Ray 2011). The emerging technocultures in this “reservoir,” like the ones described in this paper, solicit reflection on the frameworks through which they are routinely interpreted. As an epistemic lens, the “timepass” or seemingly playful and tentative use of social and digital media in rural areas reveals myriad sociotechnical emergences, which I submit can only be synthesised by thick descriptions of technology.


1 Names of all the places and people have been changed.

2 The term “hype-cycle” is used in technology innovation studies to describe the cycle of inflated expectations and disillusionment which occur before a technology matures in productivity.

3 Ethnographic research on some popular and perceptibly successful projects like Gyandoot (Dhar, Madhya Pradesh), Bhoomi (Karnataka) and M S Swaminathan Research Foundation’s (MSSRF) Information Village (Pondicherry), has acutely challenged the celebratory discourse around these projects.

4 Statistics suggest that urban poverty is asbad as rural poverty, however, perceptions of rural backwardness flourish unchecked (NDTV 2012; Shivakumar 2013). A probable reason (or symptom) is the lack of objective coverage of rural issues in the mainstream ­media (Sainath 2010).

5 There are very few ethnographies of rural areas of Rajasthan to draw upon. Rajasthan, like much of India is a collection of several princely states which were merged during independence, and its regions are fairly diverse—geographically as well as culturally. There is not even a common language across the state, except Hindi. For a rich introduction to cultural diversity of Rajasthan see Rustom Bharucha (2003): Rajasthan: An Oral History, Conversations with Komal Kothari, Penguin India.

6 Another ethnographer recently noted, “evenif I wanted to cut myself of from my fieldsite, social media makes it difficult to do so” (McDonald 2014).

7 Its population is 7,200 as per Census of India 2011.

8 An anthropologist of social media recentlyobserved a similar usage pattern in Tamil Nadu (Venkatraman 2014).

9 Remediation here refers to mediation of already technologically or socially mediated forms.

10 Of the several government departments which were to collaborate with the e-governance department to provide a range of services at the telecentre, only the women and child affairs ministry sustained the commitment.

11 It is common knowledge in the village that the sudden commencement of this programme by the minority affairs ministry was not a coincidence. I do not wish to discuss sensitive issues of politics of religion here, but the intermingling of politics of technology with mainstream electoral politics is worth noting. Similarly, Rampur is a part of the constituency of the then minister of state for IT. Both these facts are well known to the locals.

12 They might have only altruistic objectives but the noteworthy thing here is the shared politics of technology between both state and civilsociety and the different means they utilise to achieve their ends.


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Updated On : 30th Nov, 2017


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