Dense, chaotic thickets of electricity and phone cabling slung perilously over rusted scaffolding, window frames and round fragile bamboo poles. An overhead canopy woven throughout the urban fringe of Phnom Penh, Ho Chin Minh City, Hanoi, Manila, Jakarta, Beijing, Nanjing and Guangzhou. In the dark, amid the unruly mess a ragged and shadowy people would emerge from the rubble and garbage, risking their scant lives draping raw cables one over the other – an illegal maze of brazen off-grid grids, syphoning power to light their meager dwellings.
It was 1994. I had a Macintosh PowerBook 160, a Zyxel 14000 baud rate modem, a Sony Hi-8 video camera, fine tipped pens and a journal slung over my shoulder. I also carried a small tool kit and cables to literally hard wire modems into hotel room telephone sockets. In most cases it was the only way to get a line out. At that time you were only online for as long as it took to place a call to which ever server you had an account on, to make that modem connection happen, and what ever time remained to send pre-drafted emails and download any that were waiting for you. In my case I was making an international call to the Pactok server in Sydney. Pactok, a store-and-forward email service, collected all my Australian and international messages, mailing lists and posts to and from specialised self-published, open news groups. You had to be frugal, quick and efficient.
I travelled with Jagdish Parikh, legendary exponent of computer networking for workers lobbyist groups in South and Southeast Asia. We were researching the Indochina and Southeast Asia component of the first study of ICT use in the region. Commissioned by the International Development and Research Centre (IDRC) the consultancy also required us to introduce the fledgling World Wide Web to universities, governments and telecommunications providers, to gauge their interest and possible uptake. The end result was the landmark PAN Asia Report.
Twenty two years later I find myself in rural India. You would expect such canopies of raw data and electricity in abundance here, but they barely exist. Where such an entanglement would thrive is instead progressively drawn by invisible weaves of unlicensed wireless communications, broadband internet and clusters of licensed spectrum that host today’s digital telephony. Book-ending the PAN Asia Report of sorts I find myself writing and directing a film with the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF). It is about the impact these technologies are making on communities where one is only considered literate if you can write your name, where local and traditional knowledge is undervalued and where ancient prejudices continue to undermine the lives of women, farmers and people of tribal or lower caste origins.
A rare wheelchair accessible community facility in Vijay Mandir, Alwar, Rajasthan.
I am still carrying a laptop, video camera, fine tipped pens and a journal. I am also carrying a smart phone which I use as a wireless hub and a tablet for my e-books, music and some research. No more need for hard-wired jacking into cable infrastructure. Just enough coin for pre-paid broadband. “Times”, as Bob Dylan famously sang, “they are-a-changing” for the people of rural India as they have done for me.
This is a personal observation of the diversity of DEFs vision and practice; far-reaching and reflexive initiatives focused through the lens of digital exclusion within the information divide and the work the Foundation does to reach the unreachable. For theirs is a right to access the internet and the right to know how to share their stories and knowledge there.
An information divide
It was at the 11th face-to-face Association for Progressive Communications (APC) Council meeting that I met Osama Manzar. Held on Panglao Island in the Philippines, it was less than a fortnight since the 2011 tsunami devastated Japan’s east coast. Many of us were still uneasy about the consequences of the tragedy. Amid the concern one face stood out. Osama was setting up a small stall of saris and other fabrics from Chanderiyaan, one of DEFs many projects. DEF was at that time new to the APC. We were to find we had much in common, much to share and learn from each other.
The DEF, Osama explained, is an organisation dedicated to bridging the information divide in India.
Osama explained that India was not lacking in information richness, only the means to share it. That such an ancient culture with so many people, with such historical significance was not yet able to disseminate its information to the world India was creating its own information divide, both internally and externally. Until it has the where-with-all to do so, Osama continued, how could it expect to contribute to our planet, to perhaps influence the governance and care of it in ways that could be fruitful to all?
In January 2015 I arrived in India and would see the information divide and the consequences of it for myself, visiting rural regions where vast populations live within meagre means and with few aspirations other than surviving from one harvest season to the next. It is near incomprehensible to come to grips with the fact that over a quarter of the population, a controversial figure at best, stills lives below the poverty line. The official figures list 21.9% of Indians are subject to below poverty line status, however rice subsides via a national food security scheme are made to support a massive 67%, figures that may raise the poverty line presently under review.
Millions tolerate air pollution as urbanity and industrialisation reaches out across rural India.
Either way there are millions of people with little to no access to education with few means to know their own rights let alone their own country. Community radio stations who would otherwise reach many of these people struggle to access licenses and where there is no electricity, no one has had the foresight to provide telephony let alone internet access there.
Having grown up in the small and once remote village of Islampur in the West Champaran district of the state of Bihar, Osama recognised both the information divide and the opportunity it presented; the very few had access to everything, the many to very little. Osama established the Foundation to reach the unreachable many.
25% of India’s population remains without to electricity (World Bank, 2014).
The Foundation’s plan is to use what ever creative, strategic and entrepreneurial means to encourage, stimulate and mobilise a billion people digitally literate people by 2020. That’s one billion people presently considered illiterate, one billion unaware of their rights and least of all their right to know that they indeed have rights, a billion people to reach. Being digitally literate does not mean one needs a computer and internet connection in your home, but the means to know how to make use of the internet, where to access it from. It’s quite a vision.