The Next Billion Users: Digital Life Beyond The West, by keynote speaker Payal Arora

The Next Billion User: Digital Life Beyond The West (Harvard, 2019), is the latest book by digital anthropologist and keynote speaker, Payal Arora.

The aim of the book is to dismantle western stereotypes about how people use the internet in lower income parts of the world. The western assumption is that poorer people will always use digital technology to improve their economic condition. In other words, the wealthy tend to view the poor as utility-driven beings.

Arora argues that this is a cliché rooted in 19th century colonial narratives of exoticism, which have been transmuted into a 21st century context. In the 19th century, colonialists fostered the narrative of the “noble savage”, whose culture was “authentic”, “simple”, “natural” and who must be guided towards civilisation by western benefactors. Today there is a western perception that those with lower-incomes are inherently “virtuous”, “entrepreneurial” and “self-organised”. And that once they are given the right digital tools, they will work tirelessly to improve their economic situation.

But, while such assumptions sound well-meaning and progressive, this stereotype is problematic in a number of ways.

Firstly, as in the 19th century, it creates a justification for exploitation of the poor by the rich. Just as the west enriched itself on the pretext of civilising the world, big tech firms justify entering markets with few regulatory safeguards on the grounds of “empowerment”, when actually it serves their own economic interests.

Secondly, Payal’s detailed empirical research shows that the global poor use the internet in just as “frivolous” ways as richer westerners. And the apparently progressive expectation that they only use it for self-improvement is a cliché that robs poorer people of their humanity. In Payal’s words: the data on internet use by the global poor reveals them as “multifaceted beings – cosmopolitan, exploitative, deviant, ambitious, private. In other words, human”.

Payal wants her book to “be a starting point for building understandings of this world’s majority through careful empirical evidence and research rather than preordained notions of the global poor deriving from 19th century colonial politics.”

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