The Next Billion Tech Users Are Just Like the Rest of Us

This story is part of BREAKER’s Social Good Week, a series looking at ways blockchain technology can engineer progress and help humanity.

A widespread argument for the importance of cryptocurrency and blockchain tech is its potential for people in developing nations. In places like Kenya and Nigeria, it is argued, surging economies are grappling with inadequate access to global financial infrastructure and investment. Meanwhile, under inept regimes like the one in Venezuela, the domestic money system is crumbling. In both cases, cryptocurrency could offer ‘financial inclusion’: better integration with the wider world, eventually translating into better economic mobility and innovation.

Payal Arora, an associate professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, has heard it all before. For almost a decade, she worked in Brazilian favelas, South African townships, and Indian slums to learn about how the global poor adopt technology. That work, including stints as a research liaison for Hewlett-Packard and the World Bank, often left her frustrated by the assumptions first-world organizations brought to the table. First, what she saw firsthand in marginal communities conflicted with assumptions about the global poor as “virtuous utilitarians.” According to that notion, poor people are expected to use internet access to search for jobs, monitor crop markets, or otherwise become more efficient economic beingsjust the assumption behind many blockchain development projects.

Payal Arora

But in her new book, The Next Billion Users, Arora reveals something that should be unsurprising. It turns out that most people, when they first get access to the internet, use it in exactly the same ways we in the developed world do: for flirting, gaming, and porn. “People are not instrumental, utility-driven subjects,” she says, “even if they are in low-income communities.”

And, says Arora, “blockchain is just a new layer of technology, where a lot of … well-meaning, well-intended actors, committed to improving people’s lives, have bought into this conversation. It really viscerally taps into the same drivers behind this entire [development and technology] field.”

Blockchain projects that aim to improve land records in Africa or expand access to credit markets, in other words, will have to reckon with average folks’ preference for spending time on (shudder) Facebook, if they hope to have an actual impact.

Arora and I spoke by phone while she was in Mumbai, and our conversation has been edited for clarity and length. The Next Billion Users is out from Harvard University Press on February 25.

How have tech companies responded to your research?
Of course, but they’re not always eager to hear. In one example, I was working with Siemens on mobile health diagnostics in the Himalayas, but we parted ways because they didn’t want to hear too much criticism—not Siemens, but another organization that [was] trying to replace doctors with medical diagnostic software. And it was a total failure in terms of how we populated the data. People didn’t know how to speak in ways the algorithm could understand, so often their data would go into the “other” [classification]. There’s so much cultural specificity we were not able to compute. And it’s easy to imagine the same sort of struggles with blockchain technologies.

There’s so much cultural specificity we were not able to compute.

Being a [research] liaison means that you have to be an objective filter. You really want the project to succeed, and so you want to showcase the problems associated with it. But it’s almost as if the field is in a straightjacket and you know it’s thwarted.

You say people in developing nations use this new technology for a mix of productivity and entertainment, but that entertainment actually dominates. Is that good or bad?
Well, it’s just like asking ourselves, when I binge-watch Breaking Bad, was that good or bad? It really was extremely wasteful. But, on the other hand, it’s what makes us human. We are flawed people who indulge in the impractical to fulfill certain desires. We are unpredictable. We make mistakes, and it’s okay.

It’s not true that we function [strictly] on a hierarchy where we first need water, food, and shelter before we go into higher-order needs. Actually, we disrupt this pyramid all the time, because it’s individualistic. In my research, I found it was common for young people to skip a meal so they could get extra mobile data time. They made that choice and it was of value to them. Asking whether that’s “good” is irrelevant.

Explain your concept of the “leisure divide.”
One part of the leisure divide is that we don’t even look at poor people and what they do on mobile phones. We know that 80 to 85 percent of the world’s young people come from the Global South. We know the majority live in low-income communities, and we know they’re getting online fast. Facebook’s users, for the most part, are in Asia.

What’s ironic is only these media companies are recognizing these people as ‘leisure beings,’ so they can capitalize on them and make them consumers. Researchers, policymakers, and people who want to do good are putting the poor on a pedestal: ‘Of course, they’re going to look for education and do the right things. And of course they’re asexual beings, why would they watch pornography, for God’s sake?’ They’re prolific porno users. Indians are some of the biggest consumers of porn in the world.

If we don’t look at what [the global poor] are really doing, then we’re starting from a completely wrong point. We should be actually analyzing what they need, how to empower them, how to create some agency and global equity across the board.

You’re saying some digital services are doing a better job than nonprofits or aid agencies at reaching these people. But you also argue, tentatively, that media piracy might be morally defensible because these audiences have been so left out of that market.
They have been and they continue to be a huge neglected market. So rather than try to come up with constructive strategiesfor instance how to create a sort of Netflix [for the developing world] that is affordableWestern media companies are investing millions penalizing countries if they don’t enforce piracy laws. They made movie theaters showcase how bad piracy is, really instilling the morality of it. A number of these media industry messages have actually drawn the equivalence to a terrorist act. It’s all about fear-mongering, as if media pirates lack a certain ethic because they’re low-income, whereas they’ve been systematically excluded from these activities.

Leisure makes you relax, it makes you think, it makes you wonder about possibilities. It gets you to start to aspire to things that are outside your world. It creates dissatisfaction, and it becomes the first seed for a demand for social change. It questions the status quo, and that can be very threatening.

There’s an interesting new mobile network in India called Jio. It’s a really cheap network, and their marketing strategy was that four [kinds of data] are free. They call it the ABCD principle: Astrology, Bollywood, Cricket, and Devotion. The bulk of users in these countries [occupy] themselves online on these kinds of sites, not looking at job descriptions or crop prices. It’s really more about romance economies, entertainment economies, pornography economies. So they got that, and they started to use that to market to the young population.

You write that “fulfillment is not necessarily a matter of efficiency or economic benefit.” Are you arguing against the push for development itself?
Well, let’s talk about “development” as an agenda. The development project came about after colonization. Agencies like the WTO, World Bank and UNICEF all stemmed out of the Bretton Woods Conference in the 1940s. It was then coupled to Westernization and globalization, and it’s about market principles, and technology is very much at the heart of it. There’s a kind of linear trajectory: You are here at Point A, and you should be at Point Z. That’s where we are—the ones who have a good life, the West, etc.

But what’s the pathway to economic mobility? Let’s look at U.S. copyright laws. Americans ignored British copyright laws for the first 100 years, until they got their own industries. China instituted protectionist measures, and China is the only country who is able to seriously challenge the Silicon Valley monopoly. India can’t do that, even though India had a head start. They’re English-speaking and have tech talent and strong ties to Silicon Valley. And yet China succeeded because of protectionism.

So let’s be realistic about what that path really was to progress. Why are you describing this fictional narrative of how you pull yourself up by the bootstraps and move by sheer guts and entrepreneurship?

Do you see people in the developing world forging their own path, separate from what other people are trying to dictate to them?
Productivity is interesting, because you have to ask: “productive” for whom? Productivity for the formal market system? Remember, 70 to 85 percent of these populations live in informal economies. That’s the norm. Often they’re not even recognized by the state, because they live in informal settlements. So there’s a parallel economy, because these people still have needs. Whether it’s drug lords running things, or the rice mafia, or people providing electricity, an entire system of government is established, except it’s not being captured.

You argue that the entire narrative of the “digital divide” between the developed and developing world is just a way for Western development agencies and corporations to evade real responsibility for change. They can just say, ‘We’ve given you computers, that’s all you need.’ What’s the alternative mindset you suggest?
The poor don’t need more innovation. The poor definitely need less innovation.

There’s this idea that the situation has gotten so bad that the poor have absolutely nothing to lose, and we need something extraordinary to tackle these black-hole situations. But if you look at it closely, the poor have been used as a testbed for every new technology for a very long time. It’s as if they’re on a clinical trial, like they’re a dying patient and this is their last resort, so why not experiment on them with some bizarre technology?

The poor don’t need more innovation. The poor definitely need less innovation.

But the question is, what are the odds of these technologies failing when it’s a pilot study? The odds of failure are very high, because this is driven by entrepreneurship—you’re testing technology. So why do we feel that the poor have more capacity to absorb these enormous amounts of market failure, but we would definitely protect ourselves from that?

There’s this venture in California called AltSchool. It got a lot of money from the Zuckerberg family and [Laurene Powell] Jobs. They literally drank their [own] Kool-Aid: ‘Let’s go for autonomous learning. We need to sideline teachers and use smart technologies for smart learning.’ So children basically sat on beanbags and were given these devices where curriculums came on playlists, and they were left to themselves, and teachers were data crunchers. And you can guess what happened: They failed. Parents are really pissed off. And now they’re going to sell these technologies to all the schools that they can in the U.S.

It was basically a giant test-bed on rich kids, which is really an anomaly: In the developing world, this is an everyday phenomenon. Look at the One Laptop Per Child program. With the budget of many African nations, they could invest either in that one laptop, or they could invest in institutional reform. So that cost these kids an education. The price they had to pay was astronomical.

These markets, just like developed markets, are dominated by brands like Facebook. Is there the same kind of anxiety about privacy as in the U.S. and Europe?
Privacy is a universal value cherished by all. It’s something that makes us inherently human, because in our most private moments we get to understand ourselves. And data protection is undoubtedly important.

But when you go into developing worlds, what people really care about is the need to be safe in public spaces, and the digital realm is a very public space. A teenage girl in Saudi Arabia worries, being persecuted, tracked, put in prison, or killed, if she shows her face because she’s interested in this guy on Twitter? What appears like deeply mundane activity can create devastating consequences for young people. There are very few other public spaces. So I think there’s a need to protect people, and to understand why they so desperately seek visibility, not invisibility.

But this notion of privacy framed in terms of data protection and individual consent assumes that  having the keys to our data will empower us. That’s really privileging those who are highly literate, interested, who have the aptitude. Individualism is not necessarily a good thing, especially in economies where institutions have let the people down, time and again.

There’s often debate over whether development is moral. Some people argue that un-contacted tribes in the Amazon deserve to have access to television, while others say that’s just another form of conquest. How do we respect the autonomy of these developing populations or is colonialism inherent to any effort to reach out and change things?
It’s a tough question. The colonial mindset is hard to get rid of—it’s a legacy of hundreds of years. There is a tendency when we talk about globalization—and you hear this also with blockchain technology—to assume that streamlining is a good thing because it creates a certain uniformity, consensus, and harmony. People don’t like complications.

There are people who are well-meaning who ask ‘Who are we to impose our values on them?  Even if you think your way of life is inherently better in every possible way, if it’s not a dialogue but a uni-directional shaping of a society, then there’s a problem. But, today we should be able to stand behind universal rights and universal values. We have evolved as a society to where we can say gender equality is important, or the right to expression. We have fought very hard to be able to hold these universal values and rights as sacrosanct, and that’s worth fighting for.

In the U.S., we worry a lot about the narcotizing or distracting effects of technology. Can tech and entertainment be a distraction, in a bad way, from people engaging with and maybe contesting their global position?
One of the fundamental points of the book is that they are typical users and not exotic users. A parent in a township in South Africa, of course that parent is going to be concerned about their child spending multiple hours gaming on their mobile phones versus doing homework. They are no different form a parent in Boston or Amsterdam. We need to remember that these struggles of technology addiction, this loss of offline social connection, you hear that everywhere.

I’ve seen it being in Mumbai these last two weeks. You go on a beach and you see, everyone’s taking a selfie. They’re filtering this experience through their mobile technology, it’s not that different from anywhere else.

There’s been a big focus in the West on the role of technology in politics in the developing world, going back to the Arab Spring. At the more activist level, people connecting to take action, was that something that you’ve seen signs of?
Indeed, entire revolutions were attributed to technology companies—the Twitter Revolution, the Facebook Revolution. We’ve got more empirical evidence now, and platforms have been instrumental in helping these activists organize themselves, the same kind of infrastructure that we use to organize a marriage ceremony or family holiday.

But activism is a tricky word. It means that a bunch of people who don’t necessarily know each other get committed to a purpose outside of narrow self-interest, for what they believe to be a good cause. And that can go in multiple directions. Look at what’s going on right now, whether it’s in Myanmar with the [ethnic cleansing of] the Rohingya, or what’s happening in Sri Lanka with the Sinhalese, or even in India. There’s such a positive bias around the term “activism,” understandably so, because we would like to believe that discontent will create change for the better. But there’s a full spectrum.

Look at Pakistan, with the Asia Bibi case. This woman who supposedly said something blasphemous against the Q’ran and was put in solitary confinement for eight years. But recently Pakistan’s Supreme Court said she has paid the price and it was kind of wrongful, and we need to let her go. But the blasphemy law has about 70 percent approval there, so there were street protests, organized around the hashtag “Hang Asia Bibi By The Law.

And they meant Sharia law, not the Supreme Court’s law. Multiple ministers who stood up to defend the Supreme Court were killed. So who is the activist here? The ones who were trying to keep the institutions intact, or the majority of people who were fighting the so-called “regime in power,” which is the Supreme Court?

We can only make technologies meaningful if you work with people. So people-centrism, as opposed to technology-centrism, is the way to go.

There’s not that much difference between the consequences of technology for developed countries and undeveloped countries. I’m completely fascinated by the rise of conspiracy theories on the American internet.
And it goes back to the question of relativism. Do we fight for something, or is it too condescending? This is a clear case of, yes, we need to fight. I find the judges, who were putting their lives in real danger, they are the genuine activists, because they are fighting to preserve a democratic system. And we can stand up for that—especially at a time when less than 17 percent of countries worldwide have liberal democracies. If we don’t fight for them, and we slip into moral relativism, we’re in really bad shape.

How do you build technological systems that have a better chance of strengthening societies?
I question the idea that automation—and this also applies to blockchain—is inherently better because it gets rid of intermediaries. Intermediaries are social institutions. The larger and more complicated society gets, translators of all kinds are fundamental to operationalizing even the best of values, like human rights and freedom of expression.

I just completed a report with UNESCO looking at the future of mobile innovation in developing countries. I interviewed a number of innovators outside the West, and I noticed something very scary: they were confined by very strong parameters to design mobile apps which were automated—not assistive technology, it had to be autonomous technology. The more dramatic a claim you can make, the more you can sell your product and get headlines.

But we have decades of proof that these kinds of technologies are better used as assistive technologies, including with blockchain. It’s not about the radical users of blockchain, but the mundane users of blockchain, that can make incremental but meaningful impacts on institutions. We can only make technologies meaningful if you work with people. So people-centrism, as opposed to technology-centrism, is the way to go.