Sep 10 2008

Civic and Consumer Culture – Will technology in the BRICs set a new standard?

by at 1:04 pm under 2008-09 Fellows

This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to India – I was returning after 3.5 years, and while the primary purpose of my trip was to study the US – India bilateral relationship, I couldn’t help but notice the transformation that had taken place in such a short period of time. It’s often easy to get lost in numbers – in policy circles in Washington DC especially, analysts are always citing 8% this, and 12% that. I am certainly not exempt from this practice. You can ask my classmates – I think I casually mention India and China’s break neck growth rates in many class discussions to argue for increased attention to be paid to Asia, instead of solely focusing on the Middle East. But that’s another debate for another time.

The 9% average GDP growth per annum actually has a face – in New Delhi, I saw it most clearly in the form of cellular phones, blackberries, digital television, and internet cafes. From the rickshaw driver with a Nokia N82 who charged me 20 rupees for a ride of 5 km (at the time, equivalent to $.40), to the chief physician at Ludhiana’s first IVT Clinic, who sometimes met with and diagnosed patients, and prescribed medications over his Nokia N96, the mobile revolution that Gaurav written about, is rapidly underway in India. I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at least once the pronounced influence Bollywood has on the mobile industry; I don’t think I made it a block without hearing the latest ballads of Lata Mangeshkar, or the compositions of A.R. Rahman used as ring tones. (And yes, the ring tones are equally as obnoxious in public settings in India as they are here in the states.)

Fortuitously for me, I arrived in India on the heels of the historic confidence vote. India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh had just called for a vote on the controversial civilian nuclear deal with the United States – a deal that enabled India to obtain peaceful, civilian nuclear energy while still maintaining strategic nuclear capabilities. Geopolitics aside, I was amazed at how the information regarding the ruling coalition’s victory was spread: text messages parlaying the release of the Bollywood movie “Singh is Kinng” with references to the Prime Minister were being sent and forwarded throughout the subsequent days and weeks. In addition, the opposition party had accused the ruling coalition of bribing them with millions of dollars; this too became a subject line for many jokes that were then forwarded on as texts. I could cite more examples – from the volatile situation that began to erupt in Jammu over the Shri Amarnath shrine, to Abhinav Bindra’s Olympic gold medal – of instances where communication, discussion, and civic activity were facilitated predominantly through the use of text messaging.

This was not entirely a huge departure from the American culture of using SMS (and here, please do excuse my sweeping generalities – I may just be assuming that others use text messaging for the same purposes I do); Senator Obama certainly showed in the primaries how to use the internet and mobile technology to inspire and mobilize large swaths of people to donate money, and host meet up parties. And later, he even announced his selection of Joe Biden using a text message to supporters. But the subtle contrast that does exist inspired me to start thinking about the impact text messaging has on civic culture in the BRIC countries, and further, how mobile and social networking technology can transform consumer activism. We often hear that in emerging economies, the strength of institutions and the rule of law are evolving simultaneously with the growth of the respective economies – but before these institutions become completely transparent (or at least somewhat transparent), can technology platforms serve as an arbitrating force? If so, how?

These, and many more questions will guide my research for the Yahoo Junior Fellowship. In this opening post, I drew on my anecdotal experience from India. I don’t have similar experiences in Russia, Brazil or China, but I would love to hear from people that do. In the course of my research, I will be scouring news paper articles and academic journals, but I would love to hear real life accounts as well. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading, and please do give me your suggestions or questions!

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