Understanding technology beyond broadband internet

Text by Ajinkya Deshmukh, Program Manager, Digital Green

Photos by Avinash Wandile, MSSRF

If you are reading this, chances are that when you want to watch a video, you just head over to YouTube, search for what you want, and enjoy on-demand video. For most of the developed world, this holds true. And for the longest time, creators of video streaming services like YouTube operated with the assumption that consumers of video content obviously have access to a zippy internet connection.

That assumption is starting to change.

Digital Green’s work across thousands of villages in rural India and Ethiopia has shown that there is a sizable demand for educating and entertaining videos in areas with little to no internet access. Over the last couple of years, hundreds of thousands of women and men in remote areas have watched, learned and benefited from videos about agriculture, livestock, health and nutrition.

To learn more about such a large untapped demographic, YouTube’s Emerging Markets Team from San Francisco visited Digital Green last week and saw how we bridge the online-offline divide to get videos through to rural communities. The team was interested in the sociological as well as technical issues related to video production and distribution in offline areas. Instead of sitting in a conference room all day, we took them to the field!

Video dissemination being observed by the visitors

The three-member team from YouTube visited our work in Wardha district of Maharashtra, where our partner MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), implements the Digital Green approach in 60 villages. Bearing the punishing Deccan heat in Kelapur village, the team met with the MSSRF staff, the video production team, the video disseminators, and community members who saw videos and adopted the practices promoted in them. But perhaps more importantly, they got the chance to understand how the Internet was understood by those who had little access to it.

Talking about how technology changed their lives, Aruna Waghmare, a video disseminator, said, When our kid’s exam results are declared, the state government sends a hard copy of the results to each school, and that takes eight days to reach our village by post. But now, the kids know the result within hours by going online. We saw this change in the last five years.

Aruna Waghmare being interviewed by the YouTube team

Pratibha Kapse, a video producer, added the profound insight, Technology isn’t good or bad, but depends on how it is used. While cell phones have made it incredibly easy to contact people in times of emergency, the village youth also consume indecent material and pornography using the same technology.

Pratibha Kapse at the interaction with the YouTube team

Not the kinds to just answer questions, the women from the community also quizzed the YouTube team on what their notions of internet and technology were. When the team shared their idea of the internet as the largest repository of human knowledge that can be used to find like-minded people around the world, the women got thinking about how the internet can benefit their lives.

Reflecting on her expectations from technology in the coming decade, video producer Sandhya Khapre said, We know very little about the internet, but are learning from our kids who seem to pick things up. But access and affordability should improve greatly in the coming years. A child from a poor family who attends local-language school should be able to use the internet to even out the advantage a child who goes to English-medium school has.

Picking up on this point, some others in the community rejected technology as a silver bullet, and testified to the need of human mediation and quality teachers in education and learning. This insight surprisingly matches with what Digital Green board member Kentaro Toyama argues in his new book The Geek Heresy! I was thoroughly impressed!

We wound down the trip by visiting fields where women had adopted Farmyard Manure, a practice showcased in the videos shown to the communities. The team headed back to Wardha with a finer, more nuanced understanding of how technology was used and perceived in this small village in the middle of the Indian peninsula. Pleasantly enough, there were neither internet utopians nor technological Luddites here!

The team visits the farm yard manure pit