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Switching Sides
Rohit Gupta, 28 Oct 04

grameenphone.jpgA survey conducted by India's leading telecommunications magazine, Voice and Data, found 45 million people owned cellphones in India, compared with 44 million who had land lines, says this article.

According to another recent report from TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority Of India) : India has about 44 million mobile connections and about 43 million landlines. By 2007, the country is slated to have 200 million phone connections — of which, about 150 million will be wireless. At the current levels, cellular networks cover about 1,700 towns (out of 5,200), covering 200 million (just about 20%) population. The coverage of rural areas is negligible and largely incidental. By 2006, the cellular networks are expected to cover 3,50,000 (out of 6,07,000) villages, covering 450 million people.

I think is this is a profound LeapFrog for us in India. People in the rural areas, who never had access to or the understanding of traditional "telephony" are totally comfortable with the cellphone, because they know something like that from mythology - telepathy. It makes some sense to them, not without wonderment, that two people should be able to converse across large distances without wires. Any sufficiently advanced technology, it has been said, is indistinguishable from magic.

LeapFrogging is like the circus they love so much. It is the magical wormwhole through which the people across the Digital Divide can trapeze back and forth. It makes one wonder, what is the true nature and potential of LeapFrogging?

I have one interesting definition here:

You can make a cheese souffle and you don't have to understand the chemical transformations that happen to the egg as it gets cooked. You still get a souffle.

That’s how Christopher Alexander, the father of pattern languages defined the Leapfrog opportunity about eight years ago, perhaps knowingly. In this brilliant lecture in San Jose (1996) to a group of software programmers, he commented that -

"In traditional society where lay people either built or laid out their own houses, their own streets, and so on, the adaptation was natural. It occurred successfully because it was in the hands of the people that were directly using the buildings and streets. So, with the help of the shared pattern languages which existed in traditional society, people were able to generate a complete living structure.

In our own time, the production of environment has gone out of the hands of people who use the environment. So, one of the efforts of the pattern language was not merely to try and identify structural features which would make the environment positive or nurturing, but also to do it in a fashion which could be in everybody's hands, so that the whole thing would effectively then generate itself."

Naturally, one should ask - are the physical structures already existing in rural India sustainable? In my few excursions, the answer I have most often found is yes. Consider my previous post on the village in Gujarat with the country’s only profit-making local body, as an example.

This generalisation does not include outdated social practices in certain rural parts of India, especially those that involve gender exploitation and ostracism. The most difficult thing to change about human societies is kinship models, which evolve as a consequence of economic models.

As another example of the opportunity that exists, when my younger brother married his girlfriend of two years (as opposed to the socially acceptable 'arranged marriages' in traditional Rajasthan), while my parents objected vehemently, my grandparents had absolutely no trouble accepting not only his marriage, they were even cosy with the fact that he was getting married before I did, the elder son. They had made a social 'leapfrog' in my understanding.

We need to look at this problem the other way, the way it really is. It's not as if we are going to go in lorries into villages and save the people. That would be fairly presumptious, considering that they arleady use sustainable structures, and we don’t. What needs to be understood is that we have far more to gain from them, than they have from us.

These are people living across the digital divide, and 'we the connected' are simply one side of the divide, not necessarily the better off. Urbanism has cost us so much more than is immediately visible.

Thing is, the rurals don't need us to save them - their life has many models of sustainability. We need them to save us. They don't need to acquire intelligence to communicate with us. We need to find ways in which to understand their language, and build a medium of communication we can use. If we don't do this, as Alex Steffen said in his PopTech speech, "Ladies & Gentlemen, we're screwed!"

We are going to walk down the pug-dandy and learn from them, the lessons that might save us.

In the aforementioned lecture, Alexander goes on to tell the software industry that while they have embraced the 'patterns' part of his theories in making object-oriented programs, they have largely ignored the 'moral' and 'generative' aspects of pattern languages as he had envisioned them. Software had lost it's way because of extreme focus on functional aspects, the romance with code, and complete indifference to what it's implications were going to be for the world and it's population.

What we see in peer-production today is the integration of all these three components. Linux was not only driven by a moral objective, and a generative one, perhaps patterns were established through the intial conditions and 'rules' that inspired it's beginning. This is probably why Linux is a living structure and Windows is not. Michel Bauwen has written an interesting piece that tries to probe P2P's future:

"A specter is haunting the world: the specter of Peer To Peer. The existing economic system is trying to co-opt it, but it is also a harbinger of a new type of human relationship, and may in the end be incompatible with informational capitalism."

However, there is more to this, and Alexander again provides the insight, drawn from living structures. "It turns out that these living structures can only be produced by an unfolding wholeness." He calls them "structure-preserving transformations."

I think we can learn something from the success of GPL and Creative Commons , that it is far more important now to built sustainable blueprints, the free-to-use knowledge of "how to build a blueprint", the "do-it-yourself" manual for changing the world, than it ever was before.

Marshall McLuhan had called us The Age Of Do-It-Yourself.

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Comments

hi,

some more statistics, on age groupwise, cellphone
usage, area wise, will give us a better picture of things, in India. Is the penetration happening?? really,as great as it is described.?
but nevertheless, this has been better and faster than the wired stuff. And quick penetration is here to stay.

my prediction of statistics. top 10 major cities would capture, 35 million rest of the millions will be in the rest of the cities and towns



Posted by: krishna on 1 Nov 04



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