Portable India: A Vision of Responsible Literacy in Digital Democracy

Rahul K. Gairola and Arnab Datta

On 21 August, 2015, Director Pradipta Banerji of the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee (IITR) and Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla of the University of California, San Diego, hosted a roundtable discussion for junior faculty that explored strategies for improving technological innovation in India. Although India is the world’s third largest Internet user, after the United States and China respectively, only twenty percent of all Indians have Internet access. Of the 4.4 billion people in the world who are still offline, twenty-five percent reside in the world’s largest democracy. Interdisciplinary research which combines Microelectronics and Communication along with Comparative Literature and Critical Theory can address these statistics. This interdisciplinary alliance empowers us to tackle one of South Asia’s most pressing issues in the twenty-first century, that of digital literacy among rural populations. By “digital literacy,” we mean the hypertexts, databases, and resources that comprise the soft materials for education and research along with the hardware and infrastructure needed to support them.

One consequence of the poor infrastructure is the lack of electronic access to literary/ pedagogical tools in rural India. In the context of our definition, the absence of required software and hardware renders any knowledge of how to use digital platforms inconsequential.

These have been realized through the implementation of Internet based hypertexts, thereby making it accessible to scholars for a seamless exchange of knowledge. In the Indian context, the internet has not yet penetrated all rural areas, and hypertext-based implementation of digital archives is thus not viable. Despite booming knowledge archives like Wikipedia, learning repositories like Google Scholar, and a 100% increase in the use of social media, namely Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, in rural India access still remains a pressing issue.

Nearly a billion users will be subscribing to mobile phones in the coming decade according to a survey in telecommunication regulatory reports provided by the Government of India. In contrast, the growth rate of Internet subscriptions in India is projected to be nearly half the growth of mobile phone subscribers. Despite the difficulty in access to computers and preference for content in local languages as opposed to English, mobile phone usage is rising and becoming the primary platform through which rural India accesses the Internet (in the case of smart phones). Apart from enabling voice communication, fourth generation mobile phones have multiple functionalities, specifically data storage in portable flash memory chips. In this context, one solution to the lack of Internet access can be provided through portable data transfer. Flash memory chips readily, available in mobile phones, enable convenient access despite the impracticality of hypertext-based learning in rural India’s archives.

While many digital archives use DVDs and CD-ROMs for data storage, no research to date engages with alternative data storage and retrieval in rural India archives. For example, portable mediums that are light weight, reliable, and which provide high density data storage can be realized in extremely small chips, and can be designed to be climate resistant. Such alternatives to digital archives that employ both flash and allied memory chips, which users can easily access exclusively through their mobile phones, eliminate dependence on Internet connection. State of the art memory technologies support novel technological trends in the Digital Humanities, not only in terms of the resources but also for efficient archival of them. This will make digital literacy in rural India feasible in the immediate future rather than relying on bandwidth sensitive internet connection.

We recognize that a move away from pervasive internet usage seems counterintuitive, but so is the combination of our disparate fields that can improve digital literacy in rural India. We believe this research, made possible by the transdisciplinary collaboration between STEM and HSS fields at the Indian Institute of Technology, can enable digital literacy in the remotest parts of India and eventually other poor and marginalized regions around the globe. Until the proper infrastructure is in place to achieve digital democracy in India, we should support the spread of other pedagogical technologies that could easily then be adapted to Internet platforms when the infrastructure permits. In our vision, learning can and should occur without excessive dependence on the Internet.

For example, Avinanda Nath, a junior research collaborator, is studying digital transfer of popular animated films like the Disney version of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” to flash drives. In her account, this animated film acts as a pedagogical tool on a number of levels: 1) it engages a classic work of literature in a filmic medium that would appeal to children; 2) it embodies the ethics and morals of which Kipling’s work is famous for and which society attempts to instill in children at an early age; 3) advanced readings of this film for adolescents (versus children) interrogates the cartoonic representations and supports advanced studies of representation, stereotypes, and portrayal of rural India; and 4) the screening of the film against, for example, a white wall on any building makes possible a wide and varied audience, as well as a portable, transferable, and thus accessible medium of instruction. Other such Internet-less media that can be stored on mobiles and flash drives include Power Point presentations, downloaded lectures, and lessons available on the Internet, like MOOCS, and user-friendly translation software.

Without dependence on the Internet, such “innovative” technology can be swiftly implemented in, for example, the five rural villages recently designated to IITR under the Government of India’s Unnat Bharat Abhiyan (Uplift Rural India) program. This grassroots effort provides technological resources to rural, impoverished communities.

While the current Digital India drive paves the long-term path forward, we offer these suggestions as immediate solutions that will continue to uphold India’s global reputation in ideas, innovation, and education. Our hope is that further research that brings together our disparate fields in the service of digital democracy will improve the lives of disenfranchised Indians around the globe, including the diasporic communities living in New York and served by The City University of New York.

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