between healthy use of computers and dynamic village contexts: proximity to elements of urbanity and good transport infrastructure seemed to play a crucial role in mediating consistent usage of computers.
Surveys of communication ecology in each village assessing existing communication cultures, point to varying degrees of urbanity and mainstream popular culture present in the social life of village communities. The existence of satellite/ cable TV viewership and consumption of audio-video merchandise in each village validate the above contention. Rural societies, contrary to popularly held views, are linked to their urban counterparts through several social routes and popular cultural forms. Print, video and motion picture technologies aid and become prime mediating agencies (Appadurai 1996, Rangaswamy and Toyama 2005). All 12 villages show very high TV viewership with significant private cable connections. A village with no cable TV service provider had 50 families sharing a privately owned dish antenna! This leads to another interesting assumption we may stretch to a point. Computers viewed as source of entertainment, complementing other sources is a prevalent reality in urban India. It remains to be seen if this becomes a dominant mode of associating with the PC in rural regions.
In our surveys of users and non-users of kiosks, it is becoming evident that on-line services are least popular not only due to connectivity issues but to lack of imaginative marketing and services that make sense to local communities, drawing them into a commercial loop with operators. Kiosks that have some amount of on-line activity like mail and chat report little browsing or usage of ‘search’ options. It may be useful to critically rethink information technology as commercial viability in environments that do not view information give and take as business. Kiosks make money only when services are valued and communities deem fit to enter into an economic exchange with it.
The following section will detail our findings and tie up village ecologies, social entrepreneurship of Kiosk operators and information technology as small enterprise.
Profiles of Kiosk Operators
Socio-economic locations of KO’s provide important backdrops to how these individuals initiate and respond to the intermeshing of new technology and village context. They are primarily situated in a socio-cultural world, be it an urbanizing rural landscape or a mixed media environment with mobile telephony and satellite TV, affined to strong social networks as bearers and transmitters of information.
Our data review of KO’s social profiles is showing some clear trends. All of the KOs hail from farming communities with both or one parent practicing active farming. One KO’s parents are both teachers in nearby schools. Most possess graduate/post-graduate degrees and have either studied or worked in urban centers. Out of the 12, 4 KO’s are post-graduates, 6 graduates and the remaining 2 non-graduates having a basic diploma in computing skills. They are the first generation in the family to attain a college degree.
They have made decisions, in some cases giving up active jobs, and reverted to native villages to start self owned business. Almost all of them site village life as closer to human dignity offering open spaces to try their business instincts. There is an amount of self confidence in risk taking on home ground. All of them gave prominence to their intuition in bringing technology to village ecologies rather than articulating a business proposition in this. That all of them went ahead incubating ICT enabled businesses is post facto. It is interesting to notice that none of the KO’s went back to the city admitting some sense of failure in the initial decision to revert to native homes. As one of them quipped, ‘I am happy to leave the city and live in a region that has all the facilities of a city and yet is rural in consciousness’.
While most KO’s come from dominant socio-economic groups, by no means is it limited to these groups. The percentage of KO’s in middle and low social strata is considerable given the size of our village sample. They show equal drive and ambition in pulling computers into village landscapes2.
Tied businesses include computer institutes, medical pharmacy, a mobile handset repair / maintenance outfit and a photo studio. Since attached business offered buffer for income shocks, KO’s have thought through the process of running internet kiosks and made some interesting business decisions. These in turn have helped in bringing profits and further offered varied services. Some of these kiosks have no on-line activities and make money using off-line software packages.
In instances where kiosks make little business, there is enough conviction among KO’s to bring technology and services into their villages. The hitch, other than power, connectivity and hardware issues, seems to be genuine confusion in disseminating services that show value for a member in the village community to take that first stride to the kiosk and pay for a need fulfilled. Some KO’s who seriously grappled with ways to do business in predominantly agricultural communities, give up blaming power cuts, hardware maintenance, and backwardness of village material infrastructure and cultural consciousness. It is ironic they as bearers of the same consciousness, have broken through village opacity to information technologies.
Charan Das began his village kiosk in March 2005 to introduce computers to his village and make business out of it (see Fig 3). Charan belongs to the community of Neo Dalits who belong to scheduled groups with a history of caste oppression. Amidst the dominant Maratha caste who runs most affluent businesses, Charan Das represents a
2 It is important to mention that castes as occupational groups in rural contexts have historically displayed dynamism, mobility across social units and learning new skill sets in response to demands. On the contrary, growing urban areas quickly consolidated casts units to meet high competitive levels. This is evident even today among highly successful business groups in India that belong to traditional business castes.