The machine to aspire to: The computer in rural south India
First Monday

The machine to aspire to: The computer in rural south India by Joyojeet Pal

This study examined the perception of technology from the frame of aspiration in rural India. We argue here that the idea of technology as a critical part of modernity has been deeply tied to India’s discourse of development, and that this was in turn a portrayal of technology in a range of outlets in the public sphere. In villages of rural south India, we found an environment of great expectations from technology to reduce poverty and open urban opportunities, including from those who had never used a computer before. Specifically in schools, where this research was conducted, we found that computers played a much larger role than just as a delivery mechanism for digital educational material since they represented an aspirational artifact to children and parents alike. With historically low performance records at public schools, the computer frequently has been seen as a device offering a cure to systemic educational problems. Children, in part imbibing a discourse of technology from their own parents and media, have seen the computer as a critical part of their schooling experience. The device, and its mastery, then became an affirmation of pecking order among children themselves, and influenced the way that they interacted with fellow students.


Public discourse of computing
The omnipotent computer versus the inefficient institution
From parents to children




Between 2005 and 2007, a study of computer use in and around rural schools in South India discovered two unusual factors about attitudes towards computing. First, it found that computers were highly valued as a means out of poverty, even among those parents that had never seen a computer up close except on popular media (Pal, et al., 2009). Among the 216 interviewed parents in the states of Kanataka and Tamil Nadu, the sense of enthusiasm was roughly as ubiquitous as the sense of concern over a future in agriculture — parents wanted their children out of agriculture, and when they verbalized means out of a future dependent solely on farming, they saw two potential saviors — computers and the English language. Either of these, especially the former, held the key to a bright future.

The second, more unusual finding was the ways in which ideas about computers had filtered down to children. The study had found that children’s computer sharing behavior was often determined by status, rather than by equity and spirit of learning. Children saw the use of a computer as a valuable and prized resource that was regulated accordingly. Children saw being “good at computers” in comparable terms to being “good at sports” or “good at studies” — i.e., something of significant social capital. In fact, the study found that not only did this influence children’s perceptions of their peers, but also at a very granular level their mouse or keyboard use behavior. Based on the study, Microsoft Research went on to build a tool called MultiMouse [1] that allowed children to share computers equitably by each using his or her own mouse, and thereby ameliorating some of the effects of dominance by one or another “good at computers” child.

In this paper, we work backwards from this critical piece of children’s computer–sharing behavior that influenced the development of MultiMouse. Children sharing a computer felt embarrassed to ask fast–clicking partners to slow down digital material during a computer–aided learning module. For a vast majority of children, being bad at studies or sports was easily admitted to and of limited serious concern — but not a single child in the study admitted to being slow with computers — even if the ‘slowness’ had nothing to do with technical skill per se (such as reading pace). Just the fact of being physically seated at the computer raised the bar for performance.

What makes “good at computers” such an important part of the aspirational environment in rural India? Parents and children alike referred to the computer as a near magical device — one that offers the possibility not only of individual ascent, but also of overall social uplift. Much of this comes from an extremely optimistic public discourse of technology — represented as value–neutral, accessible, and modern. In this paper, we examine this discourse, manifestations in public media and their eventual translation to rural adults, and children.

The research presented here represents a total of 430 interviews throughout India with parents, children, teachers and stakeholders. Different sub–sets of interviews addressed different sets of questions, though all were related to technology and schools. Over one hundred (105) of the interviews were only with children, and these were in the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The interviews with parents and administrators are from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, and Pondicherry, though a majority of the findings discussed here are from a subset of 216 semi–structured interviews which were conducted with a number of questions related to aspiration (related to computer classes), conceptions of technology (such as places computers were first encountered), institutional expectations (such as the role of the school). These interviews were conducted after several early rounds of discussions with parents and teachers which were helpful in understanding what were the right questions to ask.



Public discourse of computing

“There is respect only for people who have learnt computers nowadays, so computer education is of utmost importance.”
Parent of a school girl, Kanakpura, Karnataka

Much recent work has examined social factors influencing adoption of and attitudes towards computers (Selwyn, 2003) across a range of scholarly disciplines from management (Venkatesh, 2000), economics (Goolsbee and Klenow, 2002), science and technology studies (Berker, et al., 2006), and regions (Caselli and Coleman, 2001; Al–Gahtani, 2003; Yamamura, 2008). Recent work has also looked at technology adoption in India, including specific work related to education related to this study (Miller and Varma, 1994) as well as a growing area of work on gendered aspects of technology and technology career adoption (Adya and Kaiser, 2005). This research takes forward some of this work, bringing into it an important discussion around aspiration (Appadurai, 2004). This paper makes the case that in the specific case of computer technology adoption in rural India, it is essential to understand demand for computers within the frame of aspiration related to an imagined expansion of possibility enabled by computers. Not only does this affect parents of children who are recipients of technology in their schools, but at a very fundamental level the children themselves are conditioned to treat the computer as an iconic artifact.

The positive discourse of technology in urban India has been a given for most of the past two decades. It is for the most part justified by the fact that the urban move towards service sector jobs has rapidly expanded to the point where most middle and lower–middle class urban residents can safely expect to have some primary or secondary interaction with computing technology in their workplace. As computers go from prized and “locked away safely” devices (Sanger, et al., 1997) to relatively commonplace devices, and — even schools at the ‘bottom’ of the pecking order have computer labs — municipal and government schools in urban areas are virtually guaranteed to have access to computers. However, beyond the urban regions, access to computers or even the infrastructure necessary to run computers drop dramatically.

The public image of computers is for the most emblematic of ‘a new India’ especially in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, where this research took place. In Karnataka, the Bangalore ‘Indian Silicon Valley’ boom of the 1990s brought the idea of technology and social mobility to the south. Politicians were quick to use technology as a legitimizing factor — N. Chandrababu Naidu, the former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, was the first to be repeatedly photographed alongside computers. S.M. Krissna, the former Chief Minister of neighbouring Karnataka, soon fashioned himself as a tech savvy intellectual politician and the gigantic political billboards common in the south featured politicians with cellular phones and computers as a new face of modernity (Mazzarella, 2010; Kamat, 2011). Moving on from household utensils and liquor as political bribes pre–election, political parties started offering televisions and laptops for voters.

The rapid spread of television through rural India played a tremendous role in pushing forth the packet of technology. From watching a film every few weeks, rural Indians moved to several hours of programming daily, bombarded with images of urban aspiration in film and television alike. Cinema took a dramatic turn through the early 2000s in all the southern states — fashioning protagonists out of software engineers. In contrast to the past where film protagonists were frequently fighting an oppressive system stacked against the individual, the new heroes were technology–savvy aspirational youth. Of particular significance was the emergence of female protagonists who participated in the work force. In the past, any participation in the labor market for a woman was related to the failure of a male provider somewhere, and was generally a recipe for dissonance. In contrast, the incidence of female computer engineers on screen boomed through the 2000s. Unlike the abused workers, harassed office secretaries, or underpaid salespersons of earlier generations of south Indian cinema, these were women who were successful at work, worked in safe office environments, and competed on fair grounds with their male counterparts, without necessarily threatening them [2]

An important motivation for this research came from a tourist taxi driver in Coimbatore district, who I used to ride with. Casually discussing his family and changes it had seen in the last generation, Selvaraghavan said:

“Both my daughters work in Chennai in computers. In the early days, we would never let our (referring to the Thevar caste) women travel to the city to work, but if they work for computers that is good. There are good facilities with only ladies housing, and many other families from our village have sent their daughters to work in Chennai now.”

Indeed, as a taxi driver, Selvaraghavan was already a notch above the poorer casual laborers in the village, but he was self–employed and landless and particularly proud that his daughters worked with computers. More so, he was able to do this within the unwritten rules of caste and class compliance within the village, where now far from being taboo, a woman working for a living before marriage had come to be recognized as aspirational and practical.

In the neighboring state of Karnataka, Selvaraghavan’s thoughts were echoed by a young girl teaching computer classes at a government high school. Geetha was the daughter of illiterate Dalit casual laborers who still worked the fields each day for landed farmers in rural Udupi.

“I want to move out of the village. I am looking for a job with computers because my parents will let me move to Udupi or even Bangalore if the work is in computers. For any other job, they won’t let me leave the village.”

Since starting work at the school as a computer teacher, Geetha felt that everyone in her neighborhood, including elders, respected her and sought her advice on various matters. She had become a de facto career counselor to parents in the village planning futures for their children.

Parents’ aspiration relating to their female children frequently reflected some of these ideas, but with the economic and social diversity of the regions studied, there was variance in the perception of girls as computer users. Some of the districts where the research took place [3], especially Coimbatore, Udupi, and Dakshin Kannada, had fairly advanced schooling culture and prevalence compared to some of the other districts. In these districts, girls finishing high school was becoming increasingly common; girls generally outperformed boys (which is also true at the school graduation rates for both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka). This in turn solidified the mythology of girls having a better temperament for computing, which is curious in a sense, because it is in direct opposition to the gendered nature of engineering and technology, which are globally seen as very male activities. Looking deeper into the ways in which respondents verbalized their concerns, we find that the idea of girls as being better is rooted in ‘male irresponsibility’ and ‘female docility’ — such as teachers complaining that boys played computer games during their time out whereas girls followed instructions and did their computer work.

Resistance to computers for girls came from a few quarters. A landlord and village elder in Bellary, Karnataka discussed in an interview the problems with getting computer education for girls in their village in a scenario where the villages they typically ‘marry into’ aren’t necessarily getting access to technology at the same speed. His issue was the problems with getting his daughters ‘too educated’, since the more educated she became, the more expensive her groom.

In data published from a smaller study of an earlier version of this work, it was found that there were in fact patterns in which marginal farmers and slightly better–off parents were more likely to find computers ‘concerning’ from the dowry perspective, whereas casual laborers tended to be much more enthusiastic about their daughters using computers in their schools and in fact going forth with it to careers. One thing that most parents agreed on was that becoming computer literate positively affected the girl’s choice. Striking a chord on the empowerment issue was a laborer father from Shimoga in Karnataka:

“A girl who has learnt computers is a more competent and powerful person and she does not have to accept whatever man the family gets for her, including one who wants more dowry. She can instead choose to wait till she gets the right man.”



The omnipotent computer versus the inefficient institution

It is important to situate the discourse of computing within the perceived lack of economic options in rural India. Parents, especially those dependent on marginal farming or farm labor in all three states (plus Pondicherry), were particularly concerned about their children’s prospects in the village. For a majority of these parents, the computer represented a hope for their children. What is perhaps most surprising is that while the rural public school and the state itself presented no significant reassurance to parents, the computer did. What the school had been unable to do for years in terms of building opportunities for children, the school armed with computers could.

There are a number of ways of explaining this. First, there is the possibility of a novelty factor. For a vast majority of the sampled villages, the computers were relatively new — very few villages had computers for over three years. Indeed, there was observed a small effect of jadedness among parents in villages where the computers had been for a few years, but more importantly, the sense of enthusiasm about computers as being openly optimistic was sometimes clear. In an early interview with a casual laborer father in a dry, rain–fed single crop village in Shimoga, Karnataka, came up with the following, immediately following his talking about how the computer course had increased prospects for his middle–school son:

Q: “What do you see your child doing in the future?”

A: “I hope he will move to the city and work for the government. Working for the government is like riding a long-distance horse.”

(Same interview, a few questions later)

Q. “Tell me a little but about people who move from this village to Bangalore. What do they typically do for a living?”

A. “They work in construction.”

A certain suspension of belief came with what the computer represented. The parent expected that the typical youth from the village who moved to the city had no prospects, but that his own child would beat the odds. This response actually led to a question being added to the protocol that explicitly first asked the parent what they expected their child to do in the future, followed later in the interview with a question about the future of a typical youth who leaves the village. Surprisingly, the Shimoga parent’s sentiments resonated very strongly in two ways. First, parents generally stated the hope that their children (especially male children) would move out of their villages for prospects elsewhere, either at the block headquarters or perhaps even the metropolis. This underlined the general sense of panic over the future of farming, especially in rain–fed regions, a sense thus that moving away would be a likely outcome in the economic lives of their children [4]. Second, and more importantly, parents seemed nonetheless convinced that moving to the city was likely to work out poorly for the typical rural migrant. An overwhelming number of parents explicitly pointed to construction as a likely future for migrants. This was a particularly troubling finding on multiple levels [5].

The extent to which the computer is accorded this position of omnipotence is somewhat baffling, given the lack of any immediate “success stories” from any of the villages studied. With the exception of one village where a youth who had taken a computer class and gone on to work on a ship (people were unable to pinpoint the exact nature of what he did), there was not a single parent from among the subset sample of 216 people who was able to describe an example of what someone from their village had managed to do with computers. Furthermore, parents did not talk about their children becoming computer programmers, engineers, or in any way computer–related work. The single most aspired to job was working for the government. In this role, the computer was seen as more of a socio–economic accessory, one that opened the doors to possibilities, rather than being something that solely related to computing jobs alone.

“The computer can easily teach them English. I have seen my son working on the computer, making designs. He knows how to use it in less than one year. You see all these boys in the seventh standard, after three years of learning English if you ask them for a glass of water in English they will run away. Even the English teacher will not talk to you in English.”
Parent (marginal farmer), Raichur, Karnataka

A somewhat more surprising attribution to the computer was in its ability to “replace” a teacher. Early in our research we found that perhaps the most important aspirational competition was between “English” and “Computers” — both were seen as indicators of future success, but some unusual patterns grew in how parents picked which was more important for their child’s future. Parents who picked computers, in explaining why computers were more important, would state that with a computer, a child could easily learn English.

This personification of computers to complex human tasks is attributable to three factors. First, the association of computers with all things aspirational, and the consequent linking of them together. Thus the computer as a device used by upper class, potentially English–speaking elites, and thus the device in itself as representing the ability to do things that individuals cannot.

“Ever since I moved my daughters to the English medium school, I can go there and ask if she is not learning properly. The teacher has to answer to me.”
Parent (auto driver), at school in Pondicherry, who had just moved his daughter to a private school nearby
“For the smallest problem, they (the parents) will immediately turn it into an issue of caste. Whenever parents come to us in a group of over five, we call the police. They basically send their children to school for the mid–day meal.”
Teacher at the same school in Pondicherry

The second factor is the sense of normative neutrality in the computer. It is easy to underestimate the frequently contentious nature of the relationship between parents and teachers in rural India. Parents frequently note that the state in general and teachers in particular are not answerable to them. This is in part due to rural areas lacking their own pool of qualified teachers, resulting in the state appointing school teachers who move from urban areas or larger towns. Parents’ sense of the school and school teachers’ accountability to them for ‘quality education’ is an extremely complex issue in India and depends on a range of factors including parents’ own level of education, experience with public services, sense of empowerment and so on. In the case of the computer, the idea of quality is abstracted away to a relationship purely based on the time spent one–on–one with the device. The computer thus lacks many of the “shortcomings” in the institution or its representative the teacher — the computer is reliable/predictable, unable to discriminate.

The third explanation for some of the high expectations from computers relates to the binary understanding of what it means to be able to use a computer. Parents frequently referred to their children as being able to “do computers” or “know computers” in a very binary sense. The comparison of computer proficiency with English is helpful here — while parents were able to discuss the lack of English language skill among their children despite knowing the alphabet or having been through a few years of language training in school. In contrast, computing proficiency was almost entirely understood in terms of whether or not the child was able to operate a computer. The sense of complexity or advancement with computing did not resonate in interviews. The two closest comparable technological artifacts commonly found in villages that were discussed were television remote controls and mobile phones. It is possible that “being able to use” either of these devices seen in analogous terms probably contributed to the simplification of what it meant to be ‘computer–able’ [6].

While about 20 percent of the sampled parents had never seen a computer at all, the rest also rarely had any real primary experience using computers. The place where people could recall having seen a computer most often was banks followed by Taluk offices (administrative buildings), bus stands, hospitals, and electricity bill offices. For the most part, parents had interfaced with the individual using the computer, rather than the computer itself, and the computer user — whether bank teller, state representative, or office worker, was a person of stature and power.

The idea of future rise in ‘status’ offered by computers was a consistent theme through this work, and towards the latter half of the research, in four districts of Karnataka, parents of the school children were posed the following question. If they had to choose between two ‘free’ schools for their children — one with computers, but teaching in the local language, and another without computers, but teaching English — which they would pick?

The enthusiasm for English was very high throughout the state, and the general instinct of parents was to instantly rank the school with the computer over the school instructing in English even empirically it is known that though for the most part, as soon as parents can afford to move their children to an English–medium school, they tend to do so. Indeed, to vote in favor of the school with the computer comes with the natural bias of being a vote in favor of status quo, and what one knew already (given that all interviewees were parents of children in government schools with free computers). In one district, Bangalore Rural in south Karnataka, over 93 percent of interviewees said they’d pick the school with computers over a school with English. However, one area was a unique outlier.

While almost all the villages surveyed had a very high preference for computers over English, the exception was villages near the Toranagallu steel factories in North Karnataka. The families here were extremely poor, in fact poorer than all but one district surveyed in Karnataka, but only about 50 percent of the respondents actually veered in favor of the school with computers. Interviews with parents showed that this unusual finding was explained in how factory workers saw computers vis–à –vis agriculturist parents.

Despite the same sense that computer literacy was important, factory workers tended to have seen computers in action more often, and had a sense of homophily with a sub–section of the computer users. This, as has been found in other social science research, was an important factor in what people associated as aspirational frames within their own networks (Duncan, et al., 1968; McPherson, et al., 2001). Factory workers interacted with office security guards who had been trained to use computers to assign gate passes, or factory floor assistants who used computers for time–stamping made the machine less mysterious. Sharing the same class with computer users arguably gave a different conception of where power and class really lay — and the importance of this distinction is seen in the contrast between agriculturist parents and factory worker parents’ perceived importance of computers in future careers of their children, as against other skills and knowledge. Factory workers in interviews did not describe computers as being inaccessible, given that people from their own classes and communities were daily computer users, and were none the more ‘elevated’ from class for being able to do so they still lived in the same village, had roughly comparable incomes. There was also not a serious sense that the use of computers could in itself do to a lot to raise economic and social prospects. For factory workers, real power that separated the haves and have–nots derived from a different ability — being able to speak English.

So how do ideas about a computer’s omnipotence match up with the real potential these technologies hold for the rural poor in India? The evidence is generally not encouraging. Most empirical work suggests that the largesse of the ‘computer’ — or more specifically the IT industry — remains very concentrated in urban populations, and furthermore that factors of caste and generational profession, religion, and parental education are all significant indicators of the likelihood of future success for the children in these villages (Krishna and Brihmadesam, 2006; Ali, 2007; Fuller and Narasimhan, 2007; Ilavarasan, 2007; Upadhya, 2007; Fuller and Narasimhan, 2008). In fact, the fears of parents that the ‘typical child’ ends up in casual labor is supported by most existing research (Deshingkar and Akter, 2009; Pattanaik, 2009), nonetheless their underplaying or lack of awareness of factors like the importance of ‘networks’ in the prospects of their own children presents an unusual irony.



From parents to children

“I am best at computers.”
Most common response among children asked who in the school was best at computers

The transfer of initial mystique about computers from parents to children took on patterns comparable to those of any new technology. However, their perpetuation over time is what makes it a unique and important case. In rural India, the computers are shared resources, placing the computer on a pedestal that can have unusual consequences on how they are perceived and used.

Children came to school armed with ideas about the computer as a kind of magical device. In addition to passing conversation at home with parents, children saw computers most often on television. Like their parents, the children had positive, almost fantastic conceptions of computers before their villages received computers.

“Computers can be used to fight evil. We can do anything with a computer.”
Shivraj, Fifth grader, Kodagu, Karnataka
“Computer can save us. When a neighboring country is attacking, this is known to our scientists by tracking it on the computers.”
Udhaykumar, Fifth grader, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

On being asked what a computer could do, children repeatedly offered up fantasies from popular cinema. Two resonant ideas were of computers being able to predict how one will end up looking using a childhood photo (for some bizarre reason, a gag in several Indian films including Dharmapuri and Vaitheeswaran), another was that of a talking computer, taking from south superstar Rajnikanth’s 2007 hit ‘Sivaji’ which was a rage at the time of these interviews.

All the children interviewed in were aged 9–11, partly to keep a standard age, but more importantly because the work primarily focused on children who were about to start their computer classes, typically in Standard 5 in the Indian system. To balance out children who had regular access to computers, a number of children at villages that had been passed over by the government school computer center program [7] were interviewed.

At the time when the computers first come to a school, there is naturally an intense excitement among children to use them. Teachers’ computer use is heavily rationed, children get no more than two hours a week of computer use, and during such sessions anywhere between three and 10 children sit at single terminal. It is here that the discourse of computing most directly impacts the way that children not only perceive, but actually act in ways that deeply influence their learning and future use of computers.

This stems from the way in which the actual computer sharing happens. Children share a computer usually seated either on small benches that accommodate up to five children in front of a single seat. Children share the machine, with a child typically seated at the center controlling the mouse and keyboard, and other children watching the interaction usually from the edges. Which children end up controlling the mouse gives us interesting insights into how this discourse of computers and technical capability in a very immediate sense impacts a child’s immediate interaction with material being delivered on a computer screen.

First up, despite the typical mode of interaction being overwhelmingly ‘shared’ computing, few if any of the applications children use in the computers in Indian village schools are designed for shared use. As a result, most of the interaction is controlled by a single user at any given time. The question of who that user will be is either decided by decree by the teacher, when the teacher is heavily involved, or by some negotiation between the children.

In the study, we allowed 105 children to set themselves in a computer class in front of their respective PCs in groups of five. The children, who were brought in random groups picked out of class, were given no explicit instructions and then asked to go and seat themselves at the computers in the computer center (with no supervision, or any explicit idea that they would be observed). The children showed an unusual pattern to how they self–selected at terminals. In general, there was a very high probability that the child who sat at the center was from both a higher socio–economic status, and better classroom performers than children who sat by the edges [8]. Of the entire 105 children, not once did a child from either a higher socio–economic status, or level of performance in class sit at the edges, away from the mouse.

Following this finding, a series of tests were conducted to see what patterns emerged in computer sharing behavior, with the explicit goal of designing systems for children. The first pattern to emerge was that the child positioned by the mouse exercised majority control over both the mouse and the keyboard. There was some evidence of control circulation, but this was generally limited, especially in smaller groups where only one dominant child existed.

Observations in which childrens’ eye movements across the screen were noted showed that there was a clear gap between eye movement over the screen of peripheral children, and the clicking behavior, such that they had perceptibly not completed reading the material on a given screen by the time the mouse controller had moved on to another screen. While this was occasionally challenged, for the most part it was not, even when interest remained consistent into the material in subsequent screens. The in–group discussion was extremely limited and click decisions including those where there were multiple choice questions and involved ‘answering’ rarely included the entire group, except where multiple aggressive children shared. In general, the competence of the mouse controller was rarely questioned, even in games that were designed to be explicitly competitive with negative marking for error, etc.

Discussions with teachers and students showed that these patterns in seating solidified over time — i.e., children who were accustomed to being mouse controllers rarely moved to corner positions, whereas those who had started off sitting around corners could find themselves repeating these positions. In fact, there were several students, especially in schools where teachers did not intervene to ensure any equity, who did not even know how to click despite being in computer classes for two years or more.

To experiment with ways of breaking these patterns of dominance, children were shifted around from their natural seating patterns to see how interactions took place when dominant children were denied mouse control. The results were illuminating — the group became ‘smaller’ because the children now at the edges, the ‘performers’ were eager to get closer to the screen and calibrate the pace of the material. Most significantly, the amount of discussion increased, since the ‘performers’ would direct the clicks, and as a result explain their decisions to others in the group. Overall the learning through the group increased.

However, over time such an artificial means of regulating children’s computer use was difficult and disenchanted students who felt they were penalized for being better performers, although no evidence was found that those same children were necessarily better performers at computer–related activities. Nonetheless, the findings of this study, when shared with the state government, had an unusual effect — during a trip to Coimbatore in 2007, it was found that children were told that they were allowed only one click, after which the mouse had to necessarily be passed on to the next child and so forth. Following the early studies, a group at Microsoft Research developed a protocol to allow multiple mice to work on a single screen such that children can work simultaneously and have some control over their material. This work has gone on to be implemented in several countries around the world, including Uruguay, Thailand, Vietnam, Chile, and includes various versions of screen interactions alongside the basic multiple mouse structure.

For our purposes, we were interested in why children shared in the ways that they did — specifically why there was an aversion to slowing down faster children. One hundred and five children were interviewed individually, and asked a series of questions around their likes and dislikes, as well as who they saw as their close friends in school. The purpose of these questions was to examine individual children’s sense of affiliation with what is considered socially valuable. Children were asked to pick three names from their peers on who was ‘known to be good’ at studies, at sports, at computers, as well as who was ‘known to be not so good’ at each of the same. Thereafter, children were asked to comment on who they saw as their ‘friends.’ While the questions on ‘friends’ did not illuminate any unusual patterns, questions on who is good at what came up with interesting findings.

Children were fairly open with responses on studies and sports — several children noted themselves as one of their three picks for ‘weak in studies’ or ‘not so good at sports’ and some noted themselves as ‘good at studies’ or ‘good at sports’ — but almost every child listed him or herself as ‘good at computers’ and not a single child noted him or herself as ‘not so good at computers’ even when other colleagues (all interviewed individually) specifically pointed them out as being ‘not so good at computers.’ In fact there was not a single case of a child noting themselves as ‘good at studies’ who happened to be on someone else’s list of ‘not so good at studies’ [9]. Although the children did not know who we were, there was a good chance that they had caught on that we had something to do with computers and as a result were trying to give us answers that they felt we wanted to hear (Cook, 1962). Nonetheless, the desire to be seen as good at computers was also manifested in other ways.

For one, we asked children who sat at peripheries away from mouse holders why they did not ask the child controlling the pace to slow down. For the most part, children insisted that they had understood the material and did not need it to be slowed down, even though they were unable to answer questions about the material itself. Two children explicitly said that it was because they were good at computers too, almost as though reaffirming to us that they clearly understood the interviews as an assessment of their interest and intent on using computers.

These findings are very interesting in the context of the binary understanding of ‘able to use computers’ as emerged from parents’ interviews. For parents, the school would sometimes set up days when the children would ‘demonstrate’ computer use — which typically featured one or two ‘strong’ students who would use the computers for most of the time, and then bring to terminals children of specific parents as they came through the event. For parents, the evidence was clear — their children could work on computers, they asked to go to school on weekends instead of playing on the streets (usually to play computer games or watch other friends play). According to parents, computers had already started to show an impact on schooling as a whole.




Two really key characteristics of the technology discourse in southern India have been the idea of its neutrality and its accessibility. Since the early 1990s, Indians who have grown to be icons of the technology revolution have drawn from what have been seen as the middle classes. Popular media depictions of software engineers or of computer users usually paints them as aspirational young people crossing class boundaries, as if to affirm that the computer does not discriminate. The computer, and investment into technology, has generally been portrayed as a positive influence on society — a move away from many of the ills of Indian underdevelopment, specifically such as inefficiencies of process or people. The sense that the knowledge of computers is a must for ascendancy in the workforce is pervasive, and increasingly reflective of the realities of work life in urban India. Whether in the hands of a business icon, a politician, or a film star, the laptop has come to represent modernity and progress.

Computers in schools are attractive for a range of reasons. For one, it would seem inevitable that schools across the spectrum in India get access to some form of computing as technology becomes progressively pervasive in urban India. The computer then comes at a dangerous time for rural public primary schools plagued by a range of their own concerns with resources, quality of instruction and curriculum, graduation rates, and transition into higher education. The work we see here suggests that a good share of these systemic burdens may be seen as rectifiable by the computer.

The case of computer use in rural Indian schools opens up a number of important areas of potential work for scholars across the board in science and technology studies, South Asia studies, and the social sciences. Surprisingly, most of the work on computers and schools in India has come either from economics, planning, or engineering. I have argued in this article that there are important questions in each of these areas of academic work, but most importantly for scholars of development in India. As the idea of an ascendant India riding on its technology prowess becomes the accepted standard in the vocal Indian public sphere, these areas of potential contestation call for urgent attention. Indeed, while the case of India may be more striking because of its presence in the media, the discussion here of technology as a tool of engineering development stretches from under–resourced schools in Ghana (Buchele and Owusu–Aning, 2007) to the reconception of a state in Afghanistan (Giustozzi, 2008). While ICT4D (Information and Communications Technology for Development) grows as a field of work in several scholarly disciplines, our findings here suggest that there is much cause to expand the work on aspiration and dominant discourses of modernity to examine prevalent affinities for the idea of technology as holding the key to development. End of article


About the author

Joyojeet Pal is an Assistant Professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His work is on technology and development, within which he focuses on two areas: low–cost assistive technology in the developing world and on the portrayal of technology in popular media.



I would like to acknowledge the work of partners and supporters in this work, including Kentaro Toyama, Meera Lakshmanan, S. Santhosh, Udai Singh Pawar, Annalee Saxenian, Eric Brewer, Rodrigo Fonseca, Matthew Kam, and the Azim Premji Foundation. Various parts of this work have been supported by Microsoft Research India and National Science Foundation grants #0937060 and #0326582.



1. Later called MultiPoint.

2. With some exception to Malayalam cinema, which has since the 1980s been kinder to “working women” than Tamil, Telugu, or Kannada cinema.

3. The larger study covered four states, where districts studied included: Bellary, Bangalore Rural, Raichur, Shimoga, Dakshin Kannada, Udupi, Kodagu in Karnataka, Coimbatore, Puri, Ganjam, Mayurbhanj, and Behrampur in Orissa, and Madurai and Pondicherry in the Tamil–speaking region. A total of 407 people were interviewed between 2005 and 2007, which included 216 parents, 150 children and the remainder a mix of school teachers, administrators, politicians and people building computing systems for children.

4. This was particularly true for respondents from Karnataka and Orissa.

5. This question was also a very difficult one for us in the process of conducting interviews, since a pattern clearly emerged of parents first seeming very optimistic for their own children, and upon later admission of limited prospects for average migrants, were frequently alerted to the optimism, conscious or otherwise, of their hopes for their own children.

6. Arguably, with the advent of “smart phones” this may change somewhat.

7. Only about a fourth of village schools were selected for computer aided learning programs in Karnataka for this specific program, the Azim Premji Foundation’s Computer Aided Learning program for government primary schools. Other states and even districts within states can have vastly differing ratios.

8. This does not mean that only the “smartest” from the entire class got to be mouse controllers, only that the most likely within a self–selecting group is more likely to be the “better classroom performer” within that group alone.

9. The questions on ‘known to be good at ...’ and ‘not so good at ...’ were framed in conjunction with a local school teacher–researcher, and asked in a way to affirm that the questions were about ‘reputations’ and not abilities.



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Editorial history

Received 12 August 2011; accepted 2 February 2012.

Copyright © 2012, First Monday.
Copyright © 2012, Joyojeet Pal.

The machine to aspire to: The computer in rural south India
by Joyojeet Pal
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 2 - 6 February 2012

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