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Can IT change rural-urban equations?

People often speak of the Digital Divide, but often, that is from the point of view of economic growth or opportunities.

india Updated: Jan 24, 2010 21:05 IST
N Madhavan

People often speak of the Digital Divide, but often, that is from the point of view of economic growth or opportunities.

Last weekend, I landed at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and heard voices and saw sights that made me look at the business of computers, bandwidth and the Internet from a cultural perspective. Google, has a fancy van parked, with colourful signs in Indian languages demonstrating the power of the Internet, computing and networks in a connected world. To me and many other urban citizens, this is no longer news, but it pays to realise how this profound change is yet to reach vast parts of the country and the planet.

At the festival, I got an inkling of what this might mean, when I heard writer Girish Karnad, who presented an interesting contrast between the old industry and the new. Karnad believes that computers and the Internet are different. Old industries, a reference to smokestack factories and manufacturing centres, he said, took the focus away from the villages, shifting all the action to cities and towns and made the rural life revolve around the cities. The new world, especially with computer power and networking in local languages, could change all that, he suggested.

Bandwidth is getting easier, the storage is so easy, and the finest software, thanks to the open source movement, and cloud computing and intense competition between companies, is often free or cheap. Years ago, we had Iridium satellite telephones advertising their service with the slogan, “Geography is history.” In one of the ironies of business, the company itself is history now but the concept it sold is living and catching momentum.

I do believe that rural areas and semi-urban areas can thrive with better IT and it is almost inevitable now. The rise of videoconferencing and cloud computing is going to hasten the process. Can this make rural areas gain economic focus again, going beyond the villages being providers of agricultural commodities or that occasional craft?

The key question in this is that literacy and education are vital to tap the power of the Net and computing. I cannot imagine villages growing fast on that front. But I can imagine in the not-so-distant future a unique kind of habitat in which bandwidth and technology will create communities that are intermediates between the urban and rural lifestyles.