When United Villages took the web to rural India, its vision was to liberate the poor by giving them tools from the digital age.
The communications group set up Internet terminals in remote villages and watched for a transformation. Almost three years later, technology is indeed enriching rural lives - but not quite how they expected. Rather than paying to send emails and surf the web, villagers prefer to email their questions to someone who will do the surfing for them and return the answers in a pdf (portable document format) file.
Internet evangelists, from West Africa to Sri Lanka, are finding that their efforts to empower the 80 per cent of the world that still waits for Internet access often bring unexpected results. Rural communities have their own way of participating in the digital age.
Internet by oxcart
United Villages is just one of a growing number of groups rolling out “asynchronous” Internet access across the developing world. It's an approach that doesn't need miles of cables or a constant connection - and so is much cheaper.
Asynchronous connections use software to queue data (such as emails, web searches, and requests for specific downloads) and to ready it for transfer.
The data are assembled on a device such as a USB memory stick then carried across mountain passes or down rough tracks that have never seen a cable - to a distant Internet connection. Alternatively, a wireless-enabled computer might simply wait until something arrives to connect to - perhaps a data storage device installed in the daily bus.
Others choose to work offline, setting their computers to connect overnight or at the weekend when telephone rates are cheaper.
Internet access might not be instantaneous, but a USB stick driven off in a cloud of motorcycle dust, or bumping along in an ox cart, can often shift more data than a telephone dial-up connection. And with delayed dial up the customer avoids the frustration of slow downloads: returning later to waiting data.
Email? No thanks
When the international non-profit organisation Geekcorps first set up small ICT centres in rural Mali in 2006, it had high hopes for its asynchronous Internet connections.
In a village in the Koulikoro region of southwest Mali, a lone cybertigi (from the Bambara word for tradesman) once operated a single “desert PC” - a hardy computer specifically designed by Geekcorps for hot climates.
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About the Author
Katherine Nightingale is a writer and editor interested in the fields of science, agriculture, health, water, energy, climate change, biodiversity, sustainable development, poverty reduction, biotechnology, engineering, and policy.