Design logic in digital, less-cash age needs reality check

The recent demonetisation drive by the NDA government is attracting a lot of attention in the traditional and new media. This appears justifiable given the expected extent of its impact in the immediate and longer-terms.

The role of digital technologies, both in the ongoing crisis and during the ‘good times’, one expects to usher in the future, is however, not being subject to the level of critical scrutiny it should receive in the ongoing mainstream discourse.

Many of those who are relatively insulated from the ongoing pain of standing in long queues outside bank branches and ATMs to withdraw cash are the ones who have switched to digital financial transactions, using mobile wallets, internet banking or credit and debit cards.

Rather than use cash to purchase vegetables from the street corner push-cart vendor or hire a rickshaw or an auto for short distance commuting, they are getting into a supermarket or an app-based taxi, which do not insist on cash and have already shifted to digital forms of financial exchange.

It is a different matter that most of these people live in bigger cities and, often, belong to the more privileged socio-economic sections of the present Indian society.

The promise of a better future in a less-cash economy partly rides on an optimism derived from the experience of this select group of individuals who have already taken the plunge and have experienced the convenience it has brought about in their myriad chores, ranging from booking hotel rooms and flight tickets to ordering food and furniture over the internet.

Digital technologies are claimed to hold a lot of promise for a more egalitarian future and it is, therefore, not unreasonable to expect them to be of relevance in enabling the other, more marginal, sections of our society to move to less cash-based transactions.

While we make such expectations, it may be useful to critically engage with the production and consumption logic that these technologies have followed over the past few years. Consumption of digital technologies in India is highly skewed towards the income-rich, those who know English and live in urban areas.

Most of the other marginal groups have never used a computer and, when they use a mobile phone, they mainly do so for making voice calls or consuming audio-visual entertainment – film songs and video – available on the internet.

Sometimes, they also use it to transfer money, but for this they have to rely heavily on external help to navigate through difficult interfaces and complex data transfer structures.

It is the production of digital applications and devices, which includes signature products as the internet and the smartphone, for the former group that has been the primary focus of the Indian and global information and communication technology industry till now.

When it comes to electronic governance projects too, the more visible ones in our country are designed to help the aforesaid privileged sections of society – whether it is enabling easier payment of income or corporate taxes, obtaining a passport or booking tickets in reserved railway compartments.

Even agricultural land record computerisation projects have been found to disproportionately benefit larger farmers who have the resources to navigate through the complex processes of formal credit disbursing institutions.

The small and landless farmers, the children in rural government primary schools and anganwadi centres or patients accessing healthcare in a sub-centre have hardly seen any improvement in their incomes or their learning or service experience when the respective state agencies have insisted on use of digital technologies, ironically with the stated intention to improve their lot. 

More often than not, technology designers have assumed that the less-privileged are only a bare-bones or plain-vanilla version of their well-heeled counterparts. Successive technology designs have reflected this bias and, therefore, these ‘bottom-of-the-pyramid’ inhabitants have largely been showered with low-quality, low-cost variants of products designed for higher-income market segments.

This is not working – it has not worked for the big multinational corporations, nor has it worked with the dominant top-heavy system of designing and using information and communication technologies in government departments. 

Uncharted territory
A small section of the Indian start-up and social enterprise space, not bound by traditional and, in the present context, arcane design approaches, is not afraid of venturing into uncharted territory though. They are designing to enhance capacities of community based organisations and gram panchayats, the grassroots service delivery providers and units and the less-powerful.

Unless the production logic of digital technologies changes and becomes more inclusive, as is to a certain extent being demonstrated by these new enterprises, there is no reason for optimism that a less-cash future will usher in a more equitable and just Indian society.

The high-priests of the digital world need to descend down to see and experience what reality looks and feels like for those whose lives are most in need of a technology push.
It requires more interdisciplinary approaches in our educational institutes training the digital technologists, a greater appreciation of the benefits of co-creating with the user and, a heightened sensitivity to the needs of the ‘other’.

The newly set up panel of chief ministers and other senior officials and experts by Government of India will do well to acknowledge a need to change the dominant design logic while they deliberate and prepare a roadmap for the country’s ‘smooth transition to a digital economy post demonetisation’.

(The writer is an Associate Professor at Centre for IT and Public Policy, IIIT Bangalore)

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