Five years ago, we looked westwards, and complained about India’s abysmal digital infrastructure. Two years ago, we were in this room at FICCI’s inaugural “Digital Bharat” seminar, and looked with wide-eyed wonder at the macro-level opportunity of the government’s Digital India, Make in India and Smart Cities programmes. And while we clapped, if we put our hands to our hearts, through the applause we could hear nervous scepticism.
Because when any government in the world announces a programme, it is generally met with scepticism.
Today, however, we can all sit back and appreciate the progress we have made. Every state is competing with the other to build a smarter city. And whether you are at Momentum Jharkhand, Sunrise Andhra or Progressive Punjab — each state is rolling out the red carpet for technology entrepreneurs.
Certainly, citizens have seen a lot of benefits too. Today, from the booking of train tickets to LPG cylinders, all are online. The income tax department reminds you of your due date via email and your city’s traffic police suggests roads to avoid on their Facebook page. We lead, not just in internet usage, but in innovation too. India has the world’s most vibrant and sophisticated payments infrastructure in the world. We even have an entire technology stack which leverages the power of the web for developmental purposes.
Safe to say, then, that digital India is a reality. But events like this are a good opportunity for us to pause, just for a few moments, and think not just about what digital India is, but who the digital Indian is.
And here’s where, being true to my profession, I am going to be a little cynical and dampen the mood by calling for some caution.
The reality is that the 800 million Indians under the age of 35 have never seen the world more polarised. Spin the globe and place your finger on a country of your choice. Vietnam, Philippines, Turkey, France, USA, UK and maybe, controversially, even India. Not in a long time has public discourse been so contentious. Political arguments often end in abusive fights and there’s no seeing any other points of view.
One of the primary reasons this is so is because we don’t know how to navigate the internet’s fast-paced and wide-laned information highways. And, as editors, we don’t have the ability to be the traffic wardens we once were.
Today if you read a piece that supports Donald Trump’s worldview on climate change, for instance, an editor’s instinct is to suggest your next piece be one critical of it. Just to give you both sides of the story. An algorithm, however, recognises that you are more likely to read another one that supports the same perspective, and it keeps feeding you content that seems to agree with your worldview. So no one meets in the middle, we just get pulled to both sides.
The onus, therefore, is on you, the reader, today — more than ever before — to proactively make choices on what you are reading. The Express Group is India’s second largest digital news media company. Since the majority of our readers consume our news through intermediary platforms, we can no longer tell you what you should and shouldn’t read, we can only write the truth. But we can’t tell you which truth you must consume. That’s a choice you have to make. Our newspaper, a medium that’s still growing in India today, is a complete diet because Venkaiah Naidu and Tavleen Singh write for it, so do P. Chidambaram and Christophe Jaffrelot.
Two years ago, we were here and we celebrated the fact that anyone can publish news and find an audience online, concluding therefore that the internet is truly the most democratic medium.
I am going to amend that a little to say that the internet is potentially the world’s most democratic medium, but it’s up to the user to use it wisely. To broaden your horizons, to question and expand your worldview, and to be empathetic to those who look at the world differently. Don’t trust another human, or worse, an algorithm, to do that for you.
It’s up to the government to ensure it is being utilised appropriately. And as internet users, it is up to us to maximise the power of the medium.
Ask yourself: When is the last time you looked at a social medium that wasn’t owned or controlled by Facebook? Watched a video that wasn’t on YouTube? Clicked on a link that wasn’t on Google’s first page of results.
We must expand our horizons and there’s never been a better time to do it. Never before has the world produced and consumed more journalism than it does today. And people are far more informed. Strike a conversation with a teenager and you’d realise just how much smarter they are than you were at their age.
I welcome FICCI’s initiative to study the presence of local Indian languages online. As the publisher of India’s largest Marathi language site, we see how the immense power of India resides in its languages. We talk of broadband penetration in rural India, but the purpose is defeated if there isn’t much content in the language that the consumer is comfortable in. We have recently launched ieMalayalam.com and we are excited to launch another language site later this month.
As Barack Obama said in his farewell speech, democracy is only as strong as each one of us is. The internet, too, is only as democratic as we want it to be.
Post-script: The fact that the British invented cricket never stopped India from reforming it. Why, then, aren’t we more proactive in reforming the internet? I am glad to hear the honourable minister pushing Indian representation on the board of ICANN (internet policymaker). The world’s largest democracy is also one of the world’s largest consumers of the internet. If it truly wants to be a democratic medium, we must be represented in its administration as we are in its growth.