Indonesia notes: mobile tech and local disruption

Right now I’m in the middle of a research trip to Indonesia looking at the use of social media here (yes, it’s a bit of a broad brief, especially in a country that famously somehow managed to get over 40 million Facebook users registered in a couple of years… I’ve started describing it as research on ‘social media, and the rest of the universe’). This is another gig for Internews and involves some travel to South Sulawesi, Java, Nusa Tenggara Timur, and maybe Bali, working together with Dian Purnomo (seconded from OnTrack media) who’s a great co-researcher in the field.

I’m not even halfway through the trip yet, so any details on the research itself will have to come later. For background, there are a couple of great reports that have come out in the past few months – including the excellent one by Merlyna Lim / Ford Foundation and Arizona University which I’ve mentioned before; a great overview of telecommunications by LIRNEasia; and some extensive research by Hivos / University of Manchester earlier this year. With this background I’m hoping to look at some more fine-grained localised examples of practice from some of the places visited, or at least, to the degree that one can gather in a couple of weeks. In any event, I’m already learning a lot. (And re-learning; this trip includes fumbling around with the Bahasa-Indonesia-language parts of my brain that have barely been touched for around seven years.)

There have already been several small but striking (for me) anecdotes though, some of them well-known here but of which I was unaware. A common observation in general international debate on the use of internet-enabled mobile technology is on the way it can help communities to ‘leapfrog’ the lack of hardwire technology, and form bridges across the digital divide. There’s a huge wealth of data and stories to support this narrative.

Yet a new, thriving business here, often-reported, is for people to buy a mobile phone (or HP, ‘hand phone’) – and then they pay the vendor to set up their Facebook account, which it’s said usually costs around IDR 50,000, or USD 5.50, not an insignificant amount in many communities. In other words, while many people are using Facebook, not all of them necessarily understand either the platform, or the Internet more generally, to the level needed to perform what in other contexts is a simple online function of setting up an account. It also means users don’t own the email addresses to which the individual Facebook accounts are linked, and so don’t control their own Facebook profile; if they forget their password they have to go back to the vendor to get it.

In fact, I’m told many, many people don’t realise that FB is on the net; various workshop facilitators relate how, when they ask workshop participants who used the internet in the past week, it’s possible that no-one will put up their hands – but ask the same group who updated their FB status today, and often they’ll all respond affirmative.

So: simply being online on Facebook does not necessarily equate to increased digital literacy; and if digital literacy in these cases remains as low as this, what does it mean about the ‘digital divide’? More people may in effect be online; but if they don’t even know they’re online, is the digital divide actually altered at all? From this angle, raw stats of increased HP net access through apps, in this case especially FB, can conceivably hide levels of digital illiteracy, or at least digital unfamiliarity, by creating an illusion of widespread and fluent adoption.

In fact even beyond this, one question that can possibly be asked may be not whether any such usage merely ‘hides’ digital illiteracy, but whether in certain examples it can also entrench it, at least in the medium term: if a user is dependent on going back to a vendor to recover a password, and sees that as normal practice, the idea that more information and expertise can be gained by simply exploring online at one’s own volition can seem further away, not closer.

These are speculative questions of course, not conclusions or even substantiated observations; there hasn’t been as far as I know any significant research approaching the issue from this direction. But if a single phenomenon like this can raise such questions, to my mind it suggests several areas that deserve more attention. (And although many have mentioned the ‘FB account service’ phenomenon to me, it’s also unclear how broad it is. In Jakarta, some folks said it’s widespread in rural areas. In South Sulawesi, however, others denied it was a significant practice, but said it happened a lot ‘in Papua’ – in other words, for the people I asked the practice was always further away, ‘out there’, in less developed areas. (Others tell me that cost and lack of infrastructure means that Papua actually has far fewer net-enabled phones, but I’ll have to check that assertion.))

A few other anecdotes have jumped out over recent days. We hear about the potential of mobile technology to empower local economies and communities, right down to the individual level. Stories include, for example, the vegetable vendor who buys his goods at the morning market, then walks around local neighbourhoods selling them house to house. By sending an SMS to his customers he makes sure he gets what they want, saving time and money. (ICTWatch has a video that tells this and other stories, from smaller to larger scale).

But in Sulawesi I spoke with some education volunteers from SOKOLA, Habibi, Imran, and Efi Sulfiani, who very generously met up with us one evening in Makassar to talk about their experiences. They work in Kajang village, around six hours’ drive from Makassar, which has strong mystical practices in its culture, tenaciously guarding its adat traditions. (I’ve never been to nor studied Kajang’s practices, so all of this is hearsay from just a couple of very interesting chats.) This cultural practice includes eschewing electricity in the central, most sacred inner villages – Kajang apparently comprises about five villages altogether – and a prohibition on modern implements such as radios and TVs.

But Kajang youth often work in outside towns to earn cash (according to tradition they dress distinctively in black when they’re outside their own area, to mark off their separate identity – I’m sure there are very nuanced and involved explanations for this practice). And now they’re buying internet-enabled HPs and bringing them back loaded with videos, music, and all manner of ring-tones; the silent villages are now alive with the sound of ringing phones. There are very few effective restrictions on HP use, in part because even the elders, guardians of adat traditions and practice, also desire and buy the phones.

The impacts are by all accounts profound, and include kids watching all kinds of videos – on occasion including, I’m told, porn – and the economic effects must also be significant. Kajang is poor, and much of the community’s funds often go on expensive traditional ceremonies. But HPs, and especially the repetitive costs of topping up credit or ‘pulsa’, has to be a significant drain on their economy; will future ceremonies be much reduced, or happen far less frequently, because the money has been spent? The lack of electricity also means kids especially are sent outside the village to charge phones – where they then watch TV and engage with the outside world in ways unprecedented just a few years ago.

Similar stories are apparently told about other places in the country (in conversational hearsay in my case, I haven’t so far met anyone who’s been to similar communities). And the Hivos report contains a few examples of purely economic, rather than cultural, disruption: in one anecdote a village with long-standing nearby teak forests, sustained for many years, has suddenly cut down most of the teak to earn extra money to fulfil the spike in demand for HPs and pulsa. Drivers of becaks – local pedicabs or cycle rickshaws – who used to make money taking travellers home after they arrive by bus on a journey from outside town, are now finding it hard to get customers because travellers call their families on their HP to meet them when they arrive at the bus stop. And so on; there are multiple examples.

I simply have not read enough on the cultural impacts of media technologies (although there are some good chapters in a favourite reference of mine, De-Westernising Media Studies). But to state the obvious from these small examples, while local impacts of new media and ICTs are profound, they’re not inevitably positive, whether on the economic, cultural, or even necessarily local empowerment levels (in the FB account example). These are disruptive technologies; the impacts are inevitably both positive and negative. Yet commentary and studies on the potential negative or painful impacts are far fewer and less talked about than discussion of its positive benefits, actual, potential, or imagined.

Some of the reasons for this are not hard to understand: problems of poverty are endemic, and the hope for solutions presented by new technologies are eagerly seized upon and explored. (That’s one reason – there are others, I think more profound and complicated, but to go into them requires exactly the more in-depth local studies of media and ICT impacts that are lacking.)

If we want to understand what’s taking place, and what the true implications of new media and ICT technology really is – which is a big part of the work I often do – I think we need to pay much more attention to stories like this, and explore what they mean. And this shifts the focus away from not only being familiar with the details of the technology and its potential applications, towards knowing and understanding and having a dialogue with communities: how they live, how they think, what they want, and the differences and dynamics within them. Which is, inevitably, a much more complicated, profound, and time-involving – and necessary! – commitment.

It’s been a plenty interesting trip so far. I’m looking forward to the rest of it; hopefully there are more notes to come.

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