Most discussions of digital media in the West today revolve around a few well-known topics — privacy and surveillance, digital labor and leisure, co-creation of content, and the politics of online search. But what about the digital life of those who do not live in the West? Are these topics even relevant to them? India and China alone have more internet and mobile technology users than all of Europe and North America put together. The top sites most frequented by users in India and China, much like the West, are social networking sites. Yet, a black hole of information persists about new media use in the developing world. If we wish to learn about how a vast number of people in the world live with digital technology today, we need to ask new questions, questions that are not determined by the concerns and agendas of the global North.
We witness in a small town cybercafé in the Himalayas girls sharing one computer and with that, their emails, their passwords and Orkut profiles. Many do not log out. Far from being alone together where media technologies are seen to isolate individuals as in the West, these girls experience heightened intimacy. So what is private and public digital life for those outside the West? Does individual consumption of technology lead to social isolation? Are we just romanticizing poverty here? Besides, can the poor even afford to leisure online in their labor intensive life? Meet Kulbeer, a teenage boy from an urban slum in Hyderabad. He works in the summer assisting a pharmacist and uses much of his salary to buy a second-hand Nokia N-83 to support advanced gaming. Many teens from the slum report that the highlight of their day is getting online, looking up movie stars, jokes, downloading songs and friending foreign girls. Much work goes into this media play. But how do these teens learn to navigate such digital worlds given their social and financial situations? Are mobile platforms and services designed differently to cater to these burgeoning users? Is digital labor here empowering or exploitative?
One point becomes abundantly clear –digital life as we know it from the Western point of view is marginal and not representative of global practice. Digital Worlds beyond the West immerses the reader into the digital lives of the global South and reveals popular Western-centric assumptions and concerns. By moving away from the utilitarian and focusing on the social and the leisurely, this book questions the conventional framing of the poor as virtuous and passive audiences that primarily use new media platforms to gain employment, check farm prices, health information and education for their children. By investigating the online sociality, play and entertainment of users in the developing world, we can gain a truly global picture of digital life in contemporary society. It is time to look at the majority of internet users through a more multifaceted and cosmopolitan lens, keeping in mind the rich ecologies of local politics, social identities and cultural relations that influence these enactments.