Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 will be posted Jan. 23.
The internet is an amazing, expansive, and ever-changing technology that has changed the lives of almost everyone in the world. Instantaneous communication, the sharing of ideas and opinions, the easy flow of goods and services and even the ability to play video games with people on other continents are all a benefit of the internet.
Not surprisingly, it’s impossible to credit its invention to any one individual or organization. As far back as the 1890s, the Serbian-American inventor and futurist Nikola Tesla theorized a worldwide wireless system for electrical power and communication. Fast forward to the 1930s and ’40s, and we see other bright minds wrestling with the idea of mechanized searchable storage systems of data, and within two more decades, the concept of “packet switching” as a method for transmitting electronic data.
A big jump came in the late 1960s when the U.S. Department of Defense created ARPANET, which utilized packet switching to enable multiple computers to communicate on a single network. Shortly thereafter, in the 1970s, came the adoption of TCP/IP as the standards for transmitting data between networks.
If ARPANET was a big jump forward, then the internet made a massive leap in 1990 when Tim Berners-Lee connected hypertext to TCP and in the process invented the World Wide Web (WWW), a move that introduced the internet to ordinary people and from there, things have only gotten better.
If the impact of a pioneer is measured in how many follow their footsteps, Tesla, Berners-Lee, et al, can rest easy knowing that internet behemoth Google has taken up the torch of bringing internet access to billions. Google is indisputably the internet’s 800-pound gorilla, processing more than 65,500 searches every second. That adds up to 5.7 billion per day, and more than 2 trillion annually.
Never content to rest on its laurels, Google has teamed up with TATA Trusts in India to bring expanded internet access to the rural masses. And they’re doing it through the unlikeliest of methods: poor women in small villages.
Indian women living in rural areas have always faced challenges, including poverty, lack of education, inadequate healthcare, and little (if any) participation in decision making. All of this could soon be changing as part of Google’s Next Billion initiative, which is designed to bring an additional 1 billion people online.
In India, the initiative is called the Internet Saathi program. It’s aptly named; “saathi” in Hindi means friend, and it’s through friends that the program is succeeding. In rural areas, Indian women have been almost entirely left out of accessing the internet. According to recent reports, just two percent of rural internet users are women, compared to urban areas where women constitute 21 percent of users.
Since 2015, Google representatives have visited villages throughout the country. Along the way they identify three or four local women, give them Android phones and tablets, and train them to access the internet. The goal is to help the women discover the internet through Google and various Google products such as Chrome, Search, YouTube, and PlayStore — they are not trained on any other products.
Once trained, these village women, the saathis, go door-to-door recruiting other women to attend classes where they, too, learn to access the internet. It’s not an easy sell: Most women are cautious about anything that may complicate their lives or intrude on their privacy. Often, women will refuse to fill out the enrollment form, or even have their photos taken, a requirement for joining the program. There are also long-standing concerns and taboos about the internet. Particularly regarding men and boys using their phones to access pornographic sites.
Note: Part 2 in this series will be posted Jan. 23.