Payal Arora: dispelling the myths about the next billion

The next billion internet users are not the people we think they are. Let's bust the myths about them so we can understand the coming world.

Payal Arora is a professor at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, and author of The Next Billion Users. She spoke during the morning session of NEXT19 on 20th September 2019.

Watch the full video here

For the last decade Arora’s been fascinated by the internet in low income areas – the slums of India, the Favelas of Brazil.

The people there are young, and they live outside the west. They are low income – but they are upwardly mobile. There’s an exponential growth in young people in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. We expect to have 2bn people in informal settlements by 2030 – they’re criminals just by where they’re born, and they’re governed by alternative, and often criminal, structures.

The women are 25% less likely to be online than men. There are structural issues behind that – but there’s also a conscious retreat from toxic behaviours online. Women are killed in India simply because they are videoed clapping at a wedding.

Jio provides the cheapest data in the world right now, and it’s in India. The highest video content consumption is from the lowest socio-economic classes.

Myth 1: the global poor are more utility-driven than us.

If anything, they are very much like you and I. They want entertainment, music, porn, to socialise and to game. In many cases the internet leisure economy is their only leisure economy. They’re stuck in mundane, repetitive tasks in the rest of their lives.

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs (which has some serious problems as a theory) suggests that the poor need to go through a hierarchy before they get to “wants”. We need to turn that pyramid on their head. They are driven by wants.

Myth 2: The West is imitated by the Rest

Less than 4% of people in Europe would accept a friend request from a stranger. In other parts of the world, 50% of their friends can be strangers. The majority of people in these slums see themselves as global citizens through the connections they make on these apps.

The piracy economy dictates 60 to 80% of consumption. The traitional media is out of their reach – a CD would cost a month’s wage. That is not realistic.

How about porn? The body is often a taboo subject in these communities. Sexual desire is so important – and PornHub is the major educator for many of the young. And that has serious implications – including honour killings. Yet, we shy away from researching this. The top Indian search is “sister-in-law”

Myth 3: Trickle down tech & catch up philosophy

The idea that the west invents and gives to others is total bullshit. Look at battery life. Electricity is a luxury in many parts of the world. China is way ahead on FinTech. Singapore is breaking ground on smart city-ification. Many of the young in these communities aspire to live in Singapore.

Mike Pence, the US Vice President, said that the West was in an information war with the East. So, are you with us or against us? But the US has lost its moral authority. You cannot be both a leader and protectionist. It’s pure anti-competitive behaviour.

Myth 4: Privacy is a key driver for innovation

The next billion users have been hidden and ignored. And now they want to be seen and heard. They feel special when they are paid attention to – even by marketers. They’re often more worried about being surveilled by their family, or the local crimelords, than they are by the digital corporations.

Myth 5: Automation is our future

The idea of putting “healthcare in an app” or “education in an app” is completely the wrong direction. We need to look at technology as assistive technology – because that is what it is. Human communities are embedded in humanity.

  • Multimodality matters – they pay far more for their data than we do. So they want value. That’s why a Facebook Zero failed – it was a lesser version of the app.
  • Design matters – they are conspicuous consumers, because it signals status. It took Apple 12 years to catch up on the gold phone trend.
  • Governance matters – they want one-stop-shops for convenience and time efficiency. They work 14 to 16 hours without breaks. Time is scarce.

We have a pessimism bias. We cannot reform that which we do not love. Fall in love with technology. It’s a marriage not an affair – you need to work on it.

Watch the full video here