Ramya, 21, was floored by her failure to secure a job through the campus placement programme of her engineering college. Her marks were consistently high, and she had passed the interview. But she was told that she had botched up the online application process. In their words, she was not ”digitally smart”.
Ramya’s world came crashing down. Her father flew into a rage every time he saw her sitting apparently idle at home. A farmer with small-scale agricultural holdings, he could barely pay off her educational loans. There wasn’t a single day that he let her forget that. Her friends and relatives couldn’t believe the reason for her omission – how can a B.Tech student not know to process an application online?
From a reserved but resilient girl, she turned into a recluse. She began to stay put in her room, refused to go to college or meet people, gave up on anything even remotely job-oriented.
Today, she is attending psychotherapy sessions aimed at building her self-esteem, getting her thinking distortions – of her beliefs and expectations – corrected by a professional help.
Kerala’s internet penetration rate is the second-highest in India, next only to Delhi, according to a 2019 report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). For every 100 people, Kerala has Internet subscriptions for 70. In their research paper ‘On the Road to Digitization: The Case of Kerala’, Anindita Paul and Radhakrishna Pillai, faculty of IIM Kozhikode, says the State has ‘chalked out a trailblazing path for other States to learn from’ and is also soon to be the first e-literate state in India.
But with digitalization, comes the digitalization divide.
In Kerala, however, this divide is not between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. In fact, the population of 33 million owns 30 million smart phones. Access, if not ownership, to any form of digital technology is common and the norm. Even Ramya owned a laptop that her father could ill afford.
The divide in this state is between the digitally skilled and the digitally slow, compounded by a generation gap that a ruthlessly speedy electronic age is only widening more.
“What digitilization does to a society is that it accelerates the pace in which information is processed – creating a higher demand for those who are adept at processing it. A divide, thereby, is inevitable between the fast adapters and the slow”, says Dr Imran Rashid, specialist in Family Medicine, Digital Health at Healthy Digital.dk, Denmark and the author of the book Offline.
“These days there is an app for everything”, says Dr Rashid. And if you are not using it to its full advantage, then you are considered either dumb or stubborn.”
Dr Varghese Punnoose, Head of the Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College, Alappuzha, says there is an increasing number of patients coming forward for psychotherapy sessions because they feel isolated, lonely and ridiculed for their low digital acumen. “Not every brain is equipped to function with the speed and accuracy that a digital revolution demands. The system must make allowances for those who cannot.”
The struggles of creating a just e-governance system in rural Kerala
A source in the Kerala Government’s Common Service Centre, Akshaya, says - “Our primary function is to bring e-governance to rural Kerala. People from all sections of society should develop the ease to go online – to source college applications, renew their driving licenses, update their ration cards, get their social security data accurate and what-not.”
But most Akshaya centres across the State find this an uphill task.
Sometimes it’s easy enough, but most of the time customers need help from the Akshaya staff. “Some of our clients may even own a PC at home but they feel more comfortable to come to Akshaya, to process digital information with experienced help.”
Even then clerical errors are common. A recent incident at an Akshaya centre led to judicial intervention when a candidate lost his chance of scholarship because a member of the staff who was supposedly aiding him ticked the wrong box under the caste/sub-caste category of a government-job application.
“Such incidents justify the fear of being online. Of course, when someone completes an online form correctly once, he or she is confident to come back again. But it takes time, and even though we do train our franchise-owners about being sensitive and human to those who are not that digitally adept, it’s a tight call. Sometimes, our centres are so full, there’s so much fee to be collected and being patient is not an option.”
Classes on e-literacy are held as part of government campaigns but “it lacks continuity and hardly anyone follows-up.”
So how does one minimise this gap?
“Traditional businesses were humanised – customer loyalty, labour relations, being responsible for one’s employees and trusting one’s word was enough. But digitalization has taken emotions out of the equation – it dehumanises employees, obviates obligation to workers and repeatedly emphasises the need to disconnect. In a digitalized set-up, bonding is not between humans, but between algorithms.”
As a consultant for corporate digitilization processes, Dr Rashad advocates several strategies for humanization. One of the most important factors he addresses is – how does the workforce feel about the digitalization? Every time they work with it, do they feel stupid?
Digitalization involves humans helping other humans because at the end of the day, it all comes down to a simple premise – a business without humanisation is an inhuman business.
“The best performing teams in the corporate world are not the most digitally advanced. What defines them is their psychological safety.”
Be it at home or the work place, the assumption that only the digitally-skilled can be successful is not right, says Dr Punnoose. “The system needs to be flexible, or we will lose a lot of human values in this process.”
Shwetha E George is a developmental journalist of 20 years experience from India. She has written extensively for national dailies and online news portals on women's issues, child rights, health, lifestyle and entertainment with emphasis on her home state, Kerala.
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