Editor’s note: Last fall, William Sloan journeyed around India with a team to craft a documentary film that investigates emerging paradigms of collaboration and open innovation in India. Learning and knowledge play a key role in the research; we are publishing this series to provide a lens on the ways learning is evolving with the adoption of new technology. You can find the introduction here and learn more at the Network Affect website.
Hop on any public transport in a major Indian city today and you’ll notice a common sight: people watching movies on their mobile phones. During our six weeks traveling the country speaking with academics, businesspeople and entrepreneurs, this observation became a theme of many of our conversations. With mobile phone growth outpacing the rise of mobile internet, many new users see their pocket-sized screens less as personal computers than as personal cinemas.
The observation is important when considering the screen as a medium for consuming stories. As the screen has evolved over time, so too has our manner of engaging with the stories themselves. The original cinema-going experience was very much a community event: a group joined together at a theater on select occasions to view whatever film happened to be on the big screen at that time. Since then, the screen has continually shrunk, together with the size of the viewing party, while the amount of content available has simultaneously risen. Flash forward to today on the Delhi metro and the implication is visible: the way we engage with stories has become highly personalized, both in content and consumption.
“In a way it’s ironic that this small screen is that which engulfs you within your private world and that large screen is that which allowed you access into another world, because even if you were watching it in solitude you were watching it in shared solitude with an anonymous public or an intimate public in terms of the friends you went out with. And that connectivity is what’s being lost to us.”
– Lawrence Liang, Co-Founder of Alternative Law Forum
Yet as the screen shrank it also evolved from a passive medium to an active medium. Today the screen is not simply a tool for consuming stories, but a tool for creating, sharing, and engaging with them as well. Here lies the opportunity presented by the expansion of mobile internet in India. For a story, as we noted in our previous article, is not just a form of entertainment, but one of the oldest forms of learning and knowledge sharing in the world.
What is it that makes a story such a powerful tool for learning?
Narrative theory suggests that the narrative is a basic human strategy for understanding the world and our experiences in it. Based on this theory we are all inherently storytellers. Stories serve as heuristic ways of understanding, in which meaning is embedded within the narration of relatable events rather than represented in facts or definitions. Often, for instance, we tell stories of past encounters as a way to communicate cultural nuances and idiosyncrasies – things we don’t quite have the specific words for.
With the screen’s evolution from passive to active medium the act of storytelling has in a sense become more democratic. That same screen that the Delhi commuter watches his movie on can, with a simple internet connection, be used as a device for mass communication. This is an incredible opportunity in a country racing to get its next billion people connected to the mobile internet. More people than ever will have the opportunities to write, distribute and catalog their own stories, their own versions of history.
“I think we have changed into a networked creation of history. There will be a lot more points of view. It may not be right or wrong because there is no right or wrong in this context. There could be various moments of truth.”
– Sumit Chowdhury, former President of Enterprise Ecosystem at Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd.
Yet the shift in the medium of storytelling also presents challenges to places like India, where a large portion of the population remains disconnected from modern digital networks. As our screens have become smaller and increasingly private, it has become far easier to ignore the world beyond the screen and thus outside of the network. If those outside the network remain isolated from modern media their stories run the risk of never being heard. Yet once connected to the network, they run the risk of being swallowed by the sheer mass of user curated stories already out there, and eventually forgotten.
It would be narrow-minded to assume that what exists beyond the screen is obsolete simply because it is less visible. Indeed outside of the networks we engage with each day there are communities and culture that not only have the right to survive in contemporary society, but also that contain wisdom that might inform contemporary society.
The digital revolution in India presents a unique and delicate opportunity to preserve the diversity of knowledge that exists both on and off the network. But it must be pursued intentionally for that purpose, or the off-network knowledge and the communities that accompany them will be filtered out by the popular and mainstream stories. This would be a tragedy for all.
With digital networks on the rise in India, who will be the next generation of storytellers? In our next article we’ll take a look at some of those using these technologies to preserve, create and share the valuable knowledge that exists within this large and diverse country.