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India and Italy: Two Sides of the Technological Divide

India and Italy are not often thought of as similar, though they might be mistaken for each other by those unclear on the difference between peninsulas and subcontinents. However, they are both famous for their cultures and religions; for strong traditions of family bonds and rigid social systems; and even for political corruption. They also both happen to be connected to the internet—the global technology that jumpstarted the information age. What happens when ancient, traditionally-rooted societies are thrown headlong into a riptide of innovation and information? Let’s take a look at two centers of world culture and find out.  

In India the vast majority of the population does not have internet access, with only 12% of India’s population currently online. That has not been an obstacle to technological progress, however: 12% sounds small, but in India, that’s 140 million people. In other words, India has more tech-savvy workers than most countries have citizens, and thus we have modern India’s globally admired tech sector.

The average connected citizen is semi-affluent and urban (there is a sharp “digital divide” between these and the rural majority of India), which means that India’s key culture-shaping group is also the group being shaped by the internet. That is certainly a recipe for change.

Italians have a far higher access rate, but the int­ernet has not become a crucial part of Italy’s economy or culture. It’s not as bad as Turkey but it is slower than every other country in Europe. And I’m only calling Turkey a part of Europe to be nice.

Perhaps because Italian internet isn’t up to par, adoption is also low: only about 55-60% of Italian households have internet, which is the 5th lowest in the EU. Despite its relative advantage over India, though, Italy has not had an equivalent technological renaissance.

How important is the internet to the Indians who have it? A Times of India survey reported that two thirds of those surveyed would rather not shower for a year, give up chocolate, or give up alcohol to avoid losing internet access. Along with its economy and political system—which have made showers, chocolate, and alcohol fairly accessible—Indian cultural values are experiencing unprecedented change. There are fewer things that haven’t changed in the past 20 years than things that have.

Indian scholar Adulkafi Albirini calls the internet a …utopian, egalitarian and empowering tool with the potential of ushering in a new era of development, democracy, and positive cultural change.” He is not wrong: technology has helped equalize India’s gender and caste systems—no small feat. Caste barriers to employment are increasingly being lowered in favor of qualification, and this has led to greater tolerance of inter-caste relationships. Online exposure to western cultural norms is also promoting the idea of relationships based on personal choice, which has led to an increase in non-traditional marriage. Consequentially, the “nuclear” family model is becoming more common in India, as inter-caste marriages are often excluded from traditional extended families.

India is also feeling the linguistic and economic effects of the internet. Yael Valerie Perez and Yahel Ben-David, analyzing the internet’s effect on India and other developing countries, note that, “by enabling effective communication to bridge geographical and cultural gaps, the internet has the potential to support and nourish small local business in developing regions.”

A 2011 study from the World Bank Economic Review argues that there is a demonstrable relationship between increased internet usage and decreased corruption, and Indian users seem to be proving the statistic accurate. Sites like YourAdhikar, IPaidaBribe.com, and many more like them help Indian citizens to fight corruption and promote transparency.

The government is also making anti-corruption strides with “eGovernance,” meaning that Indians can now interact directly with the necessary departments. This removes the need for bribes, which have long been a necessity in Indian administration. As a result, processing delays have been cut dramatically in eGoverned areas and corruption is nosediving. As the internet spreads in India (and it is, at the rate of 20-30 million users per year) this trend is continuing.  

Italy, despite having a higher penetration rate and infrastructure roughly proportional to India’s, has not experienced the level of change that India has—or even much at all. Though the average Italian uses the internet, they do not depend on it. It is easy to see why: Italy lags far behind the rest of Europe in almost every internet-related measure. As Alex Roe, a journalist in Italy, points out: “In Italy, being well-connected is essential, but it has nothing to do with having a fast internet connection.”

Though former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is not single-handedly responsible, he is representative of the policies that have driven Italian internet to the last place in Europe. The flamboyantly corrupt, long-incumbent ex-PM has a deep investment in Italian television—a market that, in more internet-heavy countries, is being crowded out—and a self-declared fear of the internet’s capacity to organize citizens (which, to be fair, it has).

It is likely not coincidental that the former Italian PM’s policies towards the web were counterproductive and that he balked at investment in Italian internet infrastructure. Unfortunately, Berlusconi succeeded: three years after his term in office (the longest in modern Italian history) watching streaming video feels like downloading MP3 files in 1999. Vittorio Zambardino, an Italian journalist and author of two books on the internet commented to the Nieman Journalism Lab, “[Internet] Freedom is going to be killed by strict regulation taken by governments. In Italy, we are very worried about this.”

On the front lines of the Italian fight for internet freedom is the polarizing figure of Beppe Grillo, a comedian turned activist whose political party, The Five Star Movement, has seen unprecedented success among Italian voters. A radically democratic figure, Grillo has used the internet for everything from anti-corruption campaigns to political speeches, with his blog garnering plenty of attention both from Italians and foreigners. In the rapidly shifting sands of Italian politics, it is difficult to predict where he will end up, but his success thus far seems to indicate a brighter future for the Italian internet.

Low internet integration cannot be attributed entirely to corruption, however. Italy, already the 4th-largest EU economy, lacks developing India’s needs and ambitions. The low adoption rate shows that better internet is simply not a priority for citizens. Even if the internet does emerge as a wider force, Italians are comfortable with their culture and will likely change at a slow pace. Zambardino observes: ”Usually, when a crisis hits the United States, you react by embracing the change. Here [in Italy], we instinctively try to protect the status quo.”

As a rule, Italy is content with changing gradually, even if it means taking last place in some areas. Their strong ties to tradition have not been broken (as India’s have) not only because they haven’t taken the internet very seriously, but also because change is not essential to their survival. India wants and needs to become a global economic player, and that means subscribing to some global norms, both technical and cultural. Change is inevitable in India. To Italy, however, the internet is an amenity rather than a necessity, and amenities aren’t well-known for being agents of cultural revolution.

 

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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