Monday, May 17, 2010

What's Google? Is Obama a computer program?

I am increasingly convinced that poverty is a network problem. Poor people are less connected and linked in to the rest of the world on various dimensions. The resulting information poverty results in a poverty of opportunity and therefore economic poverty and the cycle goes on. I recently did a small survey for fun where I asked about 20 women from our self help group member base that are between 5th and 8th grade educated what the following four words meant to them:

Manmohan Singh

The majority were flumoxed by Google. No idea they said. Microsoft is a computer and Obama, is it something to do with computers? Manmohan Singh was correctly answered by a handful (6 to be exact). Others asked: Is he a Hindi film actor? cricketer?

Facebook? YouTube? I didn't bother to ask.

We don't live in the same world.


  1. An observation unrelated to the rest of my comment: So if you asked these in the order you presented, and Obama is a computerish thing, then clearly "Obama" is a cipher to these women--whatever they heard recently, microsoft in this case.

    There is something at work here that is interesting. My children are, at this stage, 2nd and 5th grade educated. They are also, for obvious reasons of age, *way* less smart than these women you surveyed, but they both know clearly who Obama is (not Singh, but for the purposes of comparison, I'd guess about 90% of my children and their classmates know who Obama is; about 30% of the women you surveyed knew who Singh is).

    So your population of women are smarter than my population of American grade schoolers. They are highly motivated individuals, and somewhat willing to take risks and are open to new ideas and innovation (at least social innovation), based on the fact that they are in your program.

    How could they not know who their Prime Minister is? Is this part of the networking problem? I don't know, I'm not convinced that you couldn't be connected loosely in the economically productive way you're theorizing about, but still be ignorant of something basic in your political environment.

    I think you hit on it finally when you said, "We don't live in the same world." But I am not convinced that their style of cyclical poverty and your 'same world' statement are necessarily linked.

    If you linked these women with other women like them in other towns in a way that allowed the kind of loose network connections to enable more efficiently flowing capital, I could see that loose network of people gaining a foothold on the climb out of poverty. I could still see that network and the network of people who are relatively savvy about their political and technical environment being disjoint sets.

    I wouldn't be shocked to find out I'm wrong and that as poverty eases a group will necessarily be more aware of their surrounding, but they don't immediately strike me as related.

  2. Matt, In response to this comment and our offline (or offblog) discussion, I think there's a feedback loop between information and poverty. The lack of knowledge about Singh probably reflects the very small sphere in which they operate both socially and economically. Our women borrowers generally don't have the habit of reading and therefore encounter information primarily through word of mouth. This is slow and limits their sources to the people they see on a regular basis. I think there will be socioeconomic benefits to linking them together in faster, more efficient information networks with one another. However, the web enabled, technology driven network that we are part of evolves more rapidly because people access and respond to information at much more rapid rates. So if they hook in, this can increase the rate at which they access, interact and respond to information which would be faster than what might happen in a network that evolved more independently.

  3. Hi Tara
    I am Kunal working with a micro-finance firm.

    I don't agree with "Poverty is a network proble". I agree these SHG women may not answer your questions related to Google or Microsoft as this is not their need. I think that knowledge comes with need......your knowledge to microfinance somewhere comes with your need.
    Very intrestingly I assure, you will have even poor response if you ask Facebook/You tube savvy guyz "Which season does wheat/rice grows", "What is the current price of sugar/dal/groundnut oil" but yes may be the best flavour at Cafe Coffe Day wouldbe well known.
    We are not poor b'coz we have a network problem but b'coz there are such needs which needs to be met up as a priority.
    These people can give you a full record of the monsoon since last 10 years and also predict if there will be a rain this year even better than IMD or you and me.

    I just wanted to put my views on this. I hope I have made my point.

  4. Kunal, the point I meant to illustrate in this post is precisely that the poor and wealthy tend to belong to different knowledge networks on many dimensions. What I mean by a network problem as a general theme is that most of the poor have little education and little or no access to the technology enabled information networks that we, in our world, take for granted, . That means that they encounter new information and opportunities at a very slow rate - for e.g. information pertaining to job opportunities, education opportunities, entrepreneurial opportunities etc. They may well know a lot about one thing such as crop patterns but are not connected to a network that facilitates access to opportunities that would allow them to be extremely successful.