Imagine you have never used a computer in your life and have just bought your first-ever computing device: a smartphone. Peculiar as the new gizmo looks to you, you start experiencing its various uses over the coming months.
In the beginning, you mostly use it for voice calling and SMS — essentially mimicking the behaviours of your old feature phone. Then one day, you discover the Internet, and with it, through a ubiquitous chat application like Whatsapp or Viber, you learn about online chat. Some days later, you do your first-ever online search and eventually sign up for social networking.
You do not stop there. You remind yourself that the world of the Internet has so much more to offer. Your curiosity and motivation to discover it all starts peaking. You search for jobs online, skill-building podcasts, livelihood enhancements and educational courses. Through online advice, you improve your health and nutrition indicators. You try entrepreneurship through online buying and selling. You ultimately become a productivity creator — someone who not only consumes productive online content, but also produces it. As a result, you concretely raise your standard of living and become a highly contributing citizen.
With hundreds of millions of Pakistanis undergoing the same Internet journey, Pakistan leapfrogs across all development indicators within a decade, entering a new era of progress.
An unfulfilled dream
The above is a promising scenario, but there’s a catch.
You see Pakistan's upper middle class — that is people who were born into technology — have the user capability and the motivation to advance deep into their Internet journeys. But unfortunately the same is untrue for the Pakistani masses, who are only now procuring their first-ever computing devices in the shape of affordable smartphones. Given capability and motivation barriers, only a few of them will likely utilise the Internet to substantially improve their standards of living.
We will still sell more 3G data bundles, eke out more ICT revenue and get more people online. One or two of Facebook's products will see active growth, and YouTube will get a lot of hits. More smartphones will be sold. All the foreign headquarters of these various companies will see greater revenue repatriation. Local tax collectors will have some more to chew on.
But the bottom line is: without a carefully drafted digitisation policy, countrywide standards of living will not improve like they should.
The truth is that we are not even gathering actionable analytics on whether connectivity is improving the life of the median Pakistani. Pegging our country's entire digital and technology future on unknown variables is not only short-changing you and me, it's short-changing our children. Five years from now there will be all sorts of post-mortems on what could have been but was not.
A new strategy
The good news is that we can fix this. If we can decipher why and how people falter in their Internet journeys, we can build localised solutions that fill these gaps, helping out our entire population.
Let’s take a closer look at a typical Internet journey.
As one progresses along this journey, the difficulty increases at every step. Most of the actions on the left are merely a few clicks away. But the actions on the right — the ones that can bring the biggest changes to people's lives — require enhanced user capability, organised digital habits, experience and high motivation.
To get maximum juice from digitising Pakistan, we will need to invest in enabling the masses’ access to all these productive actions.
Only if a sizeable portion of our population gets far in their Internet journey, will we be able to call our digitisation successful.
Once this strategy bears fruit, we would have empowered all Pakistanis to actively use the computing power they have in their pocket to reinforce their livelihoods, their education and worldliness, their health and nutrition; their entire lives. It would ignite an Internet economy that helps local technology companies too. Moreover, it would give birth to more job creators per capita than our country has ever produced.
Publicly available World Bank data shows that Pakistan is going to add 100 million youth in its labour force in the next three to four decades (that is between 33 to 25 million new entrants per decade). The required number of jobs to meet this demand will be huge. To put this in perspective: in the 1990s — which is considered to be a stellar job creation decade for the United States — the US created 26 million jobs. Pakistan will need to do even better than this historic number.
In other words, we're in trouble! But the kind of digitisation described above can help slow down this oncoming freight train by helping our people help themselves.
It is true that Pakistan does not have the resources to roll out a digital literacy drive that teaches 200 million Pakistanis why and how to use the Internet effectively. Relying on manual measures will not scale. Instead, we must invest in firstly, intelligent technology that can self-teach its user, and secondly, hyper-localising such technology for the masses.
These might sound like fancy terminologies and solutions, but Pakistan has the minds to do it. Moreover, synergistic projects from across the border ought to be welcomed as well (and vice versa) since connectivity is a regional issue in South Asia, and not just a Pakistani one.
Competing in the ‘Era of Exponentialism’
Just recently, I talked about connectivity in person with Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg. This was in April, right after his keynote speech at the recent Facebook conference. Along with other industry thought leaders from names like Tesla and Amazon, the select gathering of about 12 brainstormed how to build globally inclusive technology. We exchanged ideas, which will likely shape our shared future in one form or the other.
But sitting in that room, I also noted the gaps in the Silicon Valley worldview.
We will need to fill these gaps ourselves, building our own solutions. A country like Pakistan cannot afford to make a false start in its quest for digitisation, for catching up becomes impossible when your peers are galloping away exponentially. Technology is inheriting the world; we will be truly doomed if we are left stranded on the wrong side of the fence. The state must act now; first defining a decisive digital strategy and then empowering the right people to execute it. Getting these fundamentals right will be pivotal for Pakistan’s future.
Header photo: AFP
Hassan baig is a serial entrepreneur, currently running ClubInternet, a Lahore-based company bringing ‘The Next Billion’ online. He is a Duke University and LUMS alumnus, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org