Is Illiteracy a Barrier to Mobile Phone Use?

Images: Riyaz Shaik/ 7MB
Navigating mobile phones without being able to read is a challenge. Yet, many manage their day to day doing just so.

“This person has to jump from one block to another, and he shouldn’t fall down. When he jumps from one block to the other – I keep getting points,” says 32-year-old driver Durga Rao, as he shows us the workings of his favourite cell phone game.

I use it to kill my boredom. Every day, if I play for at least 20 minutes, it makes me feel good.

He cannot read the English fonts on his two-and-a-half-inch screen, but the phone keeps him going during the long hours he has to wait, as part of his job.

We can often forget that the devices in our pockets are more akin to the supercomputers of the 1990s than to their telephones. The mobile revolution in India has since put a cell phone in over 1.03 billion hands – out which, 220 million are smart phones, touch-devices that can download and install apps.

Two forms of literacy form an entry barrier to navigating the modern cell phone – the ability to read, and the familiarity with technology that enables one to effectively use it.

Street, ishtriwalla, ironing, clothes,
(Image: 7MB) Ramalinga says he doesn’t need a cellphone – but his children do

Ramalinga is an istriwallah – he irons clothes on the side of the road, using a coal powered iron. He’s not too impressed by his cell phone – A feature phone priced under Rs. 2000 – which he finds difficult to use, being illiterate. He uses it mainly to stay in touch with his relatives.

“I don’t use my phone for my customers – Customers come, give me clothes, and go away. My business doesn’t need a phone.” Though he doesn’t know how to operate the small apps on his feature phone, he does use it to play music.

In interviewing street vendors, we found that all of them had a mobile phone – yet very few used it to grow their businesses. Those who were illiterate found themselves at a loss to navigate the full extent of their phone’s features – using them solely to play music or make and receive calls.

However, some vendors have embraced the technology.

Street, cobbler, facebook, smartphone
Image: 7MB

Naresh, a cobbler, got his first phone ten years ago, and since then, he says it’s helped him improve his language skills. He is an enthusiastic user of social media, with over 1500 friends on Facebook.

I added all my friends and neighbours from my basti (slum), over six months.

Getting his network onto social media has been rewarding – he sometimes posts photos of his best shoe designs onto Facebook, and gets customers as a result.

Some studies have found that phones can help people become literate. But do the most popular communication apps require literacy to operate?

Motorcycle, repair, air, tyre,
(Image: 7MB) Hussein fills air in a motorcycle at his shop

Hussein mans a tyre-repair shop on the side of the road. He is active on Whatsapp, and types out messages in Hindi on an English keypad. But some of Hussein’s friends are illiterate – so in a jugaad solution, he teaches them how to send him voice messages on Whatsapp.

His guilty pleasure, he tells us, is playing Candy Crush – a game he got hooked onto two years ago. He also spends Rs. 15 a month for a customized caller tune – so his customers have a song to listen to when they call him.

In the economy of apps, one can go a long way through the right platforms. Services can be registered and set up online – with payments made digitally. To long time users of technology, this may be nothing new. But India’s newest digital entrants are already exploring this ecosystem, sometimes aided by those who are savvier in its use. The future, however, will touch them all through an app.

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1 Comment

  • With India going cashless, payment apps like Paytm, Rupay etc have to adapt simpler layman usage, perhaps using Candy Crush or Mario gaming platforms to collect payments/ rewarding coins, directly into their bank accounts. With just a few jumps and hops!

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