Thank you, Joyojeet Pal, for sharing your story. 

Somewhere around the end of my Ph.D. field work in the winter of 2007, I was working in rural districts surrounding Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. I would meet children in schools to observe their use of computers. Some of these observations led to conversations with them on how they used computers, and others with the parents themselves on what they thought about computers in schools. Part of our research exercise was mapping aspiration – for this we asked children a range of questions around what they felt they wanted to be, what their favourite subjects in school were, what film stars they liked, who their friends were, and so on. We found two interesting trends. First, we found that all the children self-assessed as being “good at computers”, even if they were willing to self-assess as “not being good at studies” or “not being good at sports.” Likewise, children were keen on affiliating with others in their classes who were supposedly “good at computers” – even when this was loosely defined as being good at using a keyboard, or playing a game etc.

The unexpected affiliation however was the connection between film stardom and computers. When we asked one child why he said he wanted to be a computer engineer, his response was “Rajnikanth,” and his friend, who happened to be nearby, chimed in “coooool.”

So this set off something of a domino effect, with the boys shouting out “coooool” in a slightly goofy tone. The reference was to a laptop used by the filmstar Rajinikanth in a film from earlier that year, Sivaji, in which he plays an action-star/software engineer with a computer that talks back to him, and his password is “coooool.” The filmstar playing a computer engineer was an immediate trigger on the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question, since what he wanted to be was Rajinikanth, and as it turned out, Rajinikanth was a software engineer.

So moving on, we started talking to parents about schooling – the nearby school had just got computers. Discussions would eventually come around to questions about aspiration. One parent, discussing the arrival of computers to his local school pointed out how good it was likely to be for his kids. He was adamant about one thing – his children would not work in the fields. He did not have any immediate means for this, but said he was very happy that the school had computers since this was in his words, the key to moving to the city for his son. It would teach him English, something the local teachers had not been able to do.

I knew that urban migration was fairly significant in that village, especially as the climate had become drier. At some point I asked him, “So the boys from this town who have moved to the cities, what do they do there?”

“Oh, they all end up as construction laborers.” He said.

There was a bit of a pause, and I had to move on with the interview as what he just said sank in for both of us.

Joyojeet Pal is currently working as an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. He also has a treasure trove of stories to share from his field experiences in India, Rwanda, and Brazil.

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