The life-changing potential of the Internet in Southeast Asia  

Earlier this month I wrote about why I believe Southeast Asia is the world’s most exciting place for tech, although it came about almost by accident.

When I sat down to write my annual look at startups to watch out for in Asia, I ended up flipping the switch and actually looking at Southeast Asia itself instead. As someone who has lived here since 2008 – Bangkok in Thailand is my adopted city – I’m perhaps biased, but the potential good that tech can do in this region is vast, however sometimes those of us living here forget that things are so different.

PC ownership is low in the region and it’s well documented that smartphones are becoming the primary Internet access point for emerging markets. Sure, they’re smaller than a PC and can’t multitask well, but they provide access to Facebook, YouTube, sites that allow learning, e-commerce, banking, etc etc, which, if you’ve barely (or never) used a PC, can change how you live.

My in-laws – who are middle class and live in a town around 90 minutes outside of Bangkok – are one example of the benefits of the Web, albeit via a low-end PC. They’ve acquired a new understanding of tech in the past eighteen months or so.

When my wife and I moved to Thailand four and half years ago, they had an old desktop computer but no Internet access. On arriving from London we quickly got WiFi installed, since we were initially residing with them, but after we left it was barely used since they didn’t have their own devices to access the connection until last year. My wife’s old phone – a Nokia E-series with WiFi connectivity – was passed their way when she bought a new device. It became their point of access to the Web.

Clearly that was cumbersome but the zest with which my father in law tried to follow the Web from that tiny screen led me to hand off a cheap Acer laptop I had, then the real seeds of change were sown. Now they are able to Skype with us and my kids, they’ve taken a crash course in Facebook, appreciate YouTube but, importantly to them, they can get news and all manner of information via the PC at any time that they wish.

It’s not that my wife’s parents couldn’t afford a device or WiFi, they never saw a need for it. Now, having used our iPad, and all manner of tablets and phones that we’ve had in recent times, they’re considering getting an Android or iOS smartphone/tablet since they are “easier to use”.

They’re by no means sophisticated users, by the way. They’re still figuring this whole Internet thing out, but there’s a marked difference. Today they explore the benefits for themselves, with their own motivation and enthusiasm. (They’ve also quickly earned how to play games and procrastinate on the Web, like the rest of us.)

Southeast Asia has a population of nearly 600 million and my in-laws are just one example, while not life-changing, of how the Internet can provide benefits and new levels of access to information. There will be more profound examples – computers were introduced to rural areas of Japan following the disaster in 2011 with great success, for example – but the point is that even cases where the impact of the Web is ‘low’ are making a difference.

I’ve no doubt that similar observations can made in Latin America, Africa and other emerging markets, the Internet truly has the potential to change lives.


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