Bhutan: From Pre-Tech to One of the Most Wired Countries

FEBRUARY 12, 2018 | Merritt Baer

Bhutan is a small Himalayan kingdom, wedged physically and politically between India and China. Their rapid internet development is a unique test case of the impact of technological growth, and understanding its development can inform how we view technology structures in the US.

As in the US, internet has had an unexpected effect on gender dynamics in Bhutan. But because Bhutan introduced internet with a surgical precision, the effects are even more traceable. What might have been a vehicle for advancement for women and disadvantaged groups, has played out in complex and sometimes poisonous ways in both nations.

Introduction of Internet In Bhutan

In 1999, at the celebration of the fourth king’s Silver Jubilee, Bhutan became the last country on earth to legalize television and internet. Cell phones came in 2003. Today, Bhutan is proportionately one of the most wired countries on earth. In contrast with the knotty, organic process of upgrading systems and infrastructure in the US, the kingdom has leapfrogged the technological issues other countries faced in early decades of telecom and computing.

The first four kings of the nation deliberately kept Bhutan “undeveloped”- so much so that it was termed the “Hermit Kingdom.” The hesitant approach to technology was part of its overarching policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an alternative to GDP. GNH policy means that decisions are not based on maximizing economic wealth, but on choices that consider the peoples’ long-term happiness. Environmental concerns and cultural protections are a priority-- for example, there is a constitutional mandate to maintain 60% of the country under forest cover. Mahanaya Buddhism is woven into daily life, and the state is a theocracy (as of 2008, a constitutional theocracy).

Currently governed by the fifth king of its monarchy, who is young, handsome, and Oxford-educated, Bhutan has embraced technology. The government control of the introduction of all technological infrastructure and activities streamlined the implantation of technology. In practical terms, this means is that the country emerged on the tech scene in the internet age, with no legacy tech infrastructure or behavior, unlike its behemoth neighbors India and China. This means no copper to replace with fiber, no telecom wars (Druknet is the only Internet provider). More than 87 percent of inhabitants have a cell phone, even though 70 percent are subsistence farmers.

Now, Bhutan has more up-to-date infrastructure than many countries, including the US, whose legacy infrastructure remains often insecure and unable to be upgraded without prohibitive cost. There is still not a single traffic light in Bhutan; but all dzongkhags (the 20 districts, 205 “gewogs” and 200 community centers) are connected to the government intranet system network.

Gross National Happiness and the Shift to a Wage Economy

GNH was, until 1999, a justification for not allowing technology. Today, the justification has turned the other direction: Bhutan’s national policy statement is “An ICT enabled, Knowledge-Based Society as a Foundation for Gross National Happiness.” On the ideological level, this means that the government made the call that the benefit of having internet outweighs the cost, not just economically but on a larger scale.

In some sense, the decision to usher in internet seems unavoidable and positive as a development: internet is a vehicle for education, for political activism, and advocacy for rights of underserved communities and groups like minorities and women. In the US, too, there was optimism, especially in internet’s early days, about its transformative value in society.

But Internet has a dark side

The US had initial glimmers of women gaining ground through computer science savvy and lack of gender in interactions online (“no one will know it’s a woman, all ideas will be evaluated unbiased”). Yet now, in the US, we see that Silicon Valley bros dominate the economic benefits and online trolls pollute interactions on the landscape.

Internet is perpetuating structural inequalities in Bhutan, too. Traditionally, women in Bhutan dropped out of school early. This was not because women were less valuable; to the contrary, because women inherit the family property, it was imperative that they learn how to run the farm. Meanwhile, boys could afford the time to travel significant distances to attend school.

It used to be the case that since Bhutanese women inherited the house, they had a form of built-in social security. But the rise of a wage economy in the most recent generation means that rural Bhutanese home ownership no longer carries the same value. Girls inherit rural houses and are tied to them, while boys attend school longer and then are marketable for wage jobs.

So in the case of Bhutan, the last decade or two of “development” has not necessarily worked as a positive force for women or disadvantaged communities. Wage labor seems to have created structural disadvantages, perpetuated by misogyny in the job markets of neighboring India and China.

This is not to say that Bhutan’s leadership made a poor call by ushering in the internet age. It is, however, a case study of the ways that technology has started to undergird and distort our larger economic and sociological framework. In turn, we preserve that in tech products: the biases we embed in tech are not a technical issue, they are a systemic issue. In Bhutan as in the US, what began with a promise of egalitarian transformation has played out in problematic ways, and women pay a particular price.

Are there ways that we can use technology to better equip women with the structural status that they enjoyed offline? Maybe. A hacker friend of mine said recently that “raising problems and empowering people always makes the Internet better.” I advocate for women’s participation in tech, at every level, as one avenue for bettering the technologies that we have welcomed into our economies and our personal interactions. I hope that we can also get better at anticipating the structural effects of technology on communities, based on a specific reasoning particular to the place. I love tech and I see its proliferation as an opportunity. But somewhere in the intersection of government’s concern for its people and tech’s responsibility to make the world better lies a betrayal of those pursuits. Maybe “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” but with tech and in tech, can we create new houses?

With Additional Reporting by Jessie Choden Namgyal

Image credit: Asian Development Bank / CC 2.0

The views expressed herein are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the FCC or the U.S. government, for whom the author works.

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