When enthusiasts talk about the merits of being connected to the internet, they often emphasize benefits involving access to economically relevant information, political empowerment, cultural links, and family ties. But in the real world, people are watching cat videos. The Economist magazine has an article discussing how the main use of the internet in low-income countries, as in high-income countries, is the leisure-time activities of "timepass"(June 8, 2019).
At one point, they describe the experiences of two unrelated women from India, both with the last name of Sharma.
Back in Madhogarh, Ms [Indra] Sharma uses her phone to video-chat with her son in Jaipur, three or four hours away by bus. The younger Ms [Santosh] Sharma uses her phone mostly for WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook, and for watching videos on YouTube and TikTok, a Chinese-owned social app that has been downloaded a billion times since its launch in 2017, largely by people outside the world’s big cities. Her smartphone does allow her to look up coursework for the classes she teaches. But mostly, she says, “it is a way to do timepass”, using the Indian-English word for killing time.
“Timepass” is the essence of the internet. The vast majority of the top 25 apps by revenue in both Google’s and Apple’s app stores are games (and both companies announced new paid gaming services this year). Tencent became one of China’s internet giants because of games. Facebook grew into the world’s sixth-most valuable company by giving people a place to “do timepass”. YouTube is the gateway to several lifetimes’ worth of timepass. The fastest-growing new apps of recent years have all been aimed at timepass: Fortnite, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat. TikTok, which consists of 15-second videos, is timepass in its essence, made by bored kids in mofussil towns who have found vast audiences by doing silly things.
(For those not up-to-speed on their descriptive terms for India's different areas "mofussil" refers to rural and provincial areas outside the big cities.) The Economist offers a discussion of the issues involved for businesses that are trying to monetize timepass among lower-income people in emerging markets. But the article concludes with some bigger-picture thoughts:
Providing access to entertainment, opportunities for a richer social life and the ability to speak and be heard to hundreds of millions will mark a profound improvement in humankind’s aggregate quality of life. It will have risks, as the politicisation of social media and the social mediation of politics in rich countries have shown. But just as they will be facing some of the same risks, the world’s rich and poor will be sharing experiences. They will be spending their time doing the same things: chatting on WhatsApp, liking pictures on Instagram, watching videos on YouTube, doing timepass on TikTok. The world’s ability to have a little bit of chill time is becoming more equal.
I am easily persuaded that the benefits of interconnection are worth the tradeoffs. But that doesn't mean tradeoffs don't exist. How people choose their timepass is also how they choose to spend large portions of their lives.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.