Thanks to technology like the mobile phone, a new, aspiring political community has emerged
Thomas L. Friedman
I ENCOUNTERED something on this trip to India that I had never met before: a whole new political community — India’s “virtual middle class.” Its emergence explains a lot about the rise of social protests here, as well as in places like China and Egypt. It is one of the most exciting things happening on the planet. Historically, we have associated democratic revolutions with rising middle classes achieving certain levels of per capita annual income — say, $10,000 — so people can worry less about basic food and housing and more about being treated as citizens with rights and with a voice in their own futures. But here’s what’s fascinating: the massive diffusion of powerful, cheap computing power via cellphones and tablets over the last decade has dramatically lowered the costs of connectivity and education — so much so that many more people in India, China and Egypt, even though they’re still just earning a few dollars a day, now have access to the kind of technologies and learning previously associated solely with the middle class.
That’s why India today has a 300-million-person middle class and another 300-million-person virtual middle class, who, though still very poor, are increasingly demanding the rights, roads, electricity, uncorrupted police and good governance normally associated with rising middle classes. This is putting more pressure than ever on India’s elected politicians to get their governance act together.
“Thanks to technology and the spread of education, more and more people are being empowered at lower and lower levels of income than ever before, so they think and act as if they were in the middle class, demanding human security and dignity and citizens’ rights,” explained Khalid Malik, the director of the UN’s Human Development Report Office and author of the book Why Has China Grown So Fast for So Long? “This is a tectonic shift. The Industrial Revolution was a 10-million-person story. This is a couple-of-billion-person story.”
And it’s not just driven by the 900 million cellphones in use in India today or the 400 million bloggers in China. The United States Agency for International Development office here in New Delhi connected me with a group of Indian social entrepreneurs the US is supporting, and the power of the tools they are putting in the hands of India’s virtual middle class at low