(Published in Business Standard on April 18, 2015)
Back in the olden days, my family got a word processor. It was a horrible, clunky machine with a bulbous screen, a rectangular flashing cursor, and zit-sized pixels. The sharpest image on the screen was your reflection. I learned to touch type on it, and played Mario Brothers like a zombie. The thing wasn’t good for much else—my mother did use it to work on her book, which my father deleted one day while trying to be helpful, even as I stood behind him loudly saying ‘Don’t press that, you’re going to delete her book,’ in my best don’t-come-crying-to-me adolescent tone. What happened next would shock you if I could remember it, but it was the kind of drama that adolescent brains block out so that they can concentrate on improving their Mario Brothers score.
I didn’t handle a computer again until college, where we were expected to hand in typed papers. I could only think in longhand, so I wrote everything by hand first and then typed it up. But that just took way too much time away from playing Trivial Pursuits, so eventually I switched to a computer. Suddenly I could only think if I typed, and to this day my handwriting looks as if it’s having seizures.
Somewhere in the middle of college life, email and the internet appeared. I’d just gotten the hang of it when I found myself back in India, using VSNL dialup services, which consisted mostly of soaring blood pressure caused by that infernal warbling whistle trying, trying, and trying again, mostly without success, to get online. It was around then that a friend told me about a cool new search engine thing called Google, and I got a mobile phone. The world changed.
I’m one of the ever-diminishing numbers of fossils whose formative years were on an internet-free, smartphone-free planet. Somehow we took off on road trips without digital maps at our fingertips. We made plans on landlines and then stuck to them, because there was no good way of changing them on the fly. We bought tickets at—you won’t believe this—ticket counters. We had to find a physical person or book or periodical for any sort of reference. Your views remained within your own tiny circle of friends and family. Information was the preserve of specialists. It was ancient. I was there. Let’s not get caught up in syllogisms.
I’m not here to tell you how much better it all was. Here we are twenty years later, with the whole mind-boggling galaxy of human thinking and learning at our fingertips—a magnificent and powerful tool for democracy, social justice, and stupid cat photos—and I no longer know how the hell we lived without free movement around the internet. How much time was spent on the littlest thing! What a curated set of views we had! The things that greedy, powerful and criminal people got away with, without anybody knowing! Information was the preserve of specialists. Access to information looked, in fact, a lot like that old computer of ours.
Today, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been updated, with only a little irony, to rest on a base of battery and wifi; the Internet is increasingly regarded as a basic human right. Should it be tweaked, like most things, to favour large corporations, by charging more for access to certain sites? If you like your Internet the way it is now—equal access to all sites—take a look at the Save the Internet campaign. You get to weigh in on the net neutrality debate until April 24.
Meanwhile I’m off to surf, just because I can. Have a nice weekend