Monday, March 19, 2007

Orkut Politics, Globalisation and the Internet Ban

Since my childhood, situations have arisen when I had not been able to chose between the options for the next course of action. Doctor or engineer, the two high school crushes, the choice of college and the choice of the PG specialization are amongst the few to name. This day, when I find myself in a generally termed “elite” institution, the situation repeats itself. The dilemma has raised its head again. Life is again at the crossroads.

The term “generation gap” is pretty common. The past generation finds ultimate solace in accusing its successor of not following the “norm” of what they practised during its prime time. For example, my past generation often kept pressurising me to read aloud whether its was English literature, language or science for that matter, which of course I did not like, for it felt that I was a parrot! The moral of the story seemed like “Memorize whatever you could, by crying yourself hoarse, and then, literally 'vomit' it out on the examination paper!” As a route for escape, I found that doing mathematics was safer, as you could not solve trigonometric problems or calculus by reading aloud.

A tool initially developed by the Department of Defence in America, the Internet took a larger leap by the end of the past century, and as expected, the audience was appalled with a continuously growing repository of information and otherwise. Terms like “information superhighway”, “distributed databases”, “digital library and cataloguing”, “e-commerce”, all came up with a boom, and courses in various universities were started. The concept of globalisation, which was the keyword in the nineties of the past century, was beginning to take shape. The progressive members of the past generation, who were often wistful about having only 24 hours during the day, were now enabled and enthralled with a tool for their day to day activities including research.

Unfortunately enough, the fantasy of the common youth caught up with “undesirable information” which was also available for free, and it felt that it was must easier to please its senses rather than stimulate the intellectual within. The evening cricket match, broken panes and consequent shouting which were common scenes earlier, and also a means for socialising, were replaced by Rs 20 per hour Internet caf├ęs. Socialising therefore started restricting itself within small cabins where college students usually met while typing on the keyboard. Socialisation therefore, turned global wherein the internet chat room was a playground, where people started seeking net partners and even net spouses. I remember that in 2003, when I was a frequent visitor to the Bollywood Chat rooms, a girl who called herself Chanchal, from Mumbai, India was already “net married” to a guy from Islamabad, Pakistan and was being addressed as Bhabhi (sister-in-law) by many of the chatters. In 2005, I visited the rooms again and happened to meet the same guy. I asked him about Chanchal and he had no clue where she was. Probably some guy had hacked her profile and account and the “love” was lost in oblivion. The guy had “moved-on” as he had realised it was not the real life.

The popularity of net-based socialisation caught up with sites like Orkut, Hi5, Tagged etc, where the fantasy of seeking photographs of pretty girls and handsome hunks caught up fast. Six months after I had subscribed to Orkut, I was often asked by peers as to why my scrapbook was vacant and as to why I had deleted their scraps. People then seemed to get more closer to those who wrote a testimonial for them or became their fans. The testimonial might just be anything. Even the most disastrous grammar or SMS lingo would do. I recall one of my bengali friends had oti jaali maal (extreme fraud) written on his testimonial and he was proudly showing it off! A person from a senior batch of mine asked me to write another testimonial for her which would be pretty long and should gratify her desire to be flattered, instead of the little meaningful and nicer one line testimonial I had scribbled after a lot of thinking for 17 long hours. I also recall an incident when one Shachi (name changed), charged me of being an Utko lok (strange bloke) on the scrapbook of Yogita (name changed) based on a scrap which I had written to Yogita! Politicking based on scraps had already begun and I had to face it hard. I, of course retorted with Gandhigiri, and Shachi therefore, cannot look me in the eye currently! I have to accept that, I too have jumped in to politicking with my Orkut friends.

The above paragraph however presents a negative aspect of the picture. I have been able to connect with many friends from college, my teachers at school and the students of my teachers too. They keep on updating me about the well being of my teachers. Although I have been very choosy about selecting friends on social networking websites, restricting my friend-list to whom I know personally, occasions have arisen when people unknown to me have become very good friends sharing their happinesses and sorrows with equal fervour.

Orkut is a site powered by Google which in turn has its own share of implications. Since long, Google has been a tool for the researchers to find out research papers, material, programming code and workarounds to name a few. The recent addition of soft copies of books at Google has also given rise to the pleasure of finding free educational material for browsing. The pleasure of taking short cuts to life also comes in here. People freely pick up material or “plagiarise” from the internet and create their own material without the courtesy of acknowledgement. I am reminded of a story when a king asked Euclid whether there was an easier method to learn Geometry and he responded “There is no royal road way to Geometry”. I would like to mention the name of Kaavya Vishwanathan, a student of Indian origin, who recently earned a place in the shame list of Harvard University for plagiarising parts of a novel to write her own (How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life). Some of us are plagiarising to earn good money and fifteen minutes of fame, but are bringing a bad name to our origins and country.

We can see here that the internet with its fair and unfair implications has become an important component in the daily lives of the students and faculty. Accept it or not, the Internet tools have made us do a lot of work which were not possible earlier in a span of 24 hours. The daily life and productivity have changed their ways. The recent ban on the use of internet at hostels has drawn a lot of flak from the fraternity. Words like “unwanted parenting” and “technical prison” have been used recently in threads based on this issue. In this connection, I am reminded of a move by an American university which deleted a huge repository of “objectionable” digital images from its storage area, with a note - “If you can explain or justify how these photographs would be useful for your studies and stay in this university, and we are convinced, we would replace these photographs immediately”.

But in spite of these, I am still in a dilemma. Should Internet be banned or allowed? Life is at crossroads again. And we have to choose the right way, the hard way, to use the facilities responsibly, to become the best and to remain the best.