Lounge has an issue devoted to technology for the first time, and it had to be now. We have never been more tuned to the world than we are now, thanks to the phones we’re using and sites we are surfing. Digital technology is inspiring artistic expression, phones are going green and video games are reimagining human history. This is also the year the Internet completes 25 years. We update you on the people and devices that make the wired world so exciting
There are moments that change life forever. Take Band-Aid (1921), the computer (1947), or the TV remote (1955). Consider high-yield rice (1966) or even perhaps man landing on the moon (1969). Think about The Beatles breaking up (1970), the waffle soles (1971) that gave birth to Nike, or the birth of Dolly (1996). Would sheep conjured in a lab from somatic cells make the grade?
Who is to tell what shakes the ground, scoring new paths for us to take? But try beating .com—the “three letters and a punctuation mark” from 1985 that has made it past politics and wars, borders and cultures. Someone registered Symbolics.com on 15 March 1985 as the first .com. Today, 25 years later, the Internet is a $1.5 trillion (around Rs71.1 trillion) industry. That’s 15 followed by 11 zeros, mind it.
It was a mystical, little understood, largely ignored phenomenon at the time. I mean, it was the mid-1980s and we were more concerned about Tina Turner rocking the Grammys, getting tickets to Back to the Future, figuring out why the US had a love-hate relationship with Pol Pot and what the Hezbollah would do next. Certainly, there were better things to think about even in terms of science and technology: The CD had arrived as a curiosity and those who owned shiny new Walkmans sneered at the abomination, AIDS was big and in our bedrooms, and some back-room boffins had discovered a curious hole in the Earth’s ozone layer. In comparison, what was a trifling .com?
The matter was compounded by the fact that technology companies dominated the list of the first 100 to register as a .com: Raytheon or BBN Technologies, Xerox, HP, IBM, Sun, Intel and TI. Sabeer Bhatia was just 17 years old, completing his schooling in sleepy Bangalore—his idea of HoTMaiL (HTML, get it?) still 10 years and $300,000 away from Draper Fisher Jurvetson and 12 years away from Microsoft’s reported $400 million buyout of the email service. In 1985, no one could have foretold the future that was about to unfold, shaking the ground, compelling people to give up perfectly sane jobs and invest their futures into shaping the most astonishing array of ideas into reality. A baffling tsunami was building up. Only, we didn’t know it.
Could it be because we had no respect for the dweebs, geeks, hacks and barking moon bats who were crawling out of the woodwork? Nah, we were just plain ignorant.
Who could have imagined information operating on such a vast scale that we could see structures and patterns emerge from human thought and action in an instant? Who could have imagined that the Internet, as it became commercialized with the .com seal, would dominate our thinking, our lives, the way we perceive the world, the products we crave for and the way we shop? Today, there are 85 million dot-com domains registered, with 54 billion lookups between them daily. Go figure the number of zeros involved. Or maybe you are already googling them?
But think about this for a moment: The CD which wiped out the cassette tape by the 1990s is itself just a few years away from being obsolete, thanks to commercial Internet.
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee / Mint
So we know the Internet is awesome. Because we get to see the balance of commerce itself change. We can compare prices of what we buy and bring sanity to our choices. We can shop 24x7. We can demand instant attention from the companies we interact with and patronize. We can crib 24x7. We can force them to create and deliver products they would never have done before. We can demand 24x7. We can auction our stuff, even our virginity, thanks to some .com somewhere. We can push the limits of trade 24x7.
But the bigger changes that have sneaked into our lives, thanks to the insidiousness of dot-coms, are yet to be appreciated and their impact yet to be determined. I know from watching my children, both of whom have been weaned on dot-coms, that the burden of traditional literacy has been reduced. They don’t really need to focus on an education that continues to deliver the tools and means to memorize facts and formulae. There is way too much information, anyway, out there—and it’s accessible on hand-helds that are getting increasingly smarter. The age of being dumb is coming to a universal close.
What matters are the decisions you take based on the data you find. What matters is your notion of who an expert is. The subject matter expert is going to be, without doubt, in deep rigor mortis. It is the person who intelligently, perhaps even creatively, uses the data who is going to be the new expert.
On the other side, once you have stopped being romanced by the deep and profound transformation that three alphabets and a punctuation have brought into our lives, you may want to think about this: All those dot-coms out there are fragmenting our attention and we are drifting into distraction. Could it be because we now have amateurs flogging creative work and their thoughts, thanks to the democratic nature of dot-coms which don’t really care about or understand great ideas? It’s like mental karate where we demolish ourselves because we are the cat’s whiskers and don’t know any better.
But I’ll tell you what I really hate about this business of dot-coms—that I have been forced into becoming part of communities on Facebook that border on the fictional; that I have signed online petitions without really knowing why and only because it was simple to do so; that I have been tagged like I was courtroom evidence; I have been poked; and even bookmarked. As my mother would say, “Get a grip on reality.”
Arun Katiyar is a content and communication consultant. He has been the COO of India Today’s online business, which he launched, and was the executive vice-president of Indya.com, where he was pink-slipped. He has co-authored Bombay: A Contemporary Account of Mumbai.
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