Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Power of being digitally mobile

Cyber Age: ND Batra: From The Statesman

Power of being digitally mobile

I do not know whether the people of Kyrgyzstan used mobile digital technologies to organise their opposition to the dictatorial regime of President Askar Akayev and whether democracy would take roots there.

But on 20 January 2001, President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines became the first head of a state that lost power to a digitally smart mob in Manila, a million of them who used cell phones to exchange text messages and swarmed like bees for a peaceful demonstration at Epifanio de Santas Avenue (EDSA).

The message was: GO 2EDSA, Wear black. It was impossible for Mr Estrada to hold on to power in the face of the mobile people’s power. Would that happen in China?
Different cultures use the same technology differently. Filipinos and Japanese use their cells for text messaging. Americans love to talk. In a recent seminar session, one of my students asked whether it would be possible to use cells to access i-Pod.
Music mobility is big in the USA and before long cell phones and mobile music devices would converge. Let’s see how Indian culture affects the use of cell phones now that the technology is penetrating even rural areas. You might wonder whether we would become more responsive to the human condition if we are able to surf the Web through wearable computers, eyeglasses or do instant messaging through picture cell phones.

But there is no denying the fact that as wireless computer chips get embedded into various devices, communication ecology would change. Wireless networks are collapsing space and time, turning geographic space into cyberspace and are bringing people together through digital presence for collaboration in the workplace and cultural space. The experience of the presence of others in a virtual environment created by networked communication is a new social experience for many. Virtual presence could become active political presence as it happened in Manila. Similarly, isolated terrorists networks too could organise virtually to strike anywhere.
Every human activity from a child’s laughter to the most complex mathematical hypothesis is nothing but information in the binary format. Every human activity that takes place in an analogue world can be turned into digital data, and can instantly be distributed globally through computer networks, thus extending the reach of human communication.

Digital data can not only be stored and retrieved instantly anywhere but they can also be transformed into predictive intelligence about human behaviour regarding commerce, national security or any other social or political activity. Books, music files, love bugs or terrorist messages, for example, become indistinguishable as they converge in a digital stream and surge through cyberspace.
Convergence, instantaneity and feedback interactivity make the Internet the most powerful medium of communication ever developed.

Since the traditional media including books, television, newspapers, magazines, radio, music and interpersonal communication are converging on the Internet as a multimedia stream into which anyone can plug in, their power increases manifold and in ways whose implications we still don’t understand.

Outsourcing, for example, has given India a constant state of virtual presence in the American political and corporate discourse. Unlike the offshoring of manufacturing, outsourcing of research and development and other forms of intellectual and professional work is bringing India and the USA into a virtual world where brainpower and creativity are shared and enhanced.

The Internet thus is revolutionary in the sense that it is lowering barriers for cooperative co-existence of cultures. A recent front-page story in The Wall Street Journal told how GE contributed to the seeding of the digital revolution in India and how India is saving billions of dollars for corporate America. Cultures prosper when they cooperate.

The Canadian scholar Herald Innis said in The Bias of Communication that a new medium of communication creates a specific cultural shift and changes our concept of space and time, with far-reaching consequences. Although ancients tried to abridge space and time by sending messages, especially in wartime, through drums and smoke signals, not until the invention of telegraph was it possible to think about communication in terms other than transportation.

Like goods, messages were communicated from place to place at a speed that the best transportation system of the time, for example, the pony express or the railroad made it possible. Telegraph altered the geography-based metaphor of communication, which ceased to be synonymous with transportation.

As telegraph triggered the development of new technologies in the early part of the 20th century, as telephone, radio, and television became universal, communication became increasingly liberated from the constraints of space and time. Computer networks and the Internet have further altered our view of space and time. A networked organisation or an individual with instant messaging and e-mail has different feel of space and time than the people of the pre-digital era.

The keyboard is the door to cyberspace and once you are there, you are simultaneously in a synchronous and asynchronous world, a world that gives a greater illusion of freedom and control than the real world. But the keyboard is a clumsy device. Its era is coming to an end. We are in the age of digital mobility.

Today, cyberspace has become a multi-dimensional virtual universe in which activities are as real as they are in physical space. With mobile digital power, for example, we could see the emergence of collective brainpower to solve complex problems. As more and more people experience activities in cyberspace through wireless presence, they would see that what is private is becoming public; what is American is becoming global.

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