Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The future is digial

Going digital at full speed

N D Batra
From The Statesman

The enthusiasm about the Internet among the young and the old all over the world has been increasing steadily. Memories of the deflated dotcom balloon have faded. The digital age is rising on a solid foundation as more and more users begin to realise the Internet’s potential in diverse fields.
The main reason for the growing popularity of the Internet is that it makes the users’ lives easier. Though this is basically an adult view ~ teenagers value the Internet for different reasons ~ the fact remains that its popularity among all sections of society especially in the USA is widespread.
The phenomenal rise of Google shows that dotcom companies have not slowed down. The users regard the Internet not only as a limitless source of free information available at a mouse click but also a shopping mall, banking street and place to socialise. Of course, some people still don’t feel confident about trusting the computer screen ~ even if an online grocer gives free home deliveries; they would rather go to the store, browse and enjoy the sensuous experience of personal shopping.
Habits die hard, especially for the old. Some time ago, the Markle Foundation issued a report that confirmed the widely held view that the Internet is “a source of worry” regarding privacy, pornography, accuracy of information (“You have to question the truthfulness of most things you read on the Internet,” said the respondents) and accountability. As these concerns diminish, the dotcoms would become a pre-eminent engine driving the economy, as one can see happening in India to some extent. The question of accountability is a typical one that the American public normally asks, whether it is a tire manufacturer, pharmaceutical company or a television network.
But since the Internet is not owned by anyone and is “impossible to govern”, the question of accountability becomes intriguing and difficult to handle. As the report said: “The public is concerned about accountability online, in part because they believe they have fewer rights and protections when they use the Internet than in comparable offline activities.” The American public by a wide margin is worried about the government and private companies collecting information about them when they are online. Data-sniffers do make us vulnerable on the Internet. If in a shopping mall someone watches or stalks you, you become alert and take action; or may be choose to do nothing. On the Internet you don’t know who is watching you and why, which creates diffused anxiety and consequently reduces trust in the system.
The public wants the ungovernable to be governed, may be through some kind of commission, Federal Trade Commission, for example; or Interpol. Amusingly, to a hypothetically question as to who to include in a watch dog body for the Internet, the respondents mentioned two interesting individuals: Oprah Winfrey, a most trusted talk-show hostess, and Bill Gates about whom an American judge, Thomas Penfield Jackson, who tried the monopoly case against Microsoft, said that he had a kind of a Napoleonic complex and wanted to dominate the world through his company, and recommended that the company be broken up. The judge had not foreseen the rise of Google; nonetheless, Bill Gates is even today a most admired person in the USA. The adult users’ view of the Internet contrasts sharply, in many respects, with what American teenagers think about cyberspace.
Teenagers love the Internet’s freedom and anonymity. For them it is an equaliser, a source of empowerment, “an authority free zone” where “they feel less likely to be judged,” a nowhere land that shuts out “curfews, homework, teachers, and parents”. Unlike adults who want the Internet to be regulated somehow, teenagers prefer the Internet to be left alone, to keep it “as anarchistic as possible”, lest its freedom be compromised. They are aware of the dangers of meeting strangers and predators online but feel confident of dealing with the situation on their own, a view that also finds expression in other reports about the Internet and teenagers. Teenagers are also not as much concerned about surveillance as adult users are, which seems a little puzzling. I believe teenagers’ indifferent attitude regarding data mining and profiling is due to the fact that they have very little to lose in material terms, for example, credit card identity theft, financial blackmail, bad credit, et al.
Fear grows, as we grow older. Like my own students whom I occasionally use as focus groups to see which way the social winds are blowing, the teenagers in the Markle survey felt that it is the responsibility of “the individuals to educate themselves, or for parents to take responsibility for looking after the safety of their children.” The survey was limited to teenagers coming from stable American families because it did not answer the question about vulnerable teen users of the Internet who come from single-parent families, or those where parental supervision is not available.
When the family bonds are loose and guidance minimal, how would teenagers deal with the freedom of the Internet, especially with portals like MySpace where kids can do whatever they want, posting personal and private thoughts, pictures, whatever. This makes it difficult to resolve the dilemma how to regulate the Internet, when the two main user groups, adults and teenagers, disagree sharply about the role of the government and private companies in cyberspace. Nonetheless, the world is going digital at full speed.

No comments:

Post a Comment