Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Living Virtually

Emerging virtual landscape

From The Statesman
ND Batra
Japanese prefer to use their cells for text messaging probably because it is considered rude to talk in public places, buses and train. According to a Reuter report, the Chinese sent 429 billion text messages last year, a country where there is limited freedom of the Press.

If researchers could do content analysis of the totality of the messages, they might discover the emerging mindset of the Chinese people. Different cultures use the same technology differently.

Americans love to talk and they do it everywhere regardless of how others feel. Music mobility is big in the United States and cell phones and mobile music devices have begun to converge. Similarly, Indian culture in its own way is affecting life and work now that mobile technology is rapidly penetrating even rural areas connecting millions of isolated people. But as villagers increasingly become wirelessly mobile, they would use it primarily to improve their human condition, including access to the market for their products and services as well as healthcare.

The consequences of the chirping revolution are unfathomable as wireless computer chips get embedded into everyday technologies. Wireless networks are abridging space and time, turning geographic space into cyberspace, and are bringing people together for collaboration in workplaces and cultural spaces. The experience of the presence of others in a virtual environment created by networked communication is a new social experience for many; those who use MySpace, Facebook and Second Life know the feeling.

Virtual presence could become active political presence. Isolated activists could organise virtually and become smart mobs and strike anywhere. Every human activity from porn to the most complex mathematical calculations is potentially nothing but information in the digital format.

So whatever activity that takes place in the analogue world can be turned into digital data, and can instantly be distributed globally through computer networks, thus extending the reach of human communication. That’s how we came to know the simmering rage of the Myanmarese Buddhist monks.

Imagine if millions of Tibetans get access to cell phones! Digital data cannot 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, or terrorist messages become indistinguishable as they converge in a digital stream and surge through cyberspace; but they can be mined and analysed.

US Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Programs, about which Congress has expressed concerns, are already doing it. 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 multimedia streams 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 global 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, Europe and the United States into a virtual world of global supply chain where brainpower and creativity are shared and enhanced, for example, as in Hollywood-Bollywood animation venture Shrek2 and Madagascar.

The Internet thus is transformative in the sense that it is lowering barriers for cooperative coexistence of cultures. It is a stuff of the legend how GE contributed to the seeding of the digital revolution in India and how India is saving billions of dollars for corporate America and in the process enriching itself. Cultures prosper when they cooperate as well as compete. Historically speaking, a new medium of communication creates a cultural shift and changes our concept of space and time with far-reaching consequences, wrote the Canadian scholar Herald Innis in The Bias of Communication.

Although ancients tried to abridge space and time by sending messages 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 and 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 how we look at ourselves. A networked organisation or an individual with instant messaging and e-mail has a different feel of space and time than the people of the pre-digital era. Mouse is the door to cyberspace and once you are there, you are in a world that is simultaneously synchronous and asynchronous, a world that gives a greater sense of freedom and control than the real world.

For the digital generation, activities in a virtual universe are as real as they are in physical space. With mobile digital energy we could see the emergence of collective brainpower to solve complex problems. As more and more people experience activities in cyberspace through virtual presence, they would see that what is local is becoming global; what is Bollywood is becoming Hollywood; and vice a versa.

(ND Batra is Professor of Communications, Norwich University, Vermont USA)

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