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Wired state of mind

by Radha Rao last modified Apr 02, 2011 01:56 PM
Information technology is the driver of society today — the basic block of innovation and growth in organisations, the mainstay of the 21st century. The decade bygone was only an indicator of the things to come. Whether its ideas or friendships, the future indubitably belongs to linking-up on the web, writes Malvika Tegta , DNA - Digital Edition, Monday - 28th December, 2009.

Did cyberscape make us cogs on a new machinery or liberate us, empower us or make us vulnerable, enrich us with cultural diversity or homogenise us? There isnt a simple answer. Not in a diverse world digitally sewn into a remarkably new pattern. Here what is certain is what is manifest — the emergence of an information society witness to changes in organisation structure, work cultures, community life, lifestyles, medicine, governance, activism, political participation, commercial business, conventional media, spaces for those on the social fringes, emergence of support systems. And a new connected state of mind.

Increased spread of the web and an exponential increase in internet platforms and applications unleashed a world of possibility for the user like never before. You could collaboratively edit a dynamic encyclopedia, collectively write a book on an idea seeded in the US and source ideas for your art project from perfect strangers from across the globe. There were endless ways of connecting with people we never knew existed — an increased consumption of global culture.

A phenomenon that enabled linking up like never before was social networking, invented in a Harvard dorm room in 2004. The Facebook culture that it spawned was drastically going to change our world as we knew it.

Consider how your life changed. A regular college evening in 2000, which was spent on chai, sutta and long walks, was invested in collecting updates about friends living on the same hostel wing on Facebook or Twitter. You were poked if you were being lazy about parting with your current mood update. When you spread out after college, these platforms kept you perpetually in the loop. You knew whod put on weight, whose relationship status had changed, that xyz was feeling crabby today. You, in turn, made sure that you posted one good picture of you in the Jaisalmer deserts for your 369 Facebook buddies to see. 

And, all that upload and download of continuous information was negotiated on multiple browser windows, deftly juggled at work, while you waited for your strawberry crop on Farmville to mature.

In short, social lives of the 15% of us (Indians) with internet access were, if not fundamentally altered, certainly uploaded and impacted over the last 10 years. We became comfortable with the idea of trading identities and data about ourselves with companies like Orkut, Facebook or Google in return for the opportunity to realise the last connection on our six degrees of separation map.

Factors that made 24*7 wired lifestyle possible were miniaturisation, therefore portability computers; the smartening up of mobile phones; better broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity, and social media boom. Laptops made way for notebooks, notebooks for netbooks, and cell phone companies rolled out browser-based phones like the Blackberry and Android handsets.

To grasp the changes in the backdrop of the colossal exchange of data was to revisit Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhans line, made famous way before the Internet got big, “The medium is the message”.

Cultural evolution
The Internet grew up fast over the past 10 years, both embodying social values like connectivity, participation, creating, collaborating and self-sufficiency, and in turn affecting them. It went from read-only sites to being driven by user generated content. The user became the creative dynamo, armed with tools like blogs, review forums, and sites like WordPress, Blogspot, Flickr and YouTube.

Then came social media: Orkut, LinkedIn, Facebook, Friendster, Twitter. Peer-2-peer file sharing application BitTorrent and music sharing sites like Napster came to represent the new philosophy. Here, the user became an active supplier of movies or music without the need for an intermediary server, as was generally the case before.

“The three cultural turns that social networking has introduced have been peer-2-peer networking, collaborations and new processes of publication and dissemination. These have changed our notion of history, cultural production and consumption, and knowledge production,” says Nishant Shah, director, research, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. “Sites like Wikipedia have dismantled the processes of knowledge production and learning and introduced new forms of knowledge-sharing, like crowd sourcing. Collaborations have managed new forms of emotional bonding, creative production and interaction which propel the blogosphere and public opinion. These have an impact on questions of consumption, lifestyle patterns, etc.”

24x7 connectivity
The Internet speeded up time and we “drew gratification from speed”. You wanted to look up a breakfast place, a word meaning or answer to the first thing off the top of your head like why are men the way they are? You wanted Google to turn up an answer, and fast.

Since free social working sites became a landmine of data on consumer behaviour, trends, likes and dislikes, they needed to attract and keep the numbers. A few sites maintained a near monopoly; search was to Google, social networking meant Facebook and realtime synonymous with Twitter. Apart from constant re-invention, the sheer potential for large-scale networking was the reason. “My friends stick to Gmail, Facebook and Twitter because we dont want to manage information on too many sites,” says Saurabh Shrivastava, an MBA student.

It was reported that Facebook users woke up to water virtual crops at 4am just to stay ahead on Farmville, or sign into Twitter to see how far the world had come. Instant feedback was the expectation. The experiences and satisfactions were on multiple windows; to be out of that pattern caused anxiety. That was also in part because people fell back upon structures of social support online, which were earlier unavailable; BlackBerry/smartphones to the rescue.

Though the network grew stronger, it essentially comprised weak ties. Technology consultant Atul Chitnis feels that wider reach… reduced real-world interactions are unnatural in the social perspective, and have made social interactions more competitive. “Its more about getting more comments and reactions.”

What writer James Harkin portrayed as the new crack cocaine, professor Clay Shirky saw as not the case of information overload but of “filter failure”.

Virtual & physical
While we became human nodes spending a large part of the day on the network, the physical fed into the virtual world and vice-versa. Shortened attention spans created an attention economy, leading conventional media to get increasingly visual and in some cases sensational.

The response to crisis speeded up and social mobilisation became easier. In Tsunami-hit South and Southeast Asia, people mobilised resources for the disaster-affected. A pub attack on women in Mangalore snowballed into the nationwide Pink Chaddi campaign.

While its constantly said that the Internet connects us virtually and isolates physically, Shah says: “Contrary to popular perception, studies have shown that interface time increases peoples face time because new friendships, alliances and interests are anchored in the physical world.” The quality of interaction, however, will go down, says Chitnis, “due to current social patterns created by loss of cultural distinctiveness, and reduced real-world interaction”. This will especially be true for young adults “who will grow up not knowing a world without social networking”.

Language blends
Shah sites the change in language as the most visible and dramatic. “Easy access to writing and publishing tools has led to the development of new forms of speech and articulation. In countries, where English is not the majority first language, new blends like Singlish (Singapore), Hinglish (India) and Chinglish (China) have emerged as Western contexts, cultural products and ideas proliferated in new vocabularies on the information superhighway. These changes are associated with other changes in terms of new linguistic identities and nationalities,” he says.

Niche goes pop
The growth of the Internet revolutionised the economics of distribution of the media and the entertainment industry, a trend Chris Anderson tracked in his book, The Long Tail. Once it would have been unthinkable to get a copy of a Skinny Puppy CD in the music store because it simply wasnt worth the stocking cost — it wasnt popular enough. And if it wasnt stocked, it was as good as non-existent for a buyer who had never heard of it. That was the era of the blockbuster: what was profitable sold. The Internet changed this: with virtually no space constraints, and the low manufacturing and distribution cost of digital content, a hit became just as good as a miss. Both constituted sales: larger the number the better. Today, Google, Rhapsody, Apple iTunes and Amazon, all operate on that business model. The result: niche worlds have become much more visible and mainstream.

So, as we slow-waltz to the buzz of information, an online etiquette evolves. We gradually learn to turn noise into substance, come to terms with the blurring of private and public, mobilise in crisis, hone the skill of swimming through information to come up with the right find, and learn to direct at least some part of leisure time spent surfing and chatting to tap into the Internets true potential.

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