For a whole new world

  • 30/05/1996

For a whole new world In Londona cafe called the Cyberia sells a cup of coffee for us$2.35 - and for another us $2.85half an hour"s access to theInternet on one of its 10 computers.

The Japanese call it maruchimedia or multimedia - and theypropose to link it to every home in Japan by the year 2010.

In Hong Kong600of the city"s skyscrapers are called"intelligent buildings"- nearly six million of their residents areinterconnected through the cyberspace.

In Moscow and Beijing"newbies" can pick up crateloads of softwarestate-of-the-art motherboards and modems to experience the thrill of navigating the cyberland.

CLEARLY the cyber revolution has finally come of age. Bit bybitthe world is getting wired into a global village. Everythingfrom media to medicinefrom data to datingis being radicallytransformedthanks to the Internet which has truly becomethe technomania of our time.

The revolution is already threatening to overwhelm the"haves" - those who enjoy an unhindered access to the information superhighway. There is a growing fear that it is stripping our capacity to copeantiquating our lawstransformingour moresredefining our prioritiesreordering our work-places and invading our privacy. "Though the Internet age ischanging every aspect of our liveswe still do not know wherewe want it to take ussay many net-surfers.
Germination: from fiction It all began, just as most big ideas in technology often do, with a science fiction writer - William Gibson, an expatriate American living in Canada. During one of his visits to the video arcades in Vancouver in the early "80s, Gibson was intrigued by the way in which players hunched over their glowing screens.I could see in the physical intensity of theirPostures how rapt the kids werehe recalls.These kidsclearly believed in the space these video games projected.Probablythey developed a belief that there is some kind ofactual space behind the screen - some place you cannot seebut you know you are there."

Gibson christened that place the "cyberspace" and used it asa setting in his early science fiction stories to portray a computer-generated landscape which characters enter by "jackingin". He describes it in his pathbreaking novel Neuromancer(1984) as a place of "un thinkable complexity"Since thendifferent names have been used to describe the space where thedata in our computers is stored: the Webthe Netthe Cloudthe Metaversethe Matrixthe iriformation superhighway; it isGibson"s terminologyhoweverwhich has proved to be themost enduring.

By the turn of the decadeGibson"s imaginary world orthe "cyberspace" came to be" "used for the millions ofinterconnected computer systemsespecially those whichwere jacked into the Internet "Cyberspacethusencompassesmillions of personal computersconnected by modems -via telephone systems - to on-line commercial servicesas well as millions more with high speed links to localarea networksoffice E-mail (electronic mail) systems andthe Internet.

The Internet justifies its nomenclature; it is inter-networking or a worldwide electronic network that connects morethan 80 million users across the globe and is growing at the rate of 10 per cent a month. It hasbecome an informationsuperhighway that knows nogeographical boundaries andhelps provide instant access toinformation and opportunities.The number of Net users has grownmore than 10per centin the past three years and it isestimated that by the turn of thecenturymore than 200 millionpeople would log on to theNetthus making it a truly globalinformation and communications channel. Until somethingbetter comes to replace itthe Internet is the cyberspace.

Pentagon roots
In the atmosphere of insecurityengendered by the cold-war era of the "60sthe Pentagon -the us department ofdefense - had asked its researchscientists to develop the bestway of communication for anunlimited number of computersthat did not rely on asingle computer to route theexchange of information. It wasargued that a centrally-managed network would be toovulnerable in the event of apossible nuclear war.

Thus came into being the Arpanet in1969- aresearch programme funded by thePentagon - whichinitially linked four research labsto enable defense scientists totest the networking technology.Graduallya bunch of enthusiastic universities andcorporations in the us adopted thenetworkwhile also refining it at thesame timeNewprogrammes to help net-surfersexchange E-mailtap databases and run supercomputers from adistanceamong otherswere introduced.

Perhaps the most importantinnovation was thecommunications protocol that gaveInternet its name. The Internet Protocol allows anynumber of networks tolink up and act in unisonjustlike the global mail systemwhere the postal departments ofdifferent countries help moveand deliver the mail. TodaytheInternet comprises some480different networks aroundthe world.

An important reason for theremarkable growth ofthe Internet is its resolutelygrassroots structure. Mostconventional computer systems arehierarchical andproprietary; they run on acopyright software in a pyramidalstructure that directs the systemoperators who sit on the top.In contrastthe Internet is openand extremely democratic; noone owns"itand neither is itamenable to controls by a singleorganisation. It is run like acommune with nearly five millionindependent members calledthe "hosts"knows no boundaries and is literally lawless. Says Bruce Sterlinganother Americanscience fiction writerWhen I look at the Internet, I see something astounding and delightful. I take so much pleasure in it that it is very difficult to remain properly sceptical.

Revolutionary bottlenecks
The cyber revolution has brought to the fore attendantproblems which the world is finding difficult to grapple with.For many yearscomputers were thought to be a centralisingforce: those in the upper echelons of the hierarchy could accessup-to-date files on millions of people and keep an Orwellianeye on their domain.

But with the advent of the Internetwe now find that theessential character of the computer is decentralising. The symbol of this could be a lone teenage hackersitting in front of acomputer in his bedroom and wreaking havoc on powerfuliiistitutions. The New York Timesfor instancerecentlyreported that three 13-year-old boys in the us had beencharged with plotting to set off home-made bombs in theirjunior high school after procuring the plans for the device onthe Internet. In another instancean insidious self- replicatingvirus called the "Internet worm" penetrated the computersystem in the University of CaliforniaBerkeleyin 1988creating mayhem and corrupting thousands of computerson the Net.

But an equally valid symbol might be of a lower-rungemployee who can access mountains of data to get a properpicture of the company"s business and then send his evaluation via E-mail to the chief executive officer. In the debatebetween control and decentralisationthe pressure really lieson those who hold power - they somehow have to makesure that everyone in the organisation gets the benefit ofthe new technologywhile at the same time ensuring thattheir own position in the organisation is not threatenedby its.

Then comes the issue of surveillance versus privacy. "Inthe age of informationwe are all open bookssays Whitfield Diffe, an influential American cryptographer who likes studying the existing state of privacy. Today, phones can be tapped, and E-mails can be "packet- sniffed" by Internet hackers. All that the digital desperadoes have to do is to programme the personal computer which has an access to the message stream on the Internet, to search millions of messages for particular words and phrases and automatically store copies of those which qualify.

But computer experts, to their credit, have devised new ways to block this vulnerability - through the traditional system of encryption. In an encrypted message, each letter actually represents an entirely different one, and it requires a key to specify the correspondence so that the original message can be scrambled, followed by the decrypting of the coded message to its original form. This method, however, has a serious drawback when applied to E-mails; the very essence of E-mail involves communicating with new people, and the only way in which the key to a code can be available to both is by sending it with the digital message itself. Obviously, this defeats the very purpose of encryption since the key can be picked up easily by cyber-intruders.

The answer to the enigma has been found in the public key system (currently in use by the us government), where every E-mail user has two keys; one public and the other private. The E-mail user disseminates the public key widely, by printing it alongside the E-mail address on the business card, while the private key could be used to send extremely personal messages, thereby making it unavailable to trespassers. The national security agencies in the us - such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation - however, have been quick to highlight the possibilities of misuse if total privacy on cyberspace is guaranteed. There are certain unanswered questions. What will happen if, for instance, drug barons and terrorist groups are allowed unhindered access to and use of Internet? And also, will it be appropriate to censor and restrict the free flow of information at a time when the Net offers new scope and opportunities for democracy and pluralism? The Internet is a potential conduct for politically sensitive information, both within authoritarian as well as democratic regimes. There is yet to be a conclusive end to this debate.

As a forerunner of an ubiquitous global web of digital communication, the Internet combines aspects of the telephone and broadcasting. just like a telephone, it employs the dazzling Web capable of linking literally billions of people. And like broadcasting, a single source can get a message across to millions with virtually no control over the contents of these messages.

This brings to the fore the issue of censorship on the Internet. There is a growing concern over the proliferation of pornographic material on the Net. Not long ago, American newspapers reported an incident where late Baker, a student of the University of Michigan created and published a story of sexual torture and muHer, using the Internet as a media. A Michigan alumnus net-sdrfing on a Moscow computer, in the meantime, found out that Baker"s fictional victim shared the name of a Michigan classmate. He immediately informed the Michigan authorities, who following detailed investigations discovered that Baker had indeed sent some E-mails to a friend indicating that he might have an actual interest in committing such a crime. Baker now faces five years in prison.

It is being realised that electronic publishing needs to be subjected to harshef ce nsorship than the print media to discourage cyber- pornography, though no one really knows how this can be effectively achieved. In the digital age, it is very difficult to silence pornographers on the Internet due to the high costs involved. Expecting network providers to monitor all that goes on over their systems is impractical. Sceptics fear that till the time the requisite tools to control and eliminate cyber- pornography arrive, the democratic norm of freedom of speech may experience its toughest test till date.

The great divide
In an era where success is increasingly being identified with the ability to use computers and gain access to cyberspace, there are a number of stragglers who have yet to nozzle up to computers, let alone experience the mysteries of the unfathomable cyberworld. According to a recent report published by the London-based Panos Institute - an international non- profit organisation specialising in development issues - the developing world faces a new "information poverty" due to its limited access to the Internet. One big, bare spot is Africa where less than 10 countries are connected to the Net. And the sleeping economic giant India has miles to go before reaching the cyber nirvana.

There are mushrooming fears that the new technology will only widen the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots". The Panos report concludes that there is a real danger of a new information elitism: the information gap between the North and the South looks set to increase. There are over 6.8 million documents available on the World Wide Web, but 70 per cent of the host computers are in the US.

The report identifies the high cost of technology for accessing the Internet as the main reason for its inaccessibility.At least 80 per centof the people in the South lackbasic telecom facilities. The cost ofa modern in India is four timesmore than that in the us. Similarlyinreal termsaccess to the Internet is 12times more expensive in Indonesia thanit is in the ussays the report.

The stakes are indeed very high.TheInternet can be an effective medium forempowerment and democracy if it isnade more widely accessibleargues Mike Holderness, author of the report, The Internet and the South: Superhighway or Dirt-Track?. In due course, access to the information superhighway may well turn out to be less an issue of privilege or position than one of the basic ability to function in a democratic society. It may determine how well people are educated, their access to government and how they will learn about the critical issues affecting their country. Says Harry Surfadi, a reporter with Kornpas Morning Daily, an Indonesian newspaper,By the turn of this centurythe network will become arnaJor conduit through which we would conduct our lives."

Further more the Internet is laying bare new opportunitiesin global commerce; alreachl800companies worldwide areconnected thrOLIU11 itThe Panos report also argues thatInternet could help plug the phenomenon of brain drainaconsistent headache for developing nations of the world.Many find the lack of exposure to information more debilitating than low incomes. Many Would prefer to work from their own communities if the necessary international exposure exists,argues John Mukeladirector of the Centre forDevelopment Information in LusakaZambia.

Cyber India
Cyberspacc formally arrived in India on August 151995Forthe first timeInternet services were made available to allIndians on a commercial basis; earlierthis service was onlyavailable to a select few in the government and to educationalinstitutions. The Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltda Government ofIndia undertaking with headquarters in Bombay took the lead.The Nigam"s main system is today connected to the Internetvia a high speed node in the us through satellite -submarinecable link. Todayboth closed and open user group networksare operating in India. They include the department of electronics" Educational and Research Network (ERNET) - it hasbeen around since the Seventh Plan (1985-90) -the National Informatics Centre Networks (NICNET)the Remote AreaBusiness Message Network (RABMN)the BankNet of theReserve Bank of Indiathe Dataline Research TechnologiesNetwork (DART) and Jurix. Most of these are run by thegovernmentbut private networks are entering the fray too inincreasing numbers.

The networks in India offer services such as stockmarketnewsremote database accessbulk file transfersE-mailinter-bank message transfersand all of them hitch a ride on thedepartment of telecommunications bandwagon. Internetaccess still remains more virtual than real in India. One of thefundamental difficulties is that most Indian networks cannotconnect to each other. This in itself signifies a poor structurefor the information superhighway. There is a growing fear thatthe dream of India joining the "global village"may remain elusive if rectifying measures are not initiated immediately.

Many experts believe that India should opt forInternet with great caution. This was the impressionone could gather at a conference of experts andeducationists in informaticsfrom around theworldheld at the Banaras Hindu UniversityVaranasiin 1995. Though the conferenceunanimously accepted the virtual unavoidability of the Internetit felt that the Netneeded to be used with proper visionkeeping in mind social needs and nationalpriorities. Rational cost-benefit analysis wasimperative for the Internetas it might notalways prove a vista of abundant knowledge.Insteadit could expose the country to intellectual imperialismand further widen the inequality of information.

Alsojunk and pornography may become the staple foodfor Indian net-surfersit was argued. InitiallyIndia needs tobe selective while acquiring the services available on theInternet as a systemowing to the high costs involvedpointedout Edward H Shortcliffeassociate dean for informationresource and technology at Stanford UniversityUSA. E-mailcould be an ideal choice becausein many waysit is a forerunner to the Internetas the infrastructure required for theformer can be utilised for the latter.

Consider the E-mail usership scenario in India. While it isnow becoming clear that E-mail has failed to create the desiredimpact on our populacethe reasons are yet to be discerned byan average information technology user. The E-mail businessin India enjoyed a market size of Rs 70 crore in the first year ofits operation since 1995. This was expected to rise to Rs 200crore by 1997-98. But current statistics indicate that the business OfE-mail in India today enjoys a market size of little over just Rs 30 crore.

Why is the E-mail industry in India yet to prove its mettle?Most business analysts argue that the network required to provide such a service efficiently is yet to be put into place.Moreoverreasons which are not purely technical also hamperthe delivery of an efficient service. Some of those in the E-mailindustry feel that the fear of technology among users is toodeep rooted to allow an immediate acceptance. "We have beenunable to replace the concept of sellers-mode. We still haveprospective customers who are partially averse to acceptingnew techaology readily. Furtherthe dependence of an averageIndian executive on his human staff has played an importantrole in stifling the spread Of E-mailargues P K X Thomas, general manager, Business India Information Technology (BUT), New Delhi.

Another important reason is our psychological attachment to the telephone. Says a journalist working with a national daily,Even with fax machines aroundI prefer workingthrough the telephone. In such a scenarioit is too far-fetchedto expect me to use the E-mail." The only ones to havereally appreciated the E-mail service come from research oracademic backgrounds. Says a professor from the school ofenvironmental sciencesJawaharlal Nehru UniversityNewDelhiIt is very difficult to imagine our profession without the electronic modes of communications. This is because we have to continuously interact with research institutions abroad; the E-mail is hence a better method.

Is the future of the Internet bright in India? The generalopinion on this issue is divided. Though there is a consensusthat Internet services are indispensable for the countrythereare many who cite the current customer strength as a pointerto the fact that its future may not be as bright as it appears.For an industry that promised a lot of potential in thebeginning of the "90sthe list of subscribers runs to just afew thousands. B11Tfor instancewhich also claims to be anindustry leaderhas about 5200organisationsor about100individual users.

On its partcyberspace has indeed set people"s imaginations blazingespecially in the developed world. While they arebusy tackling the new issues that have been brought to the foreby the nascent technologymany in the developing world areyet to get the feel of the enormity of cyberspace. The "globalvillage" is coming. But clearlyeveryone will reach it at adifferent pace.

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