A Decade on the Net

I know I got my first email ID ten years ago, because, even back then, various “poupee”s were taken and I was left with poupee69 onwards. Well, I thought 69 is not such a nice number to have associated with my name, so I took the year, which was 97. It was a hotmail ID, back then, and I think I still have that email account, though it’s been eons since I used it.

It was my sister who set it up for me. Odd though it may seem to those who know us, she was the one all enthusiastic about this new thing called the internet and email. The computer had been given to my father by his employer, the Government of India. They were trying to promote the use of computers in official work, and my father was one of the few officers who actually welcomed the move; most others were too scared to touch it, and left it to their subordinates, who were mostly also too scared to touch it.

I don’t remember much about that computer, except that it was a white box that sat in our living room. Three of us used it – it was to take my mother another ten years (and an Apple laptop!) to start to get passionate about computers. We hadn’t learnt to do much with it, back then. I had been using a computer at my office a year earlier, where I was using FoxPro (remember that?) to manage a database as though I had been born to it. In ‘97, I was using Word Star (ugh!) to practice my typing skills as I transcribed my journalist-colleagues’ hand written articles or tape recorded interviews (they weren’t allowing me to actually write stories back then, but that changed soon after).

I had actually first come face-to-face with computers back in school, sometime when I was 14 or 15 (by ’97, I was at the ripe old age of 23). The school had just bought some brand new computers, for the first time ever, which was a life-changing event for teachers and students alike. They proceeded to select students who were good at Math (why?) and allowed us to sit in the computer room, while they lectured us about the history of computers. A more boring introduction to a fascinating device (and for 14-15-year-old kids!) I cannot imagine. In due course, they grouped about 10 students around each computer and tried to get us to draw shapes on screen by giving X,Y co-ordinates. After everyone had tried to draw birds and dogs and ended up getting irregular polygons instead, the tried to teach us BASIC programming. It was great fun – we had to write a program that would ask the user for two numbers, and then output say the sum, the difference, the product, or else just some random string. (Maybe they wanted students good at Math, so that we could verify whether the computer’s results were all that they should be.)

Then, of course, when I was 16, I met Amit, and was introduced to his computer. The main feature of his PC was getting it to boot. You sat down with a stack of floppies (and I mean the big, floppy floppies, not the small little ones) and inserted about half a dozen one after the other, and finally, if all went well, after about 15-20 minutes the computer was alive enough to do something. In those days, “doing something” with the computer usually meant playing games. Amit was lucky in that his computer actually had two floppy drives, so you even could play some rather sophisticated games like – well, I dunno what, actually, but something.

His father, Amit tells me, had debated long and hard between the virtues of TV versus computer before buying that machine for Amit. Various well-wishers solemnly informed him that he was ruining Amit’s future prospects. “What can he learn from a computer,” they asked. “Get him a TV, at least he can watch some educational programmes.” But Amit, strangely enough, was adamant that a computer was what he wanted, and that’s what he got.

For a few years, I used the computer at home only sporadically – to write the occasional formal letter, or to check email or chat for a while. There weren’t many people to email/chat with in those days – most people still used the telephone and snail mail. I almost never used the internet to find information – it was only with the advent of google search that I began to trust the internet for that. This, despite working for an internet portal for two years during the dotcom boom! Now, of course, it’s my one stop shop for information on absolutely anything. What’s more, I’ve even started (very warily) trusting internet shopping in the last year or two.

I am still continuously surprised at just how great the impact of the internet has been – and at the same time, aware that in some respects its potential has not really been fully explored yet. It has, obviously, brought about a revolution in communication, which is still under way. For instance, in the past year or two, I think there has been an explosion in social networking sites, such as blogs, photo and video sharing sites, and the orkut-type of sites. It is really wonderful to be able to keep up with friends’ lives, to honestly and frankly exchange thoughts, hold discussions, share information with people across the globe, some known, some complete strangers. It is also amazing to be able to communicate with “minds” – that is, without necessarily being aware of the physical package or circumstances of people such as their profession, nationality, religion etc. I have met some interesting people that way, a couple of them even in flesh.

There is a risk associated with such communication, of course; many risks, in fact. (For instance, I’m not so sure that Second Life is entirely a good thing – there’s some serious potential for driving people crazy in that concept, if you ask me.) But overall, I’m sure that the genuine, fruitful relationships that have grown out of these channels of communication (and in “relationships” I include work opportunities, study opportunities, communities of all kinds etc.) far outnumbers the scams and crimes pulled off by tricksters, con men, and perverts.

Or so I hope.

I wonder how different the internet will be after another ten years.

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