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January 18, 2000
I still remember the early days of the Internet here. There was Vijay Mukhi, the visionary, the man who first introduced us to the World Wide Web.
There was the enthusiastic Miheer Mafatlal who had his own server in those days on which you could access Shekhar Kapoor.
And, of course, there was the indefatigable Shammi Kapoor, who lent magic and excitement to everything we did. His high voltage energy surcharged the atmosphere every time the Internet came up for discussion and his excitement was palpable and infectious.
The mood was also different. No one discussed money or business in those days. E-com meant electronic communication, not electronic commerce. And, in fact, the entire Internet community looked down upon those who wanted to use the World Wide Web for business. They were seen as hucksters and carpetbaggers, not exactly nice people. For it was the general consensus at the time that the internet was not for cashing in; it was for communication. It was media, in other words, at its purest, most basic form. Media that informed, educated, reached people all over the world without an overdose of advertising accompanying it. That was its essential difference from, say, print or television.
For those of us who were reeling from the impact of watching Mahesh Bhatt's first film for satellite television, Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Ayee, which seemed to have more ads on it than actual content, The Internet appeared to be The Great Escape from media moguls hell-bent on making the thin dividing line between advertising and content vanish.
That was yet another reason to celebrate. Here was a medium of communication, unlike print and television, that was not a bonded slave to Pepsi or Lux or Whisper. A medium that stood on its own legs, fiercely independent, fiercely proud. A medium no owner, be he Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner, could subvert for commercial gain.
And we were idealistic enough to actually believe it would stay that way.
Of course it didn't. But that is another story. In less than three years the Internet has grown (and how!) into this vast money-spinning web. When you talk of the Internet, you no longer talk in idealistic terms about how it would one day change the world and bring hope to every individual living in the darkness and pain of ignorance, in the sorrow of poverty and the helplessness of isolation.
The Che of alternative media has been hijacked by the Bill Gateses of the world and become yet another huge machinery working overtime for those who market brands and peddle their wares to the rest of the world. It has become synonymous with big bucks and high valued stock. What you could describe as a hugely exciting casino for venture capitalists and gamblers on the bourses.
In many ways, it is still a wonderful way forward for the world of communications. Quick, cheap, efficient, unpredictable. But the gadgetry is becoming too much. As is the hype, the hoopla. So much so that in our obsessive greed to make money off it we are losing sight of what it all began for. To reach out to others.
E-com now stands entirely for electronic commerce. The fact that it once also stood for communication has been long forgotten and I am not sure that even one per cent of its current users know that. The funny and esoteric sites are swiftly vanishing and all we hear about these days are portals, portals and more portals. The bigger the site, the more the hardsell, the higher the valuation. Yet there was a time not so long ago when it was the offbeat sites that drew the maximum hits, the largest editorial attention, the greatest approbation.
Even pornography on the net was fun. So were jokes. So was alternative politics. Nando Times was more frequented than CNN. People went to the net for radical views, way-out ideas, smart creatives, alternative literature, ingenious products. They went to it because print and television had become boring, predictable and tedious. Also, far too commercial to be sexy any more. The Net, on the other hand, was free. It celebrated that freedom of spirit and revelled in the fact that it was different. Uniquely so.
Unfortunately, that seems like so many light years ago. Today, wherever I go, all I hear about is money, money, more money. How much money Internet stocks make. How much money Internet ventures make. How much money venture capitalists make. How much money anyone can make on the Net. Its freedom has been long compromised. It is no longer much different from print or television and, in fact, leaders in print and television are migrating to the Net in droves. Which is one reason why more and more sites are looking like newspapers and television catalogues.
Last week saw America Online gobble up Time Warner. Who knows, one day, Infosys may gobble up The Statesman or Satyam, Channel [V] and go singing all the way to the bank! In fact, some weeks back, Satyam bought a portal called Indiaworld for Rs five billion. Yes, Rs five billion! And what did they get for it? A company with a turnover of barely Rs 10 million and profits that just about made it to double digits in lakhs. I am told that Satyam's value jumped on the bourses with this acquisition but there is no way I can figure out how the valuation was made. The merchant bankers who swung the deal are honourable men and who can question a deal where the cost of acquisition is more than adequately made up by the subsequent rise in market cap. Yet I confess to absolute bewilderment.
In fact, much of what is happening on the Net leaves me bewildered today. The world was doing fine, thank you, trading in a real environment. What was the dying need to go virtual when all you want to do is just make more money? The Internet was always much more than just a bania's tool. But that is exactly what we have reduced it to. Just another highway with dukans on both sides.
But why are we letting this happen? Surely sex in real life and real time can be far more thrilling than virtual sex on a virtual site in a virtual environment with virtual women! The same for gambling. If you want to play the roulette does it not make more sense to spin the wheel in a real casino in Monte Carlo or Las Vegas than in a virtual casino on the Net where you lose out on the sights, the sounds, the excitement, the thrill, the magic, the intermingling of perfumes, the quickening of the pulses, the rush of adrenaline in the blood, the rise in testosterone?
By trying to substitute the real world as we know it with a virtual one, are we not losing sight of what the Internet was originally meant for? To inform, educate, help, assist, reach out to those who need it far more desperately than we who already exist in this world obsessed with making money and selling geegaws to idiots who have no idea what they want to do with them. By becoming yet another weapon in the hands of consumerism, is not the Internet losing out its key role as a fiercely independent, incorruptible, powerful means of communication that no government can manipulate, no multinational can silence, no terrorist can blow up?
Even sadder is the fact that we are silently watching the government grab the initiative. The Internet was meant to unshackle us, set us free from all those obnoxious rules and regulations that govern the real world. There would be no taxes, no laws beyond the basic ones that any civilized community practised. It was an answer to our prayers, the ultimate democratic society, virtual as it may be. Yet, horror or horrors, we now have a full-fledged cabinet ministry that intends to interfere, set norms and put laws in place!
In other words, the Internet as we knew it is dead. What you have here is just another supermarket. For goods. For services. For news and entertainment. But a supermarket. No more; no less.
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