Are we submerging our individual abilities, memories and consciousness to a larger anonymous Cloud over which we have no control, wonders B S Prakash.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
If you are reading this, you fall in one of the two categories, mainly because of your age. Either you know already what Meghdoot refers to, or you don't.
If the name is unfamiliar to you, it may not help much if I were to tell you that it is a classic by Kalidasa, one of our great writers. (You may belong to the generation believing that Chetan Bhagat deserves that title!)
You will want to see for yourself by Googling Kalidasa or Meghdoot. And thereby validate my theory about iCloud, Google, Dropbox and such other ethereal entities being the modern meghdoots.
In the epic poem Meghdoot, the forlorn lover separated from his beloved is searching for a messenger to send his romantic thoughts. No SMS messenger or Hallmark cards those days.
Finally, he thinks of the cloud above his head and its ability to traverse the sky and deliver the message. He can with his imagination 'uplink' his love song, the cloud can save and carry it, and eventually drop or deliver the message to the recipient, and hopefully without any viruses corrupting it or the message going to spam. This was the core of Meghdoot.
Why a cloud? Because it is in the air, is pure and ethereal, and let us admit, somewhat virtual.
The years to come will see Clouds become increasingly important to us as tools. After the decade of 'Search' as in Yahoo and Google, and the smart 'Mobile' as in iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, the time has come for 'Cloud Computing' to become the next big thing in I-technology. Let us see how.
According to psychologists and cognitive scientists, the way we access and process information has already changed and over a period the patterns of our thinking will change too. A researcher at Columbia illustrates with an example. A question like 'Name the flag of a country with a single colour', hitherto made us think of the flags we knew, recall their colours and schems, and search our memory for an answer.
Today, as soon as the question is answered the instinct is to 'Google' it or to think of how best to put the question to the search engine. Implicit in this is the assumption that the information is out there, only to be 'plucked' from the air using our PC or increasingly just the mobile in the pocket.
Thinking and memory in this mode are passive, no longer to be exercised.
Think of how you yourself, no longer remember the phone numbers of your friends. There was a time long ago, almost five years ago, when we marveled at those who remembered birthdays, telephone numbers, cricket statistics. Some of us still do, but we are in a state of transition.
Our children will not even comprehend why they need to remember any numbers at all, or going beyond, why they need to learn basic multiplication skills. They may grow up believing that all you need to know is to punch numbers or the key words in the blank box for the 'search'.
We have already reached this stage, where most of my memory is not in my brain, but in the machine, my machine -- say my PC or phone. But the next stage is why store and exercise my machine? Is it not better to store it in a much larger space, accessible wherever I am, even without my individual tools? This leads us to the megh above us, to the cloud.
The Cloud is not so much a new concept as an infinite expansion of something that we are already using. Many of us may remember a period when we worried about the memory in our Rediffmail or gmail and used to delete content worried that the memory may run out.
We have now become used to near infinite capacities and also our ability to access our e-mails from anywhere, the office or home, on a computer or on a mobile and so on. Capacity and accessibility are no longer worries; privacy and confidentiality are.
The next stage is storing everything in the Cloud: Your medical records, bank accounts, provident fund and pension payments, personal writings or paintings. You do not need your personal computer to access these, let alone physical folders or files; they are all in Space to be accessed by you from anywhere at anytime.
The other ideas associated with cloud computing relates to collective use and collaboration. Think of a medium sized business which needs to maintain its accounts, personnel data, pay rolls, tax information and a number of other systems of data vital for the business. Typically all the software required for these functions were bought, installed, upgraded, and run by its IT department.
Suppose, all these software systems are available as a 'service' for a fee, without the company having to buy it and own it. Supposing all the data of the company is storable, retrievable and updatable in a larger entity, with the secrecy and confidentiality protected.
This is the business model being developed and sold by companies like Salesforce.com who have made the IT infrastructure available on demand like 'utilities', like say water from a tap or electricity from the grid. The costs come down, the efficiency can go up, but the privacy worries will enhance.
A third aspect is collaboration in work. Let us say, a complex construction project is being executed by ten different specialised engineering firms in five countries. Let us imagine all the designs, drawings, specifications, quantity and cost estimates, available in the cloud instead of individual or corporate computers. It will make working together easier, even if scarier with all the data hanging there in space.
These are some of the touted advantages of clouds, a far cry from Kalidasa's conception of intimacy.
Impressive? Even as we learn to absorb and adapt ourselves to each new wave in technology, the long term effects and the social and philosophical implications for our lives also need to be pondered. Let us look at a few legitimate doubts and anxieties.
Our absorption with computers in whichever form and the attraction of the ICE (information, communication and entertainment ) that they can provide is making us more 'atomic' and less social. We can be very well connected with hundreds of 'friends' on Facebook, thousands of 'followers' on the Twitter and live in a virtual world of social networks.
But on reflection, it should be evident that 'connection' is not 'conversation' and that to befriend someone on Facebook is not a substitute for a real friend with whom you bond.
But this view may be contested by the next generation, who may find virtual friendships on cyber space more real than relationships in the physical space.
Going a step backward as it were, we also need to wonder whether we can sit 'still' without friends and conversation, whether real or virtual. The stillness in the core of the being, the ability to meditate or at least to speculate is a step towards Ananda as all great philosophies or religions teach us.
Is that precious quality of 'doing nothing' getting negated by the 'always connected', always distracted, and attention deficit inducing nature of modern technology?
Can we keep our fingers still and not text or type, let alone 'still' our minds and spirits?
Finally, are we submerging our individual abilities, memories and consciousness to a larger anonymous cloud over which we have no control?
Is this a surrender of our mind to an omniscient, omnipotent Viswa Chaitanya, a Universal Consciousness that the great scientists or rishis dreamed of, or is it only to the iCloud of Apple?
You can read Ambassador Prakash's earlier columns here