Monday, April 16, 2018

A rough ride on the superhighway

At the turn of the millenium, the phrase “information superhighway” was tossed around a lot. I had no idea what it meant, even though my first job was at a web portal and the ante for speed of “breaking” news had just been upped to frightening levels. Still, we all threw that term around – information superhighway – as if we could see the thing.

In my head, it meant that the Internet was a smooth, multi-lane highway. The corollary was that older forms of information access and communication resembled bumpy village roads or narrow bylanes in unplanned cities. The unspoken consensus was that the superhighway was “better”. Who wants uneven roads that slow you down?

What we didn't know at the turn of the millenium was that a superhighway is only useful if it takes you somewhere you want to go. If it doesn't allow you to turn off at the right exit, then you may waste a lot of time and energy going back and forth until you find a way to get off the superhighway. It may take just as long to reach your destination, which may well be inside a narrow bylane. In information terms, this means that we waste a lot of time wading through data, following irrelevant links and active misinformation that travels very, very fast. It could even be that we absorb too much data but too little knowledge.

We do have access to a lot and our access is quick and often free. No library memberships or archive managers get in the way. What we have forgotten is the method and the grace of the slower road. The experience of walking down a street and being able to pause and ask a resident for directions, perhaps to the home of a person whose address you do not know.

There was a time I went looking for a young man in Punjab who had been caught trying to illegally migrate to a western nation (which meant, any nation west of the Middle-east, and which wasn't in Africa or South America). He was arrested, detained, and eventually deported. I did not have a phone number or an address. All I knew was the name of his village and his name, Bhupinder.

I remember going in a taxi, looking for his house and being unable to find it. I stopped several times and asked where I could find a young man called Bhupinder. Nobody seemed to know. Finally, I began to ask for the boy who went abroad but was arrested and deported. A couple of young men on a motorbike immediately said, “Oh! Pinda! You're looking for Pinda?”

The affectionate diminutive, Pinda, indeed described the man I was looking for. And he gave me his story.

Sometimes I wonder how I'd have done that story if I had gone to the village in a taxi equipped with a smart phone but no location pin. Would the driver have agreed to drive me around in circles, knowing that I didn't really know where to go? Worse, what if Bhupinder had grown up glued to a device and he didn't really have any friends who knew what had happened to him?

Sometimes, I wonder if, in our rush to get onto the information superhighway, we forget that we were not actually stuck in narrow gullies of information. We used to explore those gullies on foot or on bicycles, pausing often to pick up precision, tapping into a much finer web of knowledge and narratives, which is more than data.

First published here

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