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Internet: The great leap forward

Tasneem Pocketwala | Updated on March 17, 2021

A click away: The pandemic has been a game-changer. With people forced to shut themselves at home, the internet became the place to flock to for work, study and socialise   -  ISTOCK.COM

The pandemic has rewritten the norms of engagement with the internet — from a mere ‘add-on’ it has grown to be all there is

* “We can’t go back to the old ways now. Textbooks and assignments will have to be remodelled to include technology,” says Merchant

* The pandemic has rendered a before and after point in every aspect of our digital lives

* In terms of Nalini Singh’s lockdown wedding, the internet gave her the kind of freedom she never knew she could have had

***

Until a year ago, Nafisa Merchant, a Mumbai-based English language facilitator, barely relied on the internet for personal use. She was not active on social media and internet applications were largely an unfamiliar territory. Then the pandemic struck, lockdown became the norm and everyday life, as Merchant knew it, physical classrooms, for instance, were rendered impossible. Within months, her classes migrated online. Merchant scrambled to learn a lot about internet technology in a very short span of time.

Virtual classrooms: The shift online has happened even in professions that require physical presence, such as teaching   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

“I didn’t know anything about Google classroom,” she says about an app that she now uses daily to conduct classes. But the learning and adaptation happened quickly. The internet enabled her to teach in new ways. The initial struggles soon gave way to an awareness about the many possibilities the internet offered, and Merchant now wants to harness what the internet can do for her students.

“We can’t go back to the old ways now. Textbooks and assignments will have to be remodelled to include technology,” says Merchant.

The new normal

The past year has rewritten the norms of engagement with the internet. In the 1990s, the early days of the internet in India, what it provided was the add-on — the plus. It augmented everyday life, and gave us “more”: More reading, more entertainment, more ways of engaging and interacting with friends and family. In the late 90s and early 2000s, not everyone had a computer at home, and for the select few who did, it seemed like an option for convenience and novelty.

That was when every new website was a thrilling discovery, every new person connected with was imagined as a real, breathing, living person. The internet has since kept building on what it had to offer, but it still largely remained a choice. The pandemic, however, proved the game-changer. With people forced to shut themselves at home, cut away from places and crowds, the internet grew to be the place to flock to. It became a place people made do with as the real thing — the outside world — was inaccessible.

Meeting point: The possibilities have been unprecedented — Weddings, funerals, birthdays, church services, even court hearings have taken place online   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

People kept themselves busy by getting busy online, recipes were swapped, movies watched, and the angst of isolation shared on social media. As the lockdown extended when the cases surged, internet use surged too. The more internet was used and the more people were online, it set off a shift. The pandemic quietly rewrote our relationship with the internet, when we were too busy being online to notice it.

What was merely an add-on has become everything there was.

The shift

In an NBC News article written during the early days of the pandemic, Robert Kargon, professor of the history of science at Johns Hopkins University, says, “What I’ve found as a historian is that emergencies, for example like World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, they tended to accelerate rather than necessarily innovate new kinds of relationships, new kinds of ways of life.”

The pandemic caused a shift in the way we engaged with the internet, forever rendering a before and after point in every aspect of our digital lives. Before the pandemic, not only the younger generations but, increasingly, even the older ones had begun to acquire a flair for the internet, turning to it for most of everything. The pandemic merely accelerated the shift.

Says Yogesh Simmhan, associate professor, department of computational and data sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, “The pandemic crisis has caused us to leap forward by a decade in the adoption of new technology as a matter of course. Remote working and teaching were occasional before, but are de facto now. The social and mental shift has caught up with the technology shift that had already happened.”

The transition was slow, but there was no doubt that it was happening. But now that the vaccines are being rolled out and there seems to be a sliver of hope — at the very least, in our collective resilience to the impact of the pandemic — is it too late to go back to things as they once were?

More importantly, would we even want to?

“It would be foolish to go back to what we had before,” observes Nafisa Merchant.

Bubai Dev, a social and counselling psychologist based in Mumbai, says she will eventually incorporate online sessions as part of her services even when she is able to offer therapy physically. “Face-to-face, physical interaction is essential in my profession to pick up on cues such as the client’s body language,” she says. “I had to train myself to take cases over the internet.” It took a while, but she learned the ropes soon enough, noticing telling cues about a client’s lack of focus and understanding when it would be wise to postpone a session.

So the shift appears set, and Simmhan agrees. “Even with vaccinations coming out quickly and more physical mobility being allowed, there has been an irreversible change in the way we do business and go about with life.”

Dev and Merchant both belong to professions that typically require physical presence and immediate feedback for most impact. Despite that, both have familiarised themselves with the internet enough to be able to carry out work fairly well. Difficulties and disturbances notwithstanding, both agree to build up on what they’ve been forced to learn about what is possible with the internet.

Virtual guest list

And the possibilities have been unprecedented: Weddings, funerals, church services, even court hearings. Nalini Singh, a Dublin-based strategic partnerships manager at Google Cloud, got married during the lockdown in the physical presence of 25 close family members and friends, and the online presence of over 150 people over Zoom. As Singh’s whole life seems to involve the internet personally and professionally, it only seems fitting she let a major life event happen online too.

“We wouldn’t have been together without the internet,” says Singh, who had been in a long-distance relationship with her now husband.

In terms of her lockdown wedding, too, it was the internet that gave her the kind of freedom she never knew she could have had. As a bride, she was able to participate in her own wedding proactively. Although 150 people had logged in on Zoom for her wedding, the video camera could only show so much of what was transpiring thousands of miles away. This meant Singh had to step up and explain the customs and rites as they were happening. “Where else could a dulhan get this sort of freedom to express what was happening to her while it was happening?” she says. “The internet gave me this.”

Pushed into crisis mode, the internet allowed us to “re-create what is possible in physical reality and design new scenarios that transcend what is possible in the real world,” suggests an article in Hackernoon, a website on the technology industry. In the process, the internet changed us and for us. As we adjust ourselves for what seems like a very long-term relationship with it, what does the internet mean for us now?

For Dev, the internet is a habit. It may be ruthless and commanding, says Merchant, but she views it as something that helps manifest imagined variations of the future. Singh calls it her whole life.

We, who would otherwise have been compelled to freeze our functionality owing to the coronavirus crisis, didn’t stop, as we were able to “leverage technology powered by the internet”, as Simmhan says, even when we sat at home. At least, some of us were able to do so.

The pandemic, though, has exacerbated an already existing digital divide, at a time when access to the internet and internet technologies is most imperative. In a research paper published in the International Journal of Information Management on the impact of the digital surge during the Covid-19 crisis, Rahul De, professor of information systems at IIM Bengaluru, writes,“The pandemic has brought the world to a situation where those not connected to the internet are facing total exclusion.”

For those sections of people wilfully deprived of the internet, it hits even harder. “It’s like stripping people of their basic human rights,” says Farkhanda Zahoor, a communications manager at Internet Freedom Foundation in Delhi. Covid-19 has made it amply clear that the internet can be nothing short of a lifesaver for people across the world. “Not having access to the internet in times like these can be crippling,” adds Zahoor.

Other than impositions of shutdowns and slowdowns, there is also the issue of accessibility. Puthiya Purayil Sneha, a researcher with the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru, links the initial days of difficulties to the “gaps in digital infrastructures” and who has access to them. “This problem of large-scale access itself needs to be understood critically, in terms of what it enables and makes invisible,” says Sneha.

Meanwhile, piggybacking on the internet and digital technology, we seem to be propelling towards the future. And it is the internet, says Simmhan, that will be pushing ahead.

Remote working may likely be the norm from now on. Distance learning was already present, but remote education could be explored more seriously. Physical cash might cease to exist. Most other physical things could be more absolutely, more finitely distilled onto one palm-sized gadget, powered by internet technology. Issues regarding privacy and government surveillance, alas, might be persistent causes for concern.

The picture painted is too futuristic for now. But it is also an image of the other side of this evolving relationship.

Tasneem Pocketwala is a Mumbai-based culture writer

Published on March 17, 2021

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