Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Getting Carried away by the Internet

The Internet is perhaps the single most powerful change that has occurred in the developed world. It is indeed a wonderful invention that is changing us in ways we never knew were possible. New possibilities are opening up while the old world order is breaking down.

And yet, it is very easy to get carried away. Consider for example the recent revolution in Egypt which was widely referred to by the western media as a 'twitter revolution'. This term, I think, does disservice to the people of Egypt. Revolutions are created by people, not twitter. Twitter was not the cause of the uprising. It was only a medium. Calling it a twitter revolution is akin to calling the Renaissance a printing press revolution.

The danger here lies in ignoring the complexities of human interaction and reducing it down to a single focal point.

I'm reading this book called 'Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think' which is a collection of essays on the topic by leading thinkers of today. The book is compiled by John Brockman of Edge.org.

The book contains an essay titled, 'A Level Playing Field' by Martin Reese, president of the Royal Society. His thesis is that the Internet is leveling the playing field. As an example, he cites the work of Dr. Manindra Agarwal and his two students, Nitin Saxena and Neeraj Kayal (all of whom belong to my alma mater). Dr. Agarwal and his associates posted their work on the internet, thus receiving instant peer review and recognition of their work. Reese then compares this to the relative anonymity of Ramanujan until he was discovered by Hardy and presented to the western world.

What this simplistic analysis ignores is the contexts that these two researchers worked in. Dr. Agarwal works at the premier institute in free-independent India, set-up with American collaboration back in the 60s, deeply steeped in the Western tradition of science. Ramanujan was born in pre-independence colonial India and had little or no western education. Once you factor these social differences in, the level playing field doesn't remain that level after all.

The point is not that the internet is not making a difference. The point is that it is not the magical wand that many people claim that it is. Old power structures sill exist and will continue to exist. In fact, if we are not careful, they will soon devour the freedom and democracy that comes with the internet. Let is not get too carried away with the charmed of the backlit screen.

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