NEED FOR ONLINE ‘Guftagu’
My earliest memories date back to 1946. I was five years old; going on six. We lived in a little hamlet called Faruka, which is about 33 kilometers south-west of Sargodha (now in Pakistan) One of the more significant images which I carry till this date is the sight of groups of elderly people sitting under a large tree and talking for hours on end, while we children played around with a ball or went hunting for berries. At that age, we kids could not comprehend what those old fogies got out of their idle talk.
Now, when I am grown up, I know the answer. Chatting serves several purposes. The most important is social lubrication – people talk to each other about insignificant things as a way of interacting and forming social bonds. All animals do similar things to keep the group together – some primates use social grooming, horses swat flies away from each other, and dolphins surf together for company. Another reason is to catch up on local news – talking usually involves a bit of gossip, some current events, and exchange of views on the latest public events and scandals.
In Faruka, it was called ‘guftagoo’ which translates to conversation. In the absence of radio and television, such tête-à-tête was the only source of information interchange. Sometimes, they sang folk songs in chorus or shared jokes to entertain themselves. The few, who could read newspapers, flaunted their knowledge by giving ‘authentic’ news of the current events, first hand.
The partition of the Punjab in 1947, caused us to move out of our ancestral village. We then made new friends in schools, colleges and military academies. After completing the training, we got scattered all over the world. But the quest to interact with our friends and colleagues persists. And this psychological need is now satisfied by the Internet. We have shifted out of our native villages and the academies, but are able to interact with our loved ones on a real time basis.
It seems to me that for information interchange, the whole world has been reduced to the size of our good old Faruka!
This website has been created for ‘Guftagu’ with no borders. However, before proceeding further, let me share with you, how the process of ‘information interchange’ has altered since the beginning of civilization. The current ‘information technology’ revolution is not the first one in the history of mankind. It is actually the third. First was caused by the creation of languages, then came the advent of the scripts. Invention of paper technology made it cheaper to write and send messages. Finally the printing press developed by Getenberg made a huge difference. Now, when you send a mail, and shift it from one file to another, you get a prompt, ”the conversation has been shifted to the new location” The word, conversation translates to ‘guftagu’ in the our language.
For those who have the time and the inclination, I have traced the history of information interchange.
From Gutenberg to ARPANET and beyond…
The other day, a young lad asked me, most innocently, “Uncle, what does ‘BC’ stand for?” When I gave the obvious answer, ‘Before Christ’ he said, “But this book says, it is an acronym for ‘Before Computers’!”
His words kept ringing in my ears. Computers have, indeed, ushered in a new era, especially after the Internet phenomenon. There is a sea change in the process of information interchange, communication and entertainment. A transformation of this magnitude is bound to bring about a sociological revolution. I tried to travel on the road ahead, to visualize life as it will be for our children and their successors. To do that, I did a bit of net surfing. I discovered that this is not the first revolution in this field. The printing press invented by Johannes Gutenberg of Germany in 1450 had sparked off a similar chain of events. Prior to his innovation, books were written in manuscript. People who were blessed with good handwriting were commissioned to make multiple copies of the works of the authors. Such people were called calligraphers, and the book was written the most was the bible. It has been estimated that an average monk could produce one good copy of the bible in one year.
As a direct consequence of this invention, the price of the books came down very significantly. Education became cheaper and knowledge was no longer the preserve of the elite class. It is more than a coincidence that the era of discovery came soon after the ‘print revolution’. Columbus made his historic voyage to America in 1492, and Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India five years later, in 1497. It is possible that such discoveries had been made by people earlier than that, but their finding did not get reported in the absence of the means to propagate information.
The printing press accelerated the process of spread of knowledge and information. History became easier to write, and statistics could be compiled and studied in a more systematic manner. On the negative side, some people felt that they were flooded with books and news papers. Some people complained of ‘information overload’. To overcome this, a few new categories of professionals emerged, and they also evolved procedures for sharing the profits that accrued from this business and protecting the intellectual property of the authors.
- Editors: They decided what was fit for printing and also had the powers to correct, alter and prune or snip the work of the authors.
- Publishers: These were a set of entrepreneurs who invested in the business of ‘publishing’ books. They coordinated the activities of the writers, editors, printers and the distributors. Money was controlled by them.
- Critics: These were professionals who commented on the works of the authors and helped the readers in deciding what was worth reading and what was not.
- Censors: The printed word had the ability to travel far and wide. The governments in power instituted legislations to limit what could go into print, and what must not be published.
- Money and the Finances: Writing and reading is essentially a relationship between the authors and the readers. But since the writers did not have the means to get their works edited, printed and distributed, the publishers appeared on the scene. In effect, the publishers got most of the money in this process. It was once said, “Writers build castles in the air, readers live in them and the publishers collect the rent!”
- Intellectual Property Rights and Plagiarism: To ensure that the writers received their dues, legislations were enacted to protect the ‘copy rights’. Violation of this is considered illegal and is termed as ‘plagiarism’
The print revolution changed the world forever. It threw up writers of great eminence who became ‘opinion leaders’. The newspapers and periodicals which followed in the wake created a breed of journalists and media personalities who became so strong that they could make or ruin careers. So great was their influence on society that the media personalities came to be known as the ‘fourth estate’ (the other three being clergy, nobility and the proletariat). The people in power recognized the strength of this class, and we see them all over the place with ‘press’ inscribed on their vehicles. They have separate enclosures marked for them.
A few decades ago, in 1969, the US defense forces recognized the strength of ‘networked computers’ and commissioned a project called ARPANET which stands for ‘Advanced Research Project Agency Network’ Through this they networked their RADARs to integrate their defense against the threat of attack. The Internet is, in effect a consequence of the above project. No one planned it; no one designed it. It just emerged, and has swept all mankind like a wave which has no precedence.
In which direction are we headed now? What does the road ahead look like? Whilst I am no authority on the subject, to me it appears that some fundamental changes are likely to occur in the process of information interchange. And I say it from personal experience.
I go back to the time when I started writing. I was about fourteen years old, and a teacher helped me in composing a poem which appeared in the school magazine. Encouraged by that success, I went on to write a full length novel in 1961, when I was twenty. An elderly friend was kind enough to read it, but he asked me to revise it, to improve the ‘craft’ I did so. At this stage I approached some publishers. They wanted a few copies so that they could be read by the established writers. In the absence of photocopiers and with no access to a typewriter, I made three copies with the help of carbon papers. The process took me two whole months, working three hours every day. The kindly publisher took two years to have it printed, and I got to see the labor of my love printed as a book only in 1965. It then took two more years for the thousand copies of the book to reach the readers. The novel was re-printed, and I received about a dozen letters over a period of the next five years. I did not make any money out of this activity, but the joy I got out of the very process of seeing my work in print was so great that I went on to write five more books and dozens of short pieces which have appeared in newspapers and journals.
In the year 1999, I first registered my e-mail ID. After a few tentative steps, I learnt to send out my pieces to a few friends. The circle expanded at a very rapid pace. Soon, I started receiving encouraging responses from several friends. And the response is in real time. In some case, I get as many as forty or fifty messages on a single piece, and that causes me to sit on my computer desk for hours at a stretch!
Now, in this revised format, there is no publisher, no printer, no editor and no distributor. The link between me and my readers is direct. There are several other advantages, The computer does a basic spell check, and when I am in doubt about a date or a figure, all I have to do is to go to an Internet search engine and check it up. Indeed, if I am in doubt, I ask my good friend Joseph Thomas, who responds within a day, whether he is in Bangaluru or the USA.
Would that mean that the editors, the critics and the censors are out? Well, at the moment, they are out. But we need them, and for the same reason. Mark my word, they will appear, but in another avatar, very soon. We are suffering from a glut of information. It has been estimated that the 1.9 billion e-mail users send out 294 billion messages every day. (I myself receive more than a hundred mails) Research shows that more than 90 percent of these mails are spam or virus.
The Road Ahead
It is my belief that the international community will soon have to create some mechanism to overcome the problems created by the information glut created by the ease of creation and propagation of information. In my view, we will again have to create the equivalents of editors, critics, censors and publishers. Protection of the intellectual property rights is going to pose an unprecedented challenge. To me it seems that the quality of the work of the authors can now be judged by the readers directly and it can be quantified by computers. Let every reader be a critic and an editor. And if we can simultaneously evolve a method by which every reader pays for the benefit which he derives from a piece of information, then the whole chain becomes free of subjective elements and the authors can receive their share of reward for their labor of love.
Be that as it may, one thing is certain. The process of information interchange is heading for a permanent change. Historically, we have moved forward in four steps. First, it was communicated by word of mouth and had to be memorized verbatim, for information to pass down to the next generation. Then, with the invention of the paper, it could be written so that it could be transmitted without getting corrupted in the process of transmission. Then came the printing press which inundated mankind with books. And now the Internet has revolutionized the whole process.
What next? Where are we going from here? We have a wealth of knowledge, discoveries and inventions which we have inherited from our ancestors. How are we going to preserve the culture and bequeath it to the posterity?”Allah ko pataa hai, Allah janata hai”
Let me sum it all up, and reduce this entire essay in the form of a power point table for ease of comprehension and memory.
It is eminently possible, that we may witness the creation of the ‘Fifth Estate’. The Internet may very well be able to make a difference to the very process of opinion building and thus hasten the pace of socio-economic and political changes. Millions of websites of this kind may get created, so that people can air their views, and feel lighter. Catharsis will get one more form to relieve emotional pressure!