Do you believe in the existence of God? I am ambivalent. Because I can neither touch him nor see him. But I bear no such ambivalence towards a cloud that permeates the world today. It is intangible and invisible, yet tangible and visible. It connects us all and makes us dance to its tune. Funny, isn’t it that the cloud — the internet and all communication riding on radio waves — is generated when electrons dance to the tune of humans?
Ten years ago, when we wanted information about something we would ask someone or consult something in print. We still do that, but more often we just ask Google. In those days, only a few of us had easy access to encyclopedias, but today anyone with an internet connection can browse Wikipedia and several other free encyclopedias. On my son’s 10th birthday this year, I told him that he was just a year younger than Google. He shot back in disbelief: “There was no Google when you were my age?”
Time was, people hung out at bars and cafes. Today, they also hang out at Facebook and other social networking sites, and keep befriending and “unfriending” one another. Until recently, when you said you were someone’s follower, the person in question was either a swami or a political leader. Today, you can be a follower of a friend, lover, celeb, blogger, politician, or anyone in general, on Twitter.
People are using the net or the mobile to find jobs, to flirt and to get into the sack. They are also getting sacked — from their marriages or jobs — through the net or the mobile. As early as 2006, an online divorce took place in Delhi; another took place in Chennai in 2007. In both cases, the parties appeared before the court through videoconferencing; the divorce orders were emailed to them. In September this year, the Brazilian senate approved a bill allowing consensual divorces to be filed and resolved on the net.
Ten years ago, it took some clandestine effort to procure a pornographic movie. Today, it’s just a few clicks away. In 2006, the size of the internet pornography market worldwide was estimated at $97 billion. Battered by online pornography, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy — once bought by one in four American college men — has been in decline and was recently described by a website as an underfed bunny.
The joys peddled by the cloud range from the carnal to the mundane to the spiritual. When did you last rush to withdraw cash from your bank because the next day was a holiday? Or when did you last stand in a queue to buy a train ticket? Most likely 10 years ago. Today, for cash you go to an ATM, which is open 24x7, and for a train ticket you go to an online booking agency. The cloud takes care of God too: you can perform a puja or attend Mass online.
At the turn of the century, the cloud was thin and sparse. Today, it embraces more than one fourth of humanity. About 1.7 billion people around the world, or 25.6% of all humans, are connected to the internet; the figure was just 6% in 2000. In the US, the proportion of population connected to the net is as high as 74%. In India, it is merely 7% because much of rural India remains unconnected. Urban India accounts for most of India’s 84 million internet users.
Internet penetration in India may be low, but the country has achieved a remarkable teledensity (number of telephone connections per 100 people) of 45; in 2000, India’s teledensity was just 2.86%. Most of the growth has come from mobiles: of about 550 million telephone connections in the country, nearly 500 million are mobile. The users include your neighbourhood “sabziwala”, “presswala” and “chhole-kulche wala”.
From ancient times to about 350 years ago, humans lived pretty much the same existence. The transformation gathered pace in the last century. But the cloud has changed things so fast in the past 10 years that if Albert Einstein, one of the greatest brains of the last century, were to return to this world today, he would perhaps not be able to recognize it. How did it happen? Here’s looking at 20 of those things that changed our lives:
BLACKBERRY: The Canadian company Research In Motion (RIM) launched this all-in-one device offering email, web browsing, mobile telephone, text messaging and internet faxing in 2002. The smartphone became so addictive that it begot a new word: crackberry (“crack” meaning cocaine + “berry” from BlackBerry). Webster’s New World College Dictionary declared “crackberry” the word of the year in 2006. My copy of the dictionary, printed in 2006, has just one definition of “blackberry”: a fleshy, edible fruit.
BLOG: The word was coined in 1999 by Peter Merholz, who sliced “weblog” to write “we blog”. The concept of blogging is about a decade older. However, it caught on only in this century when politicians, political commentators and business pundits took to it. Many bloggers became influential opinion makers. Governments and companies began to fear them. Today, everybody and their uncle blogs.
BLUETOOTH: This wireless standard for short-range interconnection of mobile phones, computers and other electronic devices came into being in 2000. It allows users to connect without going through the phone company. It gained worldwide popularity and became a craze in countries like Saudi Arabia where the strict Islamic laws do not allow women to socialize with any males except relatives. It became a favourite method of flirting and hooking up. Incidentally, "Bluetooth" has nothing to do with "blue" or "tooth". The word is an anglicized version of the name of the Viking king Harald Blátönn, who united Denmark and Norway. Bluetooth too unites electronic devices, and often hearts.
CAMERA PHONES: Taking a picture used to be a special occasion. “I hope you have taken the camera?” a woman would ask her husband before they set out to attend their niece’s wedding. No such thing today. Almost every mobile has a camera; some have 12-megapixel cameras. Men of my generation can only feel sorry for themselves for not being able to take the pictures of all the girls they chased in school and college.
FACEBOOK: Founded by a 20-year-old Harvard student, Mark Zuckerberg, in 2004, Facebook was meant to be a hangout for college and university students. Once opened to the general public, it grew so fast that today it has more than 350 million active users worldwide; 65 million of them access Facebook through their mobiles. If you are not on Facebook yet, join the club.
FILESHARING: The concept dates back to 1980. It took new forms and spread like wildfire after Napster was accused of copyright violations and shut down by a court order in 2001. The new decentralized filesharing services like BitTorrent were harder to control. The music industry has been complaining, but people listen to music, not objections.
FIREFOX AND CHROME: Time was when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was the undisputed king of browsers. The arrival of Mozilla Firefox in 2004 was like a whiff of fresh air. Surfing the net suddenly became so much fun with its better speed and features like tabbed browsing, live bookmarking, find toolbar, multiple homepages, pop-up blocking, private browsing and hundreds of add-ons. In 2008, Google launched its sleek browser, Google Chrome, which offered even better speed, security and stability. Internet Explorer is still the market leader because it comes bundled with Windows, but Firefox and Chrome have made the nights at Microsoft sleepless.
GMAIL: Anyone who uses email has a Gmail account today. Of course, email existed before Google launched Gmail in 2004. What was beyond belief was the initial storage of 1GB per user that it offered. Till then other email service providers would offer just 2MB to 4MB. Gmail now offers unlimited storage. In July 2009, it had 146 million users.
GOOGLE: Set up by Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998, Google is the phenomenon of the decade. Anyone who wants to look for anything on the net turns to Google. Google has been named the world’s No. 1 brand in successive surveys and its website is the most visited in the world.
INSTANT MESSAGING: Let’s define “work” and the meaning of instant messaging will be clear. Work is what employees in most offices do today when they are not engaged in instant messaging. Google Talk, Skype, Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger and AIM are some examples of instant messaging, a 1990s concept which came of age in this decade.
IPOD, IPHONE: Apple’s iPod, launched in 2001, changed the way we store and listen to music. Its elegant design made it a beauty with brains. It began with 5GB and 10GB models. Today, it has a 160GB model. Till September this year, 220 million iPods had been sold worldwide. With the launch of the touch-screen iPhone in 2007, Apple razed yet another barrier between man and machine. Touch-screen devices, including computers, look likely to become the norm.
KINDLE: Hundreds of books on your palm and you can read them whenever you like, wherever you are. That became possible in 2007 when Amazon launched Kindle. Kindle 2, introduced early this year, can hold up to 1,500 non-illustrated books. On Kindle DX, you can also read newspapers. Kindle’s competitors are other epaper devices like Barnes & Noble nook and Sony Reader.
MEMORY STICKS AND BLU-RAY: The first commercial USB flash drive, or memory stick, was launched in 2000. It had a storage capacity of 8MB, more than five times the capacity of a floppy disk. Today, sticks of 8GB are common; there are sticks of even 256GB. Storage was also redefined by Blu-ray discs, introduced in 2006. The same size as a DVD, a Blu-ray disc can store six times as much data.
RSS: The folks in khaki shorts may not like it, but the abbreviation does not mean Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to today’s Indian youth. Nobody cares whether it stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary. There are so many websites to look at and so little time. RSS feeds bring all your favourite content and updates to your desktop or mobile.
SMS: v use it all d time bt dont realize d fcility hasnt bn with us 4ever.
TWITTER: “What are you doing?” Answer in not more than 140 characters; everybody is waiting to know. The free social networking service began in 2006 as a cross between SMS group messaging and blogging. Today, you tweet, I tweet, the world tweets. Celebrities and politicians have suddenly become everybody’s chums. In February 2009, Twitter was ranked the world’s third largest social networking site. The standard question last month changed from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?”.
VIDEOGAMES: Videogames have been around since the 1950s. But with advances in technology in the past 10 years, they started looking more like playable Pixar cartoons. Nintendo’s Wii, launched in 2006, allowed users to control the game using physical gestures. Microsoft too plans to add this feature to its Xbox 360 early next year.
WI-FI: Wi-Fi technology, invented in the 1990s, gained worldwide popularity in this decade. By allowing wireless connectivity to the internet, it convinced us that we are indeed living in a cloud called the internet. Homes, offices, campuses, airports and even cities started turning Wi-Fi.
WIKIPEDIA: Launched by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in 2001, Wikipedia pioneered the concept of wiki, a technology for creating websites by online collaboration. Today, it has 14 million articles, 3.1 million of them in English, written collaboratively by volunteers around the world. It is one of the most popular websites in the world.
YOUTUBE: When Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage”, he wouldn’t have known that all the world as a stage would one day come to everyone’s lap or palm. YouTube, launched in 2005, made that happen. With its motto “Broadcast Yourself”, it made everybody an actor and soon became the world’s No.1 online video community. Many of us now watch YouTube more often than TV.
PS: This article needed some research. No library would have helped, so I googled.