The World Opened up when it Locked Down

There was a great awakening in India around the second half of the 1990s. Internet access was becoming easily available, even if via VSNL shell accounts (if you know what they are, welcome fellow veteran). Till then, the few things that we wanted to obtain of the Internet as it existed was dependent on some friendly soul getting it to us from FTP servers, usually via ERNET. Documents, tools, source code …. everything on the internet was a few steps removed. With the availability of the Internet to everyone it gradually started making access easier. The same documents and source code that would take days to get could now be accessed on demand. 

One would find about new tools, references or research papers in magazines or journals and find the source for it on the Internet. For a few years, everyone basked in this new found ease of access. It provided great convenience. This, very soon, changed to discovering new pieces of information that one didn’t know of through those mags or journals. That sparked the first shift in how people used the Internet. Before the end of the decade (and the millenium) there were many people participating actively in forums, in groups, contributing to discussions, specifications, open source products. These were suddenly opportunities that simply did not exist for the vast majority of people, outside the top academic institutions and IT firms. It provided access to a playing field, level or otherwise, that resulted in the breakneck speed of growth around that period (a lot of which is usually attributed to the Y2K and sadly ignores the impact of the Internet in India). 
Its tough to overstate the impact this had. Imagine you have only purchased at a retail store, across a counter, with a shopkeeper getting you things you ask for (which is still the case in many shops even today). You know what you want and ask for it, and get it. But you don’t have any idea of what else you could have asked for. And then, one day, you get access to Amazon all of a sudden. 

I was a direct beneficiary of this great awakening. We (at Integra Micro Systems) could suddenly access documents and specs which would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier. One of the specs we discovered, could get hold of and build around, mere months after everyone else in the world had access to the same specs were that of the WAP Forum. It seems corny today that we were celebrating, in 2000, that we were the fourth in the world to launch a product based on that standard! The fourth! But, what a thrill to be counted. What happened after that is a story for another day. But without the Internet opening up the window to the world and our minds to what was out there, none of it would have happened.

Catching up with more current times, the worldwide lockdown has created a flurry of online activity. Every trade show has moved online. Every seminar is now a webinar. Every training session seems to become a MOOC. Every cultural program is available on tap. In the last 4 weeks, I have participated in, attended, viewed or in some way involved myself in a dozen or more different online activities almost none of which I would have been able to do so if they were in meatspace as they were earlier. I have attended an API security seminar, training on how museums manage artifacts, a Kannada ventriloquist’s performance, a bhajan, a trade event on transport ticketing, a how-to on watercolors and several more which in their earlier avatar were inaccessible or not even discoverable. What was surprising was that many of these online events attracted 100s of people, sometimes crossing 500 while in real life they would have stalled at the few dozens. The free/low price was, of course, a factor but more than that it was the sheer possibility that could not have existed. I attended a session on ventriloquism, hosted in Bengaluru, and switched at the moment that finished, instantly, to a session on transport ticketing hosted in Europe.

I don’t believe that life will go back to exactly the way it was and many of these changes that we see during the lockdown are here for good.  Like with the Internet in the 1990s, this will not be just about ease of access. It will bring about, very quickly, a change in the way people participate, in the way communities get formed, and how in these days of absolute geographic and political boundaries, new bridges get built. Life will be different in the After Corona world – the veil has been pulled back and there is no going back. What took 10 years in the 1990s to change behaviour will likely take 10 weeks to change how people adjust to the new normal and find ways to build with it rather than fight it.

I am eagerly looking forward to the lockdown ending and, even more, to the new way of doing things that will emerge from this.