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     Volume 7 Issue 22 | May 30, 2008 |

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Dreaming of Electric Sheep

Naeem Mohaiemen

1990. Primitive times. Rickety VAX terminals, chunky keyboards, glowing green-black screens. Finding the delete command was an ordeal. Twenty terminals for 3,000 students, communication limited to the campus network. Why would we need to talk to anyone else?

There were eight Bangali students, all early adopters by necessity. Tushu Rahman gained back-door access to an MIT computer account, and from there into the real Internet. Now we could view usenet boards like soc.culture.bangladesh (scb). For news about Bangladesh, scb was the go-to place. Through this primitive method, we first learnt of strikes, floods, cricket scores, and finally, the fall of Ershad.

By senior year, colour Macintoshes began appearing. Jacob Attie designed animations with Quranic ayaats-- we were blown away by these dayglow patterns. Another Bangali, Zeeshan Hasan, spent his senior year battling the Rubik Cube of that era-- Nethack, an internet variation of traditional gamer universe Dungeons and Dragons. Using endless combinations of *, %, (, @, and #s, walls, moats, castles, and dragons appeared. No CGI, just bytes and imagination.

A New York summer job introduced me to the colourful, and later very familiar, America Online sign-up screen. “Do you want to try this?” my boss asked as the computer made that annoying dial-buzz-snowstorm noise. I shook my head. AOL seemed too gimmicky. I retreated to the back-office computing room, to find a familiar VAX terminal. AOL was a walled-off Eden-- lush foliage, but no unauthorised outsiders. I needed access to Bangladesh news.

I returned to Dhaka to work on a history project. It was the last moment before satellite, a year in lush isolation. Only once did news interrupt: Kurt Cobain dead from suicide! No blogs for collective grieving, we did our silent minute alone.

Returning to New York, I found all change. Grunge was dead and teen spirit had found the Internet. No longer a fringe phenomenon, tiny domain of geeks and techies. At Kennedy airport, a magazine cover blared an image of a surfboard smashing a computer screen. “Surfing the Net!”

What the hell was Surfing? And when had it been shortened to “Net”? Who were these newcomers invading our castle? The word “newbie,” derogatory and distancing, came into vogue.

But corporate America was still clueless. Not yet doing the math of productivity and profit. At Mercer Consulting, only five of us were grudgingly given Internet access. And for this Brahmin status, we had to get shorkari office style written permission.

1996. The go-go years were about to begin. Mercer started diversifying. Clients like Bank of America were now passé, everyone was lobbying to get on the AOL project. On assignment in San Francisco, I met the next big thing. Shahed Amanullah, founder of AltMuslim.com, met me in a café with his laptop.

“You bring your computer to cafes?”
“Duh,” came the California reply, “It's a laptop!”
As west coast sun licked around the edges, Shahed opened up the html back-end of the website he was building. As I got a tutorial on hex colour codes, I felt the beginning flush of dot-com fever. California was having its second gold rush, but business analysts like me were not needed yet. Basil Hashem told me that companies like Netscape were only hiring engineers and computer programmers (I recently saw Basil's name on the credits for the Firefox browser-- good to know he kept it going).

Returning to New York, I saw the difference between the Coasts. With Stanford and Caltech grads, California was unabashedly tech-centric. By contrast, traditional media (print, television) dominated New York's Internet industry. My grade-one geek habits were enough of a competitive advantage. HBO's New Media group was hiring, and HTML 1.0 skills were good enough. Soon enough, we were negotiating deals between HBO and new names like Excite, Altavista, Tivo. No one knew what would happen next, but everyone wanted in.

A few years later we convinced HBO to fund our idea for an Internet startup-- Volume.com (“generation hip-hop”). By then, Amazon had overheated the market. We talked about bringing the Internet to the inner city black community, but people kept seeing dollar signs. The two agendas collided.

2000. The overheated bubble economy of the internet cratered, taking with it high-flying Internet startups. Being funded by AOL Time Warner, we had slightly stronger legs and kept going. Then on the morning of September 11, we interrupted a staff meeting to go to the windows and watch the Twin Towers collapse (one after another, in that impossible dance). Suddenly technology didn't seem to be the future. Men with box cutters had brought the world to a standstill. They couldn't build planes, but they could bring them down.

Everyone started feeling as vulnerable as the 1950s' bomb shelter days. Optimism was in short supply. In the country's new somber mood, no one at Volume.com wanted to be “generation hip-hop”-- time to retreat and ponder life's bigger questions. Three months after the attacks, we accepted the inevitable in a Board meeting and shuttered the company. Just in time for Christmas.

After a few years of licking wounds, technology came back in a big way. Former big names like Yahoo are eclipsed, but Google has become a verb. Call Microsoft, and the Bangalore operator picks up. Buy an iPhone abroad, and get an eighteen-year-old kid to unlock it in Badda. In grassroots political organising, activists use the net to flatten hierarchies. MoveOn.org organises protests against the Iraq war in 130 countries. Everything is quickly moving to the mobile phone, including a stripped down version of the web. I remember all the debates we had at HBO about whether our websites should be optimised for Netscape. Now it's all about Opera Mini, Open Wave, Netfront.

As in the world, so in Bangladesh. Activist blogs on Wordpress, Bangla <>adda<> tags on del.icio.us, newspaper home pages in Sutonny font, news photos on Flickr, video on Youtube. Events unfold at 9pm and are on bdnews24.com by 9:30. Press conferences at Reporters Unity feel like technology for a stone age. Somewhere in Kalabagan is a fifteen-year-old blogging away in Bangla about his Dhaka. Within minutes, his entry will be read by many hundreds more than can ever fit into Press Club. Then comes the cascading effect of email forwards, mailing lists, tags-- it can and will reach thousands more.

Laptops, WiFi, PalmPilots, Blackberries. I'm afraid to buy any new gadget because it may be obsolete in six months. Always better, faster, lighter, smaller (but not always cheaper). A friend is visiting from London and wants to get his mother broadband-- so he can chat with her long distance. He calls and asks what speed I am getting from my provider.

“64 Kbps” I say, even though reality fluctuates.
Boro B, naki choto b?”
“Dhaka egiye geche, days of choto b are over”

History on fast forward. Everything has built in obsolescence. One moment everyone was insisting that you “have to” get a friendster account. After loading endless personalania on friendster, I learnt that my friends had defected to myspace.
"But uh, what about friendster?"
"Oh Naeem, friendster is sooo fall 2005!"

Very well, migrate again to myspace. At a campus lecture, a student mentions facebook. What's facebook, I ask. “Oh it's great, all my friends are on it, but uh you can't get on because it's only for people in college.” But a year later, Marc Zuckerburg had opened up fb to the masses. One moment facebook is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Next moment it is an enabler of all the creeps you DON'T want to stay in touch with. Next, Microsoft buys a share of facebook, and now cuddly fb is after your data, all of it. Be afraid, not all technology is good.

The Machines are here, and human life is changing in response. Don DeLillo wrote:
"The [answering] machine makes everything a message, which...destroys the poetry of nobody home. Home is a failed idea. People are no longer home or not home. They're either picking up or not picking up,"

But it's not all Day of The Daleks scare scenarios. On balance, the convergence of computer, mobile, internet, and all other new media and platforms has changed our life for the better.

Did we imagine any of this while pecking away at that circa 1989 VAX keyboard? And this is only version 2.0. We have many things to show you. If Phillip K. Dick had lived and plugged his brain in, he would find worlds imploding and reborn. Nicholas Negroponte predicted that developing countries would “leapfrog” over the developed world using computers. The CEO of Atari once told a story about encouraging his son to learn Chinese. The precocious boy's reply was, “By the time I master Chinese, we'll have computer phones where you'll be able to talk and it will be translated into Chinese!”

May we live in interesting times.

naeem.mohaiemen@gmail.com works on art & technology projects.

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