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Review: Smart; The Digital Century by Frederic Martel

A big book that makes the case that “the internets” are anchored to particular regions

books Updated: Nov 02, 2018 21:30 IST
Sachi Mohanty
Sachi Mohanty
Hindustan Times
Soweto,Muslim Brotherhood,Carl Sagan
Hitting ‘Like’: A gigantic sculpture in Milan, Italy.(Getty Images)
432pp, Rs 599; Harper Collins

One big-picture realization that dawns upon the reader after reading Smart: The Digital Century by Frederic Martel is that national boundaries are not going to become irrelevant anytime soon. There are many benefits from everyone having access to smartphones and the author goes to great lengths to do a ‘field survey’ by travelling to countries across five continents to see for himself how people are using their devices and their connectivity. People in the slums of Kenya, Soweto in South Africa, and favelas of Rio de Janeiro are using the internet to improve their lives. Martel summarizes:

“For their part, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have shown that the internet is compatible with all kinds of political power. It can be used by liberals as well as authoritarian regimes, offer a broadcast channel for terrorism as well as for peace, can be hijacked by jihad, but also by feminist militants and gay Arab activists. An instrument of liberation and repression — both these readings of the internet are equally true. According to the territories and the contexts, social networks can be for democracy or for dictatorship. These are double-edged tools, neither good nor bad in themselves, but they allow — which is already not that bad — interactivity, dialogue and open the door to new ‘conversations’.

The book begins in Silicon Valley and the foundational role played by Stanford University in creating Silicon Valley is described in some detail. Stanford alumni have founded — among others — “Google, Yahoo, Electronic Arts, Instagram, Cisco, Netflix, LinkedIn, eBay, PayPal, Udacity, Coursera, Silicon Graphics, Pandora,” to quote the author. In the India chapter, the country’s vast demographic challenge is implicitly underlined when the author notes that “1.5 million” is the number of engineers and IT professionals who are produced every year in our higher educational institutions. These two unconnected pieces of information beg to be put side-by-side — Stanford vs. India. As you hear from Stanford’s CTO and learn about the Stanford Management Corporation and the vast endowment of “$17 billion” that it is in charge of, you become acutely aware of how far behind Indian universities are — culturally, financially, technologically.

Also in the chapter on India, you hear from both Aadhar evangelists and skeptics. You get to visit the well-stocked puja room of one senior Aadhar official — its ‘US-return’ CTO — in Bengaluru. Dr Devi Shetty — also Bengaluru-based — turns out to have great expectations pinned on the biometric ID system from a health care perspective. While India is, at least superficially, similar to the US in terms of giving various liberties to its citizens under the Constitution, China is the opposite of Silicon Valley in many ways. While California offers an open embrace of the rebel, China’s culture prefers conformists. Unlike the free market and people’s preferences and venture capital funding which dictate where the next Twitter or Dropbox is located or who becomes the next start-up billionaire, China’s capitalism is State-directed. Unlike America where freedom of speech is sacrosanct, censorship is the norm and an accepted part of life. China’s censorship system can be fluid and unpredictable in some contexts but strict in others — there are three ‘Ts’ that are utterly taboo topics: Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen.

What China’s example shows most vividly is that tools such as the internet and the free flow of information do not automatically translate into a freer or more democratic world. Other topics covered in the book include Israel’s amazing success as a ‘startup nation’ and the evolving role of the ‘regulator’ (ie the ‘FCC’ in the US) with respect to the internet. Content curation, social TV, streaming services and their impact on the traditional revenue model of Hollywood, the ‘ongoing world war in video games,’ Cyrillic internet, and Quebec vs Québec are some of the other topics covered.

The author’s aim in this book was to ‘prove’ that there is no single Internet — rather, there are the internets. Hence, there’s no danger of cultural and linguistic diversity getting decimated in an age of globalized internet. People may use the same applications (almost) globally — Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Skype, Viber — but that doesn’t mean the national or regional or cultural or linguistic identities suddenly become irrelevant or non-existent. In some creative industries — movies, TV shows, computer games, cartoons — there’s some change taking place because of the global nature of the internet. It maybe true, if partially, that American TV shows are now global phenomena — House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones — but it’s also true that there are more TV channels in regional Indian languages today than there were 10 years ago.

The larger realization concerns the nature of humans. Nothing demonstrates better how ineffective the internet is in bringing about any deep, planet-wide or species-wide change among humans than observing how jealously humans continue to guard national borders. So while the internet grows ever more intertwined with every moment of our lives, cosmopolitanism is ironically on the retreat. People’s tribal instincts are becoming more pronounced. They choose vastu shastra and astrology over watching neurosurgery videos or learning Hadoop. They read about 8th century religious figures rather than reading Joseph Polchinski’s autobiography available on ArXiv. Books about gods are bestsellers rather than Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. And patriotism/nationalism is being determined based on the brand of shampoo/toothpaste used and the brand of noodles eaten.

“... the Internet does not abolish traditional geographic limits, does not dissolve cultural identities, nor does it smooth out linguistic differences: it consecrates them,” says Martel. “…The future of the Internet is not global, it is anchored to a territory…”

It is not the future you expected.

Sachi Mohanty is an independent writer interested in science, technology and astronomy.

First Published: Nov 02, 2018 21:29 IST