The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 3, 2000
Lead Article


If the cyber world has changed something drastically, it is the need to enquire into the question of identity -- one’s own as well as that of others. While the Internet is bridging distances, it is also increasing them at emotional, physical and human levels. Does, for example, sending a friend an e-greeting on her birthday have the same meaning as visiting her with a little gift and spending that most precious commodity called ‘time’ with her, asks Aradhika Sekhon

VENKATESH is a computer ‘nerd’. He is a 25-year-old executive who is working in a leading advertising agency. Atypical day in his life is something like this: wake up at 8.30 am, bathe, breakfast and off to work. By 10 am, Venkatesh is at his desk working on his computer. When he has a little free time, he surfs the Net for the latest information on music and sport. At lunch, he swaps news from the Net with his colleagues. Home by 7 pm, he chats with his family over a cup of tea, and watches TV till dinner time. While others go to bed, he switches on his computer and logs in. Venkatesh goes to bed at 2.30 am. Human interaction? "Of course! I keep in touch with my friends and relatives over the Net. I have a list of all the important dates on my computer and I can easily e-mail cards and all yaar ... even in the same city."

Vibha met Rajesh in an Internet chatroom. They got chatting, found many things in common and began communicating over the Net for hours on end. Both were unmarried and seemed ‘made for each other’ with shared interests in music, books and films. Photographs, followed by long phone calls, were exchanged until they finally met . So Vibha gave up her job and flew to America where Rajesh worked. Well, face to face, the love story came to an abrupt end. "It was reality versus cyberself'', says Vibha, "and finally hard reality won". Luckily for Vibha, she picked up a good job in LA, and is now seeing a guy who works with her.

Ritu, a housewife, had all that she’d ever wanted — a caring husband, two lovely children, a nice home and lots of money and friends. Then she met Pankaj in cyberspace. Slowly, she started becoming dissatisfied with her surroundings. Her husband started getting on her nerves. She couldn’t wait to send him off to office and pack her kids off to school so that she could chat with Pankaj on the Net. "Pankaj is my soul-mate. He understands me. He opened my eyes to all that I’d been missing out on my relationship with my husband", confides Ritu. Her marriage is on the rocks now though she still hasn't met Pankaj.

Doubtless, computers can be fun, fast and informative, however, if the cyber world has changed something drastically, it is the need to enquire into the question of identity -- one’s own as well as that of the others’. In a chatroom, a person can try out different roles and identities with a slight movement of the mouse. One can assume innumerable names and personae and assume any age, sex and background.


Cyber relationships seem to be fulfilling because one is projecting the image one feels like at any point of time. There is no complication of human involvement. If one doesn’t like the others' reaction or views, one can simply click him away! No problems with compromises, shifting stances, giving in or holding out — the hard work that a real relationship entails. With no pressure or anxiety to perform, one can be as good or as bad as one feels like without the fear of a moral judgement.

In Ritu’s case, so deeply convinced was she by Pankaj’s cyber image and her own that she started believing that since reality did’nt conform to her virtual world, it must be reality that’s wrong. This became the root cause of Ritu’s maladjustment.

Virtual reality doesn’t limit itself to chatrooms alone. The creation of on-line humans is happening at various websites, for example, the creation of virtual models who could be used by various companies to promote their products. These are being marketed as models who have no weight problems, no bad-hair days and are free of tantrums. Then recently, a Barbie-type news reader called Ananova was created by the British Press Association. She can "walk, nod, wink, raise an eyebrow and express surprise or amusement as she reads the news --- just like the real thing but without the hairspray and contract negotiations". The developers of Ananova say that people would rather interact with people - -even those who are virtual-- than the cold types. To enhance her "human-ness", the Press Association has created a

background story for Ananova. She is 28, 5 feet 8 inches, "a quietly intelligent woman who enjoys sports statistics, the Simpsons, Mozart and Oasis". In short, all the visible trappings of a human without the hassles of being one.

The requisite and the result of using the Net is privacy. If one compares it with TV watching, which is largely a social exercise, one finds that among the youth, the Mighty Mouse has won over the remote. A nation-wide survey by the Mudra Institute of Communications reveals that more and more college students with computers at home prefer to surf the Internet rather than watch TV. Pradip Krishnatray of the Mudra Institute, the co-ordinator of the survey, differentiates between the "AM media (newspapers and magazines) and the PM media" (TV and computers). He believes that one main reason for the Net capturing more viewers than TV in the evenings is that the telephone rates are low at that time. Also, the need for privacy plays a part in the viewership race. "TV viewing normally takes place in a social context with the entire family sitting down in front of it. Youngsters, on the other hand, are looking for some private interaction, and to checking out things they may not be able to in front of the family". The survey shows that there has been a major reduction in the time spent together in urban families with monthly incomes between Rs 15,000 and 25,000 and with an Internet connection. Thus, TV is no longer the family’s binding force. For those who do not possess an Internet connection, there are hundreds of cyber cafes that have sprung up.The number of people patronising the cafes are a visible proof of the interest cyberspace has created.

So while the Internet is bridging distances, it is increasing them at emotional, physical and human levels. Does, for example, sending a friend an e-greeting on her birthday have the same meaning as visiting her with a little gift or flower and spending that most precious commodity called ‘time’

with her? Can on-line shopping, convenient as it is, replace the experience of hopping across to the market and swapping news with your favourite ‘kiryana-wala’? Can cyber-bookshops or picture galleries substitute the feel and smell of books as you browse? Evidently they can and they have! Cyber-addicts, it is said, spend more time looking at

Windows ’95 than they do at the real world through real windows. Slowly perhaps, one will forget to reach out, sacrificing imagination, creativity and questioning abilities, while uncritically accepting information from the Net. Becoming, in effect, passive recipients instead of active challengers.

In the USA, there is growing concern for Internet addiction. One person in every 12 there could be considered an addict. The addiction, it is feared, "could be as destructive as a drug, ruining relationships, careers, studies and even leading to financial ruin. In India, the problem hasn’t attained such a magnitude because only about 1.72 lakh computers are linked to the Internet as yet. But the problems have started surfacing ---- from kids spending too much time over computer games, making undesirable friends over the Net to accessing pornographic material. In fact, the heaviest use of the computer for recreation is by 8 to 16 year olds. Added to the time spent by the ‘tweens’ on other media like TV and music, the average time spent ‘virtually’, adds up considerably. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation of the USA indicates that kids eight years and older, spend about 5 hours and 43 minutes a day — the equivalent of an adult work-day with media. Much of this is without adult supervision. According to the survey, "the use of media has become an increasingly isolated activity".

The authors of the Kaiser Family Foundation survey created a ‘contentedness" index to see how satisfied kids are with their lives. It was discovered that the highest media users scored the lowest on the index. "Indicators of discontent such as not getting along with their parents, unhappiness at school and getting in trouble a lot are strongly associated with high media use", reports the study. The large amount of time being spent with entertainment media coincides with the proliferation of TV shows, magazines, websites and other media aimed directly at selling to children. It is rare that children are out of touch with the media, now they are not merely an audience but a market. The primary goal of the majority of electronic media is profit and selling something their main aim.

There is nothing moral or immoral about cyber use or the cyber self. Rather, there is a perpetual playacting or performance leading to theatricality where one may act independent of fear of others’ opinions. Thus, a certain irrationality is bound to come into play here. The cyber self encourages solitude to hide physical deformities, age, shyness and insociability — hiding the true self behind a ‘glittering image’. However, the Catholic Church of Rome is questioning an aspect of morality regarding the Net. The question under discussion is whether ‘virtual adultery’ is the same as actual adultery.

Doubtless, the cyber era has placed the worldwide Net at our fingertips. Access is easy, communication is quick and one can be whosoever one wants to be. But one cannot ignore the darker side of the anonymity the Net offers, facilitating online crimes, gambling, cybersex abuse, hackers trying to corrupt systems (where else can accessing an ‘I love you’ message result in such largescale chaos?) one has to guard against the threat of losing out on human values by effectively isolating ourselves and avoiding responsibility. We need to build a proper cultural setting and value system. Children, especially, need to be prevented from starting too young. Exposing them too early to virtual reality carries the risk that they may lose touch with reality itself.