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Monday, August 25, 2003

Net provides new possibilities in human relations
Kuljit Bains

OUT of sight need not necessarily mean out of mind. The Internet today has moved beyond being a novelty or a fancy concept for the youngsters. It is connecting real people — like grandparents or couples living away from each other — to real people, even in an apparently less-connected country like India.

All this connectivity is giving rise to a new social force that did not — rather, could not — exist earlier. Social scientists have predicted that the Web could be as, even more, powerful as the earlier developments like the printing press or the television, what with the nature of the Internet that respects no authority or control. If a mere book written by Karl Marx could send the world in a tizzy for over a century, the Internet could`85well.

Coming back to India and the present, while we may have a less revolutionary situation, there is nonetheless an upheaval in social relations caused by the new technology. Both, quality and the spread of human relations, is changing. There are kinds of relationships evolving that may need new names.

‘Virtual’ experiences

TECHNOLOGY has helped me keep in touch with my family while I spent two years away from them, pursuing a Masters in Business in the US. I never realised how difficult it would be not to see my wife or hear the unintelligible chatter of my fast-growing two-year-old. The Internet came to my rescue. Other than daily e-mails, at the cost of a local call, I could communicate with my family through "chat". A more advanced option that friends in similar situations have been using is the real-time Webcam. What could be better than to actually see your kid growing up? Technology has been a lifesaver in my case.

Darrel Philip, Washington

I formed a Web community for my class from my hotel management course it’s unbelievable how quickly the word spread and so many people joined. I found a classmate who was living in my city. If it weren’t for the Net, I would have never found him.

Munish Sharma, Sydney

Once I met a man in SAS Nagar, Punjab, who typed out my resume at that computer shop. He noticed that my date of birth was the same as his. Ever since, though I never get any mail from him throughout the year, he sends me e-cards on my birthday.

Nidhi Malhotra, Santa Clara, California

I think technology has really changed human relations, especially for people living overseas. One can stay in touch at very nominal rates, making the distance vanish. As far as e-friends are concerned, they are as real as "real" friends. They play a major role for people living abroad because life can be very lonely. When I came here I knew no one. It takes a lot of time to develop "real" friendships. To fill those empty moments, chat was a great help. One needs to talk to friends; it’s a human need and it’s very easy to find people with similar interests on the Net. The emotions one feels are very real. You laugh and cry with them. Also, I think it helps in marital relations for one can ask an e-friend what a man or woman likes, which on be shy to ask one’s partner.

Yasmin Patil, Sydney

The most obvious development felt by all of us is that our contacts with people we know or care for have got a new depth. From letters we have gone to instant delivery of mail, from still pictures to videos and sound, the written ‘chat’ is leading to a whole new form of expression. Simply put, people are in touch to a greater extent and more conveniently so.

Some have predicted that marriages would be more stable in the wired world. While this may have more relevance in the West, information technology is definitely making things easier for couples separated by necessities of life, whether in India or anywhere else. One particular group of persons in this category are the wives of Armymen. For Kiran Khera, whose husband is posted as a UN Observer in Congo with poor access to very costly phone services, the Net has been a lifesaver.

People have found old friends (and flames) they never expected to meet again. Going through one to another, whole groups of one-time friends have come together once more in virtual communities, even when separated by the high seas.

Another kind of relationship benefiting is that of friends and relatives who knew each other but were physically apart. Earlier, distance over a period of time tended to remove people from each other’s hearts. Relationships that had gone cold are being rekindled again. New pictures sent can effectively convey the weight problem your uncle may be facing from the American burgers he’s been hogging.

Then there is the entirely new concept of Web communities of people with like interests coming up. Earlier it was not possible for a small-town boy with a flair for cartooning to interact with others in the field. Now he can. On similar lines, there are support groups that can be a matter of life and death for people. Patients suffering from common diseases have come together to discuss issues that are beyond just medicine. Those suffering from mental trauma have found solace in support groups, which have pulled them through difficult times.

What makes certain Net friendships deeper and more meaningful than the conventional ones is that there are no pretences to be kept. You take a human just for a human and not the social context he exists in.

What’s more, even the good old art of letter writing has come back, albeit in a new grammarless form. While people could not get themselves to find a paper, scribble a few words, stamps and post, through e-mail, the response time has come down from a couple of minutes to a few days. (The real-life experiences of people given in the accompanying box were got within two days from countries as far apart as Australia and the US)

All this flies in the face of fears that the new generation is retreating into cocoons of technology, spending hours on end on the Web.

There has been an interesting experiment on this issue in Canada. "Netville" (a pseudonym), a housing group, was set up in suburban Toronto from a scratch with high-speed connectivity within the community as well as to the Web. The behaviour of the residents was studied for two years. Some of the findings were: Wired residents recognised 25 neighbours and talked with six, the figures for non-wired ones were eight and three, respectively. A neighbourhood e-mail list increased the amount of in-person socialising. In effect, connected persons had more community involvement. Little surprise.

I have read somewhere: "Count your age by friends, not years; count your life by smiles, not tears." Well, being online, people are not losing old friends while they are gaining new ones all the time. The world just might be a happier place for that.