The Looking Glass !!!

Where would the new millennium lead us? The prognosis is indeed difficult to make. Time is a seamless continuum. The past may help but it cannot guide the totality of the future course of events. A special event like the Second World War can radically stimulate development. The initiatives on information technology taken during and following the War have now converged into a revolution that's sweeping the globe.

Few trends are loud and clear. The present spate of decentralization will continue for some more time. The activities of information collection, storage, processing and distribution will be more and more relegated to a logically interwoven maze of units operating at the minimum sustainable level. Computers will be as common as television and radio receivers are today. The limits of silicon-based chips may be reached soon _ bimolecular chips and quantum computing would take the baton. In parallel, digital communication will be in terabits per second. Satellite and wireless communication will obviate the need for an elaborate terrestrial infrastructure.

Mobile telephones will rapidly loose the charisma and fall in the hands of commoners. Palm tops and hand-held videophones will meet all personal and official information access and communication needs. Electronic storage will replace conventional record keeping. Voice inputting will replace keyboarding. These are not mere tales of fantasy as working systems already exist.

The implications are not far to seek. SOHOs will feed the net. Consumers will directly access much of information resources in digital form from their own desk. The brick-walled libraries will cease to exist. At terabit speed, it will be possible to transmit the holdings of a large library like the LC in five minutes flat. Videoconferencing will be so common as to take tea club chats to the confines of individual homes _ virtual reality systems would do the rest.

Some indications are overbearing. It is said that scientific information doubles every five years, scientific knowledge every ten years, scientific articles every 4-5 years and literature every 10-15 years. Even if these statements are only partially true, the demand on human brains to collect, store and analyze would be far too heavy. As a result, the knowledge base of a person will grow narrower. Some doctors will specialize in diarrhea and some in dysentery, and rest in the medical profession will not be able to spell either.

Would such technological developments bridge the gap between the developed and the developing countries? A binary answer to this loaded question is difficult to give. Most importantly, the significance of physical territories and physical resources is gradually fading. In the new scenario, the developing countries can have an opportunity to establish a market presence without being physically present there. At the same time, on account of the technology edge, the developed nations are able to extend their market where they have not been before. Today the developing countries are net importers and they may continue to remain so. On the other hand, the developed countries are better equipped to exploit the intellectual capital of developing countries and sell the products and services so generated back to them. Extension of the market place and availability of products and services from more than one source will however reduce the unit price, which would be a clear advantage for consumers in the developing countries.

The Grameen Bank experiment of Bangladesh has clearly demonstrated how mobile telephones in the hands of rural folk can stimulate their entrepreneurial capacities. Similar success stories are also reported from the Philippines and back home from the Warna villages in Maharashtra and Pondicherry. The proliferation of such activities will effectively reduce the rural-urban divide. Besides, the growth in e-commerce especially the business-to-consumer variety would demand maintenance of a supply chain at the back-end creating more employment and entrepreneurs. Taking the argument further, the home office concept would facilitate flexi-time work and thereby help the home making womenfolk and gray population to participate in net-enabled information services. In the same vein, more people will get opportunities to learn at their own pace and convenience through distance education. And telemedicine will provide better health care.

Computer and telephone penetration in a country like India being low, one may argue that none of these will happen. The trend of technology development suggests that a single net-device would facilitate TV receiving, telephony and information handling. Such device will be in all homes if for nothing else, at least for just entertainment. Interpersonal communication and information access facilities will be available for those who want to use these.

A pressure arising from another corner will accelerate development of the cyber-civilization - that is, decline in paper cash circulation. Perforce, people from all walks of the society would need to manage with e-cash in their daily life for which net-ability is a prerequisite. Going by the success of STD/PCO booths located in urban slums and rural areas, the rural and weaker sections of the society have clearly demonstrated their readiness and capacity to adopt new technologies.

Life will be easier to lead, no doubt, but will it make people any happier? Physical indulgences may not be exclusive determinant of happiness keeping aside the state of mind. Lot of time will be saved by compression of daily life supporting activities, generating more leisure. Therefore, a quality management of leisure will become the key. Who else other than Indians could lead the flock in this twenty-first century?

— A. Lahiri

Information Today & Tomorrow, Vol. 19, No. 1, March 2000, p.1-p.2