My single-minded optimism about the internet was, however, short lived. While the initiation into online spaces and its varied digital cultures was a fascinating experience, I soon found that I was paying for it with the currency of my privacy. While targeted advertising based on your geographic location and online activity would have sounded too futuristic to be true when Sri Lanka was still taking baby steps towards a digitalized economy, the reality is fast dawning upon us. When I download an app, I know that my data is being collected. Each time I like a page on Facebook, I am aware that I am being profiled; not as a dog lover, writer, and mediocre artist, but as just another consumer to be manipulated with clever campaigns and strategies. Moreover, I found that the culture and identity that first drew me to the internet was progressively being monetized. I could no longer be a fan simply by writing my fanfiction and watching my television shows. I now have to help fund Kickstarters, buy merchandise, like the show’s official Facebook page, and re-tweet every post with hashtags so the series can last another season.
Being raised in a time when one’s privacy was penultimate, the rapid pace of change often feels disorienting. Going from not talking to strangers on the internet to filling in all your personal details for the world to see is disconcerting. I’ve heard that we are the generation of nostalgia because the line between technology and its absence blurred in our formative years. Even living in a part of the world where technological advancement was always a couple of years behind schedule, the blurring of boundaries can be felt. Right now, visibility is everything and privacy is a small sacrifice to be made for discoverability. Giving away my information is so easy and natural by this point that I even begin to doubt its value. Is the opportunity for a global culture of communication a fair trade for privacy?
Although there is a lot of debate and discussion about issues of privacy and data mining by social media giants among the English-speaking urban population of Sri Lanka, I doubt that the rural population is aware of how they are being targeted and dealt with advertisements. The low cost of internet and the widespread of mobile devices means that even the rural farmer has a phone tucked away in his loin cloth. Recently, Google introduced the predominant local language of Sri Lanka, ‘Sinhala’, to its translation service. Web content is readily available in Sinhala and most Sri Lankans have even a rudimentary knowledge of English, certainly enough to navigate the web. Many of them wouldn’t go online for the culture but for the communication. Is the tradeoff between privacy and connectivity worth it? In their eyes, I believe, most certainly. However, it is difficult to predict how the problems associated with privacy will evolve in the future. Till then, as I cannot be a digital hermit in a culture of constant communication, I must abide.
Colombo, Sri Lanka, August 2015
Internet in Sri Lanka
“The Internet”, is the catch word in almost every Sri Lankan conversation at parties, get togethers, official functions, and even the roadside hawkers market. Virtually every person in the city and towns where Internet is accessible, has become an expert on the Internet, even though most of them don’t own a computer or have ever used one. The knowledgeable people range from little kids, as young as seven years to senior citizens, from students, housewives, and professionals to workers in every field, including the vegetable vendor and the laborers in the construction industry, with age not being a barrier.
Internet available free with certain branded phones.
The Internet, which used to be synonymous with computers, is now no longer the case. It has become the in thing in Sri Lanka today, thanks largely to the availability of cheap mobile phones and tablets. A new phone with Internet facilities, can range from Rs. 2500 for a Micromax phone to Rs. 80,000/= for the latest model of the Samsung phone. A second hand phone with the same or limited capabilities can be bought for half the price of the original. Nowadays, most people have at least two mobile connections from competing companies. This has been possible due to the availability of dual SIM phones.
The interest in the Internet was spurred by the low cost phone charges, and of course, the novelty of Facebook. Gone are the days when we used to look up maps and ask for instructions to proceed to someplace. With the availability of Google Maps as an App in the phones, youngsters nowadays are fearlessly travelling in taxis, faithfully following the Google Maps app for guidance. The taxi drivers also know, that they can now no longer cheat a passenger by taking them on a longer route.
Today, one can see almost every youngster, literally glued to their phones chatting with friends on WhatsApp, Viber, checking messages and responding to them in Facebook and even checking out the latest videos and trailers on Youtube. There is no place that escapes the young when they go online. Whether they are travelling in a bus or train, watching a staged drama or even the washroom, the young are busy online. Youngsters do not need meals or sleep.
The Internet has become addictive. Parents, find it absolutely difficult to pry the mobile off their children’s hands as now the Internet is used for more reasons - shopping online through Facebook, watching full movies on Youtube of films that will never be shown in Sri Lanka.
I used to play online games like Farmville available through Facebook and made a lot of friends while playing that game. Frequently my RAM would crash, as Flash players needed upgrading and the limited capabilities of my computer would fail me. I finally gave up playing Farmville as my electricity bills started increasing, I was sleep deprived and my studies were getting affected, the longer I was in the Internet.
The demand for Internet is so great, that every mobile and landline phone operator is competing aggressively, trying to outdo the other in offering Internet packages. Currently, Dialog, Mobitel, Hutch, AirTel and Etisalat offer various Internet based packages, some even offer Facebook and Viber free with their package. The phone companies are resorting to ruses to take advantage of the great interest in Facebook to increase their customer base.
Internet in the good old days
The current developments in my country remind me of my initiation with the Internet. It was way back in 2002 when I was studying for my degree, the Bachelor of Information Technology. Knowledge of the Internet was essential as Web Designing with HTML 4/ XHTML 1 was a compulsory module in the course. During that time, information technology was taking the country by storm and there was a dearth of IT professionals to cater to the demand. Except for a handful of firms like DMS, IDM, NIBM, and Informatics, there was even a shortage of Institutes to teach computing.
In those days, broadband connection did not exist in Sri Lanka. What was available was a Dial-up connection through an ISP (Internet Service provider) for PSTN subscribers. ISDN connection was available for digital subscribers. For ordinary folks it was only Dial-up connection. Google did not exist either, instead Yahoo, AOL and Hotmail were the popular web based mail services. Though Internet was the new buzz word, at that time, my association with the computer goes far back as 1994, when IBM and Gateway computers were sold in Sri Lanka. Then, the Operating System used was the DOS and we used 5 ½ inch floppy disks to save our data, work files etc.
My Introduction to the Internet
Before I purchased my own computer I decided to learn how to use it and the Internet. With that in mind I registered for a Basic Computing course. Institutes at that time did not have Internet connection so were were taken to cyber cafes for our practical lesson on the Internet. My initial foray into the Internet was very exciting and I was terribly nervous throughout. I was keen to remember every step as I had not yet purchased my computer, so I took great care to take notes.We were taught how to create an email account, how to send emails, how to browse the Internet and search using Yahoo Search. We spent our allotted time having much fun sending emails to each other and watching them appear in the Inbox of our email accounts, reading them and replying. The whole experience was so magical, I was in a daze. Although the lesson lasted just 30 minutes, it left me so intrigued and filled with pride, that I had done something none of my relatives had done. I couldn’t wait to get my own connection.
The Operating System used in 2002 was Windows 98, although Linux was also available. Windows 2000 became available the following year. Armed with my first computer purchased with my savings, I proceeded to browse the internet, read Yahoo News, watch videos, downloaded free mp3s of Hindi and Tamil movies and literally had a blast almost daily. My husband used to complain that I was spending more time with the computer, so, I can understand the fascination and virtual addiction of the present day youngsters with the Internet.
My love-hate relationship with the Internet.
The Internet is my obsession as well as my most dreaded enemy. I consider it my enemy as no anti virus programme has been able to successfully ward off trojan horse attacks. I have upto now used Norton, MacAffee, AVG, Kaspersky and Awasti, but to no avail, even though I had ensured they were regularly updated with the auto update feature. My computer had been taken hostage by trojan horse viruses at least five times during the last 14 years and my hard disk was cleaned out completely leaving behind empty folders. All my hard work, notes made by me, my projects, my pictures, flash files, mp3, videos etc were all stolen behind the scenes. Nothing in the computer is safe anymore when we are online. So, I live in mortal fear of another trojan attack every time I use the Internet.
Internet is my obsession as most of my daily routines are based on it. Whether it is related to work, or entertainment, checking out Facebook and emails, downloading recipes, or reading the latest news, I will be on the Internet. As an English teacher, I download worksheets, browse for exercises provided by other sites, check out test date information for various exams for students trained by me - mainly IELTS. I also write reviews at zomato.com in regard to food and other matters at restaurants visited. Moreover, I now use the Internet to work on Google Drive for contracts taken by me via Odesk.com now Upwork. I write articles and web content for websites for clients on Upwork using the Odesk Team Room. These work files are then backed up in other sites like Box.com as I just can’t take the risk of trojans stealing my files. Furthermore, applications like Skype and Yahoo Messenger are sometimes used to keep in contact with friends, students and some clients.
The Future of Internet in Sri Lanka.
Google has been actively working with the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure the Internet is popularised in Sri Lanka. The Google Search is presently available in Sinhala and Tamil languages. This is important as the vast majority of the population is Sinhala speaking. I have read that Google is introducing a new technology called “Project Loons” where solar powered balloons equipped with the required instruments are deployed in the skies to enable people anywhere in Sri Lanka to access Internet without much difficulty. The project functions in a mesh network, very similar to beaming signals through orbiting satellites, only this one is in a smaller scale with mass numbers and closer home. If this project was implemented successfully, it would be a great boon to us, as broadband charges will plummet, with costs of infrastructure development being shared among the phone companies.
The Loon project is supposed to take off in the new future, but I believe the test run must have already begun. I live in Colombo, and for the last few days, I have been watching some quite unusual developments in the night sky. The usually star filled night sky had some stars behaving abnormally. I know for a fact that sometimes, we can see orbiting satellites as stars. However, these “stars” were moving ultra fast, like jet planes were moving, when compared to others. I presume, these are the ‘loons’ being tested before the launch.
The success of the Loon project.
I would definitely hail the project and wish it glorious success. I feel proud to be a Sri Lankan as my country has being chosen to be the first country to deploy this technology. Not only will our phone costs decline, but more people would be Internet savvy. We would also be able to continue working uninterrupted, irrespective of where we were in the country. Although, the project is praiseworthy, I wonder whether the partners in the programme have failed to consider some serious limitations.
To access Internet we need both electricity and coverage. This is true for computers and mobiles. Without electricity we cannot charge the phone. Even if we had a power bank with us, we would still have to charge the power bank. Likewise, computers and laptops, need electricity even if they had a UPS and battery respectively. At present only 40% of the population is connected to the main power grid with another 5% receiving electricity from off-the-grid alternate power schemes. As far as I know, all the phones currently available require frequent charging.
Since, Internet technology is used by the Education Department to teach subjects to schools having a shortage of teachers, the Loon Project can help extend the reach. So the total percentage of the population who can receive the benefit of this new technology is approximately 45%.In conclusion, lack of technological advancements in much of the rural areas will prove to be an obstacle in providing Internet access to 100% of the population. If phones working on AA or AAA battery cells, and computers powered by alternate power sources, are introduced and sold in the areas not serviced by the main power grids, the people in those areas can experience the full benefit of the Loon project. However, I am not aware of the existence of any phone or computer with such capabilities.
Colombo, Sri Lanka, September 2015
I live in Lusaka and am 27 years old. I work at City University in Lusaka town. I usually work for five hours in day so the rest of the time is made for class preparation, making, internet and TV. I am a Christian hope you don't mind me disclosing this. I usually watch Nigerian worship songs and sermons.
My first internet usage was from the school laboratory: Didn’t have a laptop by then. Now not only do I have a laptop but I as well can use internet on my phone. My phone internet is portable and the network provider is a bit reliable. I also use a modem which is quiet expensive to buy bundles and control use once it is connected to the computer.
With my first internet, I wasn't even conversant with the computer by then. I would search and print out materials to use for my assignments. I didn't really know how to search even on Google then I just didn't use it maximally that was about five years ago. Later someone helped me to open an account with yahoo. I really thought it was complicated by then to open an email address.
My yahoo account became an easy tool for communication but it was hacked. However, I had facebook so I alerted people not to give money to hackers because of facebook. I left facebook because it was addictive and not private for me. I liked it though because it was easy to communicate. Then I opened a google account, a friend advised me to and said it was safer.
By now I have learnt I can download books using PDF format on google. If I have a question or something I am not understanding I simply google it then I get the answer instantly. Google has made other computer applications easy because I simply google the applications I don't understand. Clichés, abbreviations I may I have never understood have all been answered for me on google. I have learnt to visit other websites like youtube and watch my favourite christian movies and songs online through youtube on google. Through google I can download christian music and lyrics. I do not have to sing a song using wrong words or hamming when I can simply google the lyrics. I also came across google in my local language (mother tongue) which is interesting to enhance my patriotism. Amazing on google I found faith comes by hearing Audio Bible in my mouth tongue as well. This has helped me understand the bible better as am more fluent in my mouth tongue language than the official language.
I do not stress about directions anymore all I do is google then I will get the exact location. I get news around me and the world through google. With a Smartphone google playstore has provided a way for me to download many things. I downloaded a bible which is very handy just on my phone.
I got on whatsapp two years ago which is more private and easier to communicate. Whatsapp helps me connect with friends around the global at a cheaper rate. People send me jokes, sermons, images, music and videos on whatsapp. I don't feel the distance between us because we are so much intouch. Whatsapp is handy and cheaper. Now I can call and receive calls at a reduced price on whatsapp. The cost of whatssapp cannot be ignored as it is not free of charge.
Where isn’t internet available even to the poor who cannot afford it if it is really meant to help us? I get to wonder who reads our conversation, why our locations are on google maps and why these technologies are still collecting money from us. We are not so free but still colonized by these pets (smartphones) we are offered yet we pay a lot and we are made to believe we can’t do without internet which is a cost. An organization is deemed not to be serious if they do not have internet access though it is a cost. One is also looked at not to be civilized if they do not have an email address, it is coming to whatsapp now. Really these things are enslavement. People were working effectively and efficiently without internet so it is just a global trend to enslave people again.
I would like internet that is free and available anytime. Preferably I would like to access internet on my phone without the use of credit on my phone. It is true whatsapp is cheaper than an ordinary text message but you need internet to access whatsapp so it’s a matter of a fairer rate and not free access. I can’t keep a conversation running for more than 30 minutes on whatsapp because I cannot afford it. There are videos I fail to upload and send because of costs.
I have friends and relatives who cannot afford smartphones so they do not have access to whatsapp which is a barrier to communication. More than half of the people here live in absolute poverty they survive on less than a dollar each day. Imagine if they would access free internet because they have cheaper phones that have internet. Am sure they would have been even a part of this study and would have accessed other opportunities too. In times when am in remote areas I am unable to have service connection (no phone service provider) and that means no internet access as well.
Lusaka, Zambia, August 2015
A month before I turned thirteen I wanted to make an account online, to be one of the first to join the social media movement. I thought it would be a great way to connect with friends, share photos and reinvent myself for the online world. Without regret, I lied about my age, signed up and began to shape my profile. Smiling photos and clever thought-out comments all aimed to represent the best parts of myself.
As I grew older I started to become more discriminating about what types of pictures and updates I would post. I had collected too many people in my group of online friends, I had to be more responsible with what I chose to share. I hated the disapproval of distant friends when I posted a silly comments.
A few years later, the iPhone became available for me. Many of my friends already had one, boasting about the features, the ability to play games with each other and check emails at any time. I saw them all stare at their phones when we were together as a group and desperately wanted to be included in the laughs, to know what was freshly posted online.
All throughout my college career, professor after professor would emphasize the importance of our social media profiles. Keep them clean, keep them accurate or if you really want the job, get rid of them. Nothing posted online was to be viewed as safe, anything we wished to share in secret could be found by the public.
This uneasiness and lack of privacy filtered into emails and text messages. I wondered if someone could use any of my sent messages against me, even if it was out of context and twenty years old? I feared technology as frightening, always available, in writing and not going away.
When I graduated from college I spent four months applying and interviewing for the hypothetical dream job. As soon as I woke up in the morning I could log onto my computer and start submitting resumes online to the high-tech companies less than twenty minutes away from my house. I worked meticulously on my LinkedIn profile, knowing future employers would look there first to aquire an impression of me. I found myself feeling guilty when I was not online looking for a job, even on a Friday night, when I knew there would be no one on the other side to receive my resume.
I dreaded the sound of my phone ringing, feeling sick when I did not recognize the number. It could be the recruiter I was waiting for, a sales call or a friend using a work number. If I picked up, I would be unprepared for the conversation, I would not have my resume available, especially if I was out, at the grocery store or the gym. I let everything go to voicemail, unable to handle my anxiety. Many of the messages I never followed up on, they were just a voice, recorded and ignored.
I craved off time, to go for a two hour hike without needing to worry about getting pestered by someone trying to contact me. I would purposefully leave my phone at home, intending to apologize for my delayed response. I could not be away from it. It was my GPS, my alarm and access to information. My phone and all of its features became master of my life; tethering me.
It wasn't until I took a couple months away from the high-tech world to travel, I realized how unhealthy I had let my life become. I had hardly known a time in my youth without a phone, without internet and a tracking device on me. For the first time I had to figure problems out without immediately asking questions into a search engine, to use a map and to speak the basics of another language. I still had my phone with me, but it became a tool, no longer my chain. I loved the challenge of figuring out life without needing technology. Suddenly, being disconnected became freedom.
Now that I am back home, I still use technology, although my relationship with it has changed. It no longer runs my life, but enhances it. It allows me to speak with people I care about at home and in different countries. It stores and organizes information, reducing the pressure of having to remember everything, permitting me to do more with my time and resources. It still remains my tether, yet now it also frees me.
San Jose, CA, USA, September 2015
There is a great, open space that separates what you are from what you want to be.
When I was a kid growing up in California, I wanted to be beautiful. It wasn’t the product of vanity or narcissism — although I’m sure there were colors of each — but rather a desperate and inherent desire to be loved. I thought that love was not found or won; it was earned. If I wanted to be loved I had to be smart enough, funny enough, and good-looking enough to warrant the affection.
Of course, as a lazy child with mediocre genes, I wasn’t one of the lucky ones.
Delusion only got me so far. When the realization hit in sixth grade, I entered a deep funk. I was overweight, poorly dressed, and I hadn’t discovered deodorant. Faced with reality, my confidence sunk and my friendships wavered. I began a life apart from others, receding into my own world and trying to escape as often as possible.
My first successful escapes were through books.
I wanted to be strong and honorable, and so I read stories about knights and adventurers: men who were beautiful and witty and loved because they were both. Books provided different people I could become, whole worlds I could live, and so I filled my days fighting dragons instead of bullies and wandering forgotten tombs instead of the soccer pitch.
I loved books because they kept me company, and I hated them because they kept me lonely. A book is a wonderful thing, but it is also a personal and intimate thing. And while I wanted intimacy as a child, I wanted community more.
I found that community one afternoon when I was eleven years old. It was the day of my greatest escape.
There were kids in the street playing soccer, and I was inside reading Errol Flynn’s biography for the umpteenth time. Mother came home late, which was unusual, and carrying a bag from Best Buy, which was more unusual.
“Jacob,” her voice was hesitant. “I bought you something.”
She reached into the bag and withdrew a rectangular box the color of dry earth. There was a portrait of a woman with purple hair and angular eyes on the cover. The words ‘World of Warcraft’ were emblazoned in gold above her.
“What is it,” I asked.
“It’s a game,” she said. “Where you can make friends.”
“I have friends.”
She squeezed my arm and smiled. She unloaded the rest of the groceries, started the dishwasher, and left for her run. I was sitting in the kitchen wondering what the hell a Warcraft was. She was gone before I could ask her.
My father purchased a computer a few years back, but he only ever used it for solitaire. I would occasionally browse the Internet, but I didn’t understand then what the fuss was all about.
The game took forever to download. I took turns between the screen and Errol Flynn’s biography, imagining what it felt like to have a mustache and kiss Olivia de Havilland. When the game finally finished, the login screen appeared, and I saw the ruined archway for the first time.
The archway was shadowed and stained by smoke from adjacent fires. Two hooded figures carved in stone guarded the entrance. Just beyond the threshold, flickering gently like a mirage, were distant mountains illuminated by a foreign sun.
I set up an account and started creating myself. I chose the elven race: creatures that were tall and fair and beautiful. They asked for a name, and I gave them Erryl because Errol Flynn was too long and Errol was already taken.
The first thing I did was run. I sprinted back and forth on a mossy ground somewhere far away where the trees were tall and colored like night. My quests began and piled on top of one another. Soon I was entering dungeons, battling monsters, and discovering treasures I only dreamed of. I met companions on the way, joined a guild, and made more friends than enemies. I built a name for myself. The name was not my own, and yet it became mine. I was always more comfortable as Erryl than I ever was as Jacob.
I cancelled my account a while back. Not for any particular reason, but because there comes a time when everything must end. With the Internet at my fingertips, I know I can return whenever I like. I know I never will.
I’m ready for somewhere new.
Santa Clara, CA, USA, September 2015