The day is long gone, when I had to wait until mid-morning for my father to let go of the only newspaper we used to get. He would come from the market and sit on the veranda with his tea and the paper before going to office. Some days he was late from the market giving us a free access to the paper, but most days by the time I got up for breakfast it was too late. He would let go of the paper not because he was done, but he was getting late for office. He would have another go at it in the evening after his work. By lunch I would be done with the paper, or at least the bits I was interested in, and look forward to the neighbors’ paper which came as a part of post lunch exchange program. Besides these two newspapers, we had nightly news on the TV. In those days, that was all the access to news we had.
Things have surely changed: today there are round the clock cable news always on Internet. My father still reads his newspaper, but I do not have to wait for him to finish. We have access to all the news all the time: instant access to all kinds of news that are updated faster than I can change the channel or refresh my screen. If there is one thing we lack it is the time. Technology has surely made a profound impact on news.
I am told by my friends who intimately interact with technology that this digital revolution would democratize the creation, production, distribution, and consumption of news. That may be true, but a report published on the US media only days ago says otherwise: instead of diversity there is a narrowing of news since most of the Internet sites just repackage the same news instead of providing new voices. This does not mean that future of news is doomed in the Internet age. But it surely points to the weakness of the argument that Internet will automatically democratize the news. Internet is here to stay, but how we use it is still up to us: it has no inherent agenda until we assign one.
Today I have access to many newspapers. But how different are the news today? Like any other day the murders and mayhem grab the headlines: there is the news on China’s crack down on Tibet and India’s reaction to it; the court case on the murder of Shivani Bhatnagar ; the expected execution of Sarabjit. Then there is the news on economic woes that is looming large: Sensex is sinking, fear of job loss due to US recession, close to Rs 25 lakh crore erosion of investor wealth since Jan 2008. Would I not get these news in the old fashioned way?
Surely technology has provided the potential for instant access to all news, but it is not a guaranteed right: China blocked YouTube on Sunday to prevent videos of the protests in Tibet. And China is not alone, Pakistan did it just few weeks ago. Not only technology can guarantee access, it can face old problems in unexpected places: The social site Facebook got entangled in Middle East conflict. As for democratization, more and more consolidation cannot be the path to it: even Google is crying foul on Microsoft and Yahoo deal.
Technology has brought new problems: infringement on privacy is one of them. The father of Web is pleading for protection of privacy on the Internet, but not many are listening. Then there is spam: even Indian government has realized the problem with this intrusion in the mobile space and proposed hefty fine up to Rs 20,000 for unwanted call or SMS to any number listed on do-not-call list. The spam king is facing 20 years of prison.
Of course, there is a personal side to this revolution. We can auction off our life online. Technology has made it possible for live broadcast of suicide so that our loved ones can watch us die. Of course, the public viewing is going to come soon.
The Internet may be the new way, but it cannot escape the old saying: we have better and better technology for distributing the same old stupidity.