New year beginnings can be tricky. In the attention deficit, accelerated reality, distributed lives that we live, events are short and memories short-lived. Yet, in order to prepare for the year to come it might be necessary to remember the year that has been. This time last year, we were still waiting for #acchedin — something that seems to be long shrouded in history, eroded by time. It is common practice to shuffle through the timeline and browse through calendars to remember what we have forgotten. It would be impossible for me to compete with these automated apps that predict our histories and write our futures, determining what was important, marking landmarks in our lives through metrics that remain invisible to us.
So, instead of trying to provide a summary of the year that has been, it might be more critically important to focus on the state of the internet as the new millennium matures. For me, one of the most central way in which the internet has made itself inevitable to our lives is through becoming a saviour tool. Never before have networked and communication technologies been so wonderfully present in crises management. The social web has risen as a way of keeping ourselves informed of critical events, mitigating our grief in times of strife, and operationalising rescue missions that have saved lives and made dealing with turbulent times easier.
It was the internet that broke the news of violent terrorist attacks around the world, from Beirut to Paris, helping us realise the gravity of our political precariousness. It was the internet that allowed for a strong critique to emerge when the world attention prioritised some tragedies as more important than others, privileging certain geographies and locations over others. It was also through the internet that we were called into action, reminded of the humanity that often gets sidelined in daily practices. The images of children dying in their quest for seeking refuge, running away from unlivable presents and unimaginable futures, mobilised entire nations to change their policies and reconsider their politics about global relationships and governance. And it was also the internet that helped us give voice and our support, solidarity and resources to those in need. Be it #ChennaiFloods or the call-to-arms against global warming, we found the digital domain a way of establishing connections, of finding connectivity, and of operationalising empathy in tiring times.
Ironically, 2015 was also the year when the internet, our saviour, was also in dire need of saving. Like prophets of the old who needed protection for their brave acts of truth speaking, the internet is also in need of protection. The alarming political milieu that does not sit very easily with voices of dissent have tried to exercise futile but persistent clamping down on free speech online. In India, it has been a year of bans for us, where we have tried to ban everything from what we eat, who we love and how we live, to what we share, what we produce and what we speak. Never before has the internet been in such a fragile state, as increasingly governments seek to black out the net, leaving its citizens without as much as a trickle of traffic, in the guise of national interest and public safety.
The internet is also equally under attack from the very corporations that have made their money out of the digital web. It is the old story of profits over prophets. Despite the increasing need for the internet to be not only accessible, but also true to the fundamental principles of non discrimination, transparency, neutrality and accessibility, there is a strong private lobby that is pushing for the internet as we know it to be replaced. We enter the new year where big companies like Facebook are using their incredible clout and resources to dismiss net neutrality, and replace it with #FreeBasics, where, under the pretext of granting access to the people on the other side of the digital divide, they are introducing a system of digital discrimination that does not bode well for the future of our digital lives.
As we march boldly into the new year, the internet is going to be our mainstay for dealing with whatever is in store for us. From celebrations of joy when we win our battles for building free, just and open societies, to voicing our despair at the continued stalemates that our current global situations provide, the digital is going to remain the space that we turn to, to save us. At the same time, the internet is also going to need a strong support so that it retains the foundational values of free and open that has led to its ubiquitous emergence as the saving and transformational force. It might be a good idea to start realising that saving us and saving the internet are closely aligned, if not inextricably linked, and that our new year resolutions might need to accommodate this simultaneity.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society Bangalore.
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