Thursday, November 17, 2011

Always On

The generation of connectivity has taken over. We are always on.

Not many moons ago, I was a disconnected outlier. Growing up, I never had a PC or a Mac. I didn't touch a keyboard until my fifth standard. I recall my very first encounter with a computer. A real one. It was a hot Saturday afternoon and my mom had taken the day off. To have some fun together, the three of us - me, my sister and mom got out to be at Birla Museum. This is one ubiquitous museum in Kolkata. Schools plan field trips there, parents try to kindle the scientific spark in their disagreeing wards in this place, a mathematically bent individual finds himself at home here and in general visiting this Science and Technology Museum is a sure sign to show off to your neighbors about your superior intellect and choices. We found ourselves at the ticketing booth without any preconceived notions.

Once in, we headed straight for the most crowded area. The idea among Bengalis is that, if one Bengali found it worth queuing up for, it probably was worth the other Bengali's time. My mom dragged us both into a long line of standing individuals and kids. People waddled about, without much hurry. Munching peanuts and talking with a mouthful, our neighbor in queue spotted us and dropped his question.

" Ki? Compootaar dekhtey esheychhen bujhi?"
[ Did you guys come to see the Coompootaar ? ]

A moment elapsed before we made out what he said. We nodded without comprehension. My mom looked at us and said knowledgeably to the enquirer,
" Yes. My daughters have always been strong in science and I thought why not treat them with a visit to the Computer thing?"

The man smiled broadly and looked at us as affectionately as a stranger could.
" That is very good. Push them hard and you might even have Marie and Curie at your home. Heehee!" He laughed at his own obnoxious joke.

The line moved slowly. There were two huge cream colored boxes that looked like mini television sets, with a huge protrusion on its back. There were two operators seated in front of each one. They were formally attired and acted very important. As we neared the hallowed room, we saw everyone taking off their shoes. It was mandatory for the health of the computers. It was much later in my undergrad, that this rule was repealed.Thanks to the massive amount of shoe thievery and swapping, prevalent among shoe-conscious undergrads at BITS.

Once in, we waited with bated breath to near the computers. Time was limited. Only five minutes per interaction. I waited for my turn.

" Who is going to play?" asked the bespectacled operator as we neared him. My mother pushed me ahead as an answer.

The man scanned me from head to toe and asked in a patronizing tone, " Have you seen one before?"
I nodded my head from side to side to indicate a negative.

He expected nothing else. He went straight into his well rehearsed monologue.

" This is the latest computer. The computer was first invented as a gigantic calculator by Charles Babbage. "

He looked at me sternly when I giggled at the name. I was thinking in rhymes and cabbage seemed so appropriate.
When I smothered my inept frivolity, he launched back into his speech.

" From then to now, the computer has been radically miniaturized and now looks like this machine. Take a good look", he said sweeping his hand like a magician showing off his best trick with pride, " this device is so powerful and yet so compact. It does calculations in a jiffy, and has nifty games "
I ogled at it hard. It looked like a gigantic TV, we had at home and although it didn't play games with me, it showed images in color. This thing was all about black and white.
It sounded amazing to me that the device would play with me. Till then all I had was my twin. Although she was fun, there were severe limitations to her gaming capabilities. Like for instance, there was no way she would play with me a game of Chess if she lost twice. Or if I smacked her hard for winning (which rarely occurred, of course), she would make so much ruckus that all gaming notions would be swiftly dispelled.

I took one more step closer to the machine.
The bespectacled wise man, smiled broadly.
" This one is made by IBM - International Business Machines and is called Lexmark. I have loaded a great game on it - Paratrooper! You can play it for 3 minutes!"

I was delighted. I inched close to the keyboard. There was a joystick (I found the name later), that the man operated to demonstrate how to play the game. My imagination ran wild when I laid my eyes on the monitor.

The black screen was dotted with white tiny helicopters.There was a small canon firing bombs at the helicopters and at the descending parachutes of men. Every time it hit something, the score increased. The fireworks that went off, with every hit was amazing. It was all in black and white but I saw how unique this "Compootaar" was. The image could be out of any low budget war movie, but in this one, I could change the script as I liked. I controlled the destinies of these parachuting soldiers. I eagerly grabbed the joy stick from the operator and tried to control the fate of the game.
Needless to say, I was a complete failure.

Coordinating a real hardware with a virtual canon on the screen, required more dexterity than I thought. Soon, the parachutes and helicopters overwhelmed my tiny canon. I had missed way more than I had hit. My score plummeted and my canon was hit by a mega bomb from some descending soldier. The game was over.

Confident that she would do way better, my sister approached the machine. She had listened and looked on intently when the operator was explaining things to me.
The moment the joystick came into her palm, my sister dominated. The canon fired balls, I never knew it had. The parachutes and people fell from the sky in vast numbers. Her three minutes were over, but her performance made the bespectacled gentleman, urge her to continue. For the next seven minutes my sister thrashed the life out of Paratroopers. She made the highest score and the operator delightfully clapped his hands together and remarked,

"Darun darun ( Awesome) !!! Well done! You have the highest score I have ever seen! Very well done!" My sister and my mother beamed brightly, just as my face darkened.

Bengalis, if they spot a spark, tend to pontificate. The operator had spotted the Ultimate Gamer of tomorrow and just had to give his share of advice to my mom.

"You are a very lucky mother. "Your THIS daughter" , pointing carefully at my sister and avoiding me altogether, "Has a rare gift". Trust me, this computer will become our future and in that future your daughter will rule. You should let her be near computers more often. If you can, come regularly to our Science Lab and Science Sessions. She will gain a lot of knowledge and experience there."

Almost as an afterthought he added, looking at me, squinting his eyes doubtfully,
"She can come too...."

My mother went into a gushing bout of joyous emotions. When she was done, we left the queue, with interested bystanders peering at my sister as some mini celebrity. I gave them all my perfected dirty look.

My mother took the suggestion seriously. The very next year we enrolled in their three month Summer Computer Camp. At the end of the session, my sister bagged the first prize and 15K rupees. We had learnt all about BASIC and LOGO, two currently ancient languages. That was just the beginning.

At school, Computer Science became a regular class. Drawing pictures, learning to code and to appreciate ALU, playing "Prince of Persia", I grew up with the wonder of Computers. BITS, Pilani had its own email forum, and for the first time, I used "pine" and created my first email account. Sending and receiving email became an insatiable addiction. Unlike an IPhone, that updates your inbox rather rapidly, finding a new email in an inbox was like undertaking a pilgrimage, in BITS. From the far flung hostel, one had to cycle twenty minutes to reach the IPC (Institute Processing Centre), leave his or her shoes outside,( praying to find them when they came out),and wait in line as the inching queue of eager students waited for a vacant device. Finally when you grabbed one, and held your breath as the inbox opened, one found, "No New Mails!" At the height of frustration, I have heard of students who emailed themselves just to see the euphoric line, "You've Got Mail!"

From BITS to UCLA, where Internet was created, my discovery of Computers and what they can achieve kept expanding. Engrossed in the study of semiconductors, I thoroughly appreciated Moore's law. The gigantic television sized computer of Kolkata shrunk drastically to a mini palm held device, and with every progress the computer made, it sucked in its users like a whirlpool's vortex. That leads me to my profound title.

An IPhone made staying connected and being followed infinitely easy. So much of our lives are public property. Within our individual social circles, we roam as celebrities. Much of our information is online. I have googled myself several times, and with every search the body of knowledge available, increases. I have noticed the phenomenon transform into an addiction. Staying away from the world wide web is like being a fish out of water. I have lived three months of my life without Internet and TV in this very Silicon Valley. That, even to myself is a great feat. My Chinese friend, finds herself updating her status, thoughts, whereabouts, fears, likes and personality like an open web page. Access is open to every one who cares. She is always on. Her clan is growing rapidly around me.

I miss those delightful nights in Kolkata, when power shut down. When every gadget was turned off. The sky was void of light pollution and stars shone brightly. There were no beeps, alarms, vibrations or ring tones.Men and women could be off the grid, and enjoy being there. It is impossible to imagine it now.

I wonder what is next. Now I delight in having the power to switch my IPhone off. I delight in having at least the option to hide away from the circles that seek me, occasionally. Will that right be there in the future? I wonder to myself, if "Always On" is just a sedge way for being "Never Off".

Maybe 2012 will reveal more, who know?


Anonymous said...

Awesome. Your humor is always fresh and entertaining. Keep those stories flowing.

Maven said...

Very well written! Not sure if you read this article on WSJ talking about this and how people are now deliberately switching "off"?!!