The Pak Tea Houses of old may be gone, but online spaces have emerged in the void. Now as then, artists and intellectuals need not be legion to fulfil their service to their country; a drop of colour in a pail of water can go a long way
As the internet approaches adulthood, developing countries are asking themselves: where will the new media take us? What unbeaten paths will it reveal, what stubborn obstacles will it bridge, what darkness will it melt away? Of all the wonders that man has wrought, new media is unique; it rises not steadily but exponentially, a technological doubling and redoubling in shorter and shorter spans of time, a terrifying and exhilarating rush to an unknown singularity.
One of the greatest draws of the new media in underdeveloped countries is emotional rather than empirical: the imagery it evokes — of borders melting away before the glare of anonymous commonality, of the sum total of earth’s knowledge in the palm of anyone’s hand, of a gossamer web woven across mankind, knowledge and emotions sliding to and fro like dewdrops upon its silken threads — is frankly breathtaking.
But we overstate its grand promise at our peril. We are not South Korea, where high speed internet is as common as coffee mugs. Nor are we even like Iran, where sweeping literacy and home-grown translation fuelled the “Twitter revolution”.
Though the temptations are sinfully grand, aiming too high is the surest way to miss any viable target. The one laptop per child project, for example, promised to revolutionise education for the poor by making it joyful, interactive and dynamic. Its lustrous sails are immediately slashed, however, by poorly trained teachers and an inefficient governmental dispensation network. E-books could theoretically feed an exponential increase in reading with a free library at everyone’s fingertips, but what use would they be in the vast swathes of the country without basic literacy, let alone electricity and internet networks?
Writing for English publications in Pakistan, I find comfort in a soothing mirage: a constellation of hearts and minds touched, perhaps ennobled by my pen. For this article, I must set down this pretence (softly, so as to pick it up again later) and acknowledge that we address only the educated, the elite, the well-heeled minuscule minority. If Pakistan were a haystack, they could pass through the eye of a hidden needle.
Having said that, however, this minority is never mute, never insignificant. This tiny class of people has always been able to punch above their weight, and social media empowers them further. There are true boons that the new media grants Pakistan, and to overlook is no less a crime than to overestimate.
I will begin with the most prominent feature of new media: its freedom. In countries like ours, where censorship was long a given, recently a nightmare and not yet a distant memory, the online community is a reserve force of inestimable worth. The blogosphere exists, to quote the last (and certainly least) of the Indiana Jones’ movies, “in the space between spaces”. It is a lawless region, and lawlessness is the flipside of freedom. Its unassuming, quiet power was seen in Iran, when the mighty Council of Guardians was nearly brought low by an application boasting fewer characters than this sentence, a social network whose mascot looks for all the world like one of the bluebirds in Cinderella. In our own recent past, a dictator who locked down the very sky could not stop the signal.
If every Pakistani channel was snatched from the air tomorrow, new media would hold the line, not by clumping together like the Spartan 300, but by spreading its numbers to every corner of the world. The very intangibility of the internet renders it incredibly robust. The blogosphere would skip messages like stones across the vastness of oceans and continents, setting the world abuzz as it did in Pakistan, Lebanon and Iraq during times of crisis. YouTube would air images that no channel could carry, the drama and sincerity only enhanced by their raw amateurishness. New media has the power to stir the people, and shake the authorities.
New media is also a Godsend to the young creative forces of our country. Any film student or amateur photographer with a decent camera and a fresh idea can share their vision with the world. Any aspiring writer can find communities of peers across the world and trade writing samples. Our young artists and thinkers, our maestros in the making, can access far more exposure, community feedback and constructive critique than formal institutions in Pakistan typically afford. A world of vibrancy and versatility has opened up. The Pak Tea Houses of old may be gone, but online spaces have emerged in the void. Now as then, artists and intellectuals need not be legion to fulfil their service to their country; a drop of colour in a pail of water can go a long way.
Perhaps the most practical implementations of new media in developing countries, however, have been SMS to internet technologies.
In China, for example, a programme called Cool English incorporates SMS messages into its overarching goal of making English ‘fun’ to learn. Sierra Leone’s national election was monitored by 500 election observers at polling stations reporting any irregularities via SMS, a practice swiftly catching on worldwide thanks to a few innovative NGOs. The UmNyango Project in South Africa sets up rural women with free text messaging to report on domestic abuse, giving a voice to those who suffer for speaking openly. Local-language SMS projects in India and Bangladesh dispense healthcare information to expecting mothers.
In a country with more cell phones than scandals (and more scandals than grass), these technologies have an obvious practical potential and are already utilised in Pakistan’s private sector. A private news channel, for example, has a citizen journalism project that accepts updates on their website via SMS (text, picture or video).
Our immediate future lies with broadcast media, not the internet. But whereas the former allows us only to consume what is set before us (however broad the menu), the latter enables us to become chefs unto ourselves, to serve up what we have to offer to the world. Be it ultimately lauded or derided, that is a profound endowment.
Pakistan has in new media a tool and a resource that must be utilised. What we do not have, however, is a technological shortcut to a brave new world. We cannot avoid the unglamorous work of building centuries-old institutions — political, social, educational and economic. No tool can refine, sculpt or mould what is not there.
Zaair Hussain is a Lahore-based freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org