I still distinctly remember the millennial year, 2000, for two reasons. One, that was the year I finished my Class X, with distinction. I still remember the anxiety wracked summer months while awaiting the CBSE board results, intermittently laced with the inevitable humour of the tall tales spun by fellow-students of their equally dubious forthcoming results. Two, that was the first time I spent considered time in a cyber café familiarising myself with the Internet and its then latest phenomenon, Google.
In the times when the landline was a rarity and the mobile phone, a luxury beyond the reach of the middle class masses, it was to be expected that the Internet would be but a curiosity. My generation was hailed in a similar manner to how Frodo was as the ring-bearer was, by the rest of the fellowship of the ring. The older generations looked at us in awe as we ineptly wandered in the wilderness of the then-newly arrived Excel and Word applications. The incalculable hours spent gazing at the fade in-fade out feature of the PowerPoint application netted us nothing in terms of educational value but did drive us to participate in the coming of the digital age of India.
When the Class X results were first out on the CBSE site, the emphasis was as much on this new tech-savvy way the results were viewed as the magical numbers that marked me out as an academic nonagenarian. The cyber cafes did roaring business in the first half of last decade, before computers and laptops became commonplace. This was an era when Mark Zuckerberg was still an unknown undergrad in Harvard and Gmail was a novelty available to the masses only via an invitation from an existing user. Yahoo ruled the roost and the first iPhone was still years away. Today, we cannot imagine a day, not even an hour, we won’t checking our email, Facebook or Twitter on our smart phones or tablets.
This leads me to a bunch of interesting what-if questions. What if Mark Zuckerberg had never left Harvard and never invented Facebook? What if no other market player had the wherewithal to challenge Yahoo’s market dominance and Google had remained a search engine? What if Steve Jobs had never returned to Apple in the late-1990s after being ousted in an ugly boardroom battle a decade earlier?
Here is how the world would have possibly looked now.
1. We would still be using clunky handheld phones with huge keypads and, horrors, an antenna.
2. Alibaba would have replaced Yahoo and taken over the world. Billions of users would be fluent in Chinese.
3. The multi-billion dollar apps for smartphones would not exist in the absence of… well…. smart phones.
4. The emergence of India as an economic powerhouse and a technological superstar would have been delayed.
5. No Facebook and Twitter. You would still be keeping intouch with people the old fashioned way. By calling them. Or via yahoomail.
Now, that is a dystopian future that scares us all.
Even in this digital age of faceless contacts and being a tiny drop in the ocean of talent available, it’s worth remembering that all we have now was made possible by the ingenuity and hard work of just a few men in recent history.
Author’s note: This article was published in “The Hindu” – India’s leading newspaper in Nov 2017.