Nishant (latelyontime) wrote,
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The Importance of Being Cautious - Hindu Featured Article

About a week ago, in the middle of wondering about the myriad mysteries of government and trying to gather our jaws from the floor, where they had dropped in response to the latest government glitches on the e-governance projects that we are working on and monitoring at Comatjace received a phone call. It was from The Hindu and they were looking for a response feature on the recent 'Orkut Deaths' for their Sunday Magazine. jace, who was overworked with the obscenities of work, passed it on to me and as a result, this Sunday, The Hindu, on the front page of their Sunday Mag, featured my article on The Importance of Being Cautious.

I am reproducing the article here:

The recent debates and media attention on the two tragic deaths, of the teenager Adnan Patrawala and the young Koushambi Layek, both of whom left traces of their lives and relationships on the Google owned Social Networking System Orkut, have garnered interest in social networking systems, communication on the web, and technology enabled relationships. Both the cases have been dubbed as ‘Orkut Deaths’ and other social networking systems like Friendster, Facebook, Myspace or Livejournal, have all come under new scrutiny. Discussions have concentrated on the dangers of deception and the perils of being online, connecting with anonymous strangers and talking to people behind facades of profiles and avtaras. Is being on these networks and sharing personal information, catching up with old friends and hooking up with new ones, dangerous? Is the web with its anonymity such a huge threat? Are we really a risk when we share personal and professional information online? Is it time to cut off the chord, switch off the computer, lock the door and never step back on the information highway?

Caution is a virtue in the volatile and turbulent times that we live in. We practice it on a daily basis, in all our transactions with people and places. When we go to a movie hall, we make sure that we report any unattended objects. We advice our children not to talk to strangers or accept sweets from people they do not know. When we meet somebody on the train, we don’t give out our personal home address and telephone numbers. We don’t take the person who smiles at us across a bar, to our homes. At the airport we don’t leave our luggage with somebody else to go and buy a coffee. While traveling alone in an auto at night, we don’t fall asleep, hoping that the driver will reach us our destination. The cities that we live in remind us of the danger that lurks beneath the surface and the possibility of fatality that surrounds us – we walk through metal detectors, we are physically frisked, we see ourselves captured on surveillance cameras, we encounter law enforcement representatives, we see signs warning us of pickpockets and mobile pickers, we hear stories about robberies and kidnappings – and hence we have learnt to exercise caution in our daily mechanics of survival.

But there is something about the seductive nature of the internet that makes us drop this long learnt virtue and enter into states of revelation that we otherwise would look upon as unthinkable. Especially on social networking systems, which hold the promise of connecting us to the entire world, with a blind faith that the entire world is made up of people just like us, harmless and interesting, there is an ease with which we reveal our personal information and lives. People who visited Koushambi’s profile on Orkut after her death were shocked at the amount of personal information – her love, her desire, her affections – that she had left for public viewing on her ‘Scraps’. Adnan, who wasn’t marked out in particular but became a chance target for a group of peers who needed to pay up their debts, left on his own profile, traces of his opulent wealth and his blindly trusting conversations with a faceless, nameless ‘Angel’ who eventually lured him to his death. Both these tragic heroes of our times, without the help of signs and warnings, unlearned their behaviour, trusted strangers without knowing them and made these potential threats a part of their lives, leading to sad and gruesome endings.

It would be unseemly, nay, stupid to blame the internet technologies or that one particular site for these deaths. If anything, the public nature of Orkut and other such social networking systems should be celebrated because they hold testimony to the dangers that dropping caution can lead to. In both the cases, the scraps actually served as leads for the police to investigate and eventually capture the perpetrators of the crimes. In both the cases, the public nature of the scraps and the ability to see their profiles, also allowed thousands of strangers to offer their condolences and support to the family and the community that knew these two young people.

Demands that these sites be regulated/censored/shut-down are just voices of people who are steeped in techno-phobia and are unable to understand the nature or aesthetics of these new technological forms. A call for banning Orkut or dragging other social networking systems under the lens of suspicion is the same as looking upon train and air travel with suspicion and considering banning these systems of transportation. While monitoring younger children in their internet usage is a good thing, just like monitoring their television watching habits is desirable, any calls for a banning of either the internet or the social networks that it introduces are a reflection of interalised fear and demonisation of technologies.

We must move away from this headless brouhaha and address the question which is immediately at hand: The importance of being cautious while on the internet. The web has developed as a medium that is casual, close, tight-knit and individualistic, thus giving a false sense of security, safety and familiarity. A dismissal of the web as ‘just the internet’ also dismisses the dangers of revealing too much online. Caution on the web often gets translated as being uptight of prudish. In the accelerated time of the www, caution becomes a barrier in the joy of immediate gratification of imagined intimacies, and hence often thrown to the wind. We need to question our own understanding of these new social spaces. We need to re-learn our need to be cautious, and evolve signs that remind us to be safe and to be guarded while encountering strangers in the night, no matter how seductive, how alluring and how familiar they might appear.

Tags: caution, cybercultures, orkut, orkut deaths, social networking systems
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