Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Communication Journey

When Mark Zuckerberg created an application called Facebook, it was another application that changed the way people communicated with each other. Friends were “connections” and simply clicking on a ‘Like’ button said so much more than what realms of words could say. As a budding 30 year old who has learned to accept Facebook as yet another necessary evil, I feel sometimes so overwhelmed by the changes that have taken place in our interactions. We were part of the transitionary generation that saw how modern communication changed so drastically.

The 80s kid was not so different from his earlier generations when it came to communication. The poor inland letter and post card still swayed heavily in our lives; there was practically no other way that people communicated with each other and so secretaries were still relevant at that time. The ubiquitous red shining post box and the messenger – the genial postmen – were revered objects in any household. You were careful to tip him lest he decided not to give us our letters (I remember a serial in Doordarshan which was about a postman who dies one day and his son realizes that there are hundreds of unposted letters that his father had left; he decides to be a nice man and posts the backlog of years, resulting in difficult situations..can’t remember the name of the serial).

Letter writing was an important part of all language classes – 20 marks in the Class X exam – and I remember students were always unsure whether the From Address needed to be written to the right of left and where the subject of the letter had to be written. Inland letters at 1 Re each were widely used but post cards were dirt cheap and typically the poor man's favoured choice. They became hugely popular thanks to Siddharth Kak's 'Surabhi'. The huge popularity of the programme lead to the Government introducing competition post cards and increasing their price.

While letters and post cards were friendly stuff, telegrams were the spooky ones. Normally telegrams were associated only with deaths and bad news; I guess bad news always travelled much faster. Since the pricing of a telegram was based on the number of words used, we would often argue on what to be put in a telegram. I have a slightly happier memory of the telegram; my class X exam result was sent to me by Achchan by telegram while we were enjoying our summer vacations in Palakkad.

We never had a telephone in those days and the STD booths which dotted the surface of India were the only way to call up people. Since people rarely had telephones then, the STD booth only served to make phone calls to offices and schools. The phone booth was a brain wave of Sam Pitroda and played in important role in connecting rural India to the rest of the world.

When I joined my engineering college in Coimbatore, we realized that the phone had become a necessity. During initial days of the college, I would call up our neighbour’s house in Hyderabad at night and they would call my parents who would promptly wait there till I made a phone call again. The logistical difficulty and embarrassment of this situation was overcome then by finally applying for and getting a landline phone. This was in 1996-97 and by then many houses had land line phones but then we were a bit slowly to catch the consumerism wagon.

Despite the land lines catching up a lot, I continued my romance with writing letters. If I had to write less, I would use an inland letter but I preferred writing in normal A-4 pages and sending them to home through postal cover, duly stamped based on the weight of the cover. We were a strongly democratic family and I enjoyed pouring my words on those A-4 sheets and Achchan/brother and I would discuss everything under the sun in all seriousness. Every time we returned to the Boys Hostel from college, we would search for our names on the Notice board to see if we had any letters. The hostel warden would then hand over the letters to us; of course, there was a suspicion that the wardens opened letters that they suspected were from girls and then closed them back (I have no idea how they would figure the gender of the writer of the letter)!!!

Making phone calls from college was also a tedious job; there was a public booth and boys and girls would crowd the place by 8.30 pm (the night rates were probably half the day ones) and it would be almost an hour by the time the entire exercise of making the phone call was completed. The bills would always be high in the absence of an electronic meter and a couple of rupees here and then still pinched. Of course, the phone booth had also become a meeting point for throbbing hearts and so the college started separate booths for boys and girls!!! The telephone book was an important piece of stationary those days where everyone’s names would be arranged alphabetically and we always remembered the numbers of the names that were frequently used.

The first time I saw a mobile was during the days of TECHWAVES – a symposium conducted by our department Production Engineering in college. I think it was in Sreeprabhu’s hands that I saw a mobile. The rates were close to 16 Rs/minute and that too for incoming; you would be a fool to even think of buying a mobile then. The pager had come and gone and it was a device that was consigned to the footnotes of technology pretty fast.

It was in my first or second year that I created my first email ID. Vivek helped me in creating a Rediff email ID and taught me how to use it except ofcourse I did not have anyone to mail to. Browsing the internet was still a premium activity and not so easy; we were told that using Internet we could search for a lot of stuff but I am not sure it meant anything much. Our antennas were more receptive to the use of Internet when we were told by net savvy guys that the net was the best place to search for porn and the only website that we knew was Google – the world that showed everything that you ever wanted to see and know (even what you didn’t want to know, actually).

During MBA days, most students had a mobile but not me as I was a day scholar. My brother had a bulky Nokia mobile but it was still out of bounds then. My first mobile came through my first salary and even then it came of a necessity of being in touch with family since I was in Mumbai and they were in Hyderabad. A bright, shining Nokia handset with a decent prepaid charge of about Rs 500 which was used primarily for receiving calls and making missed calls (It is interesting to note that 25-30% of all calls in India are missed calls according to a telecom survey done 2-3 years ago).

The phone rates have fallen drastically since then and the mobile is a device that is practically found with everyone even if the primary function may vary from people to people. I am still happy with a mobile that helps me in making and receiving calls and sending messages but with the advent of new phones, basic telephony is probably out of the way. Land line phones in urban Indian homes primarily serve the purpose of acting as Address proof documents but it is still present in most homes and for old people, mobiles are still difficult to handle.

Communication is much easier now and so while the ability to communicate is there, the intent to do so still has to be there but social networks help in masking the lack of intent. Orkut introduced the power of social networking and so suddenly long lost friends came back to our lives. Private lives were much more into the open and interacting was through ‘scrapping’ but looks like Orkut is going the pager way – decimated by the power of Facebook. The whole world’s is one big networking place and everyone who can connect to the network now has a profile.

Simply clicking on a button and messaging people on Facebook has made interaction so easy. People simply put down their private thoughts online and want everyone, including strangers to read them and even respond but honestly, other than your near and dear, why should it matter to anyone else what you to do day in and day out?

Friendships are not formed by connecting or networking with people; the web simply creates a mirage where people sitting on laptops talk to each other and the world because of our craving to be recognized, liked and wanted by more and more people. When we update our status, it is a message to everyone else that you want to be heard. Imagine what would happen if you keep updating your status and not a soul responds—don’t worry, that would not happen..the Facebook edifice may not ever be written..


  1. You earned the "like" for the last few lines. j/k;-)... Good write up!

  2. Pradeep@ I am floored...what a flow..this is one piece I really enjoyed some place it almost felt like readinga Rk NARAYAN'S Malgudy Days and also had the flair of Mr.Gangadhar who used to write in HINDU supplement..Keep it up

  3. As someone who was a kid in fifties, I guess I come in almost at the beginning of your communication revolution! Enjoyed reading it, and remembered the old days. Thanks.

  4. Pradeep...its a great read, i had completely forgot about the Q to make a phone call during college...throughly enjoyed reading this...

  5. Yes, this is a very comprehensive and complete walk down the memory-lane of the communication-revolution from the mid 80's. Nice how even Surabhi has been woven in. Yes, the competition postcards for two rupees, so that the regular ones could stay at 25paise (or was it 15?)!
    I got the Nokia 3310 when incoming calls were charged and I remember being furious with mum especially. I was still a student at the time, and the whole family being in different cities was cited as why we all SHOULD have one. With some mixed-up thoughts and leftist leanings born more of ignorance and good intentions than anything else, I tried telling here about the capitalist ploy to personalise technology to create markets where there are none. LOL! I'm glad my head has cooled down and cleared-up since