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More Power to the Internet

It’s been interesting to see the frenzy around banning social media sites, blocking individual twitter accounts, etc. in the wake of the large exodus of people of North Eastern origin from Bangalore and other cities, after spurious texts and other messages started floating around. Of course, I really feel for those who felt that they had to flee– that community’s acute sense of marginalisation from the mainstream is something we are all responsible for. It’s also a stark reminder of how much faith they have in the law and order machinery’s intent and ability to provide for their basic rights of safety as citizens.

But this post is not about marginalised communities. Its more related to the clumsy efforts from the powers that be to censor the internet, as a response mechanism.  I find it amusing that governments harbour hopes of exercising control over a medium as powerful as the internet. Those of us who have the privilege of internet access everyday of our lives take it so much for granted now, it is worthwhile to pause and think of the incredible ways it is changing our world. I was reminded of its transformative ability , as I listened to an engaging talk on Crowdsourcing by Luis Von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University, at our recent annual academic summit.

One of the great things about working where I do, is that I get to see/hear/meet some really clever people and attend fascinating talks. Von Ahn is acknowledged as one of the best brains on crowdsourcing and is the founder of reCAPTCHA – the service where you see those distorted pair of words on websites, which you have to type again correctly to authenticate that you are a real human being and not some computer generated bot.  Like me, if you think that it’s a pain to type these words time and again on the internet, you’ll be glad to know that you have been enlisted in the largest crowdsourcing project ever undertaken on the planet, which has helped digitise millions of books. Those distorted words you see on the screen are actual words taken from real books, and by entering them correctly, you have been doing your bit for the cause of digital information access across the world. An astounding 950 Million internet users, almost all of them unknowingly, have contributed to the book digitisation project, and you’re one of them.  Feel good now, don’t you?

Von Ahn’s current passion is to use crowdsourcing to make the quality of language translation on the web so good that you should be able to read any website in any language, for free.  Visit Duolingo.com, for more details.

Von Ahn also made another insightful observation in his talk  – he says that in the history of humanity, before the internet, it was impossible to logistically co-ordinate efforts involving a very large number of people – the Pyramids, the Moon landing (RIP, Neil Armstrong), and the Panama Canal, are offered as examples. It seems that the total number people involved in each of these endeavours were about 100,000 – which, in his view, was possibly the largest number of people that could be co-ordinated for a large project (Yes, I did do a quick search on the Taj  Mahal –  20,000 people were involved, apparently). And then of course, the internet came and changed everything. Duolingo, for example, hopes to have 100 Million people crowdsourced for the translation effort. Incredible, isn’t it?

I have often played with the thought of being born in an earlier era, say 150 years ago… and have always come away with the feeling I would much rather have preferred to live in those times, rather than now. Many reasons for this, topic for another post.

However, there is one thing from the present that I would really have given an arm and leg for,  in those times – the internet. I wouldn’t have missed anything else, really.

What about you? If you were living in the 19th century, what’s the one thing from your current life that you really couldn’t do without?

P.S: Here is the link to Luis Von Ahn’s talk – 10 minutes of brilliance. Watch.

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Categories: Culture, Internet
  1. August 27, 2012 at 8:38 am

    I have to respond as a woman to that question. The 19th century sucked bigtime for women. I’ll take my own century any day, thank you.

    • August 28, 2012 at 10:54 am

      Yes, Deepa. Agree with you on that one.

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