Doc, we're rotting under the icing


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Category: Reflections Date: 04 Nov 99

The virtual world is irresistible. Itís better than having your own shrink. I talk to people I probably would have never met.


The icing is pretty but the core is rotten. And what we are seeing is lack of social mobility. Once weíve lost that, weíll lose all hope.


I know the limitations of the Internet, Doc, which is why I am here. I know itís just part of a Band-Aid, a superficial paint job.


Doc, I have a problem with an addiction. Itís the computer. Itís the Internet. Itís ICQ, itís chat rooms, itís hotmail, search engines, games, sonnets and the smut. Every slip of human thought - whimsical, random or clinical - has a vent. Itís the first thing I turn on when I get home, the last thing I turn off at night. I rush back to it like a terrible addiction. Do I want to know about string instruments, or find out about the conflict in Kashmir, or how to make mulled wine? It obliges, entertains and interacts like no one else.


You canít blame me. The computer has been good to me. It has tracked down friends I thought Iíd lost forever, reunited me with family I didnít know existed, rekindled friendships from Port-of-Spain to Jerusalem. And, because itís all written down, itís real. You must know, Doc, it is easier to write from your gut and heart than speak from them.


In short, I canít keep my hands off the keyboard. Last week, I notched up 56 extra hours on it. WowNet sent me a stern warning and a big bill. So I am in severe withdrawal. I have pulled the plug, Doc, to a wide web of friends and information and it breaks my heart. It takes everything I have to not to start up the connection again. The thing is, the virtual world is irresistible. Itís better than having your own shrink. (Sorry, Doc.) Instead of muttering to myself, I now talk to people I would have probably never met in my life: in Nigeria, Japan, India and Spain - in chat rooms - baring my soul and airing my views as a woman living in the West Indies.


My virtual personality is better than playing mas. I can be anything I want: man or woman, beast or angel. I can take off and put on masks, experiment with personalities. I can play at being witty and daring and obnoxious, maudlin or argumentative; and the worst the master of the chat room can do is throw me out.


Before I came here, I was in a chat room with a Pakistani, an Indian, a Scotsman, an Englishman, a Nigerian, a Brazilian, an American, a Jamaican, and a Canadian. They asked me about my country. I told the Pakistani and Indian that, although we have undercurrents, we donít let the poor starve while we build bombs to defend ourselves from one another. And the thing is, they agree. Both agree that conflict between the two countries is like ripping off the arms of a single body, that we are the same people. We three agreed that it is always in the interest of the power-hungry to keep religious or ethnic conflict alive.


The Jamaican understood when I described it as a place where a sales girl can get her skull broken for doing her job over a pen worth a dollar and 25 cents in a busy street.


The American said he knew what I meant when I said I go to sleep with the sounds of cussing and revving cars, hurtling into nowhere, a symptom of raging anger, misplaced energy.


I appreciated the Canadianís description of the rich colours of the fall, now dipping into winter; how, even though we donít have four seasons here, the cracking of the bamboo breaking the soft air left behind by the rain heralds for us festivities: Divali, Eid and Christmas.


The Nigerian called her country the sleeping giant of Africa. A country of lost potential. I told her that, although we have access to the Internet which links us with the world, three days ago in Trinidad many people lost access to the most important of all networks - water. So although I was able to boast about the fact that we have peach water in our groceries, and 25 brands of water (and have jumped several places higher up in the UN scale in the development index) we are living off aged and rotten pipes which burst when the pressure is turned on, and rust empty, with unresolved industrial action in a utility which, according to its own figures, has twice the manpower which it needs.


The English guy was surprised at how much ďfirst worldĒ access we have here. It is not unheard of to have caviar and salmon on ice and wines being flown in for exclusive bashes, fast food, posh cars, miniscule cellulars, compact laptops, birthday parties - not with musical chairs and party frocks but hired toy cars and bouncy castles, and little girls in clogs and shorts. So we are not that different after all, said the Canadian.


But, I argued, access to a bottle of peach or mineral water, or an Internet connection affects only about three per cent of the population, if that. The icing is pretty but the core is rotten. And what we are seeing is lack of social mobility. Once weíve lost that, weíll lose all hope.


The Brazilian, Jamaican, Nigerian, Pakistani and I all agreed (while the others listened) that middle classes across the world have more in common with one another than with our own people who live up and down the road; people who get up at 4 am once a week to carry a bucket of water up a hill, people who lock their children in their homes so they can earn a pittance taking care of somebody elseís spoilt brats, people who have been deprived of the basic infrastructure to make a start in life, education, food, water, electricity.


I know the limitations of the Internet, Doc, which is why I am here. I know itís just part of a Band-Aid, a superficial paint job. And what do we use our little cellulars for? To call for a water truck, to plead, bribe, beg our way back to a phone connection. VS Naipaul is disliked for it but Iím afraid, Doc, that unless we start doing some real developmental work here we will remain the mimic men, aping the trappings of a developed society but crumbling inside, like a hollow iced cake, which could collapse the moment anyone really put it to the test.


Iím telling you doc, I told them that people who make decisions are shoving the real problems under the pretty icing. With our rotting infrastructure, education system, health sector, our slash and burn, our flooding, we are made up of a population which is raging into the next century trapped in the sticky icing. In the past people didnít have access to televisions. They made solid building blocks, beginning with education, based on hard work and achievement. They werenít brainwashed into believing that life without the Nintendo and posh car and fancy shoes wasnít worth living. And thatís why, Doc, we should not be surprised when a man bursts a young salesgirlís skull for a dollar and 25 cents.


The Guardian Weekly editorial ecstatically proclaimed on the 30th birthday of the Internet last month that ďit is difficult to deny, despite the disturbing divisions between haves and have-nots, that the 21st century will be uniquely endowed to empower practically everyone. If the will is there.Ē The sad thing, Doc, is that most of the haves bury themselves in the sand or the Net; the ones who have a lot and make the decisions donít have the will and donít care as long as they get more. And every day, we all rot a little more, under the icing. The connection is terminated.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur