The information superhighway was supposed to democratise the world, giving everyone a voice and levelling the playing field in politics, business, society. There are issues that need addressing but it is fair to say the internet has revolutionised our lives in the quarter century it has been with us — moving from a slow service with limited utility few could afford, to a ubiquitous, accessible force that has changed how we live , mostly peering at a mobile device.
A massive 4.6 billion people today use the internet, sending out billions of gigabytes of data over the World Wide Web. It has connected the world, making national, social and economic boundaries less consequential. It has dramatically changed the way people globally communicate with each other as video and audio calling become cheap and commonplace. The internet has also reshaped the corporate world, creating new giants that have successfully tapped into voids of demand the internet has created in its wake.
Today, the world’s top corporate giants are technology firms, and no company can succeed without digitising large parts of its business. Creating an alternate universe, the internet has opened the door to a limitless virtual world where social norms are being reshaped. From Facebook to Twitter, virtual public squares have emerged where people are pilloried and praised. Platforms like Tinder and Truly Madly are helping make new connections in the dating world. Amazon and Flipkart are changing the way people shop even as cryptocurrencies threaten the monopoly of fiat money. From medicine to entertainment, education to remote working, the pandemic has offered a perfect opportunity for the internet to demonstrate its versatility.
Yet, today the internet isn’t where it was supposed to be. The old order has given way to new. The world has seen the emergence of new gatekeepers from Google to Amazon to Facebook. “New technologies have been hijacked by the rich and the powerful,” says Vivek Wadhwa, distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program.
Vast amounts of internet traffic are controlled by a few platforms, which tend to be dominated by a few creators. While social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have given voice to many, scandals like Cambridge Analytica and the inexorable march of fake news highlight the corrosive effect they can have on democracy and public discourse. From hate campaigns to fake news, stealing identities to stalking innocents — the public hygiene on the World Wide Web is deteriorating rapidly and is in desperate need of deep cleansing.
What began in the 1990s with the promise of a global borderless world is fast turning into a world with tight boundaries, both in the virtual and real world.
What does the future hold? On one hand, expect new technologies like AI/ML to make the internet highly personalised and customised with new tools, from holographic presence to augmented reality, becoming commonplace. The pandemic is playing a critical role in amplifying and hastening many of these changes. Expect this election in the US as well as closer home in Bihar to lean heavily on micro-targeting to connect with voters instead of rallies.
Also, expect totalitarian impulses to gain momentum as governments try to wrest control, curbing and controlling tech giants. Led by China, the power balance is beginning to shift as governments across the world, including India, want to enforce their idea of internet governance and enforce the idea of cyber sovereignty.
Entrepreneur Rajesh Jain, founder of Netcore Solutions, says digital surveillance will surge as both corporates and governments play a tug of war for controlling data. Sajan Paul, MD, Juniper Networks India & SAARC, says safety and security will be big issues as both bad and good actors trawl the internet with powerful viruses. How the internet will evolve over the next quarter century is hard to predict — evolution of technology is so rapid that it would be a perilous endeavour. But it will likely usher in even more bewildering changes to our lives and our world, compared with its predecessor.
Let the eWorld be Flat-
We need to ensure that a future powered by the internet is more equitable and prosperous
By Kris Gopalakrishnan
I still vividly remember the launch of the Mosaic browser in late 1993 which unlocked the era of the consumer internet. Soon after, in August 1995, the Indian consumer internet era began. India has come a long way from those days of Rs 15,000 for a non-commercial consumer account that provided 250 hours of internet connectivity at 9.8 kbps.
Today, Indians typically get internet at 4G speeds and at the world’s cheapest rate of about Rs 20 per GB of data. From zero users in 1995, India now has about 600 million internet users — the second highest in the world. The internet is probably the most important technology of our era.
The rapid growth of the internet in the world created new categories of businesses and disrupted entire sectors. It has created a new wave of entrepreneurship and innovation. Google, which puts real-time information on our fingertips, is now a verb. You are probably reading this because it was shared on social media like Facebook or Twitter.
Amazon has upended incumbent giants and reinvented the retail industry. Uber and Ola have redefined transportation services in Indian cities. For our entertainment, we are probably catching up on a movie on Netflix, and ordering dinner on Swiggy. And we pay for these internet-enabled services using e-wallets like Paytm. The internet has connected businesses to their customers in a reliable way and has lowered the cost of building a business.
Not surprisingly, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (parent company of Google) and Facebook are companies with the largest market capitalisation in the world today. They were all startups in the not too distant past, and none of the companies existed 50 years back.
Of these companies, only Microsoft existed 25 years back. Facebook, the youngest, was founded in 2004. Even though Microsoft and Apple predate the consumer internet era, they have immensely benefitted by creating new products or services leveraging the internet. Apple’s revival is attributed to iTunes and its music distribution service. Microsoft is now fashioning itself into a cloud company.
A Better Internet I believe that the most important role of the internet is its fundamental ability to empower and connect individuals. This is the most innovative aspect of the internet. We are sharing our ideas without third-party interference and at a low cost, using messaging services like WhatsApp. We are connected to many others in different parts of the world in real-time with messaging and video-conferencing. Internet-based governance platforms are increasingly playing an important role in citizen-government connect, thanks to the many digital initiatives of the central and state governments.
For example, Covid-19 has demonstrated the value of the internet and digital technologies. They have made it easy for us to connect with our near and dear, and with health services providers. Teleconsultations are growing in India. Government is also leveraging the internet to provide real-time updates to citizens about the availability of healthcare facilities. Schools and colleges are conducting classes online. IIT-Madras has started an online BSc in Programming and Data Science. While there is still a lot more to be done, it is clear that the impact on all of us and the Indian economy would have been more severe in a pre-internet era. How do we make the internet work better for Indians?
A fundamental aspect of the internet so far is that it is lightly regulated or unregulated. This is likely to change as the value appropriated from the internet seems skewed and concentrated with a few players. This cannot continue if the internet has to work better for all Indians. I envisage this playing out in three domains.
First, we need to reduce the digital divide and asymmetry of online platforms. There is still a significant number of us who are not on the internet. How can we ensure that many more of us are able to access it? Indians who are on the internet need to have more control especially over their data. Sometimes we get locked into large platforms and find it difficult to move out along with our data.
Second, the internet is also the 21st century turf for economic war. Many American social media platforms are banned in China. Recently, the US started the process of getting the popular Chinese video platform TikTok to stop operating or become American-owned. India, too, has banned a number of Chinese platforms and apps from operating in the country in response to unprovoked Chinese aggression on our border. The 5G gear that will power the internet in the future is now a turf war between the US and its allies on one side, and China on the other. India will judiciously need to play these internet wars.
Third, Indian internet entrepreneurs need a level playing field against the bigger internet companies that sometimes unfairly leverage the power of their network externalities. This is required to spur Indian innovation and entrepreneurship.
While India continues to make the internet a better place for Indians, we should be ready for the next disruptive wave on the horizon. 5G, IoT, AI/ML are technologies built on the internet that will proliferate in the near future. The internet will connect billions of machines, devices and appliances. When these technologies are well designed and used wisely, it will make our lives better. I can see these technologies transforming Indian healthcare, transportation, logistics, etc.
India is taking steps in the right direction in terms of using the internet and the technologies that are built over the internet. I foresee a future powered by the internet that will be more equitable and prosperous for all of us.
Connect to Uplift-
The inequities and disparities in the physical world can be reduced through online learning
Byju Raveendran, Founder and CEO of Byju’s
How to build the strongest global workforce? How to create learners who can positively impact the world? These core questions guide the future of learning in India. While the answers may vary, one element udeniably stands out- the role of technology and the internet.
Since the launch of public internet services 25 years ago, adoption of technology in India has seen a steady rise. Smartphone penetration and cheap data have contributed to India having 600 million internet users today. In this backdrop of an India that is hungry for growth and willing to improve, I believe the nation is poised to utilise the internet in its most impactful sector yet — education.
Despite having the largest school-going population globally, with 260 million enrolment, Indian students rank low in many major global assessments. Why? There are three key reasons: a lack of access to high-quality content and teaching; a one-size-fits-all approach with no personalisation; and most importantly, learning driven by the fear of exams and not the love for learning.
To solve these challenges at scale, we must use technology as an enabler. The inequities and disparities in the physical world are a far bigger hurdle which can be reduced through online learning as the internet makes quality content accessible at an unprecedented rate. With 70% of Indian youth having access to smartphones, mobile apps emerge as the medium to transport content and pedagogy. This accessibility democratises education. It brings novel opportunities to the masses and gives students a chance to learn from great teachers and resources, no matter where they live. Technology levels the playing field. In India, where education is still the only way to make it big, these opportunities to learn better are invaluable.
With an average age of 29 years, India is also home to the world’s youngest population. Technology-enabled learning plays a key role to capitalise on this demographic dividend. Potentially a double-edged sword, education lies at the heart of empowering our youth to meet the unseen jobs of tomorrow. And mastering technology within that is even more crucial to prepare them for an increasingly digital world. The new National Education Policy (NEP) addresses this with emphasis on making education accessible through online learning. By focusing on developing interdisciplinary competencies and digital skills, the NEP will contribute to building a globally competitive talent pool. We are at that crucial point in history where our classrooms are possibly changing for the first time in 100 years. It took a pandemic for everybody to realise the impact of online learning.
Virtually overnight, schools and colleges had to transform into online education platforms. Interestingly, the changes we see with respect to online learning took less than six months to implement. Without yearly plans or training, millions of teachers and learners have transitioned smoothly. As a learning company, we were acutely aware that amid school closures, children were counting on us to bring them their daily learning. And what we achieved, as a result, would be impossible without the internet.
At a time when technology is being regarded as an essential service, we owe our children the best education. The answer remains “online” during the pandemic, but I believe in the future, we will ultimately see a blended approach. Learning eventually will combine asynchronous online elements (where students can study at their own pace; have some choice over their learning; and engage deeply and critically with content) with synchronous elements (where students online can interact with each other, their teachers and the content at the same time).
Schools will also function in tandem with online learning platforms. In the future, an innovative, blended format combining the best of offline and online will evolve as a more efficient and impactful way to learn. Internet and technology will be at the heart of creating empowered students and impactful future leaders.
Apna Internet -We have made the World Wide Web truly ours
By Rama Bijapurkar, Author of “A Never Before World: Tracking the Evolution of Consumer India”
We are an affiliative, clannish, inquisitive, parochial society with each of us having multiple identities and belonging to several reference groups, always seeking out “people like us”, like homing pigeons. WhatsApp makes all this easier and more efficient. The whole clan weighs in on wedding preparations, and festivals are celebrated and new babies monitored closely by many more family members scattered around the globe.
I know one grandparent in small-town India who watches the prized grandchild every day at her playschool in America. I have friends who belong to at least 10 different WhatsApp groups spanning their many identities which are getting even more complexly constructed then before. The multilingual keyboard with all its features, emojis, gifs and voice messaging is making language fluency less of a barrier, as we now transact socially with different combinations of speak/ read/ write/ understand, extending the catchment area of people we can converse with.
The other thing that continually surprises me is how much religious content we have created and put on the internet, making our famed religiosity even more entrenched and easier to access. Live feeds from a range of temples are de rigueur. You don’t need to look for a priest — Google tells you how to conduct rituals and an enormous amount of ancient religious texts are now online, with multilingual translations and multimedia, multi-mode renditions. I often wonder who on earth managed to digitise all these archives and upload them.
Ditto for the amount of Indian classical music uploaded on it. There is no raga, no matter how rare, that you cannot find on the net; no musician from the good old days whose recordings you cannot listen to.
Land of Liberal & Illiberal Indians People sometimes think the internet is where the modern liberal Indian lives. But here’s where every kind of illiberal Indian also lives as you can see from the trolling that happens. The internet is entirely compatible with most other things that are hard to explain. A Naadi astrologer (Google it) now says, “Scan your thumb and mail it and we will tell you if you have a chance of finding your details.”
In addition to all this bewildering “back to the future”, the most heartening forward movement is how it has managed to make lives so much better for so many lower income Indians.
Even if many can’t do it on their own, there’s a whole tribe of young digital middlemen who do it for you — facilitate medical treatment, help you avail of e-governance, etc. You now get cheap and plentiful movies and banking services at your doorstep, money directly into your account for welfare benefits, and access more status-blind service than ever before for things like booking a gas cylinder or a train ticket.
My favourite example of what the internet can do to Indians is to discipline them into accepting rules. I notice that if a human being tells you that you cannot have something because no slots are available or because you don’t qualify, Indians will argue, bully and try and get their way. Switch to a computer and there’s no scope for arguing with it, so may be the internet will eventually make us a rule-obeying society, after all!
Ad Infinitum- The internet has blown away the old ways of marketing: instead of brands speaking to the masses, now consumers are holding countless conversations with and about the brands
By Santosh Desai, MD & CEO, Future Brands
Back then, we were brand guardians. Or, custodians. Anyone charged with the task of managing brands was in essence a protector of the asset, someone who patrolled the boundaries of the brand and looked out for any transgressions. The implicit mental model of the brand was that of a citadel, a fortress, that needed to be kept intact.
Brand building was a careful exercise involving consistency and repetition, all the while adhering strictly to a script. The brand spoke through extremely select apertures, and almost every communication from it was a one-way exercise using a carefully controlled script. Advertising, that brash form which elbowed into consumer homes and consciousness, was the dominant mode used to communicate.
When brands did speak directly to consumers, it was in a highly constricted, self-laudatory vocabulary through official spokespersons. In a world where access to any kind of broadcasting capability was tightly controlled, it was clear that it was the brands’ job to speak and the consumers’ job to listen.
The internet has changed all this. Everyone is a broadcaster and every device an encyclopaedia. Information and influence flow freely in every direction. If the brand was earlier a pristine lake, it is today a gushing river. And like a river, it changes ever so slightly with every new interaction. Its interactions with consumers have grown exponentially. It is listening much more than speaking. People are talking to each other about the brand, without the brand having any role whatsoever in the dialogue.
The mental model of a static protectorate that needed cautious tending by a few very responsible people has been blown away. The brand is now in the midst of our bustling lives and our untidy conversations. It has to speak with its consumers and not talk down to them. It cannot solve problems largely by throwing money at it. In an earlier time, established brands could extend their hegemony simply by outspending its new rivals or by squeezing them out by virtue of their superior distribution reach. The internet has made access a non-issue; even the smallest brand can reach a consumer in a tiny hamlet.
The internet rewards curiosity and interestingness, not money and intrusiveness. Unlike other media, where advertising is the price consumers pay for being interested in any content, in a digital medium, exposure to content is voluntary. Consumers cannot be made to watch brand messages, unless they choose to do so. Being omnipresent is not as important as being present precisely when the consumer is likely to be predisposed to buying. The 20th century can be thought of as a giant training programme which converted human beings into consumers.
We learnt the grammar of consumption, and became fluent in its vocabulary. The internet has empowered the individual enormously, and now the consumer in us is ready to hold a sophisticated dialogue with brands. What it believes in, what it delivers against what it promises, what kind of service it provides, what kind of people it hires, how it deals with crises, what positions it takes on issues of public interest — these have all become important determinants of a consumer’s relationship with a brand.
Conscious Brand The internet speaks to individuals one at a time. The idea of a “mass medium” that speaks to large collectives has given way to one that not only interacts with each consumer uniquely, but is also able to generate understanding about every individual with a degree of precision that was not even remotely possible earlier. This gives brands the ability to tailor their relationship with each individual in a unique way.
This has meant that brands must re-orient themselves completely in order to navigate this new world. The brand is no longer a mask, an external face constructed artfully and projected purposefully to attract consumers. Advertising can no longer merely be a promise, which weaves gossamer stories only marginally connected to the brand’s actions. The product quality and service delivery now get publicly critiqued and discussed; ratings create a new benchmark that circumvents a brand’s claims about itself. Brand communication must engage every individual in the manner that works best for her.
This also means that just as the internet has made it easy for brands to communicate at a far deeper and more meaningful level with consumers, it has also created conditions that can damage brands in no time. The increased scrutiny which brands and its leaders are subject to today means that a small slip can prove disastrous for brands.
In some senses, the internet has made marketing the disciple that it has always claimed to be, but has never quite been. Marketing’s boast has always been that it understands consumers at a deep level, and fashions a brand in a manner that consumers naturally gravitate to it. While in truth, this was rarely the case, in a digital world, brands have no option but to learn to become interesting and desirable. In other words, brands have no choice but to learn marketing.
Windows Shopping: The internet has changed the way India shops and transacts. The transformation is gaining pace in the pandemic
By Deep Kalra, Founder & group executive chairman, MakeMyTrip
Five years after India got access to the World Wide Web, I launched Make-MyTrip in 2000, with the conviction that the internet was going to fundamentally change the way we did a lot of things thus far.
Quite frankly, how deep and profound is the impact of the internet on people, economies and countries is something that continues to astonish me. From how you connect, communicate, live and shop to work and socialise — there isn’t probably anything left untouched by the internet. In the ways in which it has touched lives, the internet has been clearly transformational.
The early days of the internet are dotted with memories of the infamous, screeching dial-up modem sound as it made its way from cybercafes to people’s homes. While there were trailblazers like Naukri, Rediff and IndiaMart, companies after companies built businesses of scale as India’s internet age set in. Today, many of these companies are key drivers in the social and economic growth of the country.
Online businesses may seem all pervasive now but there were virtually a handful of internet businesses that were doing the heavy lifting at a time when India connected to the internet through narrow-band dial-up, and payment methods were limited to credit cards with penetration levels in lower single digits. Not to forget that the current app economy, in existence for just 10 years, touched India much later.
While working through all the constraints and uncertainty that existed for internet businesses, it is really the consumer shift in behaviour that led to online shopping taking off. The online commerce was embraced by customers as the internet democratised information and availability of products and services like never before. Indians are even changing the way the internet is used for online commerce.
Be it voice search, video, vernacular, or innovative payments solution — internet businesses relentlessly tailored products for Indians in a way that it will shape the internet way beyond India’s borders.
According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, at present, there are 433 million active internet users who are 12 years and above. For all the people who now have access to the internet and will progressively move from chatting to booking their first train or bus ticket online, there are millions more who have yet to be catapulted into the mobile internet age.
If demonetisation led to people adapting to cashless payments, Covid-19 is compelling them to buy online. The pandemic has intensified the consumer’s need to shop safely from home, and online businesses will continue to gain salience as the convenience and choice offered will induce shape-shifting behaviour. We see new habits being formed and the ease, convenience and choice that internet businesses offer will ensure that these habits will endure well beyond the crisis.
Over the years, it has become clear that online commerce is India’s big opportunity to use its vast domestic consumption to boost the economy in a way never imagined before. Within a short period of time, the significance of economic activities in the digital space has grown substantially.
Vast opportunities have been unlocked, leading to job creation, productivity improvement and enhanced consumer choices. And what’s most amazing is the fact that these are still early days in India’s internet journey.