Balancing Bandwidth

There is wifi in the office now. When I worked here two years ago, I struggled with a computer so slow and tired and virus-ridden that the most simple tasks became exercises in yogic patience, and occasionally ordeals of inexplicable, inhuman difficulty, like trying to cross the street after being dosed with peyote.

But now there is wifi, and good bandwidth — good enough to stream an episode of Buffy with a few minutes of buffering. The connection goes down intermittently and still requires a certain amount of intuitive finesse to make the most of, but the delicate art of cajoling temperamental packets to switch is familiar to anyone who has tried to steal wifi from neighbors or businesses down the road. So nevertheless the Internet here is excellent by the internal meter of such things, and the fact that I can access it with my own Macbook is proving an indispensable advantage.

Pema has a better Blackberry than mine, and I’ve seen several G1s and other smartphones floating around. Most everyone at NOW has a laptop now supplementing or replacing the office desktops, as does Pama daaju at the lepcha guest house where I’m staying. No Macs to speak of, but all good, powerful machines. Today at breakfast Pama, the youngest but highest educated adult in the family, was gamely badgered by his elders for not having (or apparently wanting) a job — the butt of an infectious, laugh-till-you-cry in-joke. “He has a masters degree in law, but all he wants to do is play around on his computer,” Shurep grinned, wheezing slightly and holding his side. “He asked his sisters for money!”

Pama, for his part, flatly denies this latter accusation, but the vague references I’ve heard him make to spending his days working on “a project” lead me to suspect that there is truth to the former one, which he anyways tries to dodge away from. Fleeing into philosophical territory, he argues that he is happy without money and a job because wealth only increases desire, and that way lies misery. “But lack of desire is not delight,” I poke back, getting into the spirit of the teasing and wanting to do my part to help corner the prey. “You need balance to live a full life.” The rest of the family nods approvingly, and Pama has no riposte.

Still, I leave breakfast chewing on a thought. “He spends too much time on the computer” is a common complaint in the West, but in my experience two years ago it was more or less unheard of in this region. I knew things were bound to have changed since I left, and given that high technology was trickling out to even the most obscure corners of the map, some of these changes were bound to be in the direction of more computers, more gadgets, more bandwidth penetration. But I never expected it to feel so…normal.

Today I went with another reporter to cover a PS2 tournament at a local gaming lounge and bar. Nice place with several couches and TVs, outdoor seating and a big white wall to project on. The event coordinator offered us food and drink, which we turned down in proper busy-journalist fashion. Teenagers and twenty-somethings were gathered around consoles, playing some soccer game. This is one of the first video game tournaments to be held in Sikkim, and the turnout — several dozen competitors and supporters — was quite good considering. We talked to a few of the players, on break between rounds, and they rather sheepishly admitted to spending several hours a day on video games, though split up between console games at home and getting online for Counterstrike or World of Warcraft at cyber cafés. As you might expect, they are a console generation behind kids in America, for only with the spread of the PS3 has the PS2 recently become so affordable.

All in all I think this is a good thing. Fret though you might over childhoods being lost indoors, video games are fun and for some people prove to be an opportunity to excel that they might otherwise never have. It is good that people have computers and bandwidth and better phones than me, but…yes, there is a selfish worry here. For though I mostly love technology and what it is doing to the world, I do not always love what it does to me, how it can soften my will and steal away my hours — spent entertained, yes, and learning, yes, but all less clear and sharp, murkier than certain afternoons of buzzing or trudging through paper pages. On my previous visit to India I devoured a dozen books and filled half as many notebooks, and all because, I have told myself, I didn’t have the distractions of NYTimes, Huffington Post, Metafilter, BoingBoing, Digg, email, Facebook, and (ugh) Twitter. I love the Internet, but I also love escaping it for a time, and the feats of mind going without it can encourage. It is only through alternating these states, through contrast, that we can fully appreciate the values and weaknesses of each and progress most in our intelligence — at least that is my theory.

So here I am, back in India, and we have wifi in the office, and I have, unsurprisingly I suppose, mixed feelings. I am glad (as I know certain others will be) that I will be able to slowly finish season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and catch the finale of Dollhouse, and hang out on Facebook, and stay abreast of international news. But I am also glad that there is no Internet here at the guest house, and I can spend my mornings and evenings with pages, scribbling on them and flipping them. Maybe this will work out, after all. Maybe I’ll find balance.

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