Free Basics & The Children of Technology

It was a surprisingly cold evening that day; a welcome change in the unforgiving summers of South India. As I reached the train station to return home from an offbeat summer holiday, I received a message informing me that my train had been delayed by five hours! Thankfully, it was just a connecting train that would take me to the nearest airport at ‘Hubli’, from where I was scheduled to take a flight back home.

I had to think of another option to get to the airport, and fast! ‘How does one complete an offbeat holiday without an offbeat travel plan?’ — I said to myself, and without thinking much hopped-on to the ‘unreserved’ coach of an approaching train. ‘Fortune favors the brave’, they say, and I knew it was true the moment one of my co-passengers confirmed that the train halts at all stations, including Hubli!

So here I was, on a cold evening, in an unreserved coach, amongst travelers, for most of whom, seat reservation was an alien concept. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice how each of us had one thing in common. And no, I am not taking about our tickets, but cellphones! Every single passenger on that coach, whether curled-up on the uppermost seats or siting on the floor, was glued to their phones as snails to leaves! Some were busy watching movies at max volumes, while others were busy running through their watsapp chat history. Some checked their facebook accounts while others seemed busy browsing through random websites. Only the arousing smell of samosas or bhel from a passing vendor’s basket, had the audacity to snap them out of their trance.

These were daily-wage laborers, maids and drivers to the rich, street vendors, lab technicians, car mechanics who, most of the time, are seen as ‘nobodies’ in our scheme of things. And almost all of us are used to believe, that these are the people who are deprived of all the good things in life and who are just not ambitious enough to make it big. But, here they were bursting this urban myth — the children of a different God, the children of ‘technology’!

As I sat amongst them, I stumbled upon a question. What would happen if someone mystically were to switch-off all that data, from all of their cellphones? The answer was not too difficult to guess. Total chaos would ensue! There would be uproar of discontent and a call for a new king, possibly!

On the other hand, what would happen if all of them were given access to only a few websites and that too for free, similar to the ‘Free Basics’ initiative started by Facebook. ‘Free Basics’ provides internet access to users who can’t afford data packs. However, this access is limited to a few websites that Facebook thinks are best for the users. Of late, this campaign had intensified with two to three page ads featuring in all major newspapers in India. Would there be a similar chaotic situation amongst the passengers or would they be happier than before?

It is very tempting to think that all these passengers will only thank you for giving them free internet access to a limited content. However, on deeper contemplation, I was compelled to guess otherwise.

At the heart of this discussion, lie the principles of freedom and depravity. Imagine a caged bird being sumptuously fed what his master ‘thinks’ is best for it. Imagine his master carrying this caged bird to places ‘he’ thinks fit. To pet lovers, it would seem like an advantageous position for the bird. But ask the bird, and you will hear of the open sky and the wind that takes you there. It will tell you of the fruits and berries, of the nuts and sweet leaves it craves! More than all this, it is the powerful desire of the bird to have the freedom to go high up in the sky, not shackled by the chains of the cage, that makes for the most compelling argument for why it would not be satisfied by any luxuries it is offered within that cage.

Free Basics to me, looks just like this cage. It is meant to bind people to information that the master (Facebook, in this case) thinks is best for them. Getting this information free is similar to the bird getting the best food the master can provide, but not necessarily of its liking. But most importantly, it is the depravity to the vast ocean of knowledge that is the cruelest part of this trap.

The answer was very obvious to me but who would alarm these gullible birds of the evil hunter’s plans? Will they even know if they have been trapped? One question led to another, as I looked out of the window in search of answers.

Just when I thought I ran out of options, a local boy entered our compartment with a basket of hot samosas hung around his neck. His timing could not have been better! In no time he had managed to sell all his preparations to as many hungry passengers, each item being served in disposable bowls made of scrap newspaper. It was at this moment that I noticed how many of these disposable bowls were actually made of newspapers that had the self-same ads promoting ‘Free Basics’. Within minutes, one could see these used bowls being hand-pressed into playful balls and tossed out of the closest window.

The answers to all my questions suddenly became evident. The trained pulled up at Humpi station and it was time for me to get off. I had walked in with a mind full of uncertainties but was walking out with a bag full of realizations.