A minor miracle

Chris Cork

Back a decade, and living in Peshawar but shuttling back and forth between there, Kabul, Herat and Jalalabad we had an internet connection that was slow, expensive, unpredictable and very much at the cutting edge as far as Pakistan was concerned. There were perhaps half a dozen ISP’s (internet service providers) across the country and the internet was very much a tool of the NGO’s, big business and the wealthy. Personal computer ownership by non-professionals was extremely low and if you had a laptop you were among the elite of the digerati. The first generation of cyber-cafes were appearing here and there, but overall it seemed as if the cyber-revolution that was taking the west by storm was passing us by. We had mobile phones as well, things the size of a brick that were similarly unpredictable and expensive and wouldn’t work once you got ten miles into Afghanistan – after that it was the big Codan radios whose masts decorated the front of our Landcruisers or the early satellite phones which were awkward to set up and cost body-parts per second of transmission. There did not at that time appear to be the technological ‘trickle-down’ that was driving the dot-com boom (and later bust) of the developed nations.

It is fashionable to present Pakistan as some sort of irredeemable recidivist, a consummate backslider forever in teachers bad books and up for a thrashing in the Headmasters study at least once a week. Few commentators have much that is good to say about anything, and it is the job of those who scribble the public prints to nip at the ankles of government; to expose cant, hypocrisy, corruption and malfeasance – but it does not hurt to occasionally take a rest from kicking backsides and deliver a discreet pat on the back.

Few things or events that are described as ‘revolutionary’ truly are. The invention of the wheel was revolutionary. Likewise the internal combustion engine, penicillin, powered flight, radio and television, organ transplant techniques…and the personal computer. Within my own lifetime it is perhaps the cluster of revolutions around information technology (IT) that are the most important in terms of the way in which they have directly influenced the way I live, work, and take my recreation. Inevitably, my generation has come to this late, and we are the last generation of digital illiterates. It was salutary to learn recently that my brother’s youngest child learned to use the computer, mouse and keyboard before she started school. She couldn’t see the point of learning to write when she could type, and regards handwriting as something of an antiquation.

The revolution that is the Internet may have been slow to arrive in Pakistan but is gathering pace all the time, and it was a tiny event in October 2003 that really made me sit up and take note as to just how far the country had come in a very short time – I was able to hook my laptop to a phone far out in the Cholistan desert and read and send emails. It may not sound like much, but when considered against where the country was a mere four years before that, it is a jump of light-years.

Earlier this month the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK) estimated that there were about 5 million netizens nationally, and a tiny 150,000 broadband users; all hooked to about fifty ISP’s. The numbers are still small, but it is the spread of Wireless Local Loop and WIMAX that are going to drive the next wave of sign-ups to the Net, who will mostly be the computer-literates two generations below me.

These words will get fired down the wire courtesy of my new broadband connection, installed in minutes yesterday. It’s still not cheap, and for poor people there are more essential things to spend their money on than an internet connection, but prices are dropping all the time and the delivery infrastructure – going the last mile to the household – expands by the week. I know of NGO’s with plans to create entire digital villages, and distance-learning is beginning to take off. Discreet pat on the back, Pakistan…keep up the good work.

The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email:manticore73@gmail.com

Source: The News, 21/7/2008

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