Hacking Across India
Hack is a complicated word that can mean just about anything, from an imprecise cutting motion, to a clever prank, to breaking into a computer. All of these words might apply to what I'm doing in my journey across this foreign land of ancient temples, oxcarts, nomadic shepherds, cellular phones, and one of the world's fastest developing economies. I'm here as a participant observer in a culture that I can't help but be a part of. I'm Kevin Vilbig, and I am hacking across India. How is it that I am a hacker? I don't know when it happened. It wasn't like I woke up one day and said, "I'm a hacker!" It's one of those slow, dawning realizations that came to me over the course of my adolescence. First, in some preliminary explanation, I'm going to give a short intro to the thesis that I am working on, you can read it sometime in May or June when I actually submit it (haha, yeah right). If you ask me, and you should, Hackers are a culture that, while instigated around the nucleus of interactive computer programming (a.k.a. MIT and SAIL) in the 1960s - 70s, have come to suggest a much deeper and broader kind of systemic tinkerer. It has become a way of thinking, nay, a way of being, that encapsulates a deep sense of playful curiosity with the world in general. My work involves tracing the spread of this culture from its institutional roots in MIT and Stanford, through to the present day. Though the narrative of the aforementioned thesis will end in the early 1990s, I'm looking forward to exploring the deluge of information that comes from the Ubiquitous Internet (a.k.a. the Eternal September) in my later studies.
So, with that project, I am coming at hacker culture from the roots up. I am studying the origin story of what is arguably the most potent cultural force that the world has seen in the past 100 years. As to what the heck I'm doing zooming south-ish on a series of inexpensive commuter trains, from Allahabad to Bikaner to Mumbai to Goa, that's another project, intertwined, but temporally separated by over two decades. There's this theory that there is some kind of new cultural system brewing in the internet. Cyberspace is a place where the only thing that matters is the content of your thoughts, as the normal barriers of space, class, and culture all fall away. Thoughts travel with the speed of an electron through copper wire, optical fiber or via wireless, and the only identification you might have is a timestamp, or a username. I'm looking for evidence of such a new global cultural phenomenon. I'm doing this through the lens of the hacker in India. I'm looking to see if the hackers here share the same cultural milieu as the hackers in the West, despite the wildly different surrounding culture. I'm going in with the hypothesis that, Yes, we're all the same geeks on this gorgeous planet.
As I found myself, on accident, eating dinner seated next to a German hacker who was in Delhi for an Indian friend's wedding (the groom, the bride was a Russian biochemist), I knew that I was onto something. As I talked about our favorite video games with a young Sikh hacker at the co-working hacker mansion I came to visit in Delhi, and traded Facebook info with just about everyone I meet, even incidental connections at train stations, or on the trains themselves, I knew that I was onto something. I even made a new Facebook account, as I had deleted mine last year to focus better on my studies. But, I've also been seeing another side of India. I found a book here, about the history of the internet in India, called netch@kra. Out of the billion-ish people that live here, only about a million are truly connected to the globalized world. In a country where about a third are illiterate, and many still live subsistence lifestyles, the range in the surrounding culture is staggering. This reality was driven home by my short stint at the Kumbh Mela festival, as my friend put it, "India is a country where a million Wacos are happening every day" in regards to the various gurus who build their ashrams. That's seen as the norm here, rather than a dangerous deviance. This reality was also emphasized by my week long stay in the Paharganj in Delhi. About that, I'll just say this. There is not a single poor person in America compared to average conditions in the Paharganj. This is in contrast to the hackers that I have met that are all decidedly upper class. All of them college educated, some in the U.S. All of them speak fluent English. All of them are what the editors of netch@kra call "global Indians," - this is the same group only numbering about one million out of the billion people on the subcontinent.
It's one thing to read about these statistics, or discuss semiotic analysis of cultural artifacts. It's another thing entirely to have an urban prostitute, carrying her eight month old, offer sex in exchange for six U.S. dollars worth of baby formula, or to watch a young man on a farm in south India carry a hundred pounds of hay in a pile on his head as your train zooms by. It's another thing to talk of local politics and Hindu marriage customs with a young Indian machined parts merchant, or spend three days hanging out, unbeknownst, with a sophisticated tourist scamming operation. Let's just say that I'm glad that I'm as net savvy as I am or I'd already be back in the States with a failed project on my hands. It's even another thing to share a hostel with a feminist journalist working on her graduate education, where the simple act of finding an apartment is an epic battle against the conservative culture. It's even another thing to recharge your prepaid cellular data plan with a thousand INR note ($20 USD) while the people around you are buying 20 INR vouchers (about 40 cents). This cute girl mimed stealing my note off of the counter and running away - people are really funny! I've already written about twenty pages in my ethnographic journal about these kinds of experiences and could probably go on for another few thousand words, but I'll stop there, for your sake.
To begin to wrap this thing up with some general thoughts about doing research like this, I tried to go in with minimal expectations, but whatever implicit expectations I'd had were completely blown away within the first week, mostly being unexpectedly stuck without a cellular phone in a foreign land that lives and breathes on cellular phones. If you have the same troubles with international service that I did, ask the local consulate for a recommendation to a reputable dealer. The second week, I actually started getting some work done. Now, I'm just hanging on for the rest of the ride. I still have about three weeks left to go, a hacker *ahem* computer security conference in Goa to attend this weekend, and finishing with a couple weeks in Bangalore, India's equivalent to Silicon Valley. So, there is still a lot of work to be done before this project is over. It doesn't hurt to get to kick back for a couple days (Okay, a week, there was a cheap flight on the 8th and I'm getting damn sick of these trains after 3400km and 58 hours in the past week.) on a Goan beach resort. Don't be jealous, be inspired.
Finally, advice for the future traveler's among you. You don't have to stick with a group 100% of the time, but it's damn nice to see some familiar faces while you're overseas. If you can plan to go to the same region of the world with some friends, you can meet up in your off time and it really soothes the soul to be able to hang out with some people that you already know, at least for a little bit. Don't book in advance. Your plans might change and you don't want to be locked in to an itinerary, with financial pressure to keep going, even if you find something more interesting to do, and you will. Every major train station in India is surrounded by multiple guest houses, ranging from 350 INR to 1000 INR (about $7 USD to $20 USD) depending on the local economy and a bit of luck. Bring a couple of your own locks. Otherwise, pack light.
The world (and your ATM card) can provide just about everything you need when you stick near other people, which is the whole point, right?