Home

Home > Journals & Media > AuroNET! > An interview with Auroville’s Cyber Captains

 

From an article in Auroville Today, March 1998

AuroNET! and the Internet

An interview with Auroville’s Cyber Captains

In October, 1995, we interviewed Theo, Ulli and Rabiya about the new Bulletin Board System (BBS) they were setting up in Auroville, and their hopes for how it might stimulate increased community participation in discussions and decision-making. Recently we spoke to Theo and Ulli again about how far their hopes have been fulfilled and about the next big step in our cyber evolution.

 
How has the BBS developed in the past two years? 

Ulli: Two years ago we had hardly begun to communicate internationally. Now 6,000 electronic messages a week are passing between Auroville and the outside world, and email has largely supplanted other forms of communication like FAX and international STD. In fact, as email is charged at local telephone rates, the income of the Auroville telephone exchange has actually dropped by about 30% in the past year!

Theo: There are approximately 450 people on AuroNET!, our internal communication network, of whom about 400 are Aurovilians and 50 are friends. Although technically we could accommodate more, we seem to have reached a certain plateau of numbers with the existing set-up.

These figures don’t tell you how people use this facility. For example, it’s interesting to note that AuroNET! Is used almost exclusively for email: hardly anybody is setting up forums, polling Aurovilians or using it for on-line conferencing.

This is partly because of technical limitations: we have only six telephone lines at present making people uneasy about staying on-line very long, and the present software does not allow the forums to be used to their maximum advantage.

Ulli: Looking back, we can see that the moment we opened up the possibility of communicating outside Auroville with this new medium and improved the user interface, the internal traffic picked up a lot. In fact, we probably have – given the size of our community – one of the most used and efficient email services in the world at present.

What about Internet access?

Ulli: What we have not yet been able to provide for Aurovilians is comparable ease of access to the Internet: this is our next big challenge. But once this is possible and we have a critical mass of Aurovilians who are “Internet literate”, I’m sure a lot more people will plug in and start communicating in more interesting ways. The electronic version of the Auroville News could start using hypertext, for example.

Actually, soon Internet access will not be a technical problem. There is Internet access in Pondicherry now, and once the Auroville Exchange is upgraded – which they have to do by the end of March – and the new Pondicherry link is activated, we will have a permanent leaseline connection for the Internet, along with ten additional internal connections. Within three or four months we could already have forty people connected. If this creates a critical mass, within a year a hundred people could be plugged in.

Theo: The challenge is financial rather than technical. Now, for the first time, users of AuroNET! Have to pay a nominal sum. This is to make them value the service more, but also to deter individuals form sending or receiving huge amounts of date (the more you send and receive, the more you pay). However, this income by no means covers the additional costs of the new set-up. Even with help from Shuttle, we still need additional funds to create public access stations to the Internet in places like the Solar Kitchen and larger communities. We hope some of the units will participate. We may also set up a Cyber Café which would charge by the hour for Internet access… but this would only be a nominal fee.

Ulli: We should stress that this is not meant to be a profit-making operation. It is, above all, an experiment in communication. At present, Auroville has a choice. Either we stagnate at the present communication level, or we take the next step to widespread Internet connectivity. If we choose the latter, the community will have to participate financially.

Theo: The Internet can offer enormous possibilities to Auroville in the fields of education, business, architecture etc. It has already stimulated us to create our own Web Site. The result is far more information about Auroville is being put out now than was the case a few years ago. If Auroville want to be a laboratory of evolution it must not only be in touch with everything significant happening elsewhere; it must also be willing to describe what it has been doing so that others can test it out and evaluate it. In this respect, I think the Website is a tremendous tool.

What about educational possibilities?

Ulli: In terms of educational possibilities, we are just about to set up an interesting experiment at Transition School. We are going to augment their existing computer set-up and have it linked to the Internet so that eight students can simultaneously access the Internet under the supervision of a teacher. It will be very interesting to see what effect this has upon teaching methods and the students’ progress.

But I think the significance of Auroville being in cyberspace is much larger than this. For example, the danger of becoming a tiny island, of Auroville building walls around itself, is diminished by its access to a wider electronic world. It helps us keep things in perspective, and it’s good that others can provide input into our process because it prevents us becoming an incestuous society in terms of ideas and creativity.

Theo: Knowledge is power, and I think this electronic network minimises the possibility of somebody using their private knowledge to exercise power over others. It won’t prevent it happening completely, but it is definitely a counterweight.

What about the possibility of electronic discussion forums? Have they fulfilled your expectations?

Theo: Active Aurovilian participation in electronic forums both within Auroville and outside it, like the AVI Compatible forum, is very low. I think this is because many Aurovilians have become somewhat fatalistic abut what happens here, and the struggle for survival has taken precedence over discussion of community issues. In the process, it’s as if Aurovilians have unlearned how to communicate and instead come to rely upon a few vocal people to speak for them.

But the potential for change is here, and the new electronic possibilities which are becoming part of the fabric of Auroville can help bring about that change…if we are ready to use them in that way.

Ulli: what is not predictable is the extent to which Auroville will use the new electronic possibilities to strengthen our sense of community, to increase participation in our decision-making process. I’m far less optimistic about this now than I was two years ago. I feel it’s more likely that the individual consuming aspect and individual information-gathering will predominate. 

There’s another reason why I’m less hopeful: I find it remarkable that there is such enormous resistance in Auroville to using this electronic medium to “assess the mood of the house,” to find out what Aurovilians think about any issue. It could be done very easily and quickly through an electronic questionnaire or poll. Yet people seem to fear it because they think it might lead to manipulation or to decisions taken by head counts…and we know what Mother thought about democracy. Yet the present situation, where individuals can manipulate meetings or appeal to authority figures about the heads of the Aurovilians, is obviously no better. Unsurprisingly, it is precisely these people who resist the new medium and its egalitarian information-sharing most strongly.

Do you feel Auroville and the Internet are compatible?

Ulli: Mother never told us to live in caves, to disconnect ourselves from the world. We have to work in the world, and the world today is CNN and, Internet: that’s not up for discussion. The challenge is to integrate and make use of these new possibilities to lead us towards our goal. So let’s use the Internet to realize Mother’s vision rather than arguing about its dangers and distractions.

Home > Journals & Media > AuroNET! > An interview with Auroville’s Cyber Captains

  Auroville Universal Township webmaster@auroville.org.in To the top