Looking into the future

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Looking into the future

Sunday, 16 June 2019 | Kumar Chellappan

Looking into the future


Author - Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

Publisher - HarperCollins, Rs 350

Numbercaste talks of a world where how much a man means depends on not just his money, but his worth as a member of the species, writes Kumar Chellappan

The James Bond movies of the 1960s genre were our first exposure to science fiction. At a time when television or satellite television channels were unheard of and even telephones and cars were rare items (at least in Kanjirakkadu in Ernakulam district  where I grew up), the scenes which portrayed Sean Connery — who immortalised Bond — speaking to his sources at far away places through the contraption attached to his wrist watch and driving around in that Aston Martin still linger in the mind. Sridhar, a theatre at Ernakulam, was the window to this world of sci-fi for my generation. Sridhar theatre has given way to a shopping mall and the interest in James Bond movies, too, came to an end with Connery leaving the field and making way for the new generation actors.

But interest in science fiction continued because of television series like  Cosmos: A Personal Voyage anchored by Carl Sagan and the works penned by Arthur C Clarke whose 2001: A Space Odyssey remains fresh in the mind. Through his science writings, Clarke told us that the world would use space science and satellites from the geostationary orbit for communication services. He had written in one of his science papers in 1945 about the “extra-terrestrial relays” that would revolutionise the world of communication. Conventional science teachers had scoffed at such ideas and told us not to be carried away by such prophecies! See what has happened to the telecommunication sector, which has transformed the world into a global village.

In Ramayana, the great Indian epic which is portrayed by progressive elements as a work of fiction, the war between Lord Rama and the demon king Ravana is described by author Sage Valmiki as a spot report from the theatre of war. Valmiki gave an account of the myriad arrows deployed by the Lord  and his enemy. Aagneyam, Varuna, Kaubera, Indrastram, Nairyathaastram, Yaamyaastram, Gandharvaastram, Gauhyakamastram, Aasuramastram, Vaishnavastram are some of the arrows used by the Lord and his rival in the war, which lasted many days. It was Brahmastra, provided by Lord Indra through Matali, the charioteer, which came to the rescue of Lord Rama in finishing off Ravana once and forever.

Rationalists may laugh at the names of arrows deployed in the great Ramayana war. But the truth is that modern missiles developed by Indian scientists and which could be categorised based on their properties (surface to air or SAM, Agni, Prithvi, Aakash etc) were all inspired by the arrows  mentioned in the great epic. This underlines the role played by science-fiction in developing the technological know how.

Science fiction is what strengthens the foundation for strong and robust science and technology sector. Scientific temper should not be used to demean and ridicule the facts mentioned in India specific epics and great literary works. The dreams espoused by the great science fiction authors are slowly but steadily becoming a reality. Recent news coming out of China is that scientists in that country have succeeded in developing the Invisible Coat, a subject that has inspired many books and films.

Numbercaste, authored by Sri Lanka-born Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, is an exciting piece of work. We are mute witnesses to the role played by Artificial Intelligence and Information Technology in moulding the new world. These technological marvels are like double-edged swords, similar to the internet as well as mobile phones. How the internet and cellphones cause disasters and development in human lives is a part of modern folklore.

We live in an era where human beings have lost their relevance and identity and have been compressed into 10 or 12 digit numbers. The Aadhaar number controversy is raging all over India, with people debating heatedly about personal privacy being violated with the help of Aadhaar numbers, making the humans “niraadhaar”.

What Wijeratne portrays in this work of fiction is how a technology developed by Numbercaste, a digital startup launched in Silicon Valley by Julius Common, an entrepreneur with strange habits, takes on IT giants like Facebook, Google, and other social media outlets and emerges as the global monopoly. The events unfold in our immediate future, say in 2030 or so.

The Twitter is dead and gone. Numbercaste starts from where Twitter ends. “People used hashtags, 140 characters, and you send a message out and the people who follow you could read it. We are building something like that. The plan is you are in the area and people are talking about it, then you know it. It could be anything from a revolution to armed robbery to a party happening two lanes away. It doesn’t matter. If it’s something you can benefit from, we’ll point you that way. Numbercaste’s got you covered,” Common, owner of Numbercaste, tells Patrick Udo, the main protagonist who has been hired by Common for the job.

Common explains to Patrick his idea of the perfect world. “A world where you can name a man and I can tell you exactly how much he means to us… Not just the money in his bank, but his actual worth, as a member of this species. You can drive your expensive cars and roll out your stupid make-up, but in 10 years’ time, none of that will matter. I am going to take this world and I am going to  goddamn grind it into something more real,” declares Common. He lives up to his word. It is a thrilling mission. If the reviewer reveals more, the suspense associated with the book would vanish. Since this book is a must-read for all who are interested in the future of the world, it is not advisable to disclose more than this.

The Numbercaste brought back  memories of 1984, the dystopian novel authored by George Orwell in 1949. Though 1984 has come and gone, possibilities of the chances of the scenario portrayed by Orwell continue to haunt us. If there are some similarities between 1984 and Numbercaste, it could be coincidental. Time to go for a re-read of 1984 too. Sir Arthur Clarke spent a big part of his life in Sri Lanka and crafted some of the best sci-fi works while staying in the island. Who knows, Wijeratne may have a lot to offer the readers in the coming days. The climate and ambience of the island nation could be ideal for such literary pursuits.

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