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Seventy Years


"To belong to an island is to look outwards, understanding that the horizon is not simply a boundary between what is visible and what is invisible, what is known and unknown, but a challenge: to imagine, to yearn, to leave, to search, to return."

- Nicholas Laughlin in So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans

by Sanjana Hattotuwa

It took many years from the time it was requested, for it to be installed. Large, heavy and with a rotary dial, our family’s first phone was placed in my parent’s room. Before that, my sister and I walked around two hundred meters to use the only phone in our neighbourhood. It was placed in a shop that half-heartedly sold other things, almost as an excuse to lure more people to use the phone. BBS in the 90s meant something very different to what the acronym is known for today, and I used to be a member. Later, I connected to the Internet over a modem at 28.8 kbps, using Netscape. I skipped tuition during my O/Ls to tinker with motherboards, and programme dBase III Plus. I assembled computers, and was amongst the first to try out Windows 95 when it was launched, with a pirated copy of course. There was little to no local content on the web at the time, and the web itself was new.

There was no social media, and there were no smartphones. Neither had been invented. Our family bought the Island newspaper. We could only watch two State owned TV stations, and the first private TV based UHF broadcasts, only possible to be viewed with the purchase of a new antenna, would be advertised around this time. Achchi still listened to ‘Muwanpalassa’ on AM radio. There were no FM stations, or private radio stations over any frequency. There was no broadband. I recall family visits to other homes, and reciprocally, many coming over to visit us. This occasional, an unplanned face to face interaction, was richly textured - the adults spoke at length, the children played or were utterly bored with each, and either way, didn’t dare interrupt.

This is a snapshot of the media and information landscape I grew up in, and until my first mobile phone in 2002, I inhabited. What I knew of contemporary Sri Lanka was mediated through this media. It’s all very different now. Already, the heady optimism around social media at the time of ‘Arab Spring’ has now given way to a new skepticism around whether with greater choice, comes a stronger democracy. It’s important though to locate the pace of progress of telecommunications in Sri Lanka as we reflect on seventy years of independence. In around a quarter of a century, we have gone from paper, frequency, brick and mortar based media to digital media. In any bus, while private radio blares through speakers, commuters remain glued to their screens. Our politics, as well as our appreciation of country, identity, and our place in the world, comes from a range of diverse voices, each one competing for authority, attention and peer recognition. When the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester came in 1948 to grant us independence, the televised coverage of their visit would never reach anyone in the then Ceylon for decades. Updates on Twitter on the visit of the Earl and Countess of Wessex, in 2018, generates responses in real time, many of them rightfully ridiculing the farcical genuflection of royalty we left behind in 1948. But what’s really changed?

How we see ourselves and our country are today inextricably entwined with the style, tone, substance and selection of media consumed personally, targeted individually, shared widely amongst friends, but not consumed beyond the like-minded. In our seventieth year of independence, we are, like so many countries, splintering as a society from within, our attention colonized by social media’s addictive power. Looking back, when growing up, mainstream media had this strange communal glue - all the subscribers of one newspaper, more or less thought of the world and country in the same way, allowing for disagreement to take place with the subscribers of another newspaper, face to face or through the ballot. Today we see our country differently, depending on what we have accounts on, who we choose to follow, which platforms we engage on, what media we see and for how long, what we decide to share and thereby validate amongst friends and how we choose to capture what we experience, with documenting through image now more important in many instances than savouring the place, person or experience. This is not a world my grandparents would remotely recognize.

But there is no point hand-wringing about a simpler or better past. Our media and information landscape is by way of technical architecture and original content, better than it was a quarter century ago, and a world apart from what it was just a few years ago. The democratization of media, the affordability of access and the rich engagement over many languages - Tamil, English, Sinhala, Sin-glish, emoticons, memes, stories, stickers - renders and reveals many countries, all jostling with each other for attention - sometimes violently clashing, and most other times, existing independent of each other to serve those who subscribe. What we so desperately lack today is not freedom from the British Empire, but independence from puny imaginations - an island-mentality that first and often only sees as a threat anything and anyone from outside, and anyone different from within. We drag down, including viciously over social media, those who dare to be something better than we can be, or are contrary to how we think everyone should be. Even in digital spheres, we remain pre-modern. We continuously blame on the British what we have ourselves failed to engineer, and ignore the growing danger of social media in a country where many cannot and do not question what they consume.

But this is all known, and I do not want to end with petty pessimism, a luxury of a few who can afford to be thus. The tryst of our own democratic destiny, Nehruvian or not, is inextricably entwined the media and information we consume. We are what we choose to engage with. I look at the hate and ignorance so evident all around us, and despair at how such a verdant island can be infected with such small-minded people. But every time I think this, I also recognize the value and potential of media today to open hearts and minds - to emancipate, to nourish and in our country, create active citizenship. To embrace as Nicholas Laughlin notes, the potential of being a country greater than we are, and what we think we can be.

Our independence isn’t at Galle Face. It is on this page, and if online, in every thumb or key-press. In choosing to engage, share, like, comment or forward, we promote a vision of our country in our own mould. That mould needs to be re-cast. We have independence from a colonizer, but we remain colonized in our outlook. That’s on us, not the British. We may today engage with seventy years of independence digitally, but do so with a socio-political mentality that pre-dates even 1948. Unless we can address this anachronism of self-perception and imagination, we will continue as a country to be cosmetically modern, but catastrophically colonized by our own demons.

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