Speeding Along on Digital Bullock Carts

It was in the early nineties. Having decided we would create a platform for local photographers, it made no sense to set up our agency in the conventional marketplaces of London, Paris or New York. We had to be where the storytellers were, here in Dhaka. But we also needed to be connected with our buyers. International phone lines were difficult to get, and the calls were expensive. Sending photos by courier was clumsy, slow and prohibitively costly. Alternatives needed to be found. The judging of World Press Photo in Amsterdam provided an opportunity to link up with TOOL, an NGO in the Netherlands that specialized in providing appropriate technology in Majority World countries.

Traditional bullock cart race in Bangladesh. Photo: DrikNews

Together we decided to set up a South-South network of like-minded organisations using off-line Email. We assembled our own scanner. We also developed an electronic postbox which allowed us to link up with the Internet. Other providers, Pradeshta and Agni were also trying to get onto the digital highway. Each of us found our own solution, but our off-line email using FidoNet technology became one of the precursors of the digital revolution in Bangladesh. We called it DrikTAP (Drik TOOL Access Point).

The early adopters were amongst the who’s who of Bangladesh. Professor Muhammad Yunus, Professor Rehman Sobhan, Dr. Hameeda Hossain, Dr. Atiur Rahman, Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar, BUET, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and UNICEF were amongst the first twenty users. We set up countrywide networks for UNICEF and Grameen Bank. We also launched a fax gateway, whereby people in remote parts of Bangladesh could send faxes to international destinations without having to resort to international calls. The users were all people who recognized the potential of the technology and could visualise the future. We set up an email club where we’d support one another and do our own troubleshooting. Calling ourselves the pioneers of Digital Bangladesh had never entered our minds.

The first ISP providing full-fledged Internet access came in 1996. It was expensive with a 1K connection costing 10 Tk per minute! Still, it did provide access to the digital highway. The government was nowhere on the scene.

Now that ‘Digital Bangladesh’ has become the buzzword that the government brags about at every opportunity, the progress seems to have been on restricting access. The draconian Digital Security Act is clearly a part of the new police state machinery and designed to curb any form of dissent. With elections approaching the Internet is grinding to a halt. Downloads are virtually impossible on Gmail and most users are resorting to VPN for normal Internet activity. Mobile phones are off limits at election time. Facebook and Youtube have been deactivated at key junctures, especially when the government has faced criticism. We’ve also seen Internet being completely switched off to prevent information on rampant abuse of power by the government from being circulated. It is feared that the upcoming elections will bring out the worst in our digital big brother and digital repression seems to be the only technology on offer.

Author: Shahidul

A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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