The Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay announced new restrictions on Internet use this week for students living in IIT "hostels" -- the Indian equivalent of college dormitories. From 11 p.m. to 12:30 p.m., Internet use will be sharply curtailed. That means no more locally networked games of CounterStrike, chatting, downloading of movies, hacking or otherwise tripping the Web fantastic. (Thanks to DesiPundit for the link to Youth Curry's ruminations on the news.)
The genesis of the decision appears to be the suicide of an IIT-Bombay student in October 2005, growing attendance problems in morning classes, and a generalized fear that a new generation of IIT students is turning into unsocialized zombies. A collection of letters by current IIT students and alumni in response to one eloquent denunciation of the ill effects of broadband Internet access in every hostel room covers all the angles: There is the old guard nostalgically remembering the days when students were forced to hang out together, because the only computers available were located in centralized labs. There are the current students, noting that CounterStrike is a great way to relieve stress, but also acknowledging that, yes, maybe playing games obsessively for an entire year is not good for one's education.
The same story can be told anywhere in the world where a new generation grapples with the immersive seductions of the broadband Internet. It can be told about my own house, where, if my 9-year-old was left to his own devices, he would be playing computer games 24/7 until his little fingers were too tired to grip a mouse. In its archetypal outlines, it is an unexceptional tale -- the old guard is always dismissive of the new, and "Internet addiction" is an easy, ever-popular scapegoat for all manner of social ills.
The new rules at IIT-Bombay bring with them some extra frisson, however, simply because of their symbolism. The jewels of India's educational crown, the IITs have produced thousands of graduates who have led India's surge into the global economy as a software-producing powerhouse. IIT alumni are in part responsible for building the online universe that is sucking up attention spans right and left. There is a certain irony to a narrative in which Internet addiction is blamed for destroying the student careers of India's best and brightest future computing stars.
But if you look more closely at the stories of students who have been commenting in their blogs about the Internet restrictions or the suicides of students, it seems at least possible that the long nights spent hacking or gaming are a symptom, not a cause, of larger problems. IIT students mention the word "stress" with great frequency. Just getting into the elite academies is a heroic feat, but once there, the cream of the crop suddenly find themselves compared to others who are as smart or smarter than they are, all in the service of carving out a niche in a global economy where the competition grows more ferocious by the minute. No wonder they need to blow off steam. No wonder some commit suicide.
Will cutting off broadband access for any number of hours make a difference to that dynamic? One guesses not.