October 27, 2016 12:00 pm JST
Tea Leaves

Dial-up days and digital disruption

NICHOLAS FARRELLY

Today it is rare, even in the backblocks of Southeast Asia, to hear the unmistakable buzz and whir of an old-fashioned modem panting to connect.

The clicks, the hiss, the anticipation; in the old days, anybody who labored to send a mission-critical email simply accepted the unforgiving logic of the bandwidth lottery.

If you failed to get a good enough connection, your only option was to come back the next day. It can still be that way in the more remote parts of the region -- for example in western Myanmar, where it can take a full 10 minutes to send a single email, if you are lucky.

There can be an upside to snail's pace internet. When I lived, almost two decades ago, in southern Thailand, browsing the web and sending messages to friends and family was a way to step outside the provincial rigmarole, even if only for a couple of hours.

At the time, receiving an email, especially if it was thoughtful or funny, was a cause for celebration. I was a young student struggling with school in a foreign language, and with the challenges of making friends in a place far from home.

Back then, in southern Thailand, the major towns had quickly embraced the first wave of the internet revolution. It was the era of the internet shop, or "cafe" as some grandly called themselves. In my neighborhood, the only reliable places to get online tended to be cluttered, slapdash facilities, packed with a dozen or more PCs.

Often run by youngsters skilled in the dark arts of dial-up modems, the best of these internet shops were filled with schoolkids eager to chat online or play shoot-'em-up games.

As in countless other internet cafes around the world, the games were the real draw. By the early 2000s, it was "Counter-Strike," where the "terrorists win," that ate up most of the minutes. An hour usually cost 10 baht, which was something like 25 U.S. cents.

At that price, only dusty travelers and long-term expatriates would bother much with email. That was back when most of us used Hotmail and Yahoo accounts. The Google juggernaut was only starting to gather serious momentum. Facebook and Twitter were yet to emerge.

Patterns of communication in southern Thailand were still much as they had been for a generation. People talked on telephone landlines, and some carried pagers. There were mobile phones, but only for the wealthy.

Delicious possibilities

Everyone else tended to make do with massive amounts of face-to-face social time. The most notable sites for social networking were busy night markets filled with delicious possibilities.

We sometimes forget that it is only in the past decade, as mobile phones have become commonplace, that some of our old social geographies have been completely reimagined.

In Thailand's case, broadband internet started to make its mark by the mid-2000s. Dial-up then quickly faded from view. But internet shops managed to cling, for a time, to their most loyal clients: teenage boys playing their favorite games and stray foreigners looking for a place to Google up a storm.

That phase also passed, condemned to history as mobile phones harnessed the most active internet users. In the politically difficult years since the telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed from the prime ministership in 2006, the pace of change has only quickened.

By 2012, Bangkok had reportedly become the world's most vibrant Facebook city, with more accounts than the official population. Today's smartphones -- miniaturized versions of yesterday's supercomputers -- offer countless opportunities to get in touch.

Thinking back to my earliest experiences grasping for an internet connection to the outside world, I can see why Thais are now among the world's most insistent social media users.

Even then, internet chat platforms were incredibly popular, allowing for hours or even days of idle back-and-forth. When I glance at the volume of today's Thai-language Facebook content, there is no surprise that the disruptive platform -- optimized for the gossip, the flirt and the voyeur -- has proved so outrageously popular.

Societies across Southeast Asia have made huge adjustments to help make the internet fit local conditions. The daunting reality is that, only a couple of decades into the online era, the biggest changes -- to the economy, politics, romance and entertainment -- are yet to arrive.

Nicholas Farrelly is deputy director of the Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, where he researches Southeast Asian politics and societies.

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