In October, 1995, we interviewed Theo, Ulli
and Rabiya about the new Bulletin Board System (BBS) they were setting
up in Auroville, and their hopes for how it might stimulate increased
community participation in discussions and decision-making. Recently
we spoke to Theo and Ulli again about how far their hopes have been
fulfilled and about the next big step in our cyber evolution.
How has the BBS developed in the past two
Ulli: Two years
ago we had hardly begun to communicate internationally. Now 6,000
electronic messages a week are passing between Auroville and the
outside world, and email has largely supplanted other forms of communication
like FAX and international STD. In fact, as email is charged at
local telephone rates, the income of the Auroville telephone exchange
has actually dropped by about 30% in the past year!
Theo: There are
approximately 450 people on AuroNET!, our internal communication
network, of whom about 400 are Aurovilians and 50 are friends. Although
technically we could accommodate more, we seem to have reached a
certain plateau of numbers with the existing set-up.
These figures don’t tell
you how people use this facility. For example, it’s interesting
to note that AuroNET! Is used almost exclusively for email: hardly
anybody is setting up forums, polling Aurovilians or using it for
This is partly because
of technical limitations: we have only six telephone lines at present
making people uneasy about staying on-line very long, and the present
software does not allow the forums to be used to their maximum advantage.
Ulli: Looking back,
we can see that the moment we opened up the possibility of communicating
outside Auroville with this new medium and improved the user interface,
the internal traffic picked up a lot. In fact, we probably have
– given the size of our community – one of the most used and efficient
email services in the world at present.
What about Internet access?
Ulli: What we have
not yet been able to provide for Aurovilians is comparable ease
of access to the Internet: this is our next big challenge. But once
this is possible and we have a critical mass of Aurovilians who
are “Internet literate”, I’m sure a lot more people will plug in
and start communicating in more interesting ways. The electronic
version of the Auroville News could start using hypertext, for example.
Actually, soon Internet
access will not be a technical problem. There is Internet access
in Pondicherry now, and once the Auroville Exchange is upgraded
– which they have to do by the end of March – and the new Pondicherry
link is activated, we will have a permanent leaseline connection
for the Internet, along with ten additional internal connections.
Within three or four months we could already have forty people connected.
If this creates a critical mass, within a year a hundred people
could be plugged in.
Theo: The challenge
is financial rather than technical. Now, for the first time, users
of AuroNET! Have to pay a nominal sum. This is to make them value
the service more, but also to deter individuals form sending or
receiving huge amounts of date (the more you send and receive, the
more you pay). However, this income by no means covers the additional
costs of the new set-up. Even with help from Shuttle, we still need
additional funds to create public access stations to the Internet
in places like the Solar Kitchen and larger communities. We hope
some of the units will participate. We may also set up a Cyber Café
which would charge by the hour for Internet access… but this would
only be a nominal fee.
Ulli: We should
stress that this is not meant to be a profit-making operation. It
is, above all, an experiment in communication. At present, Auroville
has a choice. Either we stagnate at the present communication level,
or we take the next step to widespread Internet connectivity. If
we choose the latter, the community will have to participate financially.
Theo: The Internet
can offer enormous possibilities to Auroville in the fields of education,
business, architecture etc. It has already stimulated us to create
our own Web Site. The result is far more information about Auroville
is being put out now than was the case a few years ago. If Auroville
want to be a laboratory of evolution it must not only be in touch
with everything significant happening elsewhere; it must also be
willing to describe what it has been doing so that others can test
it out and evaluate it. In this respect, I think the Website is
a tremendous tool.
What about educational possibilities?
Ulli: In terms
of educational possibilities, we are just about to set up an interesting
experiment at Transition School. We are going to augment their existing
computer set-up and have it linked to the Internet so that eight
students can simultaneously access the Internet under the supervision
of a teacher. It will be very interesting to see what effect this
has upon teaching methods and the students’ progress.
But I think the significance
of Auroville being in cyberspace is much larger than this. For example,
the danger of becoming a tiny island, of Auroville building walls
around itself, is diminished by its access to a wider electronic
world. It helps us keep things in perspective, and it’s good that
others can provide input into our process because it prevents us
becoming an incestuous society in terms of ideas and creativity.
is power, and I think this electronic network minimises the possibility
of somebody using their private knowledge to exercise power over
others. It won’t prevent it happening completely, but it is definitely
What about the possibility of electronic
discussion forums? Have they fulfilled your expectations?
Theo: Active Aurovilian
participation in electronic forums both within Auroville and outside
it, like the AVI Compatible forum, is very low. I think this is
because many Aurovilians have become somewhat fatalistic abut what
happens here, and the struggle for survival has taken precedence
over discussion of community issues. In the process, it’s as if
Aurovilians have unlearned how to communicate and instead come to
rely upon a few vocal people to speak for them.
But the potential for
change is here, and the new electronic possibilities which are becoming
part of the fabric of Auroville can help bring about that change…if
we are ready to use them in that way.
Ulli: what is not
predictable is the extent to which Auroville will use the new electronic
possibilities to strengthen our sense of community, to increase
participation in our decision-making process. I’m far less optimistic
about this now than I was two years ago. I feel it’s more likely
that the individual consuming aspect and individual information-gathering
There’s another reason
why I’m less hopeful: I find it remarkable that there is such enormous
resistance in Auroville to using this electronic medium to “assess
the mood of the house,” to find out what Aurovilians think about
any issue. It could be done very easily and quickly through an electronic
questionnaire or poll. Yet people seem to fear it because they think
it might lead to manipulation or to decisions taken by head counts…and
we know what Mother thought about democracy. Yet the present situation,
where individuals can manipulate meetings or appeal to authority
figures about the heads of the Aurovilians, is obviously no better.
Unsurprisingly, it is precisely these people who resist the new
medium and its egalitarian information-sharing most strongly.
Do you feel Auroville and the Internet are
Ulli: Mother never
told us to live in caves, to disconnect ourselves from the world.
We have to work in the world, and the world today is CNN and, Internet:
that’s not up for discussion. The challenge is to integrate and
make use of these new possibilities to lead us towards our goal.
So let’s use the Internet to realize Mother’s vision rather than
arguing about its dangers and distractions.