Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Technology, Telephones and the Two Mangoes

This week, in the kinky booted tradition of Star Trek's Captain Kirk, I decided to boldly venture forth into the future and checkout what cool, high-tech items are available in Jakarta's increasingly techno savvy marketplace. The first stop was West Jakarta's Roxy Mas Plaza which contains about eight floors dedicated entirely to mobile phones. I guess to some of you that might conjure up hellish images of hundreds of thousands of massed ring tones simultaneously chirping away but it's a pleasant enough Plaza although it is slightly strange that every shop is identical. My quest for a new battery and headphone thingy for my Motorola was thankfully successful and my mobile phone/camera/MP3 player was back in action. These phones are getting increasingly sophisticated of course and apparently Sony Ericsson are just about to release the first phone to bear the Walkman logo on it. In the future they say your mobile phone will function as a phone, camera and Walkman as well as your house keys, car keys, global positioning system, ATM card, biometric sensor and plenty more besides I shouldn't wonder. Your life will quite literally be in your hand. Then of course you really will be buggered when you leave the thing in the back of a taxi.

Speaking of taxis I proceeded to leave Roxy's handphone heaven, jumped a Bluebird and headed for Jakarta's number one techno Mecca, namely Mangga Dua Plaza in Kota. However, trapped in Mangga Dua's interminable gridlock in a seemingly vain attempt to reach the Plaza itself I couldn't help but reflect on the downside of human progress and technology and how advances meant to free humanity end up emasculating us. 20th-century thinkers from Marx to Sartre have ruminated upon how we end up alienated and stifled by progress. The Jakartan motorist, for example, is caught in a series of escalating jams created by the increasing availability of cars whose original intention was to enable people to move more freely. Are human beings increasingly, and with apparent inevitability, held prisoner by our own creations? Perhaps the mobile phones at Roxy Mas and the computer hardware available at Mangga Dua can be viewed in the same way. The handphone is certainly a double-edged sword in my view. Sure, it is an essential convenience these days but you try ignoring a call from someone close to you and then having to explain where you were what you were doing during every second of the day, or coping with your SMS induced tendonitis. Likewise, the Internet, the instrument of global communication, paradoxically isolates people behind their monitors and engenders a state of zombified inertia which is broken only by the mouse clicking of the right-hand. Perhaps though, Indonesians, intensely social creatures that they are, feel this sense of alienation less acutely than my petit bourgeois western self.

My mood brightened when I finally got inside the Plaza. Mangga Dua does have the most excellent selection of pirated DVDs and software available in town. Quite obscure stuff as well, all from about Rp.10,000 per disc. Various police clampdowns have thankfully done little to diminish the trade and entrench the dubious morality of "Intellectual Property Rights" in Indonesia. The figures that we read in the papers of millions of lost dollars by the film industry in Asia through piracy assume that those who by 10 pirated DVDs from somewhere like Mangga Dua would buy an equal number of discs at full price if the pirates were not available. This is absolute garbage of course. As for Bill Gates, well the fact that he is the richest man in the history of the world rather disqualifies him from whingeing too much about lost revenue if you ask me. Indonesia, of course, has more pressing issues to deal with than DVD piracy. Malnutrition, poverty, AIDS and impending environmental doom are perhaps more significant problems. Keep buying them cheap discs I say. Why begrudge Jakarta's poor about the only entertainment that they can afford (aside from jumping each other’s bones of course).

Mangga Dua Plaza and other local malls such as Ratu Plaza at the bottom end of Jl. Sudirman are also great places to pick up pirated software. You may think that you’re saving money on pirated DVDs but that’s peanuts compared to buying a US$500 program for Rp.20,000. One locally developed piece of software that I managed to fish out costs a rather more expensive Rp.500,000. It's called Transtool and amazingly it translates English text into Indonesian and vice versa at supposedly a 97 percent accuracy rate. Us English teachers had perhaps better start looking for other jobs. MP3 players are also doing a roaring trade in Indonesia at the moment and the Apple shop in Ratu Plaza has hardly any Mac computers in it at all with the bulk of the display counters being taken up by trendy i-Pods and their various accessories. A basic MP3 Walkman can now be got for under Rp.500,000. So it's full steam ahead into the future. Now all we need is for hover boots to be invented and Jakarta's traffic woes will be erased at a stroke.

Simon Pitchforth