The Wave Rider
Im a great fan of Ernest Hemingway. His writing has influenced me a lot. I admire some other American writers like Tom Wolfe, he says. He also calls his tepid, realist yet evocative non-fiction-writing style inspired by the likes of The New Yorker and Granta, And no, hes not a writer (well, professionally) and neither a scribe earning his paycheck putting ink on paper. Hes written a book alright, and done a good enough job of it too. But Ajit Balakrishnan was and still is one of the pioneers who opened Indias windows to the World Wide Web. His book, The Wave RiderA Chronicle of the Information Age is a mix of an autobiographical account of his professional journey over the past couple of decades that saw him establishing Rediff.com. It is also a piece of business literature giving an insiders analysis of the information age and how the world has been undergoing a transition from the industrial age to the information age in the past one decade.
Its the story of how from a tiny Internet venture, that too after a failed computer hardware business, Balakrishnan took off on a journey that was topsy-turvy, bumpy, fraught with danger and adversaries and ultimately was about vision, dreams and the entrepreneurial spirit in him. A journey that saw Rediff going from a tiny office space in Mumbai to getting listed at NASDAQ. Thats not all though. It also serves as a good enough dummies guide to the information age, served with copious doses of business and industrial history. This also lends to the book,which is already just 213 pagesaround 50 pages worth of notes, references and indexes.
Ive tried to ensure that anything I say is backed by references and notes. So if a reader wants to dive deep into any of the issues or topics talked about in the book, theres enough material and sources mentioned to guide him or her, says Balakrishnan. But with just about 160 pages, doesnt he feel that the book is drastically short as compared to most works on business history It was a conscious decision to make it short and simple for it to be of as much use to a general reader as it might be to an Internet practitioner, a business school student, and the like. And you need to have some mercy on the readers. In todays time and age when attention spans are constantly shrinking, I dont want to burden my readers with 700 pages of business and technology jargon, he responds.
The idea of this book was hatched in mid-2011 when Macmillans India publisher Saugata Mukherjee got in touch with Balakrishnan over a paper the latter had presented at the New School for Social Research in New York. Macmillan approached me, wanted me to convert that paper into a book, but I wanted to go further and explore the present dynamics of the industry. To analyse and give a perspective on this transition that the world is going throughfrom the industrial age to the information age, says Balakrishnan. But like most things creative, Balakrishnan feels that the idea of a book about his professional journey started with curiosity. When you set out to write, it provides you a great opportunity to think things through in detail. It helps you to look back and analyse the time gone by and all that had happened. It was this curiosity about understanding that time and what I did back then which motivated me to write this book, he says. But the curiosity wasnt just limited to this. He adds that the research that went into the book also was a source of great curiosity. Balakrishnan took about nine months to complete The Wave Rider, after stealing a few hours every day from his extremely hectic schedule.
He tells us that two major debates around Internet and society that have gripped and will continue to grip the world in the time to come are about the existence of nation states vis--vis the web, and the debate around privacy. Nation states emerged in the 19th centuries and that has been seriously challenged by the Internet, which goes beyond political and even cultural borders. No one really has the answer to how the future society will develop, but its a raging debate as of now, across the globe as well as in India. The other debate, which has not yet reached India in full measure is about privacy of user data. This debate is big in Europe, and is beginning to take centrestage in the US too. Theres no one solution for it and is a matter of deliberation within each country and society, he says.
One book down, and he sure seems to have enjoyed it, so is there any other book in the offing I have this unfinished book in my head on the higher education sector in India. I plan to analyse it through the prism of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). Maybe Ill call it The Confessions of an IIM Chairperson (he is also the chairman, IIM Calcutta). But its too early to say anything really, he says.