Wired in Jakarta

I’m currently in Jakarta with my colleagues, presenting at the 60th TEFLIN International Conference for English Language Teachers at the Universitas Indonesia. The event wraps up tomorrow, but I wanted to take a moment before I depart to share some photos and information about this university’s amazing, tech-friendly library (perpustakaan, in Bahasan Indonesian) and the digitally mobile population that roams here.

DSCN3658For any of you who have visited Jakarta you know that large parts of the city operate on a meagre, if not entirely lacking, physical infrastructure and unfortunately the Universitas Indonesia is not immune. There are no sidewalks or street medians, very spotty pavement work, patch-work roofing, crumbling walls, leaky plumbing and duct-taped air conditioners. However, the city I’ve been exposed to and the campus I’ve been on for the last 3 days presents a complete contradiction to this truth.

Even as I’ve had to dodge exhaust-spewing scooters and side-step around dodgy potholes and broken pavement, I can’t walk 10 meters in any direction without seeing the holy grail of stickers: Wi-Fi hotspot. This city advertises free Wi-Fi in hotels, all the restaurants I’ve been into, The Body Shop across the street, the coffee shops, the bookstores and of course on campus. In Tokyo, where I live at least, I can only count on free Wi-Fi at Starbucks, the Mont-Bell store at Grandberry Mall and the local Softbank dealer. Why here in Indonesia is the digital infrastructure outpacing the “electronic capital” Tokyo?  The microcosm of this wired populace is best seen on the Universitas Indonesia campus.

It is true that the campus as a whole suffers from the same “public works” infrastructure failings I mentioned previously and so evident around the city: cracked pavement, patchy ceilings, spotty lighting and ageing plumbing. However, when it comes to being logged-in, wired and mobile, I have not seen an academic youth population in Japan that can compare with the young scholars I’ve seen these last few days. Like Tokyo, everyone has a smartphone. But here they also have a pc and a tablet and they use it for things other than Line or playing silly games. They are recording lectures, downloading academic literature, taking notes digitally and they are doing it with the support of the University and no where is this more obvious than the campus library.

DSCN3642The main entrance into campus takes you past an enormous, grassy, cone-shaped hill, the slopes of which are striped with narrow bands of windows but no obvious sign of an entrance. Craning your head skyward you see multiple enormous, 5-storey high, grey stone structures poking from the top of the cone like some massive alien citadel. These structures are actually the upper floors of the library. Eager to see the interior, I slipped away during an afternoon break in the conference to check it out.

I had to walk around the massive, grassy slopes almost 180 degrees to find the main entrance to the library, completely hidden from the main road. What awaited was astonishing. The other “half” of the cone (the dark side) was 8-storeys of modern architecture: sheer vertical and irregular, black stone walls banded with windows. At the base of this “cliff” was an enormous, sunken courtyard, complete with benches and trees and it all faced an immense pond.

The first floor contained a Starbucks, an bookstore, a bank, a convenience store and dozens of discussion and study rooms. Of course the entire structure, including the courtyard, is a Wi-Fi zone. Delving deeper into the “cone” I came across the library’s computer lab. It’s a cavernous room, with a gleaming, black stone floor and 2 towering walls of glass, allowing copious natural light to flood the space and 190, 21.5 inch iMac monitors.

My jaw dropped; I have never seen a University computer lab – let alone one in “infrastructure-poor” Indonesia – containing almost 200 iMac computers. Walking amongst the rows of desks and monitors I saw students viewing YouTube videos, Yahoo pages, PDF files, Skype-ing, typing, searching, Tweeting, Facebook-ing and streaming. In addition, approximately 75% of the students also had either their smartphones or their tablets or their laptops powered on and firing away. I had to ask a few questions.

The library and computer lab opened in 2011. Prior to that the University had an old library in a small brick building with almost no IT hardware to offer.The library is open from 8:30 a.m-7:00 p.m. every day. When I asked why the school chose Macs over Window the reference librarian told me, “the boss instructed us to buy Macs.” (Don’t know who he or she is, but I was beginning to like this “boss”). I was curious to know if they collected data on student use of the computers and internet access history (how long does the average student stay in this lab?  How long are they on-line? etc…) but unfortunately they do not.  However, being an English teacher, I also asked if the students access more Indonesian language sites or English sites and the librarian said that it was about equal.

The conference wraps up on Thursday and I will be heading to Kyoto to present at one more conference before returning to Tokyo on Saturday. My impressions of Jakarta are quite extreme: I have seen third-world conditions and infrastructure, but I have also met a warm, friendly people who have their feet firmly planted in the digital-age and who in some ways, are far ahead of “infrastructure-rich” Japan.

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