Category Archives: Technology & Society

Digital Divide is Now Political. And That Can Be Dangerous…

The power of Internet and social media in bringing about political change is now no more unrecognized. The role social media activism, led by the likes of Wael Ghonim, played in the uprising in Egypt that led to fall of the Mubarak regime, has convinced many of its potential.

But it could be a double edged sword. In many countries across the world the penetration of Internet is extremely low. Penetration of social media is even lower. Take India for example. The number of regulr Internet users is less than 8%. The number of Monthly Active Users (MAUs) of Facebook in India as of December 2011 was 46 million. If one takes into account only the individual users, the number of Indian people on Facebook would be somewhere between 2-3%. In a country like India, that is not bad at all, measuring purely from the point of view of ICT penetration.

In fact, a consumer product company trying to market a lifestyle product, there is no other media that is as efficient as Facebook for reaching out to say, affluent youth aged 18-25.

But the danger lies in assuming that the opinion of this tiny section of Facebook users is the opinion of the citizens of India. While many ordinary people do that fairly innocently, there are pressure groups who know this and do all they can to manipulate the activities on social media—often camouflaging their message as popular opinion.

Sometimes, even if there is no concerted effort, there can be huge disconnects between the kind of people who arre today on social media and other sections in the society.

I myself learned it the hard way. During the Anna Hazare agitation, the road in front of my house was converted to a virtual Dharna ground for 3-4 days, when Anna was in Tihar Jail. My house is very close to the jail. Seeing so many autowallas, vegetable vendors, and rickshawwallas among the protesting crowd, I asked a few of them what they were agitating about.

And I was shocked by the commonality in their views—and how different was that from “our” common view. For the Bedis, Kejriwals, Bhushans and most of us—whether someone is a supporter or detractor of the Anna movement—there was no doubt that the whole movement was against corruption.

But to the people on the street, I was stunned to find out, corruption was, at best, one of the issues. And it was not even the top issue. Mehngai was the issue. Anna, to them, was a mascot of the common man, not a mascot of anti-corruption, as his team had projected and many of us had accepted.

Whoever I told this to in my “friends’ circle” thought I was making too much out of it—by speaking just to a handful of people. I do not blame them, as I myself was shocked when I first heard it from a couple of the rickshawallahs. But when one after another started getting into the pain of mehngai setting aside corruption, I was convinced about what was really hurting them.

But have you even seen one FB post on this, leaving aside, possibly, comments about the petrol price hike?

So, in hindsight, it does not look so surprsing to me that they saw as the villain, not just the ruling UPA government, nor the political class alone but what they termed as “jyada padhey likhey log”, “bade bade log” and so on—the elite class in general. The same elite class which was spearheading the Anna movement on Facebook.

Today, much is being made of “people’s opinion” in social media. But who are these people? They represent a tiny section of the population. There is a real danger of getting overinfluenced by their opinion, when it comes to deciding on crucial policy matters.

This is digital divide of the worst class. This political divide is far more dangerous than the economic divide that we keep talking about.

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The Naive and the Sentimental Journalist

For a long time, I have been thinking about writing this piece, for my other blog, Nothing to Declare, where I write mostly on music,. books, and culture. Though in terms of content, it belongs more to that blog, I did not put it there because of a promise that I had made to myself when I started that blog: that I would not write pure thoughts and reflections there but would highlight less discussed aspects in the above mentioned areas, with information and facts. Something that would help the readers to research further and add to our collective knowledge. This piece, as you will agree, does not exactly satisfy that requirement.

What do I mean by The Naïve and the Sentimental Journalist? Many of you would recognize that the beautiful headline is lifted and paraphrased slightly from the title of the Nobel Prize winning writer Orhan Pamuk’s book, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist. Pamuk himself borrows the words from a famous 18th century German essay by Fredrich Schiller, called Über naïve and sentimentalische Dichtung (On naïve and Sentimental Poetry). “The word Sentimentalisch in German used by Schiller to describe,” Pamuk explains, “the thoughtful, troubled modern poet who has lost his childlike character and naïveté, is somewhat different in meaning from the word sentimental, its counterpart in English.” Adds Pamuk, “Schiller uses the word Sentimentalisch to describe the state of mind which has strayed from nature’s simplicity and power and has become too caught up in its own emotions and thoughts.” The sentimental poet, according to Schiller, is exceedingly aware of the poem he writes, the methods and techniques he uses and the artifice involved in his endeavor.

The underlining is mine. Actually, it is this definition of the so-called sentimental—now that we have understood what it really means—poet that I apply to what I would like to call the sentimental journalist. If the English language meaning of that word bothers you too much, you can call him by any name, as long as you appreciate what I am saying: the journalist who is extremely concerned about how his work would be received and is exceedingly aware of the tools and techniques that he uses to influence that.

A journalist, of course, is no poet. And unlike the poet of the nature, he cannot be naïve and innocent. But here, I would urge the readers to equate, in their minds, the fundamental beliefs and values in journalism, to nature. And the journalists I refer to are the ones who are—or are expected to—stray away from these beliefs and values.

There are a very few universal beliefs in journalism, though how they are defined may vary. And they are complete loyalty to the reader, complete loyalty to the facts rather than a journalist’s own thoughts of what is right, and a simple and uncomplicated writing that would not conceal the facts. Every journalist knows these.

Over the years, there have been tools and techniques to beautify journalistic pieces to make them more appealing, to attract more readers and so on. But all along, the reader always remained supreme, even as what should be done with him—entertain, inform, educate, sensitize…—kept getting debated.

But of late, with some fundamental changes in the way information is reported and consumed, that basic belief is getting threatened. Even as the world, by and large, is celebrating the freedom for common people and the diminishing impact of the filters such as traditional media establishments because of the advent of Internet—and there are some very good reasons for that—this has led to dilution in certain basic assumptions about what to expect from media. Credibility is one example of that.

The raison d’être of this piece—however unfashionable, conservative it seems—is to sensitize about that credibility crisis and not at all to argue for the old order. The change Internet has brought about is, by and large, positive but it is not wise to overlook the issues that are/may be there.

The idea of this occurred to me when I heard a “new media” expert urging the young journalists in a training session to “forget the reader and write for the search engine”. Call me by any name, but I am unable to digest that, even after a few months of hearing it, and what with all the new developments happening in Internet and social media all around.

And his entire session was devoted how exactly to do that. To be fair to him, he just put it crudely enough to “shock” me. But increasingly, that is what many media organizations are trying to do, when they are trying to “reinvent themselves”–teaching young journalists to forget the concept of a reader. I remember one of the editors in my early days of journalism telling us to think about a real person while conceptualizing a feature and think how and why it would help that person.

We have drifted 180 degrees away when we say you do NOT need to worry about the reader. In fact, you need not bother who he is. What you should worry about is keywords, headlines, how many links you are putting, how you should have your headline—does not matter if it does not reflect what you are saying in the text below.

Pamuk’s (actually Schiller’s) Sentimentalisch novelist/poet is not doing it with an explicit objective that is anything other than appealing to his reader; but the new journalist is doing it to achieve some other objective—to compete, as many would proudly describe it.

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Flipkart’s Flyte: A Digital Aggregator Can Revolutionize Music

A couple of days back, one of the leading Indian e-commerce stores, Flipkart launched its digital music store, called Flyte. Flipkart has clearly stood out in the nascent e-commerce market in India, with its quality of services—be it in terms of online experience or more importantly, fulfilment.

The launch of the digital music store, that would enable buyers to download MP3s of albums or individual songs, has the potential to transform the music industry in India, if the company plays it well.

The fact that digital music is increasingly replacing physical media sales is no secret. According to the FICCI-KPMG Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report 2011, in 2010, digital music sales in India, with an estimated value of Rs 4.2 billion overtook the physical sales, that recorded a total sales of Rs 3.2 billion. Larger companies like Saregama have also witnessed the trend. In FY 11, more than 60% of Saregama revenues came from digital music sales. In fact, two years back, Saregama revamped its e-commerce site and a lot of its tracks are now available for online purchase, with good searchability functions.

So, what does Flyte bring in to the table, when the music labels already make it available on their site? On the face of it, it is the same thing that Amazon brings to the table, even though many publishers sell their books online. It aggregates music from different labels; gives a much better experience to the customers and offers far more interesting pricing models—combining individual track sales, full album sales and some amount of bundling. The fact that many small music publishers as well as some big labels do not have e-coommerce sites of their own only adds to the need of an aggregator like this, Surprising it may sound, Sony Music India does not have a dedicated web site and Universal Music India’s site is not e-commerce enabled!

But that is not the point. When the FICCI-KPMG research points out that digital music will grow more than four fold between 2010 too 2015, clocking Rs 14.8 billion in 2015 or that it will account for 79 percent of total sales by 2015 as opposed to 14 percent in 2006, they have taken business as usual growth—maybe taking into account the growth in digital device usage.

But there is far more that a strong independent digital music aggregator can do. In fact, it can not just disrupt the way music is sold, it can change the way music is published and distributed. There is hardly a better market than music where the Long Tail effect can be more true. For the uninitiated, the Long Tail principle is where the businesses do not need to spend a lot of time and energy in choosing what would be a blockbuster. The cost of storing and delivering is low/almost nil. So, they can virtually sell list anything for selling even if it interests a handful of buyers. The idea was popularized by Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired magazine in his 2006 classic book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. 

In some cases, people may actually end up choosing a blockbuster. Today, large music publishers do not touch new and upcoming artistes, unless someone somewhere is convinced about their ability to become big hits. So, many good artistes wait for ever for the “opportunity”. In some cases, their work is released by small/local labels, which do not have the muscle and wherewithal to market. Strong digital aggregators give both the enterprising artistes and the niche/small labels to publish their music. The only judge would  be the ultimate judge: the public. The role of filters is getting minimized in many areas and music is just fit for that.

In fact, there are some instances of such efforts already happening. Noted singer, Shubha Mudgal and her husband, popular Tablist Aneesh Pradhan, have established a label called Underscore Records and have released works of many upcoming artistes, a lot of which are sold in digital format in their website. It is an effort that is much admired within a small community, but how many of us know about some of the excellent music they have released? Similarly, in Odisha, noted administrator, educationist and popular lyricist Devdas Chhotray has started a new experimentation of setting some of the best poetry to music, with a young but talented composer and singer duo. The market for such work is worldwide where discerning Odias are, and not necessarily in a locality in Bhubaneswar, where you can find it. Digital music—more specifically, an independent digital music aggregator—can take it to Odias in Ohio or Oslo or Ooty, wherever they are. That is nothing short of a revolution.

A strong digital music aggregator like Flyte should be able to help a lot in making this possible. It has already impressed in the way it is designed, presented and the way it has priced. Though some of the problems—such as putting a picture of a Bengali movie poster in an Odia light songs album—that are imported from the original music label remain, those are small problems you can live with for some time.

In fact, one expects that in due time, it would add small films and documentaries too, some of which are never seen by anyone other than the jury of film festivals. The digital aggregator is the perfect medium to make them reach the public. But that is another task, maybe for another day.

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Technology & The Three Paths

In the midst of jargon, numbers, and tools, we often overlook a basic truth—that business is about people. It is for the people (customers), of the people (shareholders) and by the people (employees and partners). Not that we do not know it; not that the business schools don’t teach it. But when it comes to taking decisions, often this common sense takes a backseat.

That is where most of the problems of business start and/or become complicated. Technology, which is today an essential enabler of business, by extension, suffers from the same problem. It is important to get sensitized about this, if we have to get better value from technology—especially now as, for the first time, it looks like we can get far more than what we are getting from it.

The Bhagvadgita talks of three paths for human beings: that of bhakti, jnana, and karma. In the Western philosophy, that translates to emotion, knowledge, and action, which is well recognized now. Management thinkers have, of late, been recognizing this. While business at one time was associated primarily with action, the role of knowledge became evident with the advent of technology—to some extent during industrial revolution, and then most definitely during the information revolution of the later part of the 20th century. The evolution of management as a science, itself was a manifestation of this growing realization by businesses that some specific intellectual thinking and reflections could surely add value to business. But this knowledge was pursued outside the domain of action and was injected to the businesses. That, has been changing, of late.

In the mid-80s, the term emotional intelligence came into the lexicon to stress the role of emotion in decision making and soon started making impact on management thinking. Today, though it is still not widely practiced, there is recognition that emotion has a role to play in business.

But information technology, so far, has still focused on just one of the aspects: action. This is a hangover of the industrial revolution. The catch phrase in the industrial revolution was automation. Many human functions were automated resulting in much better efficiency. When computers came, they were expected to automate some of the back office work such as accounting, information storage and retrieval. And they did that very well. While theoretical computer science, which in a sense, was an outgrowth of mathematics, did ask if it could take cae of more of the intellectual/decision making work, some early adopters in business found that it was easy to apply computers to automate some of the processes in business and make those processes far more efficient, making the entire business far more efficient. In my previous post, Why Information Technology is A Misnomer, I wrote about that. This quick resulted made computers—by now called IT—to focus completely on this aspect of business. Efficiency became the buzzword. This was improvement but the path was still the traditional path of action.

Of late, there is a realization that applying technology to do analysis of information and simulate some intelligence is probably possible. And those are catchwords in IT today. That is appplying technology along the path of knowledge. I am sure in the next few years we will see a lot of progress along this line.

One area that still remains largely untouched is emotion, despite the fact that marketers and advertisers have long played on emotions to sell consumer goods and services. But technology has played little role there. With the rising popularity of social networks and their power, however, there is a hope that probably—and I emphasize on that word—it is time to explore if technology can do something there.

Can IT?

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Why Information Technology is a Misnomer

It may sound blasphemous to many. But the more I think about it, the more I get uncomfortable with the phrase information technology. The fact that it has taken me more than two decades (that is from my first year engineering to now) to muster up enough courage to put it straight should not be held against the argument that I am making. And that is: information technology—for all its seemingly magical prowess and overwhelming impact on our lives—is a misnomer. Technology, it is; information technology, it is not.

One can go back to the classical distinction between “information” and “data” to appreciate what I am saying. As any student is taught when he is introduced to computers, data (actually the plural of datum) is pieces of facts. When, it is processed, organized, structured and interpreted, so that it becomes meaningful, it is called information. Today’s technology does a great job of processing, organizing, and structuring data. But interpreting to make it meaningful? Despite all the craze about BI and analytics of late, technology still lacks the ability to add the value of context and hence interpret it meaningfully. So, while sometimes based on matching strings of alphabets and mapping that to a predefined “meaning”, it tries to present the result as meaningful interpretation, we all know that it is not. Much of the current buzzwords such as analytics and BI are examples of this kind of exprimentation. That is clearly not “understanding the context.”

However, very recently, context has generated a lot of interest among the businesses, thanks to the surging popularity of social media, that is generating huge amount of content, much of which is available publicly.

While scores of boutique social media tracking firms have mushroomed and have been helping consumer companies “understand” the customers thinking, they too are working with basic technology that relies on the above mentioned technique. But that itself is a great leap and marketers are lapping that up. Interestingly, in most businesses, they have been working with the marketing and customer service teams, with little or no interaction with the enterprise IT departments.

I am not sure if and when the twain will meet. That anyway is not of too much consequence to this discussion. I return to my basic point that information technology really is not.

But I must point out that it was not really this way always. One of the major areas of interest within theoretical computer science in the 70s and 80s—and to some extent in early 90s—was artificial intelligence. Artificial Intelligence actually wanted to cross this frontier by trying to make computer systems intelligent enough to “understand” natural language, learn by experience and so on. So hot was the area that between 1969 and 1994, it won four Turing awards, arguably the biggest recognition in computer science. In my college days (late 80s-early 90s), AI was the buzzword and we were completely enticed by it, so much so that I remember having fought with my professor for not allowing us to opt for AI as an elective in the final year—citing lack of teachers as the reason—and forcing on us “computer networks”!

While AI still continues in some high-end labs, it faded from mainstream focus of technology industry in the mid 90s, often facing criticism, among others, that it was too philosophical a concept. And this is also when, I would like to argue, information technology lost its way.

It fell to the temptation of impressing the businesses with immediate, tangible results by automating a lot of business processes. It was a Godsend for businesses—American primarily but Western European and Japanese to some extent—that were already witnessing sluggish growth and were badly in need for something that would boost bottomline by cutting cost. The technology—what we call IT today—could do that fairly well and businesses started seeing it as the next big value creator. Soon the entire focus of technology shifted to creating newer ways and means of enhancing business efficiency. ERP and outsourcing were two major milestones in that journey. All of it was internal focused.

These low hanging fruits made the technology industry almost abandon areas that requires longer term commitment (such as AI), and technology reached where it is today. Information technology was happy playing the role of automation technology and data technology. And that is what it absolutely became.

However, what makes me hopeful are two developments. One, the Internet has emerged as a big social platform and there is an opportunity to really understand the customer. Businesses would have to now differentiate themselves on this plane, as efficiency has been done to death. Two, and this is equally important, emerging economies are now becoming the focus of most large global corporations. In these new markets—often with very different social and economic structures than the West—reaching out and reaching out effectively through whatever means possible would become key. Topline will again drive businesses and that would require knowledge of customer as a differentiator. Some businesses have already seen the danger of trying to do business in the new markets with business models of the mature markets!

Whether that will result in a serious effort by technology fraternity to make the customer instead of internal processes their core focus is something that remains to be seen.

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