Dezinformatsiya

The word is Russian, and comes from its intelligence services. The meaning isn’t hard to guess in English – disinformation. The phenomenon is global in scope and reach. There are now new, cutting-edge companies in the West, whose clients are powerful politicians across the world, employing disinformation campaigns to malign opponents, misdirect public attention, quell dissent, overwhelm critique, shut down social media accounts of critics, game elections and ultimately, gain or retain power. The causal link between sophisticated disinformation campaigns and the retention of political authority is murky only because the money trails and the technologies remain shrouded in secrecy. This is no longer a dark art – it is close to an exact science involving algorithms and other means that target individuals, marketing campaigns that focus on key constituencies and the use of psychological devices online, including sophisticated propaganda campaigns, to shift votes. We are used to war being kinetic – the use of weapons, singed tree-tops, soiled bodies and scarred landscapes. There are other wars today – for our attention, over what we hold true, believe in and indeed, choose to vote for. The main theatre for these wars is the media, sometimes as a pawn, sometimes as an active, willing participant. Newspapers, TV and radio stations in Sri Lanka, bought and owned by individuals linked to dubious financial deals or businessmen close to, or want to be close to government, are the easy examples. More insidious are campaigns over social media, which fewer understand the reach and impact of.  For example, a website you are encouraged to connect to using your Facebook credentials that tells you how you will look like as you age, which Hollywood or Game of Thrones star you resemble the most, your key psychological traits or your most ideal partner amongst your friends could in fact be harvesting over a much longer period, without your knowledge, personal information in vast databases, outside of Facebook, that capture your likes, age, location, sex, political preferences, shopping habits, reading choices and other metrics. In the hands of a political campaign, this is a goldmine of information. Keen readers will know how this sort of information – called psychometric profiling – has already been used in the US, UK, France, Colombia and other countries, in key elections or referenda, to swing votes in favour for or opposed to candidates and ideas. This is coming to Sri Lanka as well, and we need to be prepared for it. A country with high adult literacy but very poor media and information literacy is ripe for the colonisation of the mind. As we move towards 2020, those who want to regain power, perhaps more than those who may want to retain power, will use these technologies and tactics to create noise, spectacle and confusion. Rarely if ever will they be used to inform, alert and truly engage. Civil society, which hardly ever demonstrates any meaningful understanding of new technologies and is imaginatively stuck in a mind-set anchored to placard holding street level activism and mainstream media based advocacy, will be hostage to sophisticated propaganda campaigns they don’t know even exist.

These are real challenges and they aren’t going away. I regularly engage with a number of individuals and institutions, largely outside of Sri Lanka, attempting to use new and social media to promote conflict transformation, democracy and human rights, who are keenly aware that even with the potential pitfalls and dangers, there are also real opportunities to non-violently accommodate difference, connect the unlike-minded and expose bias. In Kuching last week, at the inaugural Junior Chamber International (JCI) International Summit on Peace, discussions I led were anchored to communications, peacebuilding and governance. The focus was around how the technologies in the hands of so many today could be used to promote peace, rights and strengthen democratic governance. There were over one hundred countries represented at the conference. The participants were, at most, in their mid-thirties. They came with very different experiences of confronting or using media, politics, governance, activism and advocacy at national and local levels. Two points they all agreed on – social media played a central role in shaping public opinion today, and they all needed to catch up with those in power who used increasingly sophisticated means to capture public attention.

But catching up is the problem. A study of the manner in which content is published and disseminated over social media in Sri Lanka alone, by the BBS and groups aligned to it, is instructive. The worst dregs of our society, seem to be the best in promoting their ideology. The best ideas we have are lost in the resulting cacophony. The noise and violence deters many from participating. The viral nature of the content, produced by a few, suggests a wider appreciation. Moderate voices, who many well be in the majority, are silent or silenced. This in turn makes extremism more mainstream, and over time, fighting it harder. The means through which to identify and intervene in a timely, effective and sustained manner around content inciting hate produced in Sinhala is beyond the technical capabilities of leading social media platforms. For any company based in Silicon Valley, Sinhala is not a language of any consequence. All this is advantageous to disinformation campaigns in Sri Lanka, which can rely on around five million users on Facebook and millions more on WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook Messenger and Viber to often mindlessly share and promote sensational or even satirical content far removed from truth or fact. This is why media and information literacy programmes are essential, instead of what will be, I have no doubt, a mad rush towards investments in avant-garde marketing campaigns that try to outdo political rivals in their inability to snag the attention of voters, any way possible.

Teach a citizen to ask why, and you have a strong democracy. Compel a voter which way to vote, and you have a weak state.

Civil society needs to do more. There are no shortcuts. Recognising the danger of disinformation to colour the outcome of policymaking, electoral results and public opinion in general, urgent investments are needed to capture and retain young, driven staff who can engage creatively, effectively and proactively using social media. Management styles need to change too – centralised, bureaucratic organisations are anathema for iterative, adaptive and responsive advocacy campaigns. They will fail miserably.

Disinformation is a cancer, and it is growing. At home, disinformation can be curtailed by pausing, reflecting and before retelling or sharing in any way, asking if what one consumed is really credible, not just because it appeals to you, or sounds, looks or feels right. Search. Ask around. Even if to disagree, look out for differing opinions. Recognise that those who hold different values treat you with the same suspicion, and perhaps even hate, as you would hold them – and that they are also loving parents, doting grandparents, respectable leaders, pay their taxes, live in the same neighbourhoods, share the same country, and ultimately, are fellow citizens. Disinformation works best when deep socio-political divisions are present – by expanding them, seeding doubt, creating fear and othering. Completely relying on public and private institutions to save us from dezinformatsiya glosses over so much individual citizens can do to not be taken in by highly-developed propaganda. We all need to join this fight, because it is our future at stake.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 10 September 2017.

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A Tale of Two Cities

I am told I was around six when I questioned the size of the Buddha statues at Bellanwila Temple. I had told my grandmother that there was no way a man of those dimensions could exist, and had also wondered why it was necessary to have such big statues to worship someone who everybody thought was important anyway. I cannot recall my grandmother’s response, but a twin impetus – a deep attraction to and curiosity around spirituality, and an abiding suspicion, bordering on repulsion towards established religion – has coloured my life since. Fast forward to the hyper-real theatre of worship, violence and veneration framed by the BBS, conversations around the role and place of Buddhism in the new constitution and the very visible genuflection of politics in front of the sangha, the early disconnect from popular signs and symbolism of religion has grown into a study of hypocrisy – how the worst amongst us are often also the most overtly pious. From suspected war criminals to murderers, those who blatantly lie, steal and are the most corrupt are amongst the most welcome benefactors to leading temples. The sangha, writ large, is also far from benign or benevolent. In what is constantly projected by them as a worsening existential crisis, the ostensible protection of the dhamma repeatedly morphs into a range of excuses used to support noise pollution, animal cruelty, interference in politics, incitement to violence, the spread of hate, archaeological fiction, land encroachment and supine silence around, or indeed, outright support towards the sermonising of hate and harm. It is almost as if the sangha realise they are far removed from the teachings of the Buddha, and seek to mask this – to themselves and their followers – with ever greater displays of religiosity and a tactile, ostentatious, loud, material record and display of faith.

The greater the decay, the more visible the rituals.

A Tale of Two Cities, conceptualised by Renu Modi, was an artistic collaboration between Gallery Espace and the Serendipity Arts Trust, both based in India and the Theertha International Artists’ Collective based in Sri Lanka. The art, having been exhibited in India, came to Colombo last month. The curatorial advisor Ruhanie Perera’s introduction to the catalogue frames the art on display within the politics of both countries writ large, as well as Varanasi and Anuradhapura as specific geographic locations, and sites of religious worship. On the opening night of the exhibition at Theertha, located in what is a small house located in Borella, the total lack of ventilation and resulting stifling heat made any prolonged engagement with the art impossible. And yet, the art, even in passing, was resonant, appealing and thought-provoking. In the decline or absence of spiritual guidance by traditional custodians of the dhamma in saffron, the art provided both critique and insight, education as well as reflection. This was an interesting inversion, of a teaching and exploration led not by those usually associated with sermonising, but by an artistic gaze, necessarily critical and removed, and yet, through frames, form, focus, material and subject, served to sharply guide one’s attention towards aspects of the dhamma or how religion shaped, and was shaped by, the inhabitants of and visitors to two sacred cities. The audience were pilgrims, and the materiality of the stifling air, the very heat and sweat, a reminder of corporeal impermanence. The air became, over that evening, artefact, a reminder of how fleeting and fragile everything is, even as the art itself captured efforts to preserve religion over centuries. All this made it somewhat ironic to discover the price the art was being sold at, if only because the collection of it was an expensive act of futility, serving more than anything else to highlight the folly of establishing monetary value for that which would not last, and could not be owned after death. And yet, since some I met were in fact contemplating seriously buying the art, the meditation – outside, in the much cooler even air – then shifted to the politics of privilege, and in turn, how that was dealt with in the Buddha’s teachings including as represented through the art itself.

In my father’s hometown of Pitabaddera, whenever we visited my grand-father, we also trekked to see the village monk. I remember him, brown robed, on an ageless haansi-putuwa, a ceramic bowl with a patina of betal as companion, giraya in hand, cutting areca nuts with quiet purpose until a particularly tough one elicited voluble protest, interrupting speech and sermon. Thaththa and I sat beneath him, comfortably. Memories from over thirty years ago are hazy, but I distinctly recall conversations around family, friends and politics. The priest used these as vectors to engage my father on what I recall was pali scripture, the sound of which enthralled me more, as a child, than whatever it signified. I recall once seeing the priest’s posterior, through a hole in his robe. I asked Thaththa if we could get him a new one. I liked the priest, and these first encounters with the dhamma through an individual who clearly didn’t profit from preaching. The Buddha in the temple was small, accessible. Human. In later years, I would yearn for and love the serenity of quiet reflection next to the immense Kiri Vehera in Kataragama, but in this temple, the stupa was small – a size determined by how much the surrounding villagers at the time of construction had been able to afford, without any political patronage.

I was taken back to these memories by A Tale of Two Cities, of a Buddhism that gained traction by the merit of its teaching and its deep humanism. The art blurred the distinction between sacred and scarred, locating much of what is Buddhism today in terrains of deep violence, including within the temple-space. In this sense, it was located in sort of Buddhist tradition and philosophy I encountered as a child in Pitabeddara, and have only very rarely enjoyed an interaction with anywhere else in Sri Lanka. Much of the art also invited a reflection on pilgrimage today – whether what should be a journey of deep questioning and spiritual awakening is now more of a robotic affair, mindlessly parroting sound, shuffling from stone to step, palms clasped out of habit, a commercial enterprise sold as a test of faith. The act of pilgrimage, usually to a location, was through this exhibition made into a journey within oneself, around location.

Anoli Perera’s work focussed on these aspects in particular. Bandu Manamperi took a more nuanced approach – where stress and fault lines, around faith, were rendered in the materiality of his work, to which a certain sanctity could easily be projected. His broken sandakadapahana for example seems quite normal, until you observe that the stress induced undulations actually alter the nature of the object in subtle but definite ways. Chintan Upadhyay’s stunning photography of Thuparamaya forces us to consider what is framed, its meaning, our relationship with it, the artist’s deliberation around it, and essentially, the (almost non-existent) connection between material worship of a space and the search, within and without, for nibbana. Unsurprisingly, for those familiar with his work, artist Jagath Weerasinghe’s work explores the tragically rich terrain of violence inextricably entwined in Sri Lanka with the perpetuating and promotion of Buddhism. It is a violence that is invisible, on-going, systemic and utterly corrosive. This essential leitmotif carried forward by Pala Pothupitiya, who interrogates the relationship between the Executive today, the Kings of yore, the State and the protection of Buddhism – a curious, constitutionally enshrined concept which in effect normalises the greatest of violence if and when the service of the dhamma.

A Tale of Two Cities is a misnomer. The exhibition is in fact a deep meditation on the human condition, and in that sense, transcends its most obvious anchors to geography, Buddhism and the specific politics of two countries.  The journey through the art is a metaphysical one, and if you think it through, questions the many constructions around and atop of which so much of what we mindlessly, out of habit or fear, parrot and accept as religion. The impulse of those who could afford it was to contemplate the capture an aesthetic that through purchase and ownership could be divorced from the political, which they didn’t really want to confront. The artist has the last laugh, because there is no real separation possible from carefully considered anchors to place, politics, philosophy and vectors of violence. Not unlike the dhamma, the essential truth of which doesn’t require brick, mortar and even belief to exist, the enduring value of A Tale of Two Cities is in how it subverts the ordinary into vectors that interrogate religion, society and politics. The exhibition is in effect a sermon in disguise.

For me, the pull it was mostly personal. The exhibition took me back to my first encounters of the religion I was born into. It sharpened the anxiety I feel when I encounter anything from the BBS, because it runs counter to memories of the village priest I knew, felt safe being with and wanted to hear more from. It heightened my fear that charlatans in saffron, amplified by expedient politicians together hold hostage much of Sri Lanka’s, and indeed, India’s democratic potential. But it was also a relief, to see this anxiety isn’t new or mine alone. The art captures many anxieties, over many centuries, by many people. The dhamma has survived, often entirely independent of efforts to preserve and promote it. A lesson there, and through this compelling art, for those who so volubly submit much more needs to be done to secure and strengthen the primacy of a religion, when the Buddha himself preached no such thing.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 3 September 2017.

Village and city

After just over an hour of driving on a Sunday, Padukka offers a level of bucolic bliss that belies the fact that it is so close to Colombo. The drive is absolutely stunning in the morning, just after sunrise. A selenic mist embraces vast, verdant paddy fields. The road winds through villages, and often through lush green forest areas. The languor of buffalo is offset by the flurry of birds feasting on the rich pickings off fertile earth. Children in white stream into temples. Dogs own the roads and don’t always move for oncoming traffic. Driving through the area with the shutters down, the air smells, feels and is very different to Colombo and its suburbs. Conversations between neighbours, and sometimes instructions from opposite sides of the roads, are loud enough to waft in as one drives through. This is still a very rustic, beautiful part of the country. Being surrounded by, for the most part, vast rubber estates and wild nature may seem particularly appealing for anyone from the city. Despite this, I couldn’t live here over the long-term.

Turns out I am not alone. In 2014, the UN noted that fifty-four percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas, a proportion that it expected to increase to sixty-six percent by 2050. Existing borders, geo-physical as well mental or imagined, between village and city, have blurred to a degree that the once clear distinction is often meaningless. The village is dying and is being, literally, left behind. The city is booming. But in a country like Sri Lanka, the heady pace of urbanisation hides a multitude of growing social challenges.

Seeing a city by way of elevation helps understand some of the issues associated with an urbanisation that is ill-planned and unsustainable. The view from the top floors of a commercial high-rise, or penthouse level of an apartment, far above the ground and with a wide, unimpeded field of vision, gives an appealing perspective of the city. At the ground level, things are fundamentally different – from the noise, congestion, waste, pollution and throngs of pedestrians to a field of vision entirely shadowed by an essentially oppressive, inaccessible, alien architecture that towers above and around. At this level, looking at what’s above can get someone killed, and so you don’t. The view from below looking up is an aspirational perspective, of wanting to ascend and through upward mobility, a better life. The view from above looking at what’s beneath is a gaze of power and wealth, giving a distinct identity to an address but also strategic distance from any specific location. The owner of a multi-million-rupee luxury apartment can say they live in Colombo. But in fact, the Colombo they live in is a space of European fittings, marble and luxe, coded and restricted entry, where just an extra parking lot costs upwards of a million rupees, the electricity never goes off, the water pressure never dies down, is climate controlled, without humidity, offering views that render everyone below, quite literally, invisible. There are interesting – if that’s the word – exceptions. The view from the State built apartments many of the city’s poor have been often without any real choice relocated into also offer great views. However, in a perverse and indeed violent inversion, the terrible squalor and austerity the new apartments have forced upon residents is a far cry from the relatively large spaces, wealth and freedom they enjoyed at ground level, in homes and houses they once inhabited which have been razed to the ground by governments interested in urban development at whatever cost.

In Padukka as in many other villages, close, daily social interactions remain anchored to physical meetings at specific loci like well, shop, junction or temple – where anyone can go and get to. In Colombo today, spaces to meet and interact increasingly price out those who cannot afford the cost of a beverage or meal. During the war, and largely on account of it, Colombo was an affordable city. It no longer is. Prices are now comparable to London and New York, which is absurd, considering the often-terrible quality of what one consumes or purchases.

The greening of Colombo attempts to bring the best of the village into the heart of the city. What is happening in reality is the privatisation of public spaces. Aside from the bizarre rules about playing, running and walking on the grass that are the result of an invisible militarisation that already pervasive in public authorities, public spaces in the future will very likely be outsourced to, owned or regulated by private entities – corporations, or collectives managed by a privileged few. On paper and in computer renderings, these spaces will look utterly beautiful. And yet, access to and movement within them will be strictly regulated – from opening and closing times to the manner of dress and appropriate behaviour. What is sold as the creation of Galle Face type spaces around the city is in reality the construction of socio-economic exclusion zones. The poor may, a few decades hence, have no place to play.

Around thirty-years ago, I recall going with my parents to see the then newly opened Majestic City. We were in awe. Liberty Plaza was the only mall around till then. ‘Akasa Kade’ scaled incredible heights, with only the awe-inspiring ‘pittu bambu’ towers of the Central Bank rising above it. Flower Road was almost like an urban forest – green, lush, not a commercial establishment, apartment or office in sight. From the top of Hill Street in Dehiwala, you could easily see a large stretch of the sea, unhindered by concrete or construction. The arc from the tip of Mount Lavinia to the tip of the Colombo harbour was almost flat terrain, at most two storey houses and seashore – no Marine Drive, no high-rises, no sea-front hotels. The Oberoi was where the very rich at the time held their weddings, till the Hilton came up and we marvelled at its size. All this seems rather quaint now, in a Colombo defined by the dust and debris of construction. My fear is this. One of the main roads to Padukka is also the main access road to the E01 highway, entering it at Kahatuduwa. In the years to come, areas like Padukka will become more quickly accessible, pushing up land prices and basically doing to the countryside now what has happened in the immediate suburbs of Colombo over the past couple of years.

That would be a great pity.

If urbanisation is inescapable, and indeed, perhaps even desirable, it needs to be done right. Public transportation, communications, network infrastructure, housing, electricity, water and sanitation are all easier to manage and deploy in a city as opposed to vast swathes of countryside. But the hardware of a city needs to be in harmony with the software – the people, the communal relations, the spaces for unexpected meetings between widely varying socio-economic groups to take place. China for example is building entire cities, but no one is moving into them. They are surreal, modern ghost cities. Just build, and inhabitants won’t always come. Padukka has a very strong sense of community, and of a collective responsibility to protect the village from harmful forces. Colombo and other cities just don’t have this beyond most front gates. Entire neighbourhoods where the sense of community was strongest have now given way to high-rises, and the Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala families who once all lived adjacent to each other, are now dispersed and displaced. This breakdown of a city’s oldest social fabric is what so many luxury apartments have been built on. It is pure violence. I worry that with the slow creep of urbanisation, what I love about Padukka today will be gone thirty years hence.

Question is, will anyone but a select few really miss it?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 28 August 2017.

Seeding innovation

I watch Chef’s Table on Netflix not because I love to cook, but because the series focusses on how Michelin starred chefs from around the world came to be who they are. The series goes into what inspires them, how they marry disparate fields, geographies, ideas and ingredients to produce what they do. The series is ultimately about innovation. Ideas. How austerity, an inquiring mind, an indomitable spirit, faith in self and love shaped the lives of individuals whose kitchens and restaurants effortlessly command waiting lists that sometimes exceed over a year. In a similar vein, a recent documentary I saw on the fashion house Dior, focussed on the life and vision of its founder, Christian Dior. In breaking so sharply away from the austerity that coloured post-war France, and by using reams of cloth to adorn women, Dior created what Harper’s Bazaar called at the time a new look, creating a revolution in fashion and also, in how it was presented. Here to was an individual who was inspired by more than what surrounded him, and had a vision beyond the circumstances and context that coloured, and indeed, held hostage the present. How do we cultivate individuals like this? Innovation and invention are based on a healthy imagination, lateral thinking and critical appreciation. And yet, Sri Lanka’s education system is designed, from kindergarten to university, to actively seek and destroy all three.

How do we go from producing robots, who merely vote and wait, to citizens who interrogate and truly participate?

Recently, I asked some individuals to come up with ideas around how two key historic events, the anniversaries of which fall next year, could be presented in a way that was original, avoiding tired tropes and ideas that had been employed in the past. It proved near impossible for them to do this. Often invisibly and long after formal schooling, Sri Lanka’s education system and societal structures debilitate and stunt the mind. I have witnessed this at Colombo University, the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies and other places I’ve taught over the years – where there is an almost complete inability by senior, often very experienced students to come up with a critical question, or any original commentary around a challenge posed. Tellingly, even some who have been to international schools, ostensibly free from outdated syllabi and outmoded pedagogy, continue to be hostage to received wisdom, uninterested in reading anything other than what is professionally required, absolutely necessary, required for career progression, or will be talked about at the next job interview.

There’s some hope. Saturday last week was almost entirely spent listening to young adults, between fifteen and twenty, from across Sri Lanka pitching ideas around social change, development, education and innovation as part of Ashoka Foundation’s newly established Youth Venture programme. The students came from Kandy, Colombo, Dehiowita, Puttalam, Matara and Negombo. What completely floored us as a group of three judges – who had to select those who would make it to the Ashoka programme which essentially developed their entrepreneurial skills to scale up their ideas – was the vision and original thinking that underpinned the submissions. From tackling clinical depression to teaching English language as a platform for inter-communal reconciliation at the village level, from clean and green energy ideas to food and electronic waste management, from their use of social media to mobilise supporters and volunteers to the manner in which in some cases, they had approached well-known corporate entities for logistics support and supply chain management, the students were uniformly able to present ideas that pushed the envelope around what many adults would have thought possible, or even desirable. It was utterly refreshing.

Almost all the students clearly came from austere economic circumstances. When probed as to how they started to think the way they did, many attributed it to an enabling, non-judgemental environment at home that didn’t scold, shame or censure failure. Others were clearly motivated by their teachers in school, or the science teacher in particular. Everyone had a safe space to experiment, fail, learn and try again. Everyone had champions – within the family and from outside – who believed in them and what they wanted to see, or achieve. One participant, an inventor who was barely a teenager and had won prizes at the national level for his creations, said that what drove him was not a search for answers, but a quest for meaningful questions! A pair of female twins, who had organised a shramadaana in their village to clean up a river, had somehow managed to bring together Police, teachers, elders, the Buddhist clergy and other children by sheer determination and spoke of how every rupee they had been given was budgeted and accounted for. Everyone talked about scaling up their ideas, inventions, innovation and work. Many were explicitly driven by a need to help others less fortunate. Fellow adjudicator Anushka Wijesinha, Chief Economist of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and the head of its Economic Intelligence Unit, shared a deep concern that the older these students would get, the more they would risk their imagination frowned upon by institutional architectures or insipid individuals in authority. Towards the end of the day, the both of us encouraged them to keep failing, in order to keep learning, and to never give up an inquiring, inquisitive mind, no matter what.

This all matters because democracy requires innovation to sustain itself. Think of Ray Wijewardene. Harsha Subasinghe of CodeGen and Vega, the electric sports car he’s making. Shantha Lenadora’s pneumatic retractor which limits tissue damage in abdominal surgery. Many more recognised by the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission or prize winners of the annual ‘Ray Award’. In our country, we frown down on innovation, and the most we often manage is to reward really interesting inventions. But as University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School Professor Adam Grant notes, being an innovator isn’t just about creating a product, service, or new technology. The world (and Sri Lanka) needs more entrepreneurs of ideas and institutions. This is what the students at the Ashoka programme demonstrated. And this is what is so starkly absent from other, older strata of society and polity.

I don’t know what magic sauce needs to be conjured up in order to seed, sustain and scale the ideas we encountered in those children, and the hundreds if not thousands of others like them, who start young to dream big, and set goals to achieve the change they want to see. The status quo, our terribly corrupt, failing, conventional and conservative political, societal and educational architecture, wants them all to fail. To simply conform and supinely comply. To become subjects, actively debating, creating, working and living within strictly circumscribed limits – a spectrum of tolerance, couched as hard won freedoms, determined by those in power, in order to retain power. From strictly commercial domains to social change, from politics to the community level at villages, a shift is needed to value ideas. The Eightfold Path of the Buddha speaks often of what’s right- the right speech, right effort, right mindfulness. What’s right though isn’t what is accepted, or what’s already present. The children in front of us knew that, and projected into a world that is unjust, unclean, inequitable, unfair and dysfunctional, ideas that could make it better than before.

More than anything I have read or heard, just listening to these voices from across Sri Lanka gave some hope that despite how much the system tries to clamp down, the force of new ideas always shines. The challenge for us in positions of influence and authority is how to make the sporadic, systemic, the unusual, the norm and these children, our future leaders.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 20 August 2017.

Beyond a resignation

Sri Lanka has never had a Foreign Minster resign over allegations of corruption. But the once unthinkable happened last week. Many, including in government and from the ruling party, supported the resignation of the former Foreign Minister on the grounds that what is now in the public domain around his dealings with Arjun Aloysius, subject to a convenient partial amnesia, was deeply detrimental to government. Note that what’s flagged as embarrassing or wrong isn’t what was purportedly done, but rather, that it came to light. Power, and retaining it, trumps principle. Tellingly, even in his submission to Parliament, the former Foreign Minister offered no hint of contrition. Hubris and chutzpah rule, when shame and guilt should reign. What, if anything, has really changed?

The political theatre around the resignation masks other more disturbing developments. At the time of writing, the nominee to the now vacant post of Foreign Minister is an individual who is about as far removed from the avowed promise of yahapalanaya as one gets. In sum, we have one individual, tainted by allegations of corruption, out the door, replaced almost immediately by another who was forced to resign in 2015 from his Ministerial portfolio and was the erstwhile legal advisor to the Chairman of Avant Garde, Nissanka Senadhipathi. Frankly, ‘House of Cards’ couldn’t come up with a better plot twist.

Some have raised concerns around the nature and scope of the Commission of Inquiry into the bond issue, which isn’t part of the judiciary but acts with a vigour and verve that has many surprised, and asking the question as to why other investigations into allegations of corruption lack similar vitality. This is a fair question, since not a single investigation into the allegations of eye-watering corruption by members of the Rajapaksa regime have resulted in anything of consequence. The past fortnight alone showcases how when political will and partisan interest is behind a process, things happen, which by extension can only mean the lack of any discernible, meaningful progress in the investigations into high profile members of the Rajapaksa regime is a political decision as well. The question is who benefits, why, and at what cost.

One journalist tweeted that as a result of the eight thousand odd pages gleaned from the phone of Arjun Aloysius, several messages with initials, prima facie, implicating individuals in high political office were found. Some initials were pursued. Other initials were ignored. The bond issue involves individuals noted in the COPE report from last year, which itself saw high drama around finalisation and public release. These individuals are free to do and roam around as they see fit. Statements in Parliament around a new political culture of accountability ring hollow in this light. One response to this, tweeted by a senior government minister last week, is that those now in the Joint Opposition robbed more, killed more and abused power more. This is a false equivocation and one that the government must be unhesitatingly shamed for parading and promoting. The baseline for democracy isn’t what the Rajapaksa regime was or wasn’t, or what the JO today is or isn’t. Constitutional democracy, the rule of law as well as the early promise of yahapalanaya, as enshrined in the Presidential Manifesto of 2015, matter far more as baselines. Unsurprisingly, compared to the JO’s sordid record, anything that happens today is a miraculous advancement of democracy. But that’s a false baseline, established and promoted only to hide the growing stench and sins of the present government. The mere resignation of a Foreign Minister signifies nothing other than a political calculation around electoral loss and liability. No higher principle in operation here. The mere fact that the individual nominated to take up the office of Foreign Minister is someone roundly rejected by the people’s mandate in 2015 suggests that we will invariably see the re-emergence of the former Foreign Minister in some form or office a few years hence, when the present drama would have been forgotten. After all, this is a government that appointed this year the same individual in charge of Sri Lankan troops in Haiti accused of truly unspeakable child sexual abuse as the Army Chief of Staff. Clearly then, loyalty, kindship, friendship and corruption glue more than accountability.

The other key issue is around the constitution of the CoI. The establishment of it under Presidential fiat is problematic, because of its broad powers and the precedent it sets for a more authoritarian Executive, in the future, to use similar mechanisms to hound political opposition and quell dissent. A friend flagged valid concerns over the nature of the evidence collected – the manner in which witnesses were called, the degree to which the CoI had access to personal records carte blanche – including private content well beyond the scope of investigations – and the safeguards, or lack thereof, against this material from making it into the public domain. Even the former Foreign Minister has an inalienable right to privacy, and his enforced resignation from office, no matter how welcome, isn’t a presumption of guilt. Further, the CoI has no obligation to make its findings public. This is why it isn’t a replacement for judicial intervention in cases of corruption. The danger is that proceedings of the CoI and a single resignation alone is seen as some great victory against corruption, when in fact it’s utterly meaningless in the larger scheme of things. And to those who think the President is a doyen of incorruptible governance, a simple question – what happened to the inquiry, initiated by the AG’s Department, around allegations of corruption published in the Australian mainstream media last year, that involved requests for vast sums of money to be paid to the SLFP?

A fairly high-ranking official now in government once told your author that he inherited an official body where the production and serving of every single cup of tea had someone skimming something, at some point of time, somewhere along the process. He said that if he were to root out corruption, it would necessarily involve the sacking of everyone presently employed. The challenge then becomes how much of corruption one countenances. This is murky terrain, but inescapable, because it is a fact of political life. Everyone is on the make, or is looking to create a deal that results in personal or partisan profit. Loyalty is bought. Clearly, mainstream media and journalists aren’t immune from the seduction of corruption, as is evident in public proceedings from the CoI that reveal a well-known Sunday newspaper to be funded by the same person the former Foreign Minister forgot he was on flights to Singapore with. The rot is everywhere, including in the private sector, which never loses an opportunity to grease the palms of those in power for greater security around returns on investments.

In speaking with youth, I don’t know any more how to inspire the hope and confidence in them that the political system, as it stands, can work for them. Making them believe in advancement through merit only seems to set themselves up to failure, anger, apathy and possibly even violence. We need to name and shame. Continuously. And it needs to start at the top, because it is a political culture supported by and for the benefit of a few, that gives life to corrupt practices by so many. The elephant in the room (no pun intended) is whether the stability of this government is important in order to prevent the rise of and return to power of the previous regime, which suggests a greater patience with corruption today, as somehow a necessary evil to ward off a greater one in the wings. Don’t buy into this. Corruption needs to be flagged without fear or favour. It is wrong no matter who does it, and if in flagging what’s wrong today, it is the JO that benefits, then so be it, because their odious rank includes those who did far worse. A great purge of putrid politicians needs to be engineered and sustained, through media and discourse at multiple levels that holds up honesty as a virtue and value. Youth see this, and are impatient with those who promise much, but change nothing. Today’s anger is a result of promises around yahapalanaya and how far removed the government is from them. Spin isn’t going to cut it. A mere resignation isn’t going to cut it. Heads must roll. Governments must fall. Democracy must win.

Kathmandu revisited

In Kathmandu this week after over ten years, I was struck by how much worse the city looks and feels from what I recall when I visited last. Google Maps is deceiving. The mushrooming of cafes with interesting names, pubs, restaurants and gastro-bars in various districts along with a wide-range of hotels suggests, on the face of it, a bustling, well-planned and cosmopolitan metropolis. The number of apartments alone suggests a much higher density of population in the city than when I was here last, along with the vertical additions to older structures making some of the buildings bizarre Lego creations – with the rather beautiful red brick and clay forming the foundation of what are comparably grotesque mortar and steel additions on top, finished off with an assorted array of water tanks, of varying colour and size. The roads of Google Maps snake their way in intricate patterns across the city. The citizen-generated OpenStreetMap platform is even more detailed, offering a birds eye view of a city, its myriad of alleys and a valley writ large that offers a lesson in the complexity of urban planning, or the telling lack thereof. At street level, in a vehicle or on foot, the cartographic appeal of urban complexity on a map soon becomes life threatening. Many routes through Yala in a 4WD would be, by order of magnitude and without exaggeration, smoother and better than navigating some of the main roads in Kathmandu – all of which seem dug up at almost every junction and turn, only to be summarily abandoned. There is a fine dust which permeates and covers everything – a mixture of earth, sand and cement. After occasional or overnight rain and the resulting mud baked in the hot sun, the dust becomes worse. All this makes for a beautiful, Promethean haze at sunset, especially when framed with the old temples and courtyards of comparable hue, but is in fact about as unhealthy as it gets. I couldn’t quite figure out if the fresh meat on sale in road-side abattoirs were better off and preserved for a fine coating of dust, or whether one somehow and over time developed a natural immunity for the level of pollution here, in all that is consumed, touched, breathed in, or drunk. A veritable spaghetti of power, cable TV and telecommunications lines weigh down poles that hold up all three, like black and grey octopi shadowing every junction and street. To see the Himalayas in the distance at sunrise, after an overnight shower and before the pollution wakes up, is still quite magical.

Kathmandu as a city though, for the most part, is hell.

It wasn’t like this when I came in April 2003 for the first time, before full-blown democracy and during monarchy. I came before there was a single traffic light in the city, when man, machine, monk and every sacred bovine meandering and interaction took place around its own logic, and often sedate pace. There were no ATMs. No place took credit cards. The best place to exchange currency was at the airport. Dial-up internet was slow at best. There was no roaming available, even if you could afford at the time the astronomical rates for SMS and calls. The airport looked like a large red-bricked house retrofitted with a hastily constructed control tower, and a long stretch of unused road re-commissioned as a runway. You walked quite a distance from the plane to the terminal. Incredibly, all this remains relatively unchanged even today. The myriad of places I stayed in and walked around on the many occasions I came to Nepal during Sri Lanka’s ceasefire agreement, in the early years of this century, the earthquake in 2015 has wiped out. I felt tempted to go to these areas and see what they looked like now, but opted to instead go through my old photos – why replace or risk what is fondly recalled to what I may recoil from or react badly to today.

I came to interact with Nepali journalists and civil society on the role and relevance of media in a ceasefire process. Sri Lanka’s great lesson to the world at the time was around how a ceasefire could be a foundation for a just, positive peace, which was more than the absence of armed conflict. This was before smartphones and social media had been invented. The workshops we had in Nepal were under the banner of ‘conflict conscious news management techniques’, focussing on framing, intent and what in later years was embraced in the practice of data journalism – anchoring stories to verified information and visualising trends over time, instead of being first to report unverified rumour and always focussing on events. My presentations and discussion points from fourteen years ago flag a serious conflict of interest – with Norway as mediator and as also head of the monitoring mission – and what even then were clear signs of deep structural flaws in the ceasefire process, including the intransigence of the LTTE and a growing disconnect between the mood of the people and a technocratic government, which risked the entire structural reform agenda. The affable spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) at the time accompanied us, as a counterpoint to this critique. A comprehensive knowledge of spoken Hindi at the time allowed me direct interactions with some leading figures from the Maoist movement we met in closed door meetings held in secret, and also many journalists from outside Kathmandu. We flew around in Buddha Air flights, which true to their name, offered hair-raising, stomach churning journeys that were never more than a few seconds away from the possibility of rebirth on mountainside. Social polling on the lines of what had conducted in Sri Lanka was unheard of in the country at the time, and so much of the interest was also around how civil society and media could embrace data around public mood and sentiment in their work.

So much of this is relevant even today, and ironically, for both countries. In Nepal, political stasis and large-scale corruption is clearly reflected in the state of urban decay alone – unfinished infrastructure, a lack of standards in construction, unplanned buildings, a lack of regulatory oversight leading to physical and digital congestion. In Sri Lanka, we have today the same Prime Minister as I talked about in the context of the ceasefire agreement fourteen years ago. The tendency of the present government, as it was during the CFA, is to largely ignore public sentiment once in power. Social media and smartphones are framing inconvenient narratives the governments of Nepal and Sri Lanka cannot wish away. Spoilers and extremists are using these new vectors to reach and influence younger voters. Back then as well as today, economic considerations trump interest in political reform – hunger and hopelessness fuel a growing discontent that manifests itself through apathy and violence, ripe for opportunists to exploit.

Back then, the verdant hills of Godavari, a short distance from but a world apart from Kathmandu provided the frame for our first discussions with civil society and journalists in Nepal. We came to this country to share lessons of a high-level political and military project we weren’t the architects of, had little meaningful access or insight into and were fearful would come undone – which it did. I came to Kathmandu this week with humbling lessons of how much we had gone and done wrong. The last King of Nepal once tried to isolate the country, by shutting off the Internet, literally. He’s gone. The country endures. We thought the awful Rajapaksa regime wouldn’t end. We were wrong. A healthy defiance and resilience binds the people of Nepal and Sri Lanka, and why for me, coming here will always be so interesting.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 6 August 2017.

Rebooting the news

Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, flags a fundamental issue in our attention economy. As the window to the world is increasingly framed by the screen size of a smartphone, makers of apps – Instagram, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter and makers of games like Candy Crush Saga – have to find ways to grab and hold the attention of users. On-screen notifications, that appear even when the phone is locked, alert users to breaking news alerts, game upgrades, likes, shares, comments, posts, new videos, direct messages and reminders – all designed to increase the engagement with an app. Each app finds a new way to control attention – and often, this is in the form of gamification, which rewards the users of an app who consistently check it, instead of users who only periodically check for updates. Add all this time checking up on apps, and the point made by Harris is a simple one – you lose focus on what’s important, and you gradually lose the ability to interact meaningfully with one’s immediate physical surroundings. The more hilarious manifestation of this is the plethora of videos online where people engrossed in their smartphones walk straight into glass doors, poles, other pedestrians, fall into manholes or trip over and fall ignominiously. The hidden side to the attention economy is that these apps mediate what we know of the world, how we engage with it, and deeply influences what we consider important and meaningful. Through Facebook alone, a company struggling to meaningfully deal with the volume of content its users create, over two billion people a day are served with content entirely hostage to opaque, and when made public, deeply problematic algorithms that are designed with the sole purpose of increasing advertising revenue.

Before these colossal online social networks and the ubiquity of smartphones, the primary means through which the majority access and engage with web based content, politics, propaganda and persuasion worked very differently. News was slow, and breaking news was over radio or through special segments that interrupted the regular programming on TV. A newspaper provided insight into what was newsworthy but also, for the majority of readers, genuinely new to them. Now a newspaper, if read at all in print, is skimmed to get to the news one already knows through social media or SMS alerts, for any useful bits of information that soundbites, short snippets and partial updates didn’t deliver. And while the focus is on fake news – its generation, dissemination and power to influence citizens – the news itself isn’t what it was just a few years ago. Our windows into the world have shifted the way we are alerted, consume, engage with and respond to news. This has a bearing on politics.

What the mainstream media now denies, social media delivers. But this also means playing nice with Silicon Valley. A video bearing witness to a horrific human rights violation or a vicious event can run afoul of guidelines on the uploading or distribution of violent material. This often penalises more the organisations that seek to bear witness to human rights abuse and serves the agenda of the perpetrators, who don’t want eyeballs on what they do. Facebook’s algorithm means that in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, gossip and entertainment are prioritised over news and information that have an implication on governance and democracy. Hard news and complex issues are always sacrificed for gag reels, cute cats, animated GIFs and inspirational quotes. The average consumer of social media is both glued to their screens and supremely ill-informed. As far back as 1998, Linda Stone, a researcher at Microsoft called this ‘continuous partial attention’ – the process of paying simultaneous attention to a number of sources of incoming information, but at a superficial level. Most of us are plugged into Twitter, Facebook, and various instant messaging apps, but unable to focus on what’s really important. Our attention deficit lends itself during elections to campaigns by political parties to generate votes or denigrate opponents by marketing tricks. And thus, we have short clips that go viral, infectious memes and taunting tweets. The substantive content in a manifesto remains locked away, in full public view. Arguably, this status quo is fine for those with and in power, including technology companies. If profit is the driver of software development, anything that undermines it – like a more conscientious design to make users engage with content and each other more meaningfully, will simply not fly.

This is what Harris flags. A few years ago, well before Trump, Eli Pariser warned us of this same thing and in a TED talk proposed a radical idea. He asked why social media couldn’t filter content by relevance, importance, on how uncomfortable it made a user, on how much the user wanted to be challenged in their beliefs or by the engagement with other or different points of view. What the US political landscape makes very clear is that Pariser’s belief in the ability of individuals to use these filters, even if available, may be misplaced. For example, those who support Trump and the current Republican administration in the US live in a self-referential reality, where only what conforms and is convenient matters – the rest is, for them, fake news. Fixing this problem, which plagues so many countries, isn’t going to be easy – partly because it is the news industry as it stands today that created voter polarisation, a disturbing and divisive foundation that social media has taken to new heights.

Arguably, the readers of this column are generally from a generation that isn’t hostage to or indeed, even conversant with social media. But what’s first or only online is increasingly driving official policymaking. It’s now on social media that important announcements are made, even here in Sri Lanka. A Twitter Q&A with a former President of Sri Lanka, just last week, resulted in key news stories published in the mainstream media. Clearly then, the footprint of social media extends far beyond just those connected to or enslaved to it. Without media literacy, or more broadly, information literacy, what matters the most in our politics and democratic fabric will continue to be subsumed by what is the most entertaining, or slick propaganda. The underlying causes of war which endure, on-going discrimination, gender violence, drivers of self-harm and suicide, endemic corruption and macroeconomic data are all worth framing, probing, exploring and engaging with. Stories about government officials who are responsive and honest, policemen who really help, development projects that benefit citizens, teachers who break the mould and inspire are also worthy of our attention. The news as it stands today denies citizens this depth, dimension and detail. From the online to print and broadcast, the news needs a reboot. Harris and Pariser lead globally.

Who will take the mantle locally?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 30 July 2017.