Apples and oranges

“If Gotabaya Rajapaksa comes to power it’s not due his own merits but due to the great betrayal and incompetence of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena. My so called influence has no bearing.”

Departing US Ambassador Atul Keshap was in the news last week, associated with comments around Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his bid for Presidency. The substance of whatever this senior diplomat said is not what I am interested in, and in any case, has been unsurprisingly denied by those he met with. It is Gotabaya Rajapaksa as an idea, and Viyathmaga – his political project – as a platform. In recent weeks I have written about my own fears of the man, and the surveillance I was unknowingly subject to for years as a consequence of running afoul of the Rajapaksa regime. Many others have expressed similar sentiments in the media, and some with much greater insight into the man and his militant machinery. It is however his political project I am more interested in, independent of his individual identity and past.

Viyathmaga’s vision and mission, which I’ve read many times, is compelling. In spirit and tone, if not in substance and thrust, it is impossible to be opposed to it because it captures in essence the same vision for the country as the Sirisena manifesto did late 2014. Respecting difference, the value of meritocracy and a democratic credo are all anchored to personal frames of action and spirituality – a slight (calculated) shift from the Sirisena manifesto embracing what animated people in 2015 and plugging it for 2020. It is necessarily silent on everything else, because populism is essentially that – a thin ideology, that in its projection of authenticity opportunistically embraces other cultures, ideas, processes and people in the pursuit of its own goals. Gotabaya Rajapaksa plays an old game, but with some new tricks.

In 2011, Prof. Andrew Wilson coined the term ‘political technologist’, capturing through an examination of Putin’s Russia how through the adroit manipulation of media, including social media, authoritarian power can be strengthened and sustained. The model of containment and control is an interesting one. The use of physical violence ranging from murder and torture to abduction and intimidation is strategic and almost mathematically methodical – aimed at a few, always with plausible deniability. At the same time, the regime gives the public through entertainment unfettered access to a plethora of competing, often confusing content to debate endlessly and be distracted by. The real concerns over governance and democracy are thus limited to a select few, either geographically contained or weakly linked, who cannot gain any real traction for their work amidst an enduring tsunami of likes and shares. Even if episodically able to attract attention, the sheer volume of misinformation and disinformation can very quickly, and relatively easily, drown out critical content.

China’s model – simplistically and often projected as blanket censorship of anything politically inconvenient – we know is anything but. A dissertation by Margaret Earling Roberts called this fascinating framework a mix of fear, friction and flooding. Fear, the most obvious, to control the production and spread of inconvenient truths. Friction, being processes by which through delays in loading times, challenges around access, the requirement to register, or see some unrelated content beforehand (think of all those annoying ads before a YouTube video starts to play, but for much longer and with no real option to skip) critical commentary isn’t censored – it’s just made harder to access. Genius stroke, because human nature is geared to consume the content of least resistance. Finally, flooding, which not unlike Putin’s Russia, gives the public what they want and like the most – entertainment.

Given the relations with Putin and Xi Jinping, and looking at the media output of the JO in general, it would not be unrealistic to think that the some of the advice around regaining power is linked to how technology can be leveraged to channel popular discontent to parochial ends. But while this is conjecture, the data around the JO campaigns and content on social media suggests they are leveraging – consciously or purely by coincidence – dynamics of what Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells calls the ‘network society’. When I made a brief presentation of this to some senior policymakers and politicians late last year, anchored to a paper on technology and referenda, the response was revealing. A few minutes devoted to concern, surprise and praise for new thinking around older challenges. The rest of the discussion was around how the existing, ageing, unrepresentative, illiberal, corrupt, failing, frustrating and futile party political architecture could address the risks outlined around authoritarianism’s propensity to weaponise democratic affordances.

In other words, no one in the room got it. The campaigns of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa get it.

Suffice to say that it is possible to see through data in the public domain, how Viyathmaga and Namal Rajapaksa’s media output fare, in relation to what the government through its leaders or constituent political parties put out. By almost any yardstick, the engagement with content generated by the JO today across all social media is by order of magnitude consistently greater, wider and deeper than anything, anyone from government has produced at any time since 2015.

Quite frankly, the interesting study here is not so much how far ahead of government the JO is, but what the data suggests are strategic differences in the political vision and campaigns of Namal and his Uncle. One, aiming to cultivate adulation, admiration and adoration for harvesting a decade or two hence. The other, networking with high net worth, influential individuals, framing, projecting and producing content with a more immediate, tangible political goal. The two networks are fluid and overlap, but also in demographics, reach and engagement, diverge. The real contest, as other political analysts have hinted at, is not so much what comes after yahapalanaya, but what comes after what will most likely replace it.

Always up-front with what I feel and think around those I like, I wrote a while ago to someone who spoke at one of Gotabaya’s events. Part of the response I received, quoted above, tells its own story. The Rajapaksa’s offer a vision that, ironically, appeals most now to those who voted in this government in 2015. Unmet promises fobbed off by those in power, indignity, insensitivity, enduring economic hardship, existentialist fears around faith, future and identity and more, from all parts of the country, have now metastasised into active, sustained and importantly, entirely organic engagement with criticism of government, framed by the JO, involving millions.

Counter-intuitively perhaps, the response isn’t technological in the main.

Those who feel marginalised, unheard, disappointed, disconnected and anxious need to see, hear and importantly feel they have a way to communicate their grievances. This requires regular, physical contact and consultation. Not Facebook updates about Vision 2025. Photos on social media soon after 10th February revealed that the SLPP had a booklet distributed amongst its elected officials across all the LG bodies around how to work towards 2020. I haven’t seen what is in it, but the intent is clear. It is unclear what if anything the government has by way of a similar, bottom-up, strategic, comprehensive and cohesive vision that connects it with the people.

Instead, we have those in government who can’t even grasp the disconnect, and worse, honestly believe it can be solved by what has been done before.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 17 June 2018.

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Missed opportunities

I was around 25 when the ceasefire agreement by the United National Front government, with Ranil Wickremesinghe as PM, was freshly inked. Some of the most visible checkpoints in Colombo, for the first time in my life, were removed. I was part of a group of journalists who were the first to go up North on the newly re-opened A9, to meet with the LTTE, journalists in the North – including some of the first on the ground to use digital video and photography to document inconvenient truths – as well as activists in the region. Our minibus was regularly checked by young boys, facial hair just barely evident, cocking T-56s, and absolutely fascinated with the workings of the CD player. I remember the Omanthai checkpoints, the documentation, the lines, the questions and no-man’s land, overseen by the ICRC. I remember the LTTE police and their outfits, the strict speed limits, their constitution for Eelam in printed form (a fascinating document to read) and in later years, the Peace Secretariat in Kilinochchi, the famous bakery run by LTTE cadre who churned out the most amazing maalu paan. The structurally flawed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission was entrusted with an impossible task, and we often met and talked with them around what didn’t make it to public reports. Up in Jaffna, where there was less than a handful of hotels to stay in, we booked rooms in a shelled out city, framed by topless Palmyrah trees and riddled with bullet holes of varying calibre, spread and depth, like a surreal lunar landscape, vertically presented. I visited the North around sixteen to twenty times from 2002 to 2005. Each trip had regular stops, but each was also marked by incident or accident, some fortuitous, some not, all memorable. I remember speaking to suicide cadres, all women, with journalists from Nepal and other South Asian countries trying to grasp – unsuccessfully of course – what drove them to do what they did. The voices against the LTTE amongst Tamil journalists were present and growing, but fearful and suppressed. The merits of Tamil nationalism and the LTTE’s violent vision was conflated in public, and it was only in hushed tones and in corner of halls or even just outside our van that dissent, frustration, fear and anger against ‘the boys’ was expressed – often with an appeal for nuanced reporting that didn’t colour everyone with the same brush.

In the nearly twenty times I took the A9 to the North and travelled the length and breadth of the country during 2002 to 2005, the challenge for those who undertook the journey from the media was around how best to frame so many stories that were untold, and how hard it was to tell them. These were the stories behind the sensationalism, the headlines, the press releases, the public posturing and the political pronouncements. Many of them remain untold. Many could and should have been captured and told at the time.

Sadly, they were not.

Sixteen years is a long time, but there is one dominant impression that’s stuck with me. The UNF government wasn’t interested in or capable of communicating anything related to the ceasefire process in a coherent, coordinated and strategic manner. The peace dividend, as it was then framed and projected, was seen as a self-evident project or prize, for which the public across Sri Lanka would automatically be thankful for. This thinking also projected electoral gains and success into the future as a consequence of this belief that the public was with the government. The PM, ever the technocrat, much younger and perhaps more idealistic at the time, dealing with a President who was then very different to what she is, says and does in retirement today, was so deeply frustrating not because what he wanted to do didn’t make sense, or was unworthy of pursuing. He was just not interested in public, political communication. From the Buddhist clergy to the JVP, from populist nationalism within Sri Lanka to the lunatic fringe in the diasporas from both the Sinhala and Tamil communities, spoilers had a field day in framing the agenda. What we heard, saw and experienced on the ground rarely made it to mainstream media aside from the entirely accidental, episodic or sporadic. What happened was inevitable – the partisan, parochial overtook compelling human interest stories, with the violations of and violence around the CFA overwhelming reportage. So much more could have been done by government to capture, frame and project more aspirations, fears, and even the root causes of anger, hurt, resentment and fear.

It just wasn’t.

If any of this is familiar to some, it is not because the country today is what it was then. Much has changed. And yet, it is because ironically, we again have a government which has lost the plot when it comes to political communication. Politically, there is a rise of networked power married to populism’s resurgence by appealing to personal frames of hope and anxiety in the South. There is now a young, important demographic that doesn’t vote based on some inherited, lifelong party political allegiance blind to everything else. In an age where the most compelling story wins hearts and minds, the government doesn’t even know how to tell one. The advent of social media brings the ability to measure through data, and with greater frequency and more granularity, what was during the CFA left to intuition and more traditional public or private polls. Suffice to say that even a cursory study of data reveals that the JO is in a different league. None of this can be easily projected into electoral demise or success, but offer clear indications, especially around and after the results of the local government election in February, around what voters think, see and want. The government remains impervious to all this. Perhaps heartening for some, what the UNP does, promises or says barely registers as a blip across leading social media platforms, week after week, in the midst of content which by political design or entirely organically, is negative, angry, violent, anxious, fearful, oppositional, insular, xenophobic, suspicious, callously dismissive, impatient and deeply disillusioned.

The demise of the CFA was not monocausal. The demise of yahapalanaya is not because of a single person, party or process. But to me, what tragically links both is a person and a party so utterly convinced they have a grasp on affairs, they are blind to see they emphatically do not. The end to all this, I fear, is all too familiar, and indeed, near.

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Published first in The Sunday Island, 10 June 2018.

Omphalos Syndrome

You are my creator,
But I am your master…
Mary Shelley (1818)

Given the trend of tirades, it is not unreasonable to expect that President Sirisena will wake up one of these days and disclaim everything he did and said in 2015. The change maker is clearly out, though the charlatan arguably never left. The hope around and pegged to him is long gone. There is, short of a miracle, nothing progressive that he was the face of, and championed, when first seeking office that will now come to pass. This includes, above all else, a new constitution. There is an increasing manic tinge, of someone increasingly unhinged, that colours his pronouncements. A video last week of him disavowing any knowledge around actions he clearly and very publicly took credit just after coming to office went viral, which in this case, would have added to his insecurities about social media. From the titan who took on a terrible regime, he is now greatly reduced – a moral, political, ethical and personal deflation that is almost entirely self-inflicted. President Sirisena is now a caricature of himself, a necessary evil to engage with but entirely peripheral as a person. There is no pleasure in seeing this. What a monumental fall from the person we emphatically cheered on, hoarse, tired and in a general state of sheer disbelief, a little over three years ago.

In his defence, the lofty garb of idealism that once adorned him wasn’t bespoke. The political project to have him run for Presidency was strictly utilitarian based on a simple equation around who could win against Mahinda Rajapaksa at a time when he was, constitutionally, set to rule for life. The selection of Sirisena wasn’t based on anything remotely Presidential in him. He wasn’t an idiot, but he was useful. An intended outcome was needed, and he was the best vessel. Sirisena as a Presidential mendicant had what Fonseka as Presidential aspirant, in 2010, did not – the element of surprise and public appeal, not arising from any great service or intellect, but as a consequence of a lifetime of political mediocrity singularly defined by loyalty to the SLFP. All bets in, the gamble paid off, perhaps surprising those now in power more than those who were ousted.

But now the puppet has found it can walk and talk, and occasionally, think. With new life, unsurprisingly, comes anxiety and fear, of losing what is enjoyed, a future without the guarantee of adulation and adoration, the satisfaction of granting an audience, and being, de facto, the key protagonist of any script on the political stage. Hence the risible ricocheting of late, from one mad outburst to another, striving to appeal to constituencies who harbour no regard or love for him, posturing as saviour to things he was never asked to protect much less promote, and parading as a moraliser in chief.  The chutzpah of yahapalanaya’s chief custodian to deform, decry, and destroy the ideals he was entrusted with is only matched by a catastrophic selfishness, which is now self-evident. All this is compounded by the odious curse of the office he holds and its power to attract charlatans as advisors and gatekeepers, poisoning the incumbent with only what he wants to hear, instead of what he needs or has to.

What have we lost? A ripe moment for change, and for the better. What the government asks us to celebrate – RTI, the OMP, an active, strong Human Rights Commission, significant price reductions in the cost of essential medicines – are policies they have actively pursued, fought for, and implemented. These are not insignificant. Though it may be on account of an imprecise translation of the Sinhala original, English news media reported last week that the President had “restored the rule of law, strengthened democratic institutions and created a free judiciary and media in the last three years”.  This formulation, placing himself and his munificence centre and forward, is revealing. It is possible to clampdown and censor an independent media. It is possible to eviscerate an independent judiciary. It is possible to undermine democratic institutions. It is possible to blatantly disregard and violently deny the Rule of Law. Gotabaya Rajapakse, with the impunity afforded as a consequence of an elder brother as President, did all this and more. But the basis of democratic governance is that all these elements are present and vested in the people, independent of incumbents in power. They are constitutionally enshrined, and are thus inviolable protections or affordances citizens enjoy. It is not for the President to bestow them to us. And for a President who claims to have restored a free media, it is mind-boggling how in the same speech the President talks of control, containment and essentially, censorship – entirely in line with steps taken by the President’s Office to block websites earlier this year. Tellingly, Sirisena’s tacit justification of this is by asserting he has no problem with websites that do “the correct thing” and “provide good entertainment to the people”. These are subjective measures, selfishly exercised.

Question is, now what. President Sirisena is an experiment which has outgrown its laboratory, with unintended consequences now overwhelming and undermining promising, even miraculous, early results. The mutation is fast growing, and latching on to what slouches towards centres of power, with designs of reclamation. Far worse, electorally speaking and over the longer term, is the vastly diminished enthusiasm around what was first produced, promoted and promised by the man and his mission. Millions who voted for a culture of politics that was in substance and process different to what was voted out, are entreated to more of the same. It is unclear whether the full violence of this is recognised by those in power.

President Sirisena has lost control of the necessary narrative that binds government to its people, which he seeks to hide through greater volume. The shriller and more frequent the assertions of self-importance, the greater the assurance the man and the project he was entrusted with, has failed. Yahapalanaya’s glow today is not one of or generated by the relief, joy and hope of 2015, but the embers of that dream, crashed and burnt. Newsreel footage of the Hindenburg, crashing to the ground in 1937, come to mind and is not an inappropriate metaphor.

We wanted a saviour. We gave life to a Frankenstein.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 3 June 2018.

The question not asked

The collision of the comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 into Jupiter in July 1994 was at a time when there was no social media, broadband or smartphones. The significant of the event to the scientific community, and anyone interested in astronomy or cosmology, was that it was the first extra-terrestrial collision in our solar system to be closely observed and monitored. News of the collision and the resulting scientific observations came to Sri Lanka relatively late, only through the mainstream print media. I followed it with great interest and was subsequently asked to speak about it in school at a session called Current Affairs, held every Wednesday for all A/L students. It was my first public speech, and was the ticket to English debating, writing for and then ending up editing the College magazine. But the reason I spoke about astronomy – a subject that to many in the audience was entirely esoteric and provided an excellent excuse to whisper amongst themselves or at the time, or delve into salacious print produced by and for schoolboys – was the selfish projection of a childhood interest to gaze at the stars, and how they got there. The excitement of explaining trajectory and terrain, of observations through telescope and implications for us, was not shared amongst the audience. And to date, our education system anchored to rote and regurgitation strips away almost all the joy out of scientific knowledge and discovery, requiring students to memorize compound, composition or table over the cultivation of an inquiring mind. I did horribly in all my science classes, scoring poorly, but I read voraciously everything my father bought for me on science, which included a subscription to National Geographic, science and space encyclopedia’s and science fiction novels.

The disconnect at the time between the vividly illustrated books at home, and their engaging style of writing, and the boring, turgid prose plus awful monochromatic illustrations in the government textbooks, coupled with soporific teachers more interested in marks than co-inquiry, could not be starker. It is only now, when I see my son studying what he does, and how, that I am very wistful of my own time in school where more engaging syllabi and pedagogy may have driven me to a life and vocation very different to what I pursue today. But that early love for science hasn’t diminished and is why whenever I go to a new city, one of the first stops are the science and natural history museums.

There is a global and local movement for the strengthening of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in secondary and tertiary education, especially for girls. So-called STEM subjects are the foundation for jobs that are the most sought after and highly paid today, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, ranging from machine learning, predictive analytics, big data harvesting, data visualization, specialized or generalized artificial intelligence and cutting-edge socio-economic analyses. On the other hand, I have always been an ardent proponent of the arts and humanities, noting that all the greatest scientists throughout history have had a deep appreciation for, love of and critical engagement with music, literature and the visual arts. Perhaps a well-rounded individual needs both, for I find too many in Sri Lanka who are clearly very good at scientific inquiry completely uninterested in the arts, and conversely, many actors, writers and activists entirely dismissive of exciting scientific discoveries that while completely removed from the realm of their work and output, locates us as humans amidst our built and natural environment, our visible universe and so much we cannot yet relate to, see or have the language to comprehend.

This year, I started a subscription to New Scientist. For years, whenever I have been thoroughly depressed with partisan politics, parliament and politicians, I have taken refuge in the Scientific American, NASA or National Geographic for two reasons. One, every encounter with this content is a vital reminder of how little I know and understand of anything, of both our insignificance as individuals and profound significance as a species. And linked to this, every visit is a vital reminder of how bigger the world is, when often it seems to be solely framed by the monumental ignorance of those we elect to political office in Sri Lanka. In school, I read Asimov, Clark, Bradbury, Niven and obviously, Frank Herbert (introduced to many later through the superb Dune computer games). Through them I found new worlds, and a taste for mental exploration. This is not something we still teach in school, and the only reason I am this strange way today is because of my father’s indulgence, at a time I know now he could ill afford it, to buy me whatever book I wanted and asked for.

This is why I nearly cried when I first peeked into the library at Parliament, many years ago. It is a wonderful space – vast, well-stocked, carefully curated, brightly lit, climate controlled and, tellingly, completely empty. I have been told only, quite literally, a handful of MPs use it. But we should not blame them. It is our education system, that teaches us to constantly look down and drill into memory, when we should be looking up and learning more about finding answers, that is the root of this proud, publicly paraded nescience. Our schools punish creativity identified only as distraction, and our teachers, tired, underpaid and under-appreciated, have little to give their students by way of kindling their minds, instead of filling their books.

Science, including science fiction, reading far beyond subject matter, day-dreaming, spending time in library in sections entirely unrelated to interests, wandering through a science museum, reading up on the stars or the effects of light on zooplankton, the search for and study of exo-planets, the jaw-dropping beauty of Hubble’s imagery of the farthest regions of space, listening to Hawking (and what was an acerbic humor), or downloading an app to place and pin the constellations above you, looking at a new moon or getting lost in documentaries like ‘The Last Man on the Moon’, recently released by the BBC are pleasures children – and indeed, adults – must be told to be unashamed about, and rewarded for. Some readers may think these are pursuits only upper echelons of society can manage. They are wrong. Science is all around us. Its negotiation constitutes our daily life, the very core of our being and everything we do. To engage with science and indeed, be captivated by science fiction, is just to question our environment, our lives, and our choices.

Fundamentally, I have come through science, reading and inquiry to a question we do not ask, and aren’t taught to ask. A question that is not just at the heart of scientific inquiry, it is the very essence of active citizenship. To ask it – and keep asking it – is deeply frowned upon and violently opposed, because there are no simple, easy answers, no quick soundbites possible in response. The question is powerful because it unravels and unmasks what is held or projected as true, and posits instead a creative uncertainty, viable options or possible alternatives – anathema to politicians interested only in voters who can’t give them a hard time.

The question is a simple one, in fact, a single word.

Why.

Always and forever, ask why.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 27 May 2018.

Forgetting frames

A recent tweet by a well-known academic, lamenting the complete loss of conversation history on a messaging app when her phone died, led to a reflection on the ephemeral nature of digital memories, which are often perceived as far more resilient than anything in paper or print.

Many if not most readers of this column in the Sunday Island will be from a generation that still has photo albums as material artefacts, with photos taken by those for whom a camera was entirely utilitarian, with no purpose other than to be whisked out and used to capture moments that year later are cringeworthy. And so, we have these albums, often moth eaten, with oil paper separating the pages and photos that unless they were originally black and white, are fast fading or entirely monochromatic after decades of fighting heat and humidity. My own, inherited many years ago, contains photos of a very chubby baby (a fact my grandmother I recall used to be rather pleased about and took credit for), often drooling away, sometimes frowning (wondering perhaps why I had to suffer the indignity of a pose when there was warm milk to be had) and often doing things no one in the photo, the photographer, or in the vicinity at the time can remotely recall the reasons for.

Many readers of this column on my blog or over social media, I suspect, will not themselves possess a photo album as a physical, material artefact. Their photo albums, like my own today, will be many and varied, but all digital – stored online in various platforms, shared with family and friends through links, digitally produced, stored, altered, shared and commented on. After the introduction of Google Photos in 2015, I decided to migrate my entire collection of photos – around 25,000, taken over a decade including scanned versions of older photos taken on film – online, and delete everything locally. It was a decision I both regret and am also happy about. The ambivalence is shared with many others. Facebook and Google Photos access the details digital photos have associated with them to suggest, often quite eerily, related places and people in the photos, various ways to group or curate them, and perhaps most usefully, of photos taken on a certain day in the past. Memories of travels with my son, random things I have done with him, trips with friends, some who are no longer living, places I’ve been to in the past which hold some nostalgic association, and relationships I have been in, are all algorithmically selected and almost magically presented. It’s a sort of continuous memorialisation, an automated photographic stream of consciousness, powered by increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence that recognises specific elements in the photos and makes intelligent connections between them.

All this wizardry, which admittedly I am quite partial to and interested in the development of, comes with greater, hidden sacrifices. For starters, Google, not I, now has my photos. In the simple transfer of them from my laptop and personal storage to Google’s servers and storage, the photos, though still private, aren’t really owned by me. I am better at searching for and discovering, on-demand, old photos than remembering them. Online, my photos do not fade. With each significant new advance in Google Photos, I am given options to alter my photos in ways unimaginable, extremely expensive or very hard to process just a few years ago. I can group, share, search with ease. But I’ve discovered that this ease comes at a price. In a world where unlimited storage and the immediate sharing of photographs is a given, the appeal of those decayed, faded photo albums is, for me, more tangible. To not remember why a photo was taken or by whom, to relive a moment from the past captured only by a faded photo, to retell the story around why there is a blotch or tear in a photo (often more interesting than what was originally framed), to smell and feel an old photo album – these are not things the digital can ever recreate. Or wants to either, because the digital sells very different things – convenience and speed over the frustrating yet often instructive process of finding a material album and photos therein, algorithmic discoverability and precise indexing over fuzzy, maddeningly illogical yet perfectly relatable organisational logic of a family or parent, lossless storage over the decay of photos especially in the tropics, unlimited storage over the limits of album, film, camera and money to process, and ultimately, the off-loading of memory, because why remember something when from the palm of your hand, you can search for it and bring it up in seconds.

Over time, I began to get annoyed with myself for not remembering, the more I captured. I now take less photos, delete more and upload less. The most precious thing I brought with me for the years I will spend away from my son was a photo of his, gifted by his mother, which frames him at an age where he is no longer a child, and not yet a teenager. I have many more photos of us on Google Photos, and am frequently reminded of those I uploaded to Facebook nine or ten years ago. These often result in a range of emotions, but after they pass, there is also the disquiet that it takes technology today to remind me of things I should remember anyway, discover in a different way, or even sometimes are best forgotten.

I belong to the last generation that grew up in a Sri Lanka without the Internet, web or the ubiquity of smartphones. I straddle a time when there was no such thing as a mobile phone, and the fact that I am wedded and almost umbilically connected to my own. My son, already on Instagram, following the accounts of my closest friends and my own, sees photos never captured with him in mind. Do I delete now? Do I keep? How should I explain and frame? Will he ask? How should I introduce? I’ve decided to keep everything and talk with him, through my filtered frames, the life I’ve led. At a very different time, I recognise that these were also conversations I had, around his age, when my parents first showed me their wedding album. Relatives they hated to speak with, much less be around, siblings they had fallen out with, and the ineluctable intricacies of family politics were revisited based on photos taken decades ago, over our kitchen table. I didn’t understand then everything they said, but the photos, as an amorphous collection of materials and memories both precious and beautiful, remains indelibly etched in mind.

I wonder if the natively digital will give that same pleasure, years hence? The fear of losing data and information grips us, and rightfully so. But with the persistence of storage online, we have perhaps lost our appreciation for, or patience with, the fallibility of memory. I have, increasingly of late, come to realise that alongside the convenience of digital capture I am a willing hostage to, there is much to be said of taking in a moment without always reaching out to phone or frame. Our most personal memories, of the most tender moments, were perhaps never meant to live digitally, in perpetuity.

Like us, they should fade away, be reshaped, retold, and die.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 20 May 2018.

On music

The trip with my father to a building that still exists, but a business which does not, took place in the early 90s. I could sense the excitement, masked as only my father can in a language of dispassionate, factual conversation, around what we were to expect and going to purchase. The owner of the company he worked for at the time had discovered an importer of high-end audio equipment, a rare discovery in the early 90s. The proposed purchase was of a Carver vacuum amplifier and a set of speakers, by Infinity, that matched the quality of output. To demonstrate the quality of the output, the importer played us some classical music and jazz, one which showcased the dynamic range and the other, the deep bass of a throbbing cello. I remember Thaththa’s silent excitement at the purchase, which he must have saved up for years and meticulously planned around.

I was no stranger to music at home. I grew up listening to AM radio on my grandmother’s transistor radio, from SLBC’s news and pop hits to ‘Muwanpalassa’ at night. The radio had its idiosyncrasies. It had two black dials, one for tuning, one for volume. Both were so worn, their complete lack of precision had its own logic. The tuning dial was off by around two and a half kilohertz. The warm flickering glow of frequencies illuminated by a single bulb, the hiss of static and noise before signal was found, lost, regained and then found again, was its own dramatic prelude before any broadcast. The volume too was wonderfully mercurial and sometimes uncannily intelligent, mysteriously reducing volume at a crescendo or particularly dramatic line, and then as mysteriously, increasing volume whenever there was a softer movement, or quieter dialogue. Of course, the opposite was as frequently true, requiring constant guard duty near volume control for the duration of the programme.

Thaththa’s integrated Sony sound system, which I grew up around, had the LP player on top, amplifier with equaliser, radio with FM and presets, and a double-cassette player, offering high-speed rewind and non-stop play. In the analogue world, this meant that once the A-side of a cassette was over in around half an hour, the deck could switch to the B-side or the next cassette. All very sophisticated at the time, and I used to take endless pleasure in learning by listening to the various equaliser presets, what worked best with different types of music. Thaththa never fiddled with my settings, and was more interested in the careful dusting of LP’s before he played them, with music ranging from Boney M and Abba to Tower Hall and tabla. With LPs now making a comeback, a generation of listeners are discovering anew what I grew up with – that the sound of needle on groove, with all its attendant acoustic flaws, is more alive, richer and deeper than anything streaming off the Internet.

Thaththa’s influence on my music appreciation is profound. When as a student in Delhi, my house was broken into and the thieves stole all my cassettes (tellingly leaving all my books behind) I was devastated. I had at the time double-cassette albums, including from at the time a growing interest in Bollywood soundtracks, I didn’t have the spare money to re-purchase. A few years before I left for India was when WinAmp was first introduced. My friends and I exchanged rips of popular music CDs at the time through recursive ZIP compression over 3 ½” Verbatim floppy disks – a sentence which if you cannot comprehend, dates you. The revolt of the music industry to Napster, which followed soon thereafter, and what it is today, was unimaginable to us back then. We were interested in listening and sharing, bound by a lack of money and avenues to purchase legitimately, restricted by choices available in Sri Lanka, pursuing digital distribution as a way to escape our geographic isolation as fans.

Thaththa stood apart from all this. As a child, he forced me to listen to Indian classical music which at the time I thought was akin to mice being tortured. I didn’t understand, much less appreciate sitar or veena, but from that time, was attracted to bass – of initially the tabla and then to percussion in general. I later moved on to Talvin Singh, and his amazing fusion, followed by Asian Underground, Panjabi MCs, Badmarsh & Shri, Nitin Sawhney, State of Bengal and of course, during my undergraduate years in Delhi, the inimitable Trilok Gurtu. These were personal journey’s, leaving my father in what remains for him musical appreciation completely satiated by what he knows of the Western classical canon of Bach, Handel or Beethoven and Indian classical music. My father cannot speak to a critical appreciation of cadence, chord or movement. What was I suppose an emotive reaction to what pleased him, he passed on to me. The enduring lesson is that what I hated to listen to as a child, is what nevertheless crafted in me today an appreciation for music from a wide range of genres.

I am in a country with Spotify now, a music streaming service unavailable in Sri Lanka. Coupled with algorithmic intelligence anchored to what’s already on my phone (and growing up I never imagined my entire music collection would be on the same device I make calls on) the service recommends music I may enjoy. Last week, I rediscovered a sublime movement I vividly recall Thaththa and I listening together and marvelling at the beauty of. It’s from Ravi Shankar’s performance at the Kremlin in Russia, from the 80s, called Bahu-Rang. Shankar and his amazing accompanist Alla Rakha on the tabla, begin a conversation in raga about three minutes in to this movement, resulting in a solo exposition of the tabla for around three minutes. It is to date the best test of a pair of headphones or the fidelity of an amplifier I can recommended – the movement is breath-taking in its effortless fluidity and flawless execution, where the daya’s crisp, clear chatter is underwritten by the baya’s booming, grounded seriousness.

Today, I listen to everything from the American Top 40 to electronica, revelling in innovative free-style rap and chilled downtempo lounge as much as I enjoy the forays into Khemadasa, bringing back vivid memories of ‘Manasa Vila’ on stage or the glorious recordings of Tower Hall from the 60s, which my grandmother used to love. And now, with my son, these conversations continue. A family membership for Apple Music allows him on his iPod to listen to music of a taste and tempo I just cannot identify with. But the deal is that he listens to what I recommend as well. The hope and expectation, aided also by a mother who sings beautifully and with a penchant for musicals, is that he grows to appreciate compositions from a range of genres and contexts.

For music, like literature, flows, connects, gives life. My father and my childhood are always with me, whenever I hear Shankar or Dvořák. I hope that in some tangible way, I am with my son, even when geographic distance separates us, as he listens to his iPod. Even if that means sharing him with the rising stars of EDM today.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 13 May 2018.

World Press Freedom Day

What is it about World Press Freedom Day that makes those who have in the past been part of governments violently suppressing the rights of journalists tweet their vociferous support of a free media? Or those in power, responsible for blocking or banning websites arbitrarily, use a baseline of media freedom under authoritarianism as the yardstick to suggest things are much better now? On the 3rdof May, what makes us flag or recall the impunity around the murder, abduction, torture or exile of journalists, that for the rest of the year, we choose to ignore? What gives rise to the promises made on this day to never forget the sacrifices made by journalists who have been killed, when in fact, why those voices are no longer around goes unacknowledged even by colleagues? World Press Freedom Day reflects a great deal, but does it really respond to the challenges of what media freedom means in a post-truth world?

So much of what is written on the 3rdof May every year looks back at how bad things were in a country or context. Little to no time is spent interrogating how media freedom is defined in a world where news, produced by journalists, is ranked by algorithms outside their control. And while the pushback against Silicon Valley’s global capture of social media networks came to a head this year, less now is talked about how these platforms are invaluable networks of resistance and dissent under authoritarianism. What is the ‘press’ really, for a demographic that has never bought, and will never buy, a newspaper? Sri Lanka is not at risk of losing its share of consumers who will pay to read the news anytime soon, but the model of writing for print continues unchanged even as the vectors of news and information have changed dramatically. What risks does this entail, and what potential is there for capture by news and media entrepreneurs?

These are hard questions. The output on this day is now more theatre and scripted, than any genuine introspect and interrogation. The situation is not getting any better. But perhaps we do not have the language to fully capture how broken the system is, here in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The easy targets are an older generation of journalists, government, the patriarchy in the system, the resistance to innovation, the dependence on advertising, the lack of talent, job insecurity, the lack of independence, peer support and personal safety. But in projecting outwards and to usual suspects the many ills of media, the scrutiny is never on reader, citizen or consumer. The vociferous private complaints, the karmic resignation, the canapé fueled outrage, the heated discussion over family gatherings – these and other forms of pushback against the kind of media we have in Sri Lanka never really sets out to change anything. Complaining is never out of fashion. So instead of demanding better, more publicly, or setting up initiatives that demonstrate by doing how media can be more inclusive and incisive, it is easier to bemoan the state of affairs whilst continuing to consume precisely that which gives rise to the grief. There’s an element of hypocrisy in all this that comes to a head on the 3rdof May, as the world collectively cries out to secure everything good and great about journalism, without at the same time promoting or seeking to strengthen the means through which good journalism is actually brought to life.

It starts with us. When sexist tripe and outright gossip is published on the frontpage of a newspaper, readers must demand better. When a TV station vilifies an individual because of personal vendetta over and above the necessary oversight of and scrutiny around public affairs and policymaking, viewers must call out its bias. When DJs on air embrace a false accent and project the worst sort of giddy ignorance as fashionable, listeners must ask them to be replaced. When someone shares an article on Facebook visibly false, friends must call it out as such. After encountering a tweet that clearly aims to foment violence, followers or those who encounter it have the responsibility to flag, frame and report. The new, nay already well-established information and media ecosystem requires of us to be more than passive consumers. It requires of us to critically question and intelligently respond. Few do. Which makes World Press Freedom Day’s framing of problems as much a problem of a passive citizenry and consumer base, as it is about official censorship and repression or corporate bias. The story though is never around personal culpability, because blame is easier to project instead of inwardly reflect.

So instead of reading about everyone says is what ails the media, on the 3rdof May each year for the past couple of years, I watch Good Night, and Good Luck, a film nominated for six Oscars about American journalist Edward Murrow’s journalism at a time when the US was under the terribly violent influence of Senator McCarthy, in the 1950s. It’s a lovely movie, and not just for the acting. More recently, The Postbrings to light the terrible parallels between media control under a former President and the incumbent in the US, and more broadly, the close connections those in power enjoy with those who own and publish mainstream media. These films resonate globally because the context, culture and challenges they frame, with the journalist as hero, is familiar to us. But it is in fact an outmoded and outdated model of journalism. Press freedom today, at its core, is inextricably pegged to the quality and nature of the investments we will make – that’s you and I – around conversations and content that interest us the most. If all we value is free access, we then have to countenance the fact that quality journalism which needs financial investment will suffer and die. If all we value is partisan information, then we have to acknowledge a world intolerant of difference diminishes everyone. If all we do is to wait for the media to miraculously change somehow, we must recognize the role we play in sustaining precisely what ails it, print to pixel, broadcast to blog. If all we do is to consume passively, then we must embrace the fact that content geared for the broadest possible appeal will invariably overwhelm investigative journalism of the sort we seem to only relish seeing in films.

World Press Freedom Day is anchored to journalism and journalists. It is time this day, and every day in between, goes beyond this and flags the inescapable fact that in order to truly address what is still so wrong with media as it stands, we cannot expect solutions from those who made the industry, culture and context the way it is. The thing about press freedom is that it is at the end of the day a reflection of who we are. Until we unchain ourselves, the press will never be free.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 6 May 2018.