The demographic divide

Aside from enduring popularity with most dogs (cats being entirely inscrutable), I do very well in two demographics – those between 2 and 10 and those over 65.

Children find me, as I often see them, infinitely interesting. I am an adult who in their company becomes a child – making funny noises and faces, tickling, happy to go on all fours in an instant, wholly and utterly oblivious to context or company in our interactions. Those slightly older, as I re-discovered this week hanging out with five from the same family, are entirely surprised to find an adult who is as excited as they are about something they’ve just read, heard or seen. They remind me of what I was like at their age. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother reading to me, Muwanpalassa playing softly on the AM radio, something from Wettasinghe or Munidasa. More than anything else from childhood, I remember lovingly reading dozens of Ladybird books passed on from my sister, the Childcraft anthology that took up an entire rack, the vicarious participation in many adventures on Kirrin Island, and Blyton’s other classics including the Folk of the Faraway Tree and Just William. In fact, my love of dogs I can peg to how much I wanted to have a dog like Timmy – loyal, loving and intelligent. Looking back, I recognise this was also a need, satiated only through reading at the time, for a companion. A best friend. I naturally connect with children who are curious, independent and offer an opinion based on something they’ve read or overheard their parents talk about. This week, while a two-year-old grappled with the challenge of eating chips with just six teeth, I engaged his four siblings – two girls and two boys. We talked about the mental acuity of dinosaurs and whether in fact sauropods and stegosaurs had two brains. We talked about the exciting life of sea creatures, including the dissection of a shark that had washed ashore, shown on TV. We spoke about palaeontology, and why one sibling wanted to be an astronaut, while the other wanted to be an astrophysicist. Salient points were debated over an indeterminable drink that would have immediately killed a diabetic. There are things kids hate – condescension, lecturing, hectoring and bluffing. They are smart and value more the admission of ignorance – which gives them the chance to explain what they are referring to or talking about – than an empty claim of knowledge or expertise. They are born storytellers, so no matter how important a point one has, if it isn’t packaged and presented the right way, one simply doesn’t find a receptive audience. This often leads to the entirely erroneous belief that kids aren’t interested in what you have to say, or the lessons one seeks to impart. Children read and engage with an open mind and thus come to conclusions that initially appear naïve, but can be profoundly insightful. As any pre-school or Montessori teacher will attest, they are a tough audience to capture the attention of, but if one wins their confidence, is rewarded with a love and trust that doesn’t dissipate easily. Some aspects here resonate with the dynamics of those much older, and how they interact with each other online.

Those over 65 I also generally get on rather well with. Just this week, I was invited with two other colleagues to speak to the local community on the core tenets of my doctoral research, which deals with social media, data science and peacebuilding, post-war. To put this in context, New Zealand is the second most peaceful country in the world. Conflict, as reported in the Otago Daily Times, the leading provincial newspaper, is generally around the mysterious disappearance of cows, or last week, a duck that had been shot in the back, reportedly leading those in that community to feel unsafe. Given the average age of the audience, and since over supper before our presentations, many lovingly recalled memories of travel in a country called Ceylon, I wondered if my research and the context I was conducting it in would resonate at all.

I knew that with this demographic, it helps to frame things in ways they can empathise with through decades of experience. Recognising the verdant beauty of New Zealand, I projected my research as one not different to gardening, with the study of content and conversations online similar to the bloom or blossoming of flowers, sometimes stunted by weeds and parasites. I likened to the frequent consumption of fast food, and its effect on health and the human body, what is a media diet on social media amongst millennials in Sri Lanka predominantly anchored to gossip. I explained how conversations morphed and merged online by showing an animation of bubbles, noting that their form, shape, texture and ephemeral nature reflected many of the dynamics seen in the study of content generation, spread and engagement online. Going by the engagement after I spoke and an email of appreciation sent to the Faculty the next day, my effort at connecting with this audience seems to have paid off. Many – about as far removed in every imaginable way from the landscape of my research – grasped why I did what I did, and around what. And that’s really all one can hope for.

Strategic and creative communication, as I see it, is what connects my interactions with these two demographics. The ages in between are too often engaged in, entrapped by or enraptured through the hubris of ignorance, paraded and promoted with almost militant fervour – choosing the gluttony of social media banality or niche fiction over more foundational and critical writing on politics and society. Those who are young I connect with over books, stories, ideas and videos I recall once being excited about as well, and now engaged with through interactive means that weren’t even dreamed of, much less invented, when I was their age. Those who are much older I connect with by speaking to what their lives have been – what they have loved to do, want to see more of, are nostalgic over, choose to spend their time on, or want to see their grandchildren become. With the younger demographic, there is a certain give and take – I listen, but also shape and influence, through my responses, how they engage with what we talk about. With those much older, whose minds, opinions and habits are far less malleable, I choose to anchor what I do and like to see, to their self-interest. Sometimes it is by asking them to recall the heady impulses of childhood and youth. At other times, it is by appealing to legacy or succession, and what – in a very personal way – they would like to leave behind, who they would like to take over and how they would like to be remembered.

After a long period of anxiety, I am increasingly at peace with the fact that for the demographic in between these two groups, I find no easy or sustained traction, interest, acceptance or entry. To compete for attention amongst this demographic – the more I study the dynamics, drivers and domains of content and conversations on social media – is a Sisyphean endeavour. A universe of content sparkles with ever greater intensity on newsfeeds, apps and platforms. While I am able to help others package their advocacy, activism and politics in a way that stands the best chance of engagement on or over these social media constellations, I now personally gravitate towards spending more time with those who can reflect back on a full life or those, much younger, who look at life with unbridled optimism, trust and love. This, coupled with slow reading and dogs, is increasingly a safe refuge from a world, the more I study, the less I understand.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 21 October 2018.

A few good men and women

“Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”- Winston Churchill

I first met Mangala Moonesinghe, who passed away two years ago, in 1997. He was at the time Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Delhi. The Sri Lankan mission, with its unmistakable wall in the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, was a haven for students. The Moonesinghe’s had an open door policy. Over twenty years ago, Sri Lanka had the second largest student community in Delhi next to those from Seychelles. We were around 750 at the time, mostly undergraduates at the University of Delhi and a few dozens doing post-graduate studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU as it was always called. Over the three years, Mangala and Gnana invited me over for lunch to talk about the state of the student body, my studies, Sri Lankan politics (though I was studying English, we established a mutual interest in politics beyond partisan frames very early on) and literature. We often used stories in the Economist as a point of reference for our conversations. He had a subscription. I was very far removed from being able to afford one. He used to give me copies from a month or two ago, with specific instructions to read some pieces. A remarkable memory meant I was asked for my opinion on the pieces he had recommended the next time we met, though admittedly, the bigger draw to their company was the delicious, freshly made food. Suitably satiated, all three of us talked in what was I recall the living room of the High Commission over some of the best tea I had tasted up until then. Clearly, the Foreign Service was at the time able to source a grade of Ceylon tea unavailable for the average Sri Lankan consumer. The late 90s in India was a time of vast, unprecedented economic change. Mangala talked of how he saw the changes at the time, from the vantage of interactions with the Indian government and others in the diplomatic community. I spoke of what I saw as a student, and in my last two years, around a range of varying perspectives cultivated from speaking and interacting with the mass of humanity in the city who only ever conversed in Hindi. Mangala was always patient and attentive, locating my limited experience in what he had lived through, knew and observed.

As a student at S. Thomas’ College in the mid-90s, I used to read Lanka Monthly Digest for one column – ‘The Roving Diplomat’ by Deshamanya Vernon L.B. Mendis. LMD has in recent years taken to the republication of Vernon’s columns, which are as interesting to read today as when they were first penned. My first frames of diplomacy, democracy and a world outside of the very violent Sri Lanka I grew up in were through these columns. Vernon’s insights on Indian diplomacy, the meaning of high-profile visits, the need to restructure SAARC, the place of the US, China and Russia in what at the time was an emergent new world order, ethno-political tension in Africa, prescient critiques of the G77 and importantly, a number of columns on the UN and the importance of processes like the Millennium Declaration were all seminal in an appreciation and awareness of a world beyond the strict confines of personal experience and perspectives.

And then there was a meeting with the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, late 2004. Because it was a relatively menial task no one else was around or willing to do, I was asked to accompany a well-known Canadian academic to meet the then Foreign Minister at his official residence. Kadirgamar – a large, commanding presence, in an immaculate ironed shirt and chinos – talked at length about constitutionalism and aspects of power-sharing. During all of this, I was as invisible as the furniture in the room and less useful. I took notes, but wasn’t looked at, referred to, or asked anything. While I was versed with Kadirgamar’s reputation, writing and his political outlook, I didn’t dare open my mouth. After the meeting was over, Kadirgamar pivoted his chair to face me. I recall giving the sort of silly grin one would expect a child to give Santa Claus spotted crawling out the chimney on Christmas. Calling me ‘young man’ at first, and upon discovering my name, referring to my surname after that, he asked me about school, university and what I thought about what they had discussed. I must have said something asinine about the last thrust of inquiry, because he commanded me more sternly to really say what I thought of what he had talked about, and as a young person, how it resonated. I had never before been asked by someone from the government for my opinion, much less the Foreign Minister. He then proceeded to ignore the Canadian academic completely and for the last five or ten minutes of our time together, engaged me about what at the time were the then government’s policies around peacebuilding and aspects of the ceasefire agreement related to media engagement. He was diplomatic and strategically silent around what were obvious cracks and failings, but told me that if my generation’s imagination wasn’t captured by what government said and did, then all would be lost.   

News today captures our diplomats acting as porters, mired in corruption, nepotism, the worst sort of influence peddling and how since 2005, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service has seen the insidious, intentional evisceration of professionalism and meritocracy. Who today, amongst our leading diplomats, can pen a masterful essay on diplomats as writers and poets, anchored to the life and work of Pablo Neruda, as Jayantha Dhanapala did in the 90s? One reads about Susantha De Alwis and others at the time adroitly negotiating the intricacies of Sri Lanka’s role in hosting the Non-Aligned Summit. A tribute by Vernon Mendis to Yogendra Duraiswamy, published posthumously after Duraiswamy’s passing in 1999, speaks to a calibre, professionalism, vision and integrity we are hard pressed to identify in our Foreign Service today. I grew up reading what these diplomats wrote, wanting to be like them. The profound importance of these first frames of reference, especially amongst youth today, cannot be under-estimated. In uncertain times locally and globally, the vision, skills and strategic thinking required of diplomats can help steer complex, multi-dimensional discussions and processes, including in domestic theatres, beyond purely parochial and partisan frames.

Amongst others, the writings of and on Mendis, Moonesinghe, Kadirgamar and Dhanapala helped shaped my worldview. The absence of comparable voices today is a measure of the moral, ethical and intellectual fibre of our society and polity. All, however, is not lost. In some of the accounts I am fortunate to follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, I see spirited, intelligent, cosmopolitan young Sri Lankans already deeply engaged in various domestic and international institutions & fora. Decades hence, I hope they will be able to withstand pressures of mindless conformity and partisan servility to become far better ambassadors of their country than those we see and hear about in the media today.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 14 October 2018.

Reading and social media

The postgraduate study of social media often dates me. Someone with a proclivity to what I have in recent months learnt is a phenomenon called ‘rage-tweeting’ sent me a letter last week that was at the time circulating amongst a limited number on Facebook. The affordances and nature of the platform, I knew, would result in the creation of outrage that would soon spill over on to Twitter and Instagram. It took less than two days. From alumni to those who wait with baited breath to join a chorus that takes issue with who they see as the elite of Colombo, the rage brigade has expressed shame, shock, disbelief, disappointment, disdain and horror, support for the victim, the condemnation of those in authority, various critiques of Sri Lanka’s education system, the small-mindedness of teachers, regressive social values, the dangers to a child’s self-expression and a whole range of opinion on gender, sexuality and queerness and its place in educational institutions. Many others took a monosyllabic route, of starred or completely spelt out expletives, to capture what I can only imagine is a disappointment so great, it has entirely robbed the power of a more comprehensive critique. Some even took to memes. Social media has made black-American actors the standard torchbearer now, through animated images and short video-clips, for an outrage so profound, it cannot be written down.

Kony 2012 on Youtube, over six years ago, is now a well-studied harbinger of the manufacture of outrage over social media, with an intended aim and outcome. I distinctly recall sharing it on my newsfeed at the time, and how much it went on to be commented on and shared subsequently, at a time when Facebook had not yet been tainted by scandal, breach and distrust. That was then. The banality of outrage today is brilliantly framed by digital anthropologist John Postill as an ‘age of viral reality’, where political reality is increasingly if not entirely framed by rapidly and widely shared digital content, particularly amongst a younger demographic. In an age of triumphant populism, the weaponisation of social media, misinformation, socio-political divides over decades exacerbated by digital echo chambers, poor media literacy, catastrophic breaches of privacy, unprecedented and complex attacks on electoral processes, sophisticated influence operations, disinformation campaigns, partisan media coupled with the myopia of social media users and you have a perfect storm – endlessly interesting and fodder for academic research, yet deeply worrisome, beyond partisan lines, for the health of democracy.

Rather than rant and rave against the evil of it all, or seeking through censorious legislation, overbearing government, panoptic surveillance and most of all, terrible parenting, the reinstitution of an ostensibly more straightforward analogue world, it bears some reflection as to how our better angels can be harnessed through the technologies that govern our comprehension of context, country and citizenship. For starters, and counter-intuitively, it is through encouraging the lost art of reading. And by this, I don’t mean the style, nature and pattern of reading that I recognise I am also now hostage to when dealing with a tsunami of social media. It is a very different pace, focus, engagement and selection of reading that comes from borrowing or buying books. Here too, I care little for the distracting debate on whether Kindle or paper is most effective. It is the substance of what one reads, and the breadth of subjects that matters more to me than the form of how text is consumed. I remain biased to print. The tactile nature of spine, page and jacket, coupled with the olfactory signature of each book, brand new or much thumbed, gives me as much pleasure as reading whatever I’ve picked up. But I have no issue with those who prefer e-books. What matters more is that critical reading is encouraged, as something sorely lacking amongst those who are some of the most ardent consumers and producers of social media. An individual who is one of the most gifted photographers I know of, I discovered, hadn’t read Sontag’s seminal work, to better understand framing, politics and craft. The adoration and adulation generated by fans online serve to boost ego without the necessary often painful realisation through critical review, editing, marking or wider reading, that one is wrong, misguided, ill-informed and unoriginal. The private realisation of all this comes with reading. The more public lessons are learnt in university, but also through the friendship or tutelage of friends, family and colleagues. At its simplest, it is to impart the joy of getting lost in a library amongst rows of books, which is a life experience unmatched by even the most amazing recommendations by Amazon. Many on or over social media are enraged by minutiae, confusing or conflating the episodic with the systemic. Academic literature calls this ‘momentary connectedness’ or ‘digital togetherness’ – the feeling of being part of a larger community who by collectively raising their voice over social media, brings about change.

Critical reading can help harness what is today an unprecedented potential to raise awareness about social injustice, where it matters the most. Around long overdue education reform, the overhaul of pedagogy and the reboot of syllabi, instead of a single school, student or teacher. Around the need to be more open to critical reflection and narratives that are different to and contest core beliefs, instead of the screening or censorship of a particular film. Social media masks the need for systemic reform by the proclivity, anchored to the nature of online networks, to frame specific incidents, individuals and institutions. Critical reading, around a range of subjects, gives pause to the immediate sense of outrage by helping us locate the episodic in a landscape of similar incidents, or a history of injustice, a longer process of discrimination or evolution, or parallel developments that may complement or content.

My first impulse of an acerbic response, share, like, quip or jibe I now increasingly hold in check, realising how quickly the spell of social media blinds me to what is more important – which is the study of the drivers, motives and intent of the most emotive or explosive content online. It is easy to stop at bemoaning at how ill-informed and self-referential these cycles of outrage are. To dismiss everyone on social media and decry how everything today is a fad – what Sontag called being a tourist in one’s own reality as the defining frame of our online cultures. And yet, through the simple yet subversive emphasis on more, wider and deeper reading  – books, journals, long-form, magazines, poetry, prose, fiction – we can expand what is a reductionist and limited frame of reference blindly paraded on online with a sense of time, place, relative merit and scale.

There is today abundant optimism, verdant activism and an innate sense of justice amongst so many on social media, from a young age. Yet, the worst of us and our worst impulses rendered in the most appealing ways online, stunt the potential of this reservoir to fertilise a better, more just society. This must change – not by eschewing the digital, but by leveraging it to prise open minds and eyes enslaved to ephemera.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 7 October 2018.

Identity and belonging

Sixteen years ago, I met a child soldier. He had a T-56 and was cocky. The A9 had opened up a few months ago, and taking it to Jaffna with a group of journalists, we encountered a checkpoint manned by the LTTE, past Omanthai. The children at the checkpoint, with guns strung around their torso loosely, were in the LTTE’s signature fatigue. Hostile and demanding, they curtly instructed our driver to provide the documentation to enter the area, which at the time the LTTE provided. One clambered into the driver’s seat as I sat in the passenger seat, knowing that if they wanted to be difficult, we would be stuck here for a while. I smiled. He didn’t. He looked around slowly, T-56 placed on the dashboard. Our Toyota Hiace van had at the time a rarity – an in-dash CD player. Looking at it quizzically, he gestured to me authoritatively to explain what it was. I forget what I ended up playing, but I remember the soldier immediately giving way to the child beneath, as he smiled broadly at the music and still beaming, gestured excitedly to his smaller and probably even younger comrades to come listen. They assembled outside the driver’s door, all smiling ear to ear and pushing each other to see how the music was being generated. He played around with the controls, skipping tracks, replaying songs after a few seconds, ejecting the CD, looking at it as if it was an alien creation and then inserting it again into the player, gasping and recoiling a bit as it was sucked in automatically. This was repeated. Clearly, it was the first time he had encountered a CD and CD player in his life. And like any kid with a new toy, the player interested him far more than the sound it produced. I can’t remember his face anymore. But I remember his eyes, his smile and of all things, his gun – the scratches, marks and dents on it and the ammunition clip. I can’t remember what we did on that particular trip, but still vividly recall him and his friends, at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. I also recall the complete silence in the van as we drove away. We were all lost for words.

There is so much of what I saw, heard and experienced during the ceasefire agreement from 2002 to 2005 worth writing about someday. But the memory of a child soldier in the middle of the Vanni sprang to mind reading Francis Fukuyama’s latest, titled Identity. Fukuyama’s tome is at times unwieldy and unfocused, but in the main, is a fascinating exploration around the dynamics of identity and dignity in political systems, and the challenge of their accommodation and expression in a liberal democracy in particular. Fukuyama’s central thesis is that populism’s rise and appeal at present is because of the indignity suffered by those in society who are rendered invisible by the dominant narratives undergirding the politics, practices and policies of the government. Akin to the points made by JD Vance in ‘Hillbilly Elegy’, Fukuyama suggests that the politics of the left has lost its way, focussing on ever smaller issues anchored to specific communities, giving way to right-wing politics that uses identity politics, including by appropriating the language of marginalisation and outrage, to appeal to ever greater numbers. Fukuyama focussed on the deterioration of liberal democracies in the West, but his critique of polarisation in political dialogue, lack of robust critique, the rise of emotion over reason, short-term fixes instead of long-term reform holds true even in Sri Lanka. Refreshingly, Fukuyama doesn’t posit any of this to social media. Towards the end of the book, he says that as much as social media is clearly responsible for exacerbating existing social, political and communal divides and thus contributing to violence, it also holds the key to greater cohesion, stronger democracy and better governance.

How to link this to the memory of a child soldier? I recall, to this day, driving away from that checkpoint looking at those children with guns disappear in the dust. I wondered then, as I do now, the conditions of a lived experience which contributed to, over time, a violent, armed movement to secure identity and dignity – constructs that a majoritarian, exclusive, and deeply discriminatory state had never afforded Tamils and other communities. 2015’s shift from authoritarianism to a government more open to criticism and less inclined to resort to violence against detractors hasn’t resulted in a stronger democracy. We are often told by the current government that we do not have to fear white vans, that the PM is subject to vicious and often unfair criticism, that the President considers he is the subject of awful media reportage, and that the inchoate nature of government is actually a feature of a more democratic form of governance. All of this is in the absence of constitutional reform to address issues around identity and dignity that were drivers of violent conflict. More concretely, mothers of the disappeared are callously ignored by the President, who last week in the UN went on to deliver a speech that was as supremely misguided as it was detrimental to any meaningful reconciliation. But it is not just about the North and East, or Tamils. Fukuyama makes the point that poverty-stricken whites from the Rust Belt feel particularly marginalised, because they have no one to champion the lived experience they endure, and risk being called petty or privileged for flagging issues around economic injustice, disenfranchisement, debilitating debt, poor education, health issues, the lack of any social safety net, hopelessness and marginalisation they too face acutely, daily and without respite or relief. The electoral outcome, as Fukuyama notes in countries without a firm sense of an overarching national identity, is the rise of populism that fine-tunes into discontent across geography, uniting disparate groups who suffer the indignity of poverty and the discrimination of an insensitive government.

I remembered a child soldier from over sixteen years ago, unlikely to be alive today, because that single, brief encounter encapsulated beyond anything I can pen the sheer horror of war, and why its meaningful resolution can never be achieved by military, political or communal dominance. If belonging and dignity are, as Fukuyama strongly suggests, central to a stable democracy, Sri Lanka is very far from it. If fear or anxiety is what continues to unite the greatest number amongst us, and if pride in a supra-national identity eludes us, I do not believe we are very far from renewed violence. A child with a gun manning a checkpoint in Sri Lanka is not something I want ever to see or encounter again.

I just fear I might.

First published in The Sunday Island, 30 September 2018.

Silicon Valley

My first trip to San Francisco many years ago, for an academic conference held at Stanford University, offered the chance to imbibe the culture and context that had given rise to so much of the technology that we now take for granted in our daily lives. I cannot remember much of what we talked about at the conference, but remember every detail of the campus and environs. At every possible opportunity, skipping even the customary official dinner, I skipped out of the venue and hotel to take a cab and go to the city. Some lessons were learnt quickly. Distance, mirroring what we know in Colombo, means nothing in relation to how fast you will get from point A to B. Traffic jams are epic, and bumper to bumper traffic more the norm than the exception. I once left the venue well in time for what I thought would be a quick sortie to an Apple Store, that mecca of glass, wood, aluminium and consumerism. I arrived in time for a solitary dinner at a nearby restaurant.

In the times I’ve been to the West coast of the US since I’ve been progressively less excited about the allure of the destination as the North Pole of entrepreneurship and venture capital. I’ve been more interested in individual meetings with some brilliant minds, and far less enamoured by the surroundings, which now resemble, South of SFO – the only airport I know of with a yoga room – slices of towering concrete and gleaming glass cakes, cut in various sizes and shapes, stacked upon and close to each other. The copacetic weather remains a wonderful feature of the region. The increasingly anaemic imagination and experience of those who reside and work here for leading technology companies tempers, however, any optimism or belief that they alone can understand the world’s problems, much less attempt to solve them. A report published in the media suggests that the area is losing its appeal because of sky-rocketing rent and living expenses, evident on even the most cursory visit to the city. The wealth gap is violently obvious. The homeless are everywhere, drugged out, passed out or walking the streets in an opiate haze. In the evening, store fronts for designer clothes, niche electronics, high-end furniture, designer labels and other magnets for easy credit purchases become shelters for men and women with nothing – no future, no money, no credit, no job and no hope. A block gentrified by the renovation or repurposing of an old warehouse, factory, printing press or building, suddenly becomes unaffordable for low-income residents around it, in turn leading to a ring of poverty that embraces a centre of affluence and wealth-generation of a select few.

In the Valley again last week, I had a moment where the normalisation of the sheer excess in corporate, consumer and civic culture was brought home. Thirsty, I went to a sprawling fridge in search of a bottle water. I was immediately paralysed by choice. There were about a dozen flavours of water, with someone within earshot complaining that everyone always took the watermelon flavour and that management should do something about that. There were carbonated drinks, sugar-free and vegan beverages. Every possible variety and brand of fizzy drinks was on offer. Freshly squeezed juice was also there, seemingly arranged by colour. The green section, which had kale in its list of ingredients and visually the most unappealing, was also the emptiest. There was ionised water, spring water, and bottles of various sizes. All for free, of course. I think I stood there, unable to move, for a while, confronted by how one fridge provided a window into how cocooned lives here were from a world beyond their climate controlled, automated offices, in San Francisco alone, leave aside sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.

I can also see why all this is so appealing. Speaking to employees of a company, I learnt that stock, health and employee fringe benefits were extremely generous, in return for slaving away for hours fixing the mistakes of others. The ubiquity of Teslas, including the new Model 3, provides insight into the altruism of the wealthy, where being environmentally friendly involves an electric car and disposable straws in a world of rampant consumerism. It’s easy to donate to and be passionately driven by a cause far away through iTunes, and not be too concerned with or even see the awful poverty next door or just outside. Suburban life is comfortable and importantly, without any dramatic change brought about by disruptions to supply chains, politics, unions, logistics or weather. There is a comfortable, even luxurious routine, and with Lyft and Uber, the out-sourcing of a commute to a personal chauffeur, allowing even more time to engage with and lament about the rest of the world, ignoring what’s just outside the window. The appeal and allure will endure. I walked in a park – replete with large trees, bush, decks, terraces, jogging tracks and the odd juice bar – that was built entirely on the roofs of buildings that were all part of just one tech company. The urban architecture that serves the staff of all the companies extends from the appealing brick and mortar structures, which are architectural masterpieces in the main, to the invisible yet ubiquitous mesh of apps, services and platforms that through flick, swipe or click, brings the world to you. Anything can be delivered. Everything can be ordered. Anything can be booked. Nothing needs to be truly recalled, because everyone is reminded about everything through a concert of pings, pop-ups, vibrations or alerts. It’s at best a symphony of silicon, a marvel of human engineering. At its worst, it is an artificial intelligence – meant pejoratively – where deep, even purportedly spiritual connections with the world, justice, ethics and rights is very quickly revealed as, at best, passing fad, boredom with work, or attributes to take on in order to appear to be more interesting in a sea of quotidian banality.  

So much of how we see, learn about and engage with the world around us, is through the technology Silicon Valley provides us, so ubiquitous, it is invisible and unquestioned. They control the secret sauce that tweaks our sense of well-being. Their algorithms power what is prioritised. The platforms capture and curate the content we create and choose to share. They provide the plumbing for our information landscape and are responsible for the filtration of what we consume, over what, when, how and to what degree. They frame our engagement and restrict the flows of information. Much of this stems from a genuine interest in leaving a legacy of having done something right, good or just. Especially in recent years, I’ve met many in this region who haven’t yet found the language, to express to themselves or to others, a growing guilt that is the consequence of purely pursuing profit over principles. Personal intent, however, glosses corporate responsibility and accountability. There is a patina of violence, and now, genocide, that covers everyone and everything in the Valley. I do not know how and to what degree it will change corporate culture, but hope it eventually results in a course-correction long overdue.

Written first for The Sunday Island, 23 September 2018.

Flying Nuts

The President expressing his disdain over the quality of nuts offered on Sri Lankan airlines this week brought back memories of my first flight. I was 20 years old, and it was 21 years ago.

Undergraduate study in Delhi beckoned, but I was more excited about something else. Listening to my parents and my elder sister speak of flying growing up, and reading copiously on the dynamics and science of flight ever since I can remember, I was far more excited about the passage to Delhi by, than what I would be doing there as a student. My father, upon leaving the house, retreated mostly to silent prayer and meditations. Mom said she wanted an aisle seat, a preference arising from easy access to the loo. I chose to sit next to the window, and couldn’t care less for profound prayer or painless passage. A window seat remains to this day my preferred choice. All I did on the flight to Delhi was look out the window, disappointed that the seat parallel to the wing offered little by way of a line of sight to the ground. However, I saw for the first time the sky from 40,000 feet the air. A gradual gradation of fiery hues, an almost cloud sky and an indistinguishable horizon marked only by the rays of the setting sun escaping, giving way to the blackest of black, dotted occasionally by stars. It was magical. I craned and contorted to see, hear and take in everything – the various hydraulic noises, the whine of the engines as they powered up, the waving ailerons as the pilot did pre-flight checks, the blinking cabin lights before it went dark, the pressurisation, the sound of the air-conditioning kicking in, the unintelligible announcements over a tinny loudspeaker heralding the progression on to runway, and finally, take-off. I loved the sensation of being pushed back into the seat and the slight turbulence as the plane took off, which in hindsight would have been terrifying for my father.

Air travel over twenty years ago was glamorous if you sat near the cockpit. Further behind, in Economy Class, it was far worse than a long-distance bus. The legroom was terrible. The food was awful. The service was terrible. There was no TV at the back of the seats. No charging ports. Meals were vegetarian or non-vegetarian but tasted so bad, it may have been the same food with just different labelling. All  this was before smartphones, wi-fi and social media, when the now quaint habit of reading something printed on paper was the preferred means of spending time on board. The flight took over three hours. The story upon landing and the trip into Delhi – involving a steering wheel that came off in the hand of the driver, a van in a ditch, luggage of others with us that had dropped somewhere on the road and spending a sweltering night on the terrace of a house, would require a separate column or perhaps several. But the afterglow of the passage to Delhi, and its sheer magic for someone who had never experienced flight before lingered on. I used to look forward so much to my annual return home for the holidays, not so much for what I knew awaited me back home, but the experience of flight.

Before the devastating attack by the LTTE in 2001, and the resulting security that added to the hassle and theatre of getting into the airport, Katunayake resembled a village market. Easy to get into, poorly marked displays and signage, congregations of people for no discernible reason in various locations, mountains of suitcases, a pervasive and general state of confusion, idle officials who were also the most vociferous, an embryonic at best concept of lines to check in and all manner of arguments. In short, it was a confusing, surreal place, that operated on the unique and indescribable tropical logic of movement – the endless flow of people towards the general direction of counters, immigration and boarding gates. My father’s meticulous preparation spared us from the chaos around the area where the embarkation cards had to be filled. I cannot recall what we did in the airport once the formalities of checking in were over, but distinctly remember wandering around with my mother in search of a functioning toilet for women. There was nothing to do – no lounge we could pay and get access into. The airport itself was much smaller than what it is today – no air-bridges, no coffee shops or Pizza Hut, and a duty-free I recall recoiling from because of horrible lacquered wooden elephants, puppets, demon faces and of all things, brass lamps on display. The passage to the aeroplane, perhaps to give Sri Lankans one last experience of home, was on a crowded, derelict bus, where the operating principle around safety seemed to be that the more people you packed in, the more they would all be protected in case of an accident. I remember holding on to my mother because she couldn’t find anything to hold on to as we lurched our way to the plane.

I still have my tickets from that first flight. This was before the age of stubs. The original ticket had multiple copies of travel details, much like a chequebook. What the passenger was left with was the last page. The carbon copy is all in red, with relevant information meticulously handwritten. What appears to be blue and red coloured hieroglyphs mark seat number and the passage through various checkpoints. There was no automation anywhere – no e-tickets, no online check-in, no mobile passes. Ink, rubber stamp and paper marked one’s passage, from the counter, checkpoint and country.

Much obviously has changed. Much, however, remains the same. Our airport remains a terrible place for anyone not travelling in Business Class. I have resorted to tweeting to MPs responsible for tourism and aviation, capturing photos of what in 2017 deplorable conditions were like in the waiting areas of the airport. Immigration officials are most often absent. When present, they are morose, rude and inefficient. Luggage services are from the 80’s, and on one occasion, part of the carousel came off and lodged itself in between the suitcases. There is no convenient, comfortable and coherent public transport infrastructure that connects our international airport with the city, or beyond. The single highway to and from the airport has a chokepoint in Kelaniya so bad that one often spends more time in traffic to go home, than a short-flight from any neighbouring country. Staff at the airport are uniformly rude or vary their helpfulness based on how one is dressed. The announcements are often only in Sinhala and English. Migrant workers are treated horribly. Chinese comes before Tamil in some displays. The waiting areas are chaotic. The public toilets are hellish. People are still packed into buses to go to aircraft. The waiting areas on the ground floor are unchanged from the time I took my first flight two decades ago. And besides all this, our national carrier is an egregious embarrassment – with eye-watering losses, mismanagement, corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and every imaginable managerial incompetence rewarded by ever greater misuse of public money.

The President’s concern over the quality of nuts served on board is misplaced. There are more significant problems that would be far more obvious to him and those in power if they used the airport as millions of others do – instead of being whisked to and from it as VIPs. I absolutely love flying to this day, but with equal passion, hate flying into or out of Sri Lanka. The best part of coming back or flying out, if during the day, is seeing our country’s wonderful, verdant beauty from the air. Everything else is diabolical. There are more important things than nuts those in government can turn their attention to if they really wanted to improve our national airline and international airport, as the first and last impressions of Sri Lanka.

The best part about home shouldn’t be the joy that comes from leaving it behind.

First published in The Sunday Island, 16 September 2018.

Jana Balaya

It’s a fair comment to make that the people who cut short work and desperately tried to get out of Colombo early on 5th September by far exceeded those who came in as part of Namal Rajapaksa’s Jana Balaya campaign. Social media posted photos of hapless commuters hanging precariously on trains leaving Fort Railway Station, as the city braced itself for what was called by some involved in the protest, an ‘invasion’ of Colombo. But it is evident that not ‘all the sons of Apachchi’ (which some in the campaign used to refer to those in it), were interested enough in Jana Balaya to come out and join what at the end turned out to be a string of street parties, street entertainment and drunken revelry. The question is why.

On social media, Jana Balaya arguably created the most amount of engagement around any event of its kind on Facebook and Twitter. During the day, around live video feeds on Facebook alone, close to 2 million watched the political theatre of Jana Balaya as it unfolded. This included close to 400,000 on Namal Rajapaksa’s Facebook page alone. A staggering 600,000 watched live feeds over the Facebook page of a private TV station. It is clear that amongst a specific demographic, television is no longer the primary vector through which live news broadcasts are consumed. Each of these live feeds generated tens of thousands of comments and reactions. I haven’t yet looked at the engagement driven by photos, which is usually high. On Twitter, there were over 5,000 tweets with one or all of the three official hashtags used by the protest. There may have been many more that tweeted on the protest without using one or more of these hashtags. Each of these accounts acts as an amplifier, showing to their friends and followers what was posted or republished. The likely digital footprint of content around Jana Balaya potentially, if not demonstrably, runs into the millions over just two of Sri Lanka’s most used social media platforms. Preliminary metrics around the scale and spread of content on Instagram – a photo sharing network that is also very popular – suggest Jana Balaya generated tens of thousands of likes. Overall then, the campaign was digitally unprecedented in Sri Lanka, generated the kind of engagement organically, that campaigns which boost content through paid advertising, can’t often reach. Millions were interested, engaged, watched, commented, shared and reacted. Namal Rajapaksa as an individual, and Namal Rajapaksa as a vehicle or platform to communicate the JO’s discontent is unassailable, with an active, devoted fan base by order of magnitude larger than anyone else, even in his own family.

And yet, few turned out to join the protest in Colombo. Independently and easily verifiable estimates done by me using a web platform designed to calculate crowd density, in turn based on photography put out by the organisers themselves as well as two leading journalists reporting for international wire news services. The analysis indicates the number partying on the streets, passing out or occasionally clinging on to the top of lamp-posts was at most around 50,000. At my most charitable reading – giving Jana Balaya tens of thousands of protestors more than were actually present – the numbers still fell far short of the crowd that gathered at the massive JO May Day rally at Galle Face, in 2017 as well as the massive crowds in Nugegoda, in January 2017, around a rally that Mahinda Rajapaksa spoke at. Given the silly, amateurish pronouncements by the government before 5th September around the possible use of rubber bullets and attempts to use legal means to shut down venues, it is clear they too believed that engagement online would translate into feet on the ground. My interest in ascertaining the number that turned out, in the end, was piqued by what the organisers themselves said. Milinda Rajapaksha, the spokesperson of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, claimed thousands of buses were coming into Colombo. News reports on the 5th claimed 700 buses had left from Kurunegala alone. Namal Rajapaksa, towards evening, tweeted that crowds were still pouring in, even though, ironically, an accompanying photo indicated the opposite. These figures simply didn’t match with those present around a single junction in Colombo, which had shut down not because of Jana Balaya’s crowd, but in anticipation of a much larger, more geographically spread protest.

If this was Namal Rajapaksa’s show of strength in a non-digital domain – an attempt to demonstrate to family and beyond, that he could rally the troops as it were, it is unclear how it can be termed a success by measures the campaign itself had set for itself in the weeks before 5th September. From framing to focus, from ideas to intent, the content and commentary during the day, tellingly, were anchored to Namal and his father, not Gotabaya or anyone else in the JO. Gotabaya appears, then just disappears. A tired Mahinda Rajapaksa, even with a faulty sound system, generated ripples of enthusiasm in the crowd by the sheer force of his charisma and amongst friends who clearly yearn for him to be back in the office he once held. Yet, content online doesn’t capture any discernible, strong political message the campaign was ostensibly anchored to. There was no lead up to anything politically significant or anchored to the core tenets of the Jana Balaya campaign. The banners, placards, posters, and chants of the crowd simply dissipate into pockets of revelry or aimless wandering. The skill of coordination and organisation behind the campaign seems to have planned for a much larger turnout. The organisers then took to the promotion of falsehood – the closure of shops, and the supposed growing number of attacks on buses bringing in protestors, perhaps as a measure to explain the low turnout. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, not to be outdone or outshone, went further and tweeted a photo of the massive crowd for his brother’s rally in Nugegoda, in January last year, as one that was taken in Colombo on the 5th of September. Several retweeted this before, only upon naming and shaming, the content was deleted with no apology or clarification. It isn’t even clear whether Namal, Mahinda, Gotabaya or a single leader of the JO stayed the night with a dwindling crowd of supporters who staged a satyagraha of sorts by sleeping out or sitting on the road.

The failure of Jana Balaya to live up to its hype is even more strange given the SLPP’s electoral fortunes in February. One reading is that Namal Rajapaksa’s digital footprint may only be that. The significant inability to get his fans and followers to come out and join a protest could be entirely independent of his enduring ability to influence or inform their political frames, in the lead up to an election or referendum. Another reading could be that the politics of rallies and protests have given way to a politics of digital dissent and witnessing, where the preferred mode of participation or engagement is primarily through smartphone or browser. This is concerning when juxtaposed with what Mahinda Deshapriya, the head of the Elections Commission, has already flagged as very low voter registration. Namal Rajapaksa must be commended for trying his best to get fans and followers out on to the streets. His inability to do so is something we should seriously reflect on more, beyond partisan frames. On and after the event, cracks within the Rajapaksa family are evident too, and more broadly, within the JO, with websites linked or deeply partial to Wimal Weerawamsa, dismissing Jana Balaya soon after its conclusion. Just a few months ago, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was primus inter pares as a Presidential candidate. There’s already a complete shift, or reversion to type with Mahinda as godfather and Namal as the scion. Fluid, flammable, familial configurations and reconfigurations are afoot, not unlike what Mario Puzo conjured.

At its most democratic, Namal Rajapaksa’s idea is laudatory and not something his father’s authoritarianism provided any space for – a non-violent platform for people to freely express dissent. What however Jana Balaya became, revealed and failed to achieve, on 5th September, was more illuminating, resulting in a political message far removed from what the organisers intended.

We live in interesting times.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 9 September 2018.