The optics of feeling

I like to smell books, which admittedly on more than one occasion has generated looks of concern in bookstores. I like their tactile feel, which is why I prefer even at greater cost a hardback over a paperback – there’s just more book to enjoy. Though the value and convenience of storing hundreds of books a thumb press away doesn’t escape me, I remain wedded to the consumption and collection of books as physical objects, with each spine, cover, jacket and page having a unique character, texture and feel. Conversely, while we marvel at the industrial design of our modern-day electronics with tempered glass and buffed aluminium, a new e-book reader, smartphone or tablet looks and feels exactly the same. Cold to touch. Recognising the importance of haptic feedback and sensory perception, design and manufacturing are moving into what’s called tactile reassurance (TR) – focussing on how products feel, as opposed to just how good they work.

But what does any of this have to do with governance?

A recent article in The Forecast, published by Monocle magazine, focusses on material design principles that have ushered in over the past few years many products and devices that look really good, but feel ultimately the same – soulless. Can a similar observation be made around government? A case in point – MP Sumanthiran’s recent assertion in Parliament that one billion rupees allotted for a vertical tower in the North with space for offices and entertainment was utterly meaningless and far removed from what the people actually needed. How people feel really matters, independent of what is done for them. This is true not just of infrastructure development. The report of the Consultations Task Force (CTF) which will be released early January is a record of what many around Sri Lanka feel about reconciliation mechanisms proposed by the government. The submissions from victims is especially important in this regard, since they are less interested in the precise architecture of mechanisms around reconciliation and transitional justice, and far more keen to be heard, with sensitivity and empathy. It is not enough, indeed, perhaps even detrimental to present to those who already feel they are not part of this country’s social and political fabric gleaming new houses, new UN resolutions or path-breaking legislation sans implementation. Largesse from government, no matter how well designed, executed and intentioned, will never supplant development that is anchored to actual needs, and the realisation of the more intangible aspects of citizenship – how one is made to feel at a government office, seeing correctly spelt bus signboards, hearing one’s own language over a hospital’s public address system, having a permanent address, feeling secure in one’s home, dealing with empathetic government officials, being addressed in a civil manner even when in the wrong or ignorant or having the basic respect afforded to a community, socio-economic group, religious affiliation, school, location, political affiliation or surname, extended to everyone no matter who they are, what they worship, where they live and what they do.

Though the analogy may never have been made before, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration to me is the equivalent of a new smartphone. It promises much by way of improving one’s life and is beautiful to behold. But the operating system, beguiling as it is, does things the user doesn’t ask, assuming, often incorrectly, it is what the user wants or needs. What is at first a tolerable glitch, given how good everything looks and how different it was to what was the norm previous, soon becomes an insufferable and fatal flaw, where the trust and confidence placed on basic operating procedures is constantly undermined by an instruction set and logic that operates entirely independent of the end user. What I’m trying to get at is the disconnect today between the promises of government and how people feel about governance.

A Colombo resplendent with Christmas decorations masks existential concerns of a majority, under our year-end sale radar, for whom personal debt, loans and the cost of living remains intolerable. There are no discernible indications the government is sensitive to this. This is not to suggest political populism as the alternative. It is to propose the value of empathy as political currency, which the leading lights of the JO know only too well. In the middle of a debilitating debt repayment crisis, buying SUVs, renting even more SUVs and driving SUVs in a manner that puts everyone else on the road at risk of sudden death, allowing children of politicians to run amok, continuing with vanity infrastructure projects, postponing ad nauseam the public release of a report capturing the grievances of those most affected by violence, the inability to speak to and with those who are poverty stricken in the South and have lost a great deal to war, the unwillingness to directly and meaningfully engage with people on the ground in the North post-war – these and so much more mark this government as one that is as good at promising change as it is in fact unable to make people feel change has come.

And therein lies the rub. If there is one word that captures best the timbre of governance and the perception of government today, it is insensitivity. It is, without an iota of doubt, a world apart from the violence that marked the previous regime. Tactile reassurance in the world of design tries to make products feel better. A parallel could be governance that is more responsive to what citizens actually need and say, instead of continuous promises around what the government tries to pass off as what it thinks citizens demands. It is not enough to make infrastructure. Citizens who don’t really feel it is in response to what they really need have no interest in helping maintain anything that is done by the State, and may even be in their anger driven to destroy and decry what appears to be, on the face of it, progressive development. It is unclear the government realises this, but there is a ready lesson from the recent past, where no amount of ports, highways, towers, high-rises, airports and beautification was able to keep in power a regime that over time and despite the greatest political charisma at the helm, lost its ability to make people feel good about themselves, and governance. History must not be allowed to repeat itself, as tragedy or farce.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 25 December 2016

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