Digital Blooms | Article for LMD, January 2019

Witnessing a constitutional crisis through social media

Of the many frames of reference readers may employ to help comprehend the extraordinary developments in Sri Lanka after the 26th of October, I doubt images of flowers in bloom or flower beds would immediately spring to mind. And yet, this is how I see Sri Lanka, or more precisely, how I study the debates, conversations, events and processes that shape our polity and society today. My doctoral research is anchored to the study of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, post-war. There is an entire canon of academic research and literature around the use and abuse of social media around revolutions. Little to nothing is published around the role, reach and relevance of Facebook and Twitter in societies coming out of war. I inhabit the intersection of what’s called data science – the study of very large datasets – politics and peacebuilding. My chief interest is in creating social media ecosystems – think of it like immunisation – resilient to content and actors who incite hate and violence.

Having set up Groundviews in 2006, the country’s first civic media platform that continues to publish content that cannot or will not go up in mainstream media, my research at present is anchored to the dynamics of social media beyond inflammatory and simplistic headlines. I look at Facebook and Twitter at scale – meaning, in the hundreds of thousands of posts – sifting through content in English and Sinhala for patterns and trends that can help explain complex interactions between what is produced, shared and engaged with online, and what this content goes on to inspire in the real world. A causal linkage between online hate and kinetic violence is elusive and not the goal of my research. I am more interested in how Sri Lanka’s 18-34 demographic are introduced to politics, and subsequently, engage with political developments on social media.

The research is hard. A large part of it is visualising upwards of hundreds of thousands of records in ways that can help flesh out conversational dynamics. Facebook and Twitter have different affordances – meaning that you can do things on one you cannot on the other. The most obvious difference is with the length of a post – Twitter allows a far more limited number of characters than Facebook. Looking at how conversations grow, spread and eventually die offers insights into what exactly generates the most traction on social media, and why. Over time, armed with contextual knowledge, the data can also help prefigure a proclivity towards certain responses.

The mushroom around Jana Balaya, the political protest engineered by Namal Rajapaksa in early September captures three key hashtags on Twitter used by the organisers. Even without knowing anything about data science, the singular way the graph is structured – like a hub and spoke, with a few key accounts at the centre every one else links to – is evident. Compare this to the mushroom that captures, around the same time, a campaign by Amnesty International South Asia around enforced disappearances. Using the hashtag the organisers used, the graph very clearly shows several clusters within a larger one. Not unlike a matryoshka doll, each cluster is its own ecosystem, within the larger campaign. The two campaigns are visually distinct. Both visualisations are created using thousands of tweets, computationally arranged in such a way that groups them according to ties to other accounts. This gives researchers the ability to figure out who in the larger network really drives the discussion as well as other influential actors who act as bridges or amplifiers. All this is useless without contextual knowledge, which is why my research is anchored to socio-political dynamics at home, which I know far more than a foreign country.

Since the 26th of October, several key dynamics and trends have emerged, strengthening what I have observed for months. Gossip in Sinhala on Facebook is the primary driver of news and information, including political frames. This is extremely disturbing on many levels, since these pages – which numbers in the hundreds – produce content as such great volume and velocity, they are by order of magnitude engaged with more than mainstream news sites in any language. Ethics are absent and professional optional on these pages. Those who engage believe they are very well-informed, when in fact they are entirely ill or misinformed. On the other hand, memes – or cartoons produced anonymously – are hugely popular as a vehicle for incisive political critique. Often, the assumption is that exposure to this content makes consumers better informed. Sadly, this too is not the case.

Think of followers or fans as different species of flowers, growing side by side. What may look visually quite appealing is in fact a significant, growing problem. Each bloom is distinct, and doesn’t interact with others. Likewise on social media, fans of a politician, party or brand rarely if ever engage with anything that contests their beliefs. Worse, they are hostile towards difference. These are called echo chambers, which are hyper-partisan and rife for the injection of rumour engineered to instigate violence.

Responding to these complex, violent dynamics is made harder by the fact that dissent, advocacy and activism, in a context of authoritarian control of all other media, is also to be found on social media. Vital speeches made at the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero’s memorial event were censored by mainstream media and only carried over social media. Compelling letters, statements, press releases and short essays opposing the unconstitutional coup are rife on social media, just as much as content seeking to legitimise, justify and normalise it are also strategically produced and promoted.

This is Sri Lanka’s new battleground. Its dynamics are complex and evolving, but the simple fact is this – every single political party, politician and other actors vying for political power, recognise the value of capturing attention, containing negative messaging and controlling the narrative on social media. My research, like a medical doctor would, examines all this as a contagion. The worst we can be, and amongst us, often overwhelm our better angels on social media. The odds are stacked against those of us who seek to strengthen civil discourse, decency, dignity and democracy online. I work to increase those odds and believe the democratic potential of Sri Lanka is anchored to getting this right.

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First published in Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD), January 2019. Download PDF of the article here. Download PDF of the article as it appeared in the magazine here.

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Manchurian Candidates

Novelist Richard Condon’s political thriller ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, written in 1959, deals with two central characters, both of whom are brainwashed through what’s often now called psychological operations or psy-ops for short. One character is programmed to kill based on a trigger – which in the novel is something as innocuous as the Queen of Diamonds card. Whenever the character sees the card or is shown it, he obeys orders, deeply uncharacteristic and extremely violent, which he does not consciously recollect. Condon’s novel resonates more in 2018 and amongst a broader population, than at any time since its publication.

We are all Manchurian Candidates. Reacting emotively to things we see online, many of us immediately put into words or action what we feel, instead of thinking through what a more reasoned response should and can be. Sometimes, and especially fed misinformation over time, this leads to violence by those who never knew they would be drawn to it. Knowing and gleaning information on socio-political triggers can vastly help destabilise any political context – no matter how seemingly stable it appears to be – to an extent where the promise of security, stability and sanity is enough currency to elect even those previously deemed unsuitable for public office. Conversely, inconvenient histories and truths no longer need the murder of journalists or the burning of printing presses to suppress or erase. Vast sections of polity and society can today, over a relatively short period of time be manipulated and mobilised to drown out, decry, deny or violently destroy narratives too explosive to be written into history. Perversely, those seeking or speaking the truth are the most vilified. Those who deny facts are perceived or projected instead as bearers of truth. Weaponising a combination of high adult literacy and low media literacy, social media in particular is leveraged to spread rumour and stoke anxiety, in ways that even many discerning citizens can’t easily distinguish as propaganda or sophisticated psy-ops.

This is no longer the sole domain of fiction or Hollywood. It’s real. It’s happening. And it will grow.

The extent of the problem is worth capturing, even in passing. Every year, Adobe, the makers of the eponymous photo-manipulation programme Photoshop, stage a massive conference, aimed at leading designers, programmers, architects, journalists, artists and others from across the world. Over the past two years, technologies they have demonstrated, which will in a few years or less be part of Photoshop and other programmes they make, have featured technologies that are absolutely fascinating and positively frightening in equal measure. Videos that manipulate the mouth and face of the person on screen and in real time to say whatever you want them to say. Audio that can be manipulated using the same voice as the speaker who is recorded, to say anything you want said. Images that can turn a sunny day into a winter storm. In sum, media digitally doctored so well, it is indistinguishable even to trained eyes from fact. All of this have huge commercial and creative applications of course – which is why they are being developed. But the implications of their use – inevitably and almost immediately – in political communications has very dangerous consequences.

Add to this suite of technologies the increasingly sophisticated attacks on electoral infrastructure, siphoning vital information, manipulating records, doctoring results on polls and elections, undermining public trust and confidence. The garnish on this nightmarish scenario is fake news, a term used and abused so much, it has lost its ability to capture the phenomenon it set out to capture – digital propaganda. The generation of narratives as smear campaigns against political opponents isn’t new. What’s new is the way in which digital content is being targeted at voters – right down to the neighbourhoods they live in, what they buy and from where, to which God they pray and what news media they consume. This laser focus is complemented by the manipulation of fear. Framed and fuelled by sophisticated media campaigns that often produce seemingly amateurish, emotive output geared for mass appeal, these fears metastasize over time to deeply influence thinking, behaviour and responses. An election today is won or lost well before the exercise of franchise at the ballot box.

We are talking about the hacking of minds. And this isn’t science fiction.

The revelations last week by the UK broadcaster Channel 4 into the inner workings of the company Cambridge Analytica reveal a world that in Sri Lanka, many don’t even know exists. In January, data scientist Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and I revealed the degree to which Namal Rajapaksa had weaponised his Twitter account, to an extent where those who questioned his chutzpah, hypocrisy or humbug where viciously attacked over social media. It’s a different kind of censorship or silencing at play here. Think of a pirith chant or a choir in Church. Now think of either at a volume so great, everything else is drowned out. Imagine this happening over extended periods of time. In turning sublime harmony to sustained cacophony, vital narratives are erased before they are even recorded. This is what the weaponisation of social media achieves to critical public discourse. When Wijeratne and I warned about all this happening in Sri Lanka, there were those who scoffed at the idea. And yet, the Channel 4 investigation was a sting operation anchored to a “rich Sri Lankan family”, an entirely fictitious construct which tellingly was enough to galvanise the sustained interest of a company which is not in the business of meeting clients who represent markets it cannot exploit, have hard data on or make a good sell in. That Cambridge Analytica was so interested in Sri Lanka and spoke about what they have done elsewhere – including in the Trump campaign – to a prospective Sri Lankan client – speaks volumes to the degree our electorate, electoral systems, polity and society are valuable to them and by extension vulnerable to psy-ops, at scale.

This then is our new political reality, globally and locally. We are living in a time where a tectonic shift has already occurred. Mediators of the public will – technology companies from Silicon Valley almost entirely unaccountable to governments, are new platforms of democratic dialogue as well as demagogic destruction. The platforms and the companies that own them, in their own defence, say they mere vehicles of public opinion and do little to nothing to amplify individual narratives. This is a risible lie at algorithmic, managerial, political and platform design levels.  But the most visible harm these platforms engender come in the form of companies like Cambridge Analytica, who harvest social media, not through data breach or hacking, but by careful logging, targeting, observation and analysis. They monetise and weaponise, by brokering vast amounts of private data, the very likes, shares, retweets, emoticons and comments we send each other, billions of times a day, every day. They do this invisibly – like ghosts, a word senior management of Cambridge Analytica actually use in the Channel 4 documentary to describe how they do what they do.

How then do we protect ourselves, and restore public faith in a truly democratic dialogue and the legitimacy of electoral processes? No quick fix or panacea, sadly. A public conversation – urgent, honest and sustained – needs to happen between government, technology giants and civil society, around ways through which the worst abuse of technology can be mitigated. This needs to be global and local. Media and information literacy needs to be part of school curricula. Our children need to be taught how to engage with media, in ways as adults, we were never warned against, through technologies we never had growing up and many still don’t understand. Fear can motivate the search for responses but must never overtake a democratic impulse or inform policies that censoriously regulate. We – you and I – are at the heart of the problem. Every like, heart, share, retweet, email, star, comment on or story we tell others we first saw on social media, is often to promote – consciously or unwittingly – sinuous lies or rumours that fuel fear and violence.

To reflect first, not react in haste and to question in order to quell are the keys to unravelling our world of misinformation. Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and others like them treat us as pawns in a game of their making. An informed citizenry and consumer can and must change this. There is no task more important, to my mind, than this.

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First published in The Sunday Observer, 22 March 2018, at the invitation of the Editor, Dharisha Bastians.

Dignity and digital identities

My national identity card was issued in 1996, over twenty years ago. It’s the first and only one I’ve ever had. The photo is already of a person largely unrecognisable even to myself. The information written on the card has faded. The lamination, unsurprisingly, is coming undone at the edges. And yet, this ageing slice of plastic remains a vital piece of documentation I have to carry around at all times. I also have a passport, more recently issued and the fifth I’ve had since 1997. During the war, I was required to individually register, along with all other mobile subscribers in Sri Lanka pursuant to a directive by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, with Dialog. The registration, which for Dialog was digital and accessed by dialling #132#, paired my phone’s SIM card to my NIC and home address, and required me to give a photo, proof of residence and complete a detailed form. Since I had a mobile broadband connection with Mobitel at the time, registration with them resulted in a plastic ID card, that I had to carry around with me as well whenever I had the dongle on my person. But this is already forgotten history. The NIC is now all I really need. And this seems to be the basis for ideas proposed by the government in the public domain, over the past couple of months, for the digitisation of an ageing process, platform and service.

On the face of it, this both long overdue and of vital importance in the years to come. With access to government services and platforms mediated by proof of identity, a digital NIC can in theory facilitate easier access and service delivery. I often forget my blood group. Incorporating this information into an NIC for emergency services to access can be a life-saver. There are plans to incorporate biometric information as well, which again on the face of it can help with the significant reduction of, for example, voter fraud and election malpractice. Given the perishable nature of current national identity cards, and how easy they are to forge, a complete revamp of citizenship registration is really necessary. The debate then is not on the need, but in the details around how the government goes about this.

Let’s take the working assumption of a digitisation project. The end-product, say a credit card sized piece of plastic, needs to contain, at the very least, all the information currently on my NIC. Amongst other marginalised and vulnerable communities, immediate problems arise when dealing with families of the disappeared, the internally displaced and the many thousands working in tea plantations. These individuals have multiple forms of identification, based on transactional needs, geo-location and other factors. Some of these forms of identification are multi-page, handwritten documents. Others are issued by intermediaries like private industries which they work under. The lack of permanent addresses hinders still the issue of national identity cards. Some forms of identification, valid and vital in areas they live and work in, are useless in other parts of the country. If the archetype for a national electronic database of citizens, the basis of a digital identity card, is the average citizen in the South of Sri Lanka, the very livelihood of millions elsewhere in the country will be put at risk. Forms of identification vary by community, location, identity group, profession, gender and other circumstances linked to war, displacement and enforced disappearances. These are complex challenges that have to be planned for at the outset, lest a digital identity card becomes in the years to come the marker of a new societal divide between those who have (priority) access to services, and those who are, by design, left out.

At a presentation on surveillance and privacy given to the Bar Association of Sri Lanka last week, I flagged other concerns around the development of an electronic ID, based on information available in the public domain. There are enduring concerns around a very porous firewall between information collected by the Department for Registration of Persons and the Ministry of Defence, and an assorted array of intelligence services. In the absence of robust, modern data protection laws, information on individuals, their families, profession, home address, work address and biometric data that with little or no judicial oversight or due process can be accessed by State intelligence services is a dystopian future best resisted. If in the guise of efficiency and effectiveness, our lives are essentially overseen and controlled by stentorian agencies that can deny, disrupt, control or curtail our access to essential services, an e-NIC may well result in an Orwellian society where citizens are controlled, monitored and cast out of official systems based on favour or fear. These dangers of an ill-advised and poorly architected e-NIC project aren’t yet well known, or publicly discussed.

The appeal to the Bar Association was to help lead this discussion, and in the public domain. We can look to India in this regard, and the robust, critical and on-going discussions around the Aadhar digital ID card and more broadly, the work and mandate of the Unique Identification Authority of India. Clearly, a purely transactional model will not work. An ID, any ID, is essentially proof that a someone is who they say they are. Humans, over their life, change. We change religion, sexual identity, gender orientation, our politics, our addresses, our partners, our jobs. Our retinas, fingerprints and blood group remain with us from birth to death, but everything else is a social, political or cultural construct of choice or chance. The freedom to move freely within and between these different identities is a vital part of citizenship. Inflexibility in systems that register us as we were once, but not as we are today or want to be in the future, risk systemic discrimination on a potentially large scale, deeply impacting, amongst other things, the registration of, births, deaths, marriages, the opening of bank accounts, school and university entry, rations, land ownership or transfers, hospitalisation and state medical care, vehicle ownership, personal insurance, domestic and foreign travel, employment, EPF and ETF. If an e-NIC is to be a lynchpin of smart cities, as they are proposed today, we need much more scrutiny and debate over what exactly the government is proposing, how it is going to go about it, who will be given the task of developing it, maintaining it and in a context where even the President’s website is effortlessly hacked by a teenager, protecting this information.

All of this is not to suggest, as any principled critique of the government’s plans so often risks, the complete abandonment of an overhaul around how citizens are registered, and interact with official systems and processes. In the ready enthusiasm around the proposed e-NIC, the risk of a largely technocratic approach is that those most in need of the State to recognise them, are ironically those most at risk of even further alienation and isolation. Dignity is inextricably entwined into identity. Expectations of privacy and its protection vary, but is uniformly important to address at a systemic level. There can be no back-door between a citizenship database and intelligence services. Gender, class, location, economic group, profession – the very things an e-NIC records, can place the individuals thus recorded at greater disadvantage, unless policies are put in place to secure rights post-digitisation, especially around access to information in official systems and the revision or updating of personal data.

These are not simple challenges, but they are not insurmountable either. In both design and implementation, our e-NIC project needs to embrace a legacy of war and violence, as well as multiple identities our citizens possess and migrate between. If our models and working assumptions are, as is so often the case, only ever based on lived experiences in the South, we risk a digital dystopia through an even more ingrained, systemic discrimination. The promise of digitisation is about a better country, for all. The first step of going digital is for the technocrats at least to experience and understand how the most vulnerable communities and citizens negotiate life in the physical world. Perhaps then, we stand a better chance of a more just, dignified and equitable digital future.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 26 March 2017.

Shape South Asia 2016 & ‘Corridors of Power’

I was invited by the WEF GlobalShapers Colombo Hub (see Facebook page here) to showcase the ‘Corridors of Power‘ exhibition again and also to speak on it.

The exhibition, first held in 2015 at the JDA Perera Gallery, was unlike any other project combining design, architecture and constitutional theory. It occupied a very large floor space, which wasn’t available at the GlobalShaper’s venue this year. I had to then compress the entire floor plan and as much as I could of the background into two high-definition, which ran on a loop on very large LCD screens. The four models representing the ’72 and ’78 constitution as well as the 13th and 18th Amendments, were displayed at the venue.

The first video went into the background of the exhibition.

The second was anchored to the 3D renderings of each of the models.

My note on the concept, research and evolution of the project can be read below.

Asanga Welikala’s background research into and overview of the project can be read below.

Channa Daswatte’s take on the project can be read below.

Asia Foundation LankaCorps Fellows Presentation

The Asia Foundation’s LankaCorps Fellowship programme is one I’ve been associated with and supported from its inception. It’s described on the TAF website site,

…a unique opportunity for young leaders of Sri Lankan heritage to professionally engage in social, cultural, and economic development activities in Sri Lanka. The program aims to foster the involvement and understanding of young members of the expatriate Sri Lankan community who have limited in-depth experience with the country of their heritage. Each year, The Asia Foundation selects an outstanding group of LankaCorps Fellows to live and work for six months in Sri Lanka, granting them the unique chance to “explore their roots while giving back.

Every year and for each cohort, I am invited by TAF to give an overview of Sri Lanka’s political, social and media landscape as well as to cover in some detail the work of Groundviews in particular, and civic media in general.

In this year’s presentation done earlier this month, I looked at the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government a year on, with the euphoria and expectations from 2015 markedly changed. I looked at the mega-development projects, a quick scorecard of governance, undergraduate tensions from around the country with racial overtones, the passage of the Right to Information Act, the passage of the Office for Missing Persons Act, more generally the issue of transitional justice and the work of the Consultation Task Force (plus the plethora of other entities involved in reconciliation), the politics and optics of memorialization and the tryst with a new constitution, which most in Sri Lanka are completely in the dark about. I also talked about the dire macro-economic situation Sri Lanka finds itself in.

I then talked about the work I’ve spearheaded with Groundviews, and the media terrain in Sri Lanka post-8th January 2015 in particular.

Flipside of smart cities

My column last week touched on the extremely problematic Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Sri Lanka and a well-known Chinese telecommunications company, known to have sold sophisticated surveillance equipment to the Rajapaksa regime. Despite disturbing recent revelations in the mainstream media that have gone unquestioned in Parliament, a high-profile visit by Sri Lanka’s PM to the company’s Shenzhen headquarters resulted in an MoU that invited the company, inter alia, “to participate in ICT planning and infrastructure construction for Smart Colombo”.

Arguably, companies are interested in profit, and governments are often good customers. Why the present government continues to deal with – without any due diligence or scrutiny of past business practices –the same enterprises that had a direct role in seeking to undermine the democratic fabric in Sri Lanka is what is more outrageous. Clearly, money is at stake and with more zeroes than can be easily comprehended. As clearly, politics and optics are at play – an early, expedient distancing from China during elections, now facing near complete reversal in light of dire macro-economic circumstances, which the US for all its visiting warships, aircraft and diplomats, can’t provide an alternative to. Effusive tweets from State Department don’t FDI make. With projects like the much touted Google Loon lost somewhere in the stratospheric promises our politicians and their apparatchiks make, the Government needs high-profile technical partners with appropriate technology solutions to undergird its vision for the Western Province make-over, including the Port City project. Transactional diplomacy with Chinese companies is thus a no-brainer for a government already hostage to the Chinese government through monumental debt. And so we will be saddled with network infrastructure, from China, of indeterminable quality and standards, from the very companies that sought to undermine our civil liberties, and without any safeguards around data integrity or privacy integrated into systems that will impact all our lives, no matter what we do, or where we live.

This matters because what appears to be a really technical or technological challenge, best debated by experts, is really something that will impact – in a very real way – our lives in and entry to cities, and well-beyond. There has been much written about smart cities – about the millions of dollars of saving accrued per annum on account of more efficient and effective service delivery, more streamlined governance and the icing on the cake, local government that is more responsive and citizen centric. These buzzwords find their way into advertorials, press releases, academic papers and even official government policies. This is the promise. What is the reality? The underlying infrastructure around a smart city is digital. What that means is that our negotiation of city life – from travel and transport to a myriad of transactions – will be mediated through services linked to personal identity. How a digital personal identity is created and managed is up for grabs – it could be through a smart-chip, a social security single number or by the conversion of current laminated, hand-written NIC to an electronic version (e-NIC). A smart city is also about the aggregation of what are now disparate systems. For example, a bus pass linked to a debit card, which in turn is linked to a mobile phone based payment system, that can be topped up online or through a telco with one’s identity verified by a unique e-NIC number. Smart cities are about other things as well – traffic light and driving lane management that is dynamically adjusted on the volume of traffic, and historical data around traffic flows in a particular area. Real time updates on public transportation. Simple, single portal based access for citizens to engage with government services. Dashboards that showcase report card based feedback on things like garbage disposal. Free parking around a city that shows up in real time on a mobile. Hospitals and accredited doctors who securely share medical records.

What the smart city promises, ultimately, is a better quality of life. Underlying this, and often unquestioned, is what one has to give up in order to enjoy la dolce vita. And here we must consider a 17-year old’s successful attempts to hack our President’s website. The connection is a simple one. A smart city is actually anchored to giving up some privacy in return for mostly the promise, and hopefully, also the delivery of material and mental well-being. Identity management – what each citizen does, who they are, where they are, what they need and various other transactional records from transport to tax, need a high degree of security to manage and oversee. Else, simply put, everything from impersonations to crime, extortion, blackmail, data loss and surveillance stand a chance of increasing exponentially if records aren’t securely managed. And importantly, the risk to records is not just from juvenile or criminal elements of society. It is from within government itself. If our intelligence services have ready access to the back-end data around a smart city with scant or weak judicial oversight, or worse, through gateways we may not even know exist, foreign powers gain access to sensitive information that even in the aggregate can yield insights into social, political and economic trends, our civil liberties are compromised in very real and dangerous ways. And even if you resist by non-registration or compliance, you are still at risk – just as much cybercrime today directly impacts even those who bank in person and using real money.

Which brings us back to the now infamous 17-year old. The JO wants to give him a job as an IT consultant, perhaps one of the better ideas they’ve had since it resonates with many others who question more than the young gentleman’s actions, the ineptitude of those in charge of security around official web properties. And while this teenager was caught and is in custody, there has not been a single line of reporting and no official response from government around how or to what degree officials in charge of network security for the President’s Office have been held accountable for what was clearly a grossly over-paid hack job. This isn’t the first time official government websites have been hacked. A simple Google search brings up at least one serious disruption or deletion of a high-profile official government website every year, for the past several years. And this is just what’s reported in the media – the cover-up of many more incidents, perhaps far more serious, is more than likely.

So it takes a 17-year old hacker to bring to light the serious concerns around not just over an MoU with a Chinese company, but around the government’s e-NIC project and its entire vision for a digital Sri Lanka. A glittering promise is what’s sold, and it is a compelling fiction. Citizens willingly buy into it. Telcos see profit. Governments see control. Cities see positive returns on investments. Private enterprise sees more consumers. Largely hidden though are serious concerns around the commercialisation of essential services, the nature of command and control architectures, access to information even under RTI, information management practices by public agencies and above all, oversight mechanisms. Smart cities, especially where there is or has recently been a huge democratic deficit, run the risk of turning inquiring citizens to obedient consumers, where dangerous new inequalities – between say those who can afford to secure their privacy vs. those who cannot – are created even as older class differentiations are torn down.

All of this is to not say that smart cities aren’t needed here, or indeed, long overdue. But we must ask how with successive governments so inept at digital security, and the present government in bed with Chinese companies which have had no qualms undermining our civil liberties, a smart city can actually protect the dignity, liberty and freedom of all those who subscribe to and live in it, and indeed, all those outside, in the margins, risking death through deletion.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 4 September 2016.

Curator’s note | Corridors of power: Drawing and modelling Sri Lanka’s tryst with democracy

 

Poster

What is a constitution? What place and relevance, if any, does it have in the popular imagination? Do citizens really care about an abstract document most would never have seen or read, when more pressing existential concerns continue to bedevil their lives and livelihoods, even post-war?

My struggle through curation has always been to explore the inconvenient and marginal through new or alternative ways of observing. Through visual art, theatre, sculpture, music, photography, literature, video and information visualisations, I have creatively leveraged unusual pairings and strange juxtapositions to shift complacency and apathy to critical reflection and engagement.

‘Corridors of power’ is my most ambitious curatorial attempt yet.

When, years ago, I studied the process through which South Africa negotiated the transition out of apartheid rule – which involved a paradigm shift in their constitutional frameworks – I registered the use of a wide range of media at the time (before the days of social media, smartphones and the Internet as we know it today) to critically support debates amongst civil society that were as rooted in locale as they were widespread over geography. It occurred to me – with all the technological tools and platforms in use by so many today, why are constitutional reform and related debates still so alien to and removed from society in Sri Lanka – a country seven times smaller in size than South Africa, with far less identity groups and just three instead of eleven official languages?

Connected to this was an interest in the constitution as an enabling (or in the case of Sri Lanka, enervating) idea. The process through which the heinous 18th Amendment came to pass was deeply instructive in how through the manipulation of discursive spaces, the spread of misinformation, the shrill drowning out voices of caution and reason and in a context of fear, with mainstream media controlled by partisan and market driven interests, expedient parochialism was seen as somehow benevolent and necessary.

Two years after the 18th Amendment, my first attempt to interrogate the constitution through architecture was in 2012 with ‘Mediated’ – an exhibition that focussed on research driven art – and was anchored to the depicting the power-sharing in pre-British Sri Lanka as a viable model for devolution of power, post-war. The output was a collaboration between architect Sunela Jayawardene and Asanga Welikala, a constitutional lawyer and close friend from the halcyon days of S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. My second attempt was in 2013, and involved Sunela agin. As part of the ‘30 Years Ago’ exhibition, a triptych by her portrayed key developments and individuals three decades after the events of ‘Black July’, using Google Maps imagery on Jaffna, Colombo and elsewhere as the base layer.

Though compelling and critically acclaimed in their own right, I yearned for a more finely matched interrogation of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution through architecture. Architecture is for me a dark art – making small spaces seem larger than they are, harnessing the chiaroscuro within a building to influence the mood of inhabitants, enabling access to spaces, barring access to others, creating secret pathways, chambers and shortcuts purposefully or inadvertently, giving the illusion of openness, when in fact inhabitants are boxed in, or conversely, freeing up a claustrophobic space with just slivers of open sky.

If architects were the gods of spaces they created, I wondered, could the same be said of those who drafted our constitution?

A constitution is essentially a blueprint of power relations. Architecture – drawing, rendering and modelling – provides a blueprint of spatial relationships. This exhibition is not a study in how and to what degree (State or authoritarian) power influences the design of edifices. It is rather an attempt to use the visual and spatial expression of architecture to visually depict as well as deconstruct loci of power as enshrined in our constitution.

What, I imagined, would a corridor that connected a central hall to a room far in the periphery look like? How many people could fit into these corridors? What would the President’s room look like? Would it be large and grandiose with thick walls and few windows? How would someone access the Supreme Court? What would Parliament look like? What would the rooms and offices within it be like – porous walls that allowed conversations from adjacent spaces to seep in, a catacomb of doors, some mysteriously locked, to access what was otherwise a stone’s throw away? How large would the main halls be, and how cramped would be the periphery’s accommodation?

Approaching Asanga again, I invited him to capture in writing what he thought were crucial stages in Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution since 1972. I then approached Channa Daswatta. Asanga’s research became the site, and I, his client. Regular face to face interactions with Channa in his office, lasting hours, and the exchange of ideas with Asanga led to this exhibition. It is the riveting accomplishment, through Asanga’s and Channa’s genius, of a vision I have harboured for years.

The exhibition clearly demonstrates the futility of even more amendments to a constitution that since conception 1978 was deeply flawed. It highlights the outgrowth of authoritarianism, and the illusion of stability. It gives life to the phrase, “the centre cannot hold”. Through errors thrown up by the architectural programme Autodesk Revit, significant flaws of our present constitution are clearly flagged. The models will collapse over time. The drawings are increasingly grotesque.

The architectural output makes abundantly clear the failure of our constitutional vision.

All this, we countenanced. All this, we could have opposed. All this, we voted in, defended or were silent about.

‘Corridors of power’, as with all my exhibitions previously, is an invitation to reflect on what we have been hostage to in the past in order to imagine a more just, inclusive, open future. Spaces to meet, reflect and react need expansion. The checks and balances of power need firmer foundations. Centripetal tendencies in design must be eschewed in favour of centrifugal development. We need open spaces instead of closed sites, grass to walk and play on instead of just to admire. Easy access to key locations. Light, more than shadow and shade too, where needed.

In sum, we need to be the architects of the change we want to see. It is the essence of citizenship. It is what gives life to a constitution worth having. Worth knowing.

Worth defending.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, 4 September 2015