The question not asked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why.

Always and forever, ask why.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 27 May 2018.

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Forgetting frames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in The Sunday Island, 20 May 2018.

On music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in The Sunday Island, 13 May 2018.

World Press Freedom Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in The Sunday Island, 6 May 2018.

Fluid politics

Over the three years I’ve enjoyed the space to pen this column, I have often endeavoured to communicate clear and present dangers to Sri Lanka’s democratic potential not often captured by other, far more experienced and older political commentators. The readership of this newspaper are two to three decades older than the demographic I am usually focussed on and online, interact with. It is their conversational landscape that I’ve created platforms for, helped shaped and contributed to. That a Tamil, Sinhala and English readership of mainstream press, or a consumer of TV, would see remarkably different and often conflicting frames of Sri Lanka is well-known and for some decades. Less well understood are the echo chambers a demographic between 18-34 inhabit, and those even younger are starting to populate through their use of instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook Messenger. In the main, Facebook as a platform is ageing, and now drawing in those much older than the target demographic at launch – which was those in or just out of University in the US. A consequence of this, locally and globally, is the migration of conversation, collaboration and coordination amongst the young to instant messaging apps, where friends create groups and exchange hundreds of messages a day, free from the scrutiny of parents, the indexing of Google and the oversight of anyone other than those present in or invited to join the group.

The reaction to all this, from the highest levels of government to many I meet and talk with elsewhere, is abject fear – and stemming from that, a desire to completely cut off access. So instead of an education around the best or safe use, we have a parental, caregiver or adult response that guarantees that curiosity, mixed with innovative circumvention adults can’t even begin to imagine, will win out. A report authored by myself and two others who are experts in the field of data science – looking for and at patterns in vast troves of information – may I fear contribute to fear, when I it is engagement and discussion that was the intended outcome of publication. One of Sri Lanka’s most senior figures in the UN, since retired, wrote to me and said that while the report was in the main not easy to understand, it was extremely frightening. I feared I had failed, because while fear can be helpful at constructive action and course correction, anxiety over the inevitability of doom and the powerlessness of ordinary citizens to stop any of it, is not. The report was on Twitter, which many readers of this newspaper may have only seen their children or grandchildren on. Twitter is both a social media platform and now a key vector of news, information and opinion. It is thus used to pull in information about what others are doing, saying and thinking as well as to push out opinion, offers and updates. Exact numbers are difficult to come by for users in Sri Lanka but is very likely in the high hundreds of thousands at a very conservative estimate, with around 330 million globally in the last quarter of 2017. Every single major political party, well-known politician, sportsperson, journalist, academic, activist, entertainment personality and diplomat are on the platform, along with many government departments, ministries and even official projects and programmes. Our report investigated the many ways automated accounts on Twitter – called bots – risked seriously impacting the quality or conversation on the platform, used by a demographic which in Sri Lanka are first to fourth time voters.

Through a number of ways, relatively cheap to procure and rather easy to engineer, these bots would be used to shape a conversation in ways beneficial to a specific political party, issue, politician or actor, block out anything that was deemed inconvenient by drowning out their voice through the sheer volume of production, create artificial trends so that certain topics, places or individuals appear on the platform to be much more popular or appealing, engage in partisan propaganda aimed at a specific demographic, and in the lead up to elections, produce at scale the digital equivalents of what we see on political stages and the strained arteries of candidates – ranging from smear campaigns to negative ads, death threats and sophisticated misinformation. The report was data driven – which means it used what was being reported on widely on Twitter in Sri Lanka, to investigate the credibility of claims made around the scale and scope of bots, as well as their role, relevance and reach in potentially undermining our electoral process. What is a risk for us is stark reality in Malaysia today, where an electoral process has been overwhelmed by bots. In the past, Twitter has also been weaponised around electoral contests most famously in the US in 2016, Brexit, France, Germany and elsewhere.

All this and more is in the report which is in the public domain, which I hope if you ever download makes for interesting reading. Even if you’ve never used Twitter yourself, our argument is that you should be worried, and engage in conversation with those you know who do around the dangers of mindlessly promoting and sharing content without first verifying.

What’s not in the report is for me the more interesting and damaging aspect of new technologies which are now inextricably entwined in how the young see and engage with politics. The challenge is also accentuated by the UNP’s much anticipated party reshuffle announced last week. Sri Lanka has poor media literacy and high adult literacy. The confidence in and perception of democratic institutions is poor, and not improving. The perception of electoral processes are predominantly as power grabs and less as moments for robust interrogation of ideas, and voting based on evidence. Social media is balkanising a media landscape, breaking up audiences based on their age, local, language preference, gender, device type and even preference of platform. Politicians are directly addressing voters, in ways the mainstream media often doesn’t even follow, leave aside critique or frame. Academia calls this a networked society – which is not so much what we are all connected to (which is the web and Internet), but how social media (like Facebook) connects at least around five million eligible to vote at any national election in Sri Lanka. This new social capital constructed on group bonds as well as connectors like national level cricketers, able to bridge distinct online communities, sees politics in a very different way. There is a paradigm shift that’s already happened, the UNP leadership seems oblivious to. These voters see themselves as co-creators of policy and co-architects of governance – and not those who are told things or given promises. Undergirded by social media, the ubiquity of smartphones and cheap broadband, this is a new political and power structure that is a radical reconfiguration of the electorate. It is also very far removed from the UNP’s, and Mr. Wickremesinghe’s, modus operandiand the yahapalanayagovernment’smodus vivendi.

Old men, old ways in old parties, I told my interlocutor over email, can’t begin understand the language this new electorate speaks and can’t grasp the warnings we give, because they cannot imagine a world different to what they think it (still) is. An electorate fluid in its partisan affiliation, flexible in its vote, making up its mind about franchise at the last moment and impatient with the non-delivery of promise is a constituency ripe for populism’s seed to take root. My report was on Twitter and its weaponisation. The greater danger really is around those in government so tragically and patently unable to understand that they themselves are the reason for a resurgent authoritarianism’s glow and glimmer, to grow and gain.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 28 April 2018.

The politics of participation

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2017report has a particularly revealing quote from Edward Luce, who in his 2017 book ‘The retreat of Western liberalism’ observes that “our societies are split between the will of the people and the rule of the experts—the tyranny of the majority versus the club of self-serving insiders”. Luce is focused on the West – Europe, the UK and US in particular – but his central thesis of democratic decline, because of a rise in populism and an authoritarian resurgence, finds resonance in helping explain the situation in Sri Lanka. The threat to democracy in this reading comes not because of manipulative foreign actors, but the disenchantment with and distrust of democratic dialogue and institutions by constituencies increasing taken in by a toxic recipe. Misinformation, a general decline in trust around media, rising intolerance of difference, increased social and religious clustering around identity markers that are exclusive, a proclivity to the violent resolution of conflict and an increasingly divided electorate on partisan lines are some of the ingredients in this recipe, which in fact, we are co-creators of. As the Economist notes, “The popular reaction to an economic and political system which many voters feel has left them behind is presented as the cause of democracy’s ailments rather than a consequence of them”.

The report is helpful to understand risk vectors in Sri Lanka that aren’t adequately discussed. The democracy recession can be seen in, according to the Economist, through declining popular participation in elections and politics, weaknesses in the functioning of government, declining trust in institutions, dwindling appeal of mainstream representative parties, growing influence of unelected, unaccountable institutions and expert bodies, widening gap between political elites and electorates, decline in media freedoms and the erosion of civil liberties, including curbs on free speech. Many of these one finds not just in Western liberal democracies but in Sri Lanka post-2015. We have a country with very high adult literacy losing faith in democratic government. The communication of the government’s failures, coupled with the failure of government to communicate, are two sides of a problem that is leading to the erosion of trust. The electoral implications are not theoretical. The 10thof February demonstrated the degree to which the government has lost popular appeal. This is not the same as saying that the Rajapaksas, JO or Pohottuwa have gained any greater appeal. The electorate is faced with a conundrum – on the one hand, a largely liberal and democratic government unable to fulfill its lofty promises and is insensitive and technocratic to boot. On the other, representatives of a more authoritarian form of government who seek a return to power and though essentially corrupt, brutal and violent, gets things done, puts everyone in their place and are masters at generating populist charisma by posing frequently with children with plats or pottu, infants, the disabled, soldiers, the poor, priests and old people. Embedded in this reading is an asymmetry of generating self-serving spin and positive optics for parochial gain. The current government is horrible at it. The former government wrote the rulebook on it.

This all feeds into what is a systemic problem of politics in the way it is negotiated, conducted and perceived. In 2014, the Economistgave Sri Lanka a score of 4.44 for political participation, a metric that measures the degree to which the population engages in electoral processes and more generally, is involved with governance mechanisms between elections. By 2016 this had increased to 5.00. It remains the same in 2017. There is also a metric for political culture. The Economistflags this as “crucial for the legitimacy, smooth functioning and ultimately the sustainability of democracy. A culture of passivity and apathy, an obedient and docile citizenry, are not consistent with democracy. The electoral process periodically divides the population into winners and losers. A successful democratic political culture implies that the losing parties and their supporters accept the judgment of the voters and allow for the peaceful transfer of power”. In 2014 and 2016, Sri Lanka scores 6.88. Intuitively, especially if one supports the current government, you would expect this score to be stable or rise. Instead, in 2017, the score goes down, to 6.25. What we see in these figures is a risk vector that ironically is pertinent precisely because of the numbers that turned out to vote in 2015’s Presidential and General elections. In both instances, a youth bulge in the electorate – 1sttime voters as well as 2ndto 4thtime voters, all between 18 to 34 – supported the elections of those currently in power. The social engineering to get this demographic go out and vote was conducted over social media almost exclusively for the Presidential Election. By August 2015, the apathy and disappointment with the new government had already taken seed, which is why another concerted effort to get young people engaged in political communications was needed. Most if not all of this content generation and strategizing was done by civil society – some admittedly with partisan bias and intent, others more involved and interested in generating interest amongst the youth in our electoral processes and the value of democratic institutions. Either way, what is evident today is that the heightened interest and participation in political conversations, just three years ago, has now led to deep disappointment and disgruntled disengagement. This fits very well with those who want to regain power, mirroring how in the US, Republicans in 2016 used against Democrats technologies and strategies first imagined, seeded and set in motion as part of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. The revolt of authoritarians or as the Economistcalled it in 2016, the revenge of the deplorables ironically happens on the very social, media and technological foundations put in place by more democratic forces to gain power. This is playing out in Sri Lanka.

To understand this is to grasp the increasing appeal of the JO. Sadly, it is a political reality that was given life to by those in power. What I’ve flagged in recent weeks – the weaponization of social media, the gamification of elections – all stem from the inability to capture the spirit of participation in January and August 2015 and animate it over the longer term. This is a failure of political vision, just as much as it is a failure in political communication. The danger is now reflected in the data – electoral contests ahead of us are going to be perceived as much more divisive, with losers unable to countenance those who gain power, and those unable to regain power unwilling to countenance those in government. 2015 was as moment to rewrite the grammar of our mainstream politics, where the conjugation of divergent political opinion was normalized so that violence wasn’t the intended or immediate result of partisan difference.

Through true, it is easy to say the government has failed us. Truth is, we have failed ourselves, no matter which party we vote for, and who we want to see in power come 2020.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 22 April 2018.

Redefining our world: A review of ‘Factfulness’

Factfulness’ by Hans Rosling is the first book in a long time I could not put down once I picked it up. Published after the passing of Rosling, the book was just released and comes with glowing recommendations from Melinda and Bill Gates on its cover. Bill Gates is particularly effusive, calling it one of the most important books he’s ever read, and going on to review it on his blog earlier this month. It is easy to see why, for several reasons. Statistics and complexity are immediate turn-offs for most, even if as students in school, or University, or staff in an office, one is forced to deal with both. Few understand the subject well enough to explain it to others. In the world of media, the domain of data driven journalism which donors love to support is anchored to facts and figures, and the communication of both to audiences who aren’t conversant in computational modelling, time regression, pivot tables, charts, graphs, databases, tables or economic theories. The domain is heavily anchored to visual design. As rows and columns, numbers overwhelm. When presented through infographics, they intellectually or emotionally appeal to a broader audience. Rosling made a habit of provocative talks, at TED, Davos, on TV, in person and in print, exploring the world of statistics related in particular to health and development. To see and hear him speak is to understand the power of communication in shaping hearts and minds. This voice, even after his passing, shines through the book.

Rosling is interested in thirteen questions, the answers to which are counter-intuitive. The book starts with asking the reader to answer these questions, and it helps to not cheat because the rest of the book is based around why the answers readers most often think are the right ones are in fact, wrong.  The author stresses the point that most humans score worse than the statistical probability of giving chimpanzees in a zoo the questions and asking them to guess the answers. It is an interesting observation, anchored to Rosling’s life as a teacher, that is also fleshed out. The reason all of us get the answers so wrong is because we are basing our understanding of the world on outmoded and outdated definitions. These ways of seeing, to borrow a phrase from critic John Berger, are frames founded on economic theories that categorise and capture countries, populations and people in ways that haven’t accommodated how far and fast how the world has in fact progressed over the past seven to eight decades. Rosling calls us what we are – ignorant. The book is a voyage in discovering what the true state and nature of the world is through statistics, quite incredibly, open for all and in the public domain.

What interests me is not so much the data presented, but the voice of Rosling – how he writes, how he teaches, the use of self-deprecating humour, the wit and above all, the love of teaching. Rosling is never preachy, and it is precisely here that the book and indeed, his other output in the public domain hold value for countering violent extremism, a subject the author does not deal with directly. In a foundational chapter early on the book, Rosling notes,

“What do you need to hunt, capture, and replace misconceptions? Data. You have to show the data and describe the reality behind it… But you also need something more. Misconceptions disappear only if there is some equally simple but more relevant way of thinking to replace them.”

Rosling is writing against the labels ‘developing world’ and ‘developed world’, which Bill Gates himself admits having used often before he read this book. In its place, the author places a model based on four levels, in turn based on income. Most people in the world – roughly three billion – live in Level 2, earning around two to eight dollars a day. The author encourages us to discard a language that no longer captures accurately the world as it is, and instead offers a new framework, with an associated language, that more humanely categorises people in ways a bifurcated worldview just cannot accommodate.

Rosling teaches the reader early on the danger of statistics and the pitfalls of interpreting graphs. A simple or small change to the way numbers or trends are represented, and a completely different understanding or worldview emerges, from the same dataset. This is why he encourages in the main a healthy scepticism with opinion, and instead implores us to seek out, for ourselves, the numbers that make a story.

The lesson for countering violent extremism is that when debunking myth or misinformation, one always risks strengthening it. This is referred to as confirmation bias. Telling someone they are wrong, often ends up confirming in their mind they are right. Rosling also hints at motivated reasoning, which is the tendency to read into or project onto whatever we consume our bias. So, a speech, image, graph or policy may mean completely different things to different people, even if they are presented with precisely the same original material. Rosling’s book, if nothing else, is a lesson in communicating inconvenient facts. To the author, we are all idiots, and our answers to his thirteen pivotal questions places us, as he notes, in a position worse than chimpanzees. Rather than take offense, the reader cannot help but be taken in Rosling’s world, and through his incredible gift for writing, teaching and humour, understand at the end of this book a world different to what was seen before. As if not more importantly, the reader is left with tools to critically question the world as it is presented through media and others. Rosling asks us to measure our own knowledge, instead of calling out the ignorance of others.

There is another aspect to this book I have often talked about with Anushka Wijesinha, a friend who is also an economist by training. Rosling is a champion of open data, suggesting that the basis for financial stability and peace is international collaboration, in turn anchored to a shared and fact-based understanding of the world. At the very end of the book, Rosling notes how in 1999 he angered the World Bank by putting on the web and in a way that made it easier to access and understand, statistics distributed first and only on CD-ROM. Rosling’s argument was that the data was already paid for by taxpayers. By 2010, the World Bank had decided to release all its data for free, largely because of Rosling’s insistence. In Sri Lankan context, Wijesinha has also shared my frustration with the inability of institutions, some of which he has been a part of, to release data in the public domain for free, and communicate vital research in a way that kindles the imagination. Both are needed for the construction of empathy, something that in Rosling shines through in this book. Noting that many who read and purchase his book would be on Level 4, spending more than 32 US dollars a day – Rosling states that like looking down at buildings from the top of a skyscraper, it is possible to see many others who less fortunate, but not really easy to understand what their lives are like, or the conditions they live in and work around.

‘Factfulness’, contrary to what the title suggests, isn’t just about facts and statistics. It is about a shared humanity – and the communication of it through evidence already in the public domain. If it there is just one book you buy this year, let it be this.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 15 April 2018.