Apr 302012
 

My Column in Today’s DNA

The last few months  have seen social media set the agenda as far as main stream media, and even political parties are concerned. A whole bunch of dedicated cyber gureillas are fighting virtual wars on behalf of the parties that they support. The last week has seen two such cases.

 

Sachin Tendulkar, the man called the God, got nominated to the Rajya Sabha. In a completely polarised world, it was an act that was welcomed by all sides and all Political Parties. After all,  the biggest lament about the Houses of Parliament is that there isn’t enough representation from the young, aspirational, non dynastic, self made achievers. There were a few jokes, on the lines of God being called in to save the UPA, but much of this was in good humour. But, for a small vocal minority of self styled patriots on twitter Sachin’s acceptance of the Rajya Sabha seat was abject betrayal. They believed that his entry into Parliament was his entry into politics on the side of the Congress. A shrill fringe tried to hijack the agenda by converting their ignorance into anger, and their anger into a flurry of tweets against Sachin.There was a strong unfollow Sachin campaign. But, this was Sachin. Not a politician. The fight back was instantaneous. Even those who aren’t cricket followers or great Sachin fans went out to bat for Sachin.

 

Earlier in the week social media had seen another flurry of activity. This time against Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi. He had been allegedly caught in flagrante delicto on camera with a lady lawyer in his chambers in the Delhi High Court.. Mr.Singhvi got an injunction against the main stream media from carrying the contents of the CD. But, social media is not mainstream. It is individuals dispersed across the globe. All you need is one person to upload the video on a file sharing site and pass on the link, which is further shared. This is what happened and the video went viral. A small bunch of motivated opponents of the Congress Party found a way to set the agenda. The Main Stream Media that hitherto had been prevented from reporting about the contents of the video reported the leak of the video. The Public heard about the alleged peccadilloes of Mr. Singhvi, who had no choice but to resign. We can wring our collective hands and say ‘invasion of privacy’, or irresponsible behaviour on part of individuals to release the video, and we wouldn’t be wrong. It is a terrible precedent and is going to have repercussions in the years to come. Every political leader, business leader, opinion leaders are going to face what their western counterparts have been facing for decades. The rise of reporting sexual sleaze aimed at destroying reputations while titillating the audience.

 

The system is coming to terms with the repercussions of the democratisation of communication. The fact that everyone not only has a view, but the medium to express that view is just sinking in to those who hitherto had controlled the agenda.  In an interconnected world, everyone has an agenda that they can put forth with equal ease. Expertise and Opinion are no longer hierarchical, flowing from the top to the bottom. Instead it is multiple strands of peer to peer communication. One of the things about social media in general and twitter in particular is how quickly an idea or a link can get picked up and go viral. More than any other social network, Twitter can work towards building up support or destroying reputations possibly because engagement is quick and fast. There is also another reason, and that is most on twitter are engaged in more than conversations. It is made up of narrowcasters – people of all hues and persuasion putting out links and opinions that are aimed at furthering an agenda in a free flowing, unmoderated space. Often it is a whole bunch of Chinese whispers in an echo chamber. False is true, if it suits the ultimate agenda.

 

The question then is how do you prevent a small bunch of dedicated zealots from setting the agenda? How do you prevent the poisoning of discourse and spreading of hate? Do you need to control the net ? The answer is that the net cannot be controlled and any attempt to control it will back fire. Ideas and opinions can only be countered by other ideas & opinions and the way to prevent zealots from taking over and setting the agenda is by ensuring that more people have access to the net. The more agendas that are set, the more the extreme agenda will be diluted.

Apr 292012
 

There are some movies that you leave the theatre after watching with a big gooey smile on your face. The Avengers is one of them. It is highly unlikely that you will remember anything of the film a week down the line, except that you enjoyed it immensely.

What is the story – Superhero team films have a standard plot. Disparate heroes who don’t exactly get along. A great evil from outside that wants to take over/enslave/ destroy earth – team comes togehter. Gets its butt handed to it in the first 2/3rds of the film. Suddenly there is a moment, and it all falls into place. The good guys kick the bad guys butts, and you have the possibility of a sequel. This film follows the standard format. The story is about Loki, the brother of Thor, coming to earth to steal the Tresseract – a cube that is a portal between worlds – and use it to conquer the earth. Nick Fury of SHIELD hasto put together a team that will beat the bad guys.

But given the simple plot point, it is easy to get a superhero film wrong. The tendency to make it angsty. To make it wordy. To make it about esoteric things like liberty and justice.  See the last version of Superman or Ang Lee’s Hulk, or even Nolan’s take on Batman. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Batman films but they are emotionally very draining. On the other hand this film is fun. Great one liners, fabulous team dynamics and fun. Kick ass fun. Good guys v/s bad guys and you know the good guys are going to win.

The director Joss Whedon – of Buffy, Angel etal fame – has pulled off a difficult task. The task of getting 6 super heroes - Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow – screen time, balanced with Nick Fury, the villains and everything else that is going on in the film without cluttering it up would be tough. The story, also written by Whedon, is tight and easy to understand without any explanations of the back stories of each character. Each character is self contained, there is no need to know long reams of continuity or what happened in earlier films. If you did it was great , but if you did not – the enjoyment of the movie was no less.

Go watch.

Apr 242012
 

As a kid the mother used to have issues with me eating healthy stuff. (she claims she still does). For mom, healthy food included beetroot curry (ugh), carrot sambhar (double ugh), and some equally horrendous concoctions. Needless to say i used to protest. quite vocally at that. But the one thing I never did (and never do) is waste food. There were two reasons for that.

The first was, and this is where parents cause severe trauma to their kids :D , the story of Annapurna – the Goddess of food. Annapurna, loves, so the story my mother told me, feeding children. If children did not’ like the food she ‘created’ and provided, and waste it, she would be heart broken. She would then sit by the banks of the river and sob. And when that happens there will be no food for anyone. This image of the goddess crying was so overwhelming, I ate every terrible green that landed on my plate.

The second was, and used when i went past the stage of being impacted by Goddesses crying, the story of starving children. You can’t waste food, my mother would say,  think of all the starving children in India. That worked for a good two decades or more. One fine day I grew up. When my mother had cooked something obnoxious -boiled doodhi with basic tadka – i rebelled. Said No. I want tasty food. She said, think of all the starving kids in India (i was 33 or so) … and then the cookie crumbled, the tube light came on, conciousness dawned, and I asked he “if i ate the damn thing, how will they eat it”.

This morning, as news filtered in of the successful Agni V launch I had a sense of deja vu. The murmurs began.  I almost expect an issue long rant from Arundathi Roy – shouldn’t India be feeding her poor? Yes, of course. There are no questions about providing food security for the most disadvantaged. But, IMO physical security is equally important. The best periods of growth have been in an era of peace and stability.

But just because you won’t test launch the Agni or not launch satellites doesn’t mean you will feed more people. The two are linked the way everything is linked. But, is there a linkage between spending on science and tech and hunger? Are people going hungry because India is spending on moon missions and ballistic missiles?  Is hunger about lack of money or is it something else ? People aren’t going hungry because there is no food.

People are starving because the PDS system, storage facilities and the supply chain is wonky. NO matter how many curbs you put on expenditure on technology and defence, our people will still starve unless that is fixed. It is glamorous to bleed one’s heart over the cost of scientific R&D, but curtailing it will no more impact hunger, than me eating that terrible doodhi…

Bleeding hearts are needed, but leaky brains are quite something else…

Agni - courtesy NYT  

Apr 242012
 

…with all due respects to Marquez. :D

Decline and fall of civilisation can be seen best in West Bengal. In 200 years you move froma Raja Ram Mohan Roy driven enlightenment to Mamata Banerjee driven idiocracy. From arresting cartoonists, to painting the city blue, from moving Pakistan to sharing a border with Bangladesh to inexplicable bitchfits when things don’t go her way, Mamata has been a source of amusement for that part of India that doesn’t have to live or do business in West Bengal.

Amul, as usual, gets it right

There is an online exhbition of Mamata cartoons here