Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Games people play

Games people play

Apart from MUDs, many other pay-for-play or free game sites are available on the Internet. They enable players to compete against other players around the world. Besides, there are global casinos, which do not necessarily originate in the United States. US courts have no jurisdiction over them. Apart from the problem of regulating them, there is a serious social concern about compulsive and addictive behavior. Internet gamblers can forget the real world. What should be done?

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

America's most (un)civil war

The Statesman

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

America’s most (un)civil war


The USA is a fierce democracy; non-violent may be, but brutal. Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry said the “W” in George W Bush’s name stands for wrong – wrong on war, wrong on peace, wrong on budget, wrong on social security, wrong on everything. But Bush, he said, would admit no mistakes and instead tries to hide the painful truth of war, having gone bad with “arrogant boasting” that the war is being won. Quoting former US commander in Iraq General Ricardo Sanchez who had warned about the poor supply problems, Kerry said, “Bush went out and told the American people that our troops were properly equipped.” Kerry’s running mate, Senator John Edward, said Bush has been hoodwinking the American people “into believing that he is the only one who can fight and win the war on terrorism.” Of course both keep boasting that they can do a better job of winning the war on terrorism. In an unguarded moment, Kerry said terrorism might be reduced to a nuisance like illegal gambling or prostitution, for which he was castigated by the Republicans. Bush said the war against terrorism could not be completely won. But he was quick to explain that since terrorism is not a state enemy, it would not be completely eliminated. Bush has been calling Kerry a flip-flopper, a man who speaks looking at the polls. He supported war in Iraq and then turned against it. He is a man without conviction and credibility. Bush said while he is fighting to end terrorism and spread freedom, Kerry “has chosen the easy path of protests and defeatism” and that he would push the nation to “a major defeat in the war against terrorism.” Talking in New Jersey, a Democratic state that bore the brunt of the 9/11 attacks on World Trade Centre, Bush said his opponent “has now flip-flopped his way to a dangerous position. He has talked about artificial timetables to pull our troops out of Iraq. He has sent the signal that the USA’s overriding goal in Iraq would be to leave, even if the job is not done.” Short of name calling, they have been putting down each other as someone unfit to be the commander-in-chief. The rhetoric of mutual vituperation is being reinforced by negative ads that pull no punches. There was a time when liberalism as a political philosophy was in vogue. Liberals with their social programmes, from social security to welfare for unwed mothers, turned the USA into a gentler, kinder society. But liberalism as a public policy required state intervention in the lives of the people, apart from taxation to fund the programmes. So as the mode of consciousness began to change, sometime around the Reagan era, Democrats came to be called tax and spend liberals, and became associated with more government and less individual responsibility. Today, calling an American “a liberal” is as bad as it can be, worse than calling him an immoral person. So a Bush ad says, “John Kerry and his liberal allies. Are they a risk we can afford to take?” Kerry’s anti-Bush ad shows images of violence in Iraq, where US troops are attacked, as the ad says, “530 times a day.” Another ad asks, “Are we safer today with a lying Bush? Or with naval hero Kerry?” The unkindest cut came during the third presidential debate when the moderator Bob Schieffer asked if the gentlemen, Bush and Kerry, thought whether homosexuality was natural. While Bush tried to wiggle out of the question (I don’t know, he said, but the sanctity of marriage should be preserved.), Kerry responded by referring to Vice-President Dick Cheney’s daughter being a lesbian and said homosexuality is natural. Regardless of his good intention, the reference to Bush’s running mate’s daughter left a bad taste. But who cares? It is a civil war – the kind the USA has never seen before. It is a war about the USA’s hearts and minds. And it is a bitter one. No one would emerge a total victor and claim a mandate, which might not be that bad for rest of the world. The American people have been deeply divided since the last presidential poll, but 9/11 temporarily papered over those divisions. If Americans were deeply divided over the issue of weapons of mass destruction before the invasion of Iraq, there might not have been a war. But Americans had become a victim of a spiral of silence induced by a post 9/11 wave of fear and patriotism, and had developed a dangerous collective mindset. The media had unwittingly become a propaganda machine for the administration. It is now that some of them have begun to question their transcendent silence and timidity. Florida achieved notoriety in 2000 when the presidential poll got bogged down due to the perfidy of the electoral machinery (hanging chads and other alleged sleights of hand), and the US Supreme Court stepped in to cut the Gordian Knot and handed over the election to George Bush. The Florida election night terror of 2000 still haunts Democrats in spite of the fact that the state claims that it has installed what is being called “idiot-proof” computerised ballot machine. The fear of Florida 2000 repeating itself has unleashed pre-emptive legal wars. Democrats have been accusing officials of Republican controlled states of trying to disenfranchise new voters who are most likely to vote for the former. Republicans have been accusing Democrats of voter registration frauds. Both parties have hired thousands of campaign lawyers, and established SWAT teams with networks of cell phones and helicopters, who are going to patrol every poll precinct especially in swing states and are ready to take the battle to court. Even the Afghanistan election seemed a more civilised affair.

(ND Batra is Professor of Communications, Norwich University, Vermont. You can blog him at

Exercises in Games of Power and Leadership

Exercises in Games of Power and Leadership

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Corporations and Cybersex

Corporations and Cybersex

Is it safe to send, from one’s home or office, sexually explicit e-mail messages to a colleague? Is cybersex between office colleagues a form of adultery? How should corporations deal with the problem? How should Fox News Network deal with Bill O’Reilly’s situation?

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Democracy's work is never done

The Statesman

October 20, 2004

Democracy’s work is never done

The continued insurgency in Iraq has unfortunately distracted our attention from some positive developments in Afghanistan. The election in Afghanistan held under the auspicious of the United Nations and international observers is the first small step toward the beginning of a new democratic society. Regardless of what the ground conditions are at present, it seems that a new horizon of hope, peace and prosperity might just be opening up in Afghanistan. For millions of Afghans, including women who cast their votes for their presidential choice, it was a historic occasion. And by doing so, the people of Afghanistan have distanced themselves from the Taliban, al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden and militant Islamic fundamentalism. For women specially, the very act of going out to vote was an act of freedom that they never experienced before. Gradually they would assert themselves and reject the oppression of a closed tyrannical society run by mullahs and warlords. The peaceful vote must have had a persuasive influence on opposition candidates who had boycotted the election, complaining about ink fraud that might have let some people to be misled to vote more than once. The setting up of an independent commission to look into the alleged election irregularities was in itself a lesson on how necessary transparency is for the functioning of democracy. Public opinion, not the booming of guns, would eventually become important in political decision making. Democracy is trust building through accountability, and indeed it demands patience and hard work, especially when it has to be transplanted as an exotic plant. But imagine if the USA, albeit in its self-interest, had not invaded the country! The people of Afghanistan would have continued living in the dark ages ruled by the Taliban. Afghans might still stumble and fall back, but democracy deserves a chance. Nonetheless, the first successful democratic exercise in nation building in Afghanistan indicates that diversion of resources to Iraq might not have been that catastrophic. Even in Iraq, the government’s cash for weapons programme might bring about changes and hope for peace. In Sadr City, the vast slum in Baghdad that has been the centre of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s resistance against US efforts towards rebuilding a new democratic Iraq, Mahdi Army fighters, as part of the truce deal, are giving up their weapons including machine guns, mortars and landmines by the tons. The fairness of Afghanistan presidential election cannot go unnoticed by Iraqis. Hope creates hope. Bartle Breese Bull, who earlier reported for The Financial Times from Baghdad, wrote in The New York Times that Moqtada al-Sadr’s commitment to the democratic process is genuine and "represents momentous progress for the democratic project in Iraq and it signifies the emergence of a broad and powerful Shiite front... After five centuries under Sunni rule, Iraq’s Shiia majority will get its elections in January. In the end, Sadr and the occupation have common cause on the issue that matters most: a stable democratic outcome." Would the prospects of a fair election and participation in power sharing through democratic wheeling dealing change the minds of the Sunni population too? That’s the challenge. Last month, Bush told the UN: Our security is not merely founded in spheres of influence or some balance of power; the security of our world is founded in advancing the rights of mankind. Bush is convinced that fighting terrorism would be an endless task unless it is accompanied by spread of freedom and economic opportunities. He says he feels no regrets in invading Iraq despite the clear and convincing evidence that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The rationale for war has changed. A closed country might become a haven for terrorists and, therefore, it must be opened through democracy and trade. It is a political philosophy in a new key and goes beyond pre-emption. Benevolent intervention might become the other face of pre-emption. The challenge in Iraq is not how soon the USA can get out but to find ways and means of controlling insurgency so that National Assembly elections scheduled for January have full participation from the Sunnis too, along with the Shias and the Kurds who make up 80 per cent of the population. The National Assembly has the task of drafting Iraq’s permanent Constitution, and without the full representations of the Sunnis, the Constitution will lack legitimacy. If the Sunnis are convinced that election would be held as fairly as in Afghanistan, they might turn around, take part in the January elections, and participate in the framing of the Constitution. Spreading democratic freedom is not only a moral obligation but a political necessity. Along with other pro-active measures such as going after terrorists wherever they happen to be, freedom would provide a long term insurance against terrorism. At least that’s how Bush has been professing during the last days of the presidential election campaign and his opponent Senator Kerry has not expressed any disagreement with him on this point.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Seductions of cyberspace

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Seductions of cyberspace

As the legend goes, on the Internet nobody knows whether a person is a dirty old man trying to seduce teenagers; a gender-swapping woman playing with big boys in a virtual MUD room; or a teenager posing as an expert. As a New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner quipped, “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” At least for sometime, that’s what a California teenager Marcus Arnold had tried to do a few years ago. Probably using his knowledge gained from television programs such Court TV or Judge Judy, and taking advantage of the pseudonymous freedom that a newly started knowledge sharing company AskMe had provided, Marcus turned himself into a legal expert and began to dole out free legal advice. His simple direct non-legalese approach to puzzling legal questions had a great appeal. Soon people began to call him at home seeking his legal advice. But the burden of fakery became too heavy for the fifteen-year-old boy and one day, he said, I am not what you think. Real lawyers poured scorn but the public rallied around him and he continued to give his non-expert common sense expertise on legal matters for sometime. AskMe closed its free Website in 2002 but at its height about 10 million registered visitors posted questions and answers on everything from Armageddon to Zen. The Internet has created a new media environment that not only enables people to communicate, discuss and exchange information, giver and receive feedback, but also provides an interactive collaborative environment in which words can become deeds and speech can become action. Networked computers, the building blocks of the Internet, are much more than mere productivity tools and informatics systems. Unlike the traditional media, they are capable of creating cyber-environment that can be designed to be persuasive, that can motivate people to act and change their social behaviors. Stanford University researchers call this rhetorical concept as Captology, which according to BJ Fogg “focuses on the planned persuasive effects of computer technologies.” ( What I am saying is this: It may be the next challenge for software programmers in Kolkata or Bangalore to design virtual environments to motivate people, for example, not to drink and drive, to have healthy sexual behavior, to avoid pregnancy. Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School has expounded the view that computer codes have the potential force of law, that programmers could bypass Congress and in a manner speaking take laws into their own hands. But the rhetoric of software design, the persuasive code that entices, builds relationships, arouses and fulfills desires and keeps the users coming back has not been fully explored in areas other than cybersex and virtual reality Internet games like multi-user dungeons (MUDs). There may be fortune in developing codes that persuade the user to change his attitude, behavior and actions. The strength of the Internet is its interactivity, its ability to respond and give instant feedback. Feedback not only regulates the flow of communication but also gives some of the control back to the receiver of the message. Two persons in conversation establish a dynamic relationship to create shared meanings. Human communication is essentially a transaction that takes place effectively if people have or can create a common field of experience. Jehadis, for example, share each other’s mental model of the Islamic Paradise, and for them suicide becomes a door to that mental image of everlasting beauty. Persuasion works through sharing of mental models. The Internet makes it easy to share mental models whether they are of instant entrance to the Paradise through suicide bombing, buying and selling on a virtual platform such, or sharing knowledge as companies like AskMe do. Internet communication can transcend face-to-face communication, can be very persuasive, and in certain circumstances is even more desirable. Lack of face-to-face cues, physical appearance and vocal inflections, which might arouse skepticism (that’s how Marcus Arnold got away with it), are absent in Internet communication especially when it is time delayed (asynchronous) such as in e-mail or question-answer Websites. Selective self-presentation makes it possible for people to open themselves up to others, which they would hesitate to do in face-to-face conversation for fear of contradiction and lack of control. Even in chat rooms and instant messaging, communication can become what one researcher, JB Walther, called as “hyperpersonal,” that’s, socially more desirable than we are likely to experience face-to-face. It allows the play of fantasy partly to compensate for the absence of aural and visual information that gestures and voice create in interpersonal encounters. Fantasy lowers our guards and makes cyberspace so seductively persuasive—and dangerous. So many teenagers go astray in chatrooms because cyberspace lets them assume fake identities and gives them freedom to pretend what they fancy themselves to be. Some of them become victims of conmen and predators, who too assume identities desirable for their teenage victims. The playfulness of virtual environment, an environment of “Be what you want to be,” creates a pleasurable experience, a sensuous flow, in which we feel control of our environment that real life might deny us.

(ND Batra is Professor of Communications, Norwich University, Vermont.)

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Looking for another killer application?

CYBER AGE: Looking for the next killer application? BY ND BATRA

The Statesman Date: Jun 02,2004

For most businesses, the best digital strategy is to look for a killer application, a technology, an idea or a business method that creates new “marketspace,” a cyber-niche, that never existed before, and establish market dominance until another...

Who would do a better job in Iraq?

Cyber age: The Statesman October 6, 2004

Who would do a better job in Iraq?

The political war about war in Iraq has heated up to the point that other domestic issues including economy, jobs, social security, education and health care have been sidetracked. The daily flow of images of car bombs and suicide explosions in Baghdad, images of the injured being rushed to hospitals and the dead being mourned, are being used both by Republicans and Democrats to make their own partisan argument: For Republicans, the Iraq war is a war against terrorism that must be won; for Democrats Iraq is a no-win situation and there has to be a smarter strategy of disengagement. Senator Kerry says President Bush not only made “a colossal error in judgment” about Iraq but has also misled the nation about the grimness of the current situation, and he “owes the American people the truth and he owes the troops the truth.” Even some prominent Republican leaders agree with the assessment that the situation in Iraq has been going from bad to worse. “The worst thing we can do is to hold ourselves hostage to some grand illusion we’re winning. Right now we are not winning. Things are getting worse,” Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said a few weeks ago. His Republican colleagues in the Senate, Senator Richard Luger of Indiana and John McCain of Arizona have been equally vociferous against the false sense of optimism of the Bush administration and lack of planning in conducting the war and its aftermath. Despite the talk of deception, the charge of ill-conceived war planning and daily horrors of war images, Bush – according to several polls – maintains a steady though narrow lead and also may be solidifying his lead in the so-called red states he won in the 2000 election. Even among women voters, Bush is edging ahead of Kerry, though a majority of women voted for the Democratic candidate Vice-President Al Gore in the last election. From suburban moms to soccer moms to security moms, the American woman voter would prefer a leader in the White House who promises to make life in the USA safe. For women, it is always security first. The commander-in-chief must make the American home safe. That’s the difference between the Vietnam War and the war against terrorism. Getting out of Vietnam was humiliating but it did no harm to the USA, its homes and streets. Getting out of Iraq will not be the end of terrorism and will not make the main street safe. American voters may not like Bush much but they are still not sure of Kerry, despite his excellent performance in the first debate, that he is the man with an executable plan to eradicate insurgency and begin the beginning of democracy in Iraq. Republican attacks have tried to paint Kerry as weak on defence against terror, a position that according to them emboldens terrorists. Bush was quick to say during the debate, “I don’t see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place.” The political ad war is being fought under the shadow of the ruins of the World Trade Centre. The announcer in one of the ads asks: “Would you trust Kerry up against these fanatic killers?” Days before the first presidential debate, in an interview broadcast with a conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, Bush said that he had no regrets about going to war against Iraq and declaring the war to be over when he landed on a carrier dressed up in a flight suit in May 2003. The number of Americans dead after Bush declared the war over rose to more than a thousand, and the overall misery of the Iraqi people, not the least thousands of civilians dead and injured, has been incalculable. So the question is, why are the American people not ready to ditch Bush in favour of Kerry? As Bill Clinton said in a perceptive moment, in difficult times Americans prefer a leader who is strong though wrong to one who is right but weak. Trying to fight the impression of weakness, Kerry said during the debate, “Yes, we have to be steadfast and resolved, and I am. And I will succeed for those troops, now that we’re there. We have to succeed. We can’t leave a failed Iraq.” But the doubt remains. Could Kerry convince the American people that he can do the job, that he would be able to bring the allies around and persuade them to send troops to Iraq, that he could set a timetable to end the war? They might give the benefit of doubt to Bush because they believe that terrorism is not a passing phase in international affairs and the war is going to be long and hard. But in times like these when American homes are flooded with images of daily carnage, Iraq might turn the tables against Bush’s optimism that the war against terrorism is being won. Kerry might win by default. But I will hold my tongue until the election is over.

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Smart, very smart

cyber age: ND Batra: Smart intelligence systems

The Statesman Date:Aug 11,2004

Last week when I called my Internet service provider, a smooth computerised human voice asked my phone number, presumably to check my identification from its database, and then said, “Probably I could help you, if you tell me the problem.” It

Friday, October 1, 2004

Tear down the wall at Wal-Mart

From The Statesman

CYBER AGE: Tear down the wall at Wal-Mart


Big events don’t necessarily portend the future. People live with hurricanes and earthquakes. Lives don’t change fundamentally. The Twin Towers are gone. New York continues, probably livelier and better prepared for future eventualities. Americans are in the midst of a great hullabaloo: the mega media event created by Bill Clinton and the publishers of the supposedly confessional account of his life and times; the handing over of sovereignty, fact and fiction, on a platter to Iraqis with live on the Internet beheading and cries of the innocent; and the Bush-Kerry simmering presidential campaign. Yet, from a long-term perspective, the quality of life in the USA may not be much affected by the raging media storms. Clinton would justify his $10 millions royalty advance; Iraqis would continue their daily bloody rituals, freedom or no freedom, for some time to come; and anyone who goes to the White House would be wondering, so much power, yet so little foresight, so little wisdom. When small things aggregate, they bring about great changes. One of the world’s biggest retail giant, Wal-Mart, that sells small things at low prices and buys massive quantities from inshore and offshore sources at blood and sweat wages, mostly of women, may have greater impact upon the world than Al-Qaida or Clinton’s My Life. As the retail giant scrounges and sponges the third world for cheap goods, in the USA it keeps overheads low by hiring mostly female workers at wages much less generous than it pays its male employees. In 2001, the year Al-Qaida hit Twin Towers and the Pentagon, six women said to Wal-Mart, this is discrimination and you can’t do it. Six women snowballed into 1. 6 million current and former women employees who in a class-action suit charged that Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, paid less and gave fewer promotions to women than to male employees. In the land of equality, this is a serious accusation. And the US District Court Judge Martin J Jenkins found that the plaintiffs did “present largely uncontested descriptive statistics which show that women working in Wal-Mart stores are paid less than men in every region, that pay disparities exist in most job categories, that the salary gap widens over time for men and women hired into the same jobs at the same time, that women take longer to enter management position, and that the higher one looks in the organisation, the lower the percentage of women.”Although there’s prima-facie evidence of discrimination against women, the judge hedged his exuberance and corrected himself by saying that he was simply certifying that the class action could go ahead and “shouldn’t be construed in any manner as a ruling on the merit or probable outcome of the case.” Gender and race-based discrimination is an anathema in US society and Judge Jenkins, evoking the 50th anniversary of the landmark case Brown v Board of Education, said that the anniversary “serves as a reminder of the importance of the courts in addressing the denial of equal treatment under the law wherever and by whomever it occurs.” In its unanimous decision in 1954, the US Supreme Court mandated school integration, ruling that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place,” nullifying an 1896 ruling that it was constitutional to educate black students separately, provided school facilities were equal. In many ways, Brown v Board of Education ruling was the beginning of the epic struggle for justice and racial equality, which flowered in Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s grand vision, “I have a dream…” Now these 1.6 million women say that Wal-Mart has been denying to them their dreams of equal opportunities.This is, however, not the first gender-discrimination class-action suit against corporate USA. Home Depot, Texaco, Coca-Cola, Public Super Markets and many others were hit with class-action suits for discriminatory employment practices and paid millions of dollars in settlement. Unfortunately, all these cases were out-of-court settlements, which means close public scrutiny was avoided. Such settlements might solve immediate problems but they do not advance the cause, in this case breaking the cultural glass ceiling that keeps women down even if they have degrees from Harvard and Wharton and are capable of doing better jobs then men. That’s the fear that the class-action suit lawyers fighting for more than a million Wal-Mart women workers in the USA might succumb to the temptation of making a quick buck for themselves rather than taking the fight to its logical conclusion, that is, ending workplace discrimination against women once for all. A golden opportunity would be lost.A precedent set in the USA would be followed wherever Wal-Mart and other multinationals go, for example, India, where local companies would have no choice but to offer competitive opportunities to their female employees at par with what they offer to males, another consequence of globalisation. As women advance, so does civilisation.