Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Power of being digitally mobile

Cyber Age: ND Batra: From The Statesman

Power of being digitally mobile

I do not know whether the people of Kyrgyzstan used mobile digital technologies to organise their opposition to the dictatorial regime of President Askar Akayev and whether democracy would take roots there.

But on 20 January 2001, President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines became the first head of a state that lost power to a digitally smart mob in Manila, a million of them who used cell phones to exchange text messages and swarmed like bees for a peaceful demonstration at Epifanio de Santas Avenue (EDSA).

The message was: GO 2EDSA, Wear black. It was impossible for Mr Estrada to hold on to power in the face of the mobile people’s power. Would that happen in China?
Different cultures use the same technology differently. Filipinos and Japanese use their cells for text messaging. Americans love to talk. In a recent seminar session, one of my students asked whether it would be possible to use cells to access i-Pod.
Music mobility is big in the USA and before long cell phones and mobile music devices would converge. Let’s see how Indian culture affects the use of cell phones now that the technology is penetrating even rural areas. You might wonder whether we would become more responsive to the human condition if we are able to surf the Web through wearable computers, eyeglasses or do instant messaging through picture cell phones.

But there is no denying the fact that as wireless computer chips get embedded into various devices, communication ecology would change. Wireless networks are collapsing space and time, turning geographic space into cyberspace and are bringing people together through digital presence for collaboration in the workplace and cultural space. The experience of the presence of others in a virtual environment created by networked communication is a new social experience for many. Virtual presence could become active political presence as it happened in Manila. Similarly, isolated terrorists networks too could organise virtually to strike anywhere.
Every human activity from a child’s laughter to the most complex mathematical hypothesis is nothing but information in the binary format. Every human activity that takes place in an analogue world can be turned into digital data, and can instantly be distributed globally through computer networks, thus extending the reach of human communication.

Digital data can not only be stored and retrieved instantly anywhere but they can also be transformed into predictive intelligence about human behaviour regarding commerce, national security or any other social or political activity. Books, music files, love bugs or terrorist messages, for example, become indistinguishable as they converge in a digital stream and surge through cyberspace.
Convergence, instantaneity and feedback interactivity make the Internet the most powerful medium of communication ever developed.

Since the traditional media including books, television, newspapers, magazines, radio, music and interpersonal communication are converging on the Internet as a multimedia stream into which anyone can plug in, their power increases manifold and in ways whose implications we still don’t understand.

Outsourcing, for example, has given India a constant state of virtual presence in the American political and corporate discourse. Unlike the offshoring of manufacturing, outsourcing of research and development and other forms of intellectual and professional work is bringing India and the USA into a virtual world where brainpower and creativity are shared and enhanced.

The Internet thus is revolutionary in the sense that it is lowering barriers for cooperative co-existence of cultures. A recent front-page story in The Wall Street Journal told how GE contributed to the seeding of the digital revolution in India and how India is saving billions of dollars for corporate America. Cultures prosper when they cooperate.

The Canadian scholar Herald Innis said in The Bias of Communication that a new medium of communication creates a specific cultural shift and changes our concept of space and time, with far-reaching consequences. Although ancients tried to abridge space and time by sending messages, especially in wartime, through drums and smoke signals, not until the invention of telegraph was it possible to think about communication in terms other than transportation.

Like goods, messages were communicated from place to place at a speed that the best transportation system of the time, for example, the pony express or the railroad made it possible. Telegraph altered the geography-based metaphor of communication, which ceased to be synonymous with transportation.

As telegraph triggered the development of new technologies in the early part of the 20th century, as telephone, radio, and television became universal, communication became increasingly liberated from the constraints of space and time. Computer networks and the Internet have further altered our view of space and time. A networked organisation or an individual with instant messaging and e-mail has different feel of space and time than the people of the pre-digital era.

The keyboard is the door to cyberspace and once you are there, you are simultaneously in a synchronous and asynchronous world, a world that gives a greater illusion of freedom and control than the real world. But the keyboard is a clumsy device. Its era is coming to an end. We are in the age of digital mobility.

Today, cyberspace has become a multi-dimensional virtual universe in which activities are as real as they are in physical space. With mobile digital power, for example, we could see the emergence of collective brainpower to solve complex problems. As more and more people experience activities in cyberspace through wireless presence, they would see that what is private is becoming public; what is American is becoming global.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Building an ownership society

Building an ownership society
BY ND BATRA from The Statesman

Ownership society is a beautiful idea. Everyone should own some property. The only way to build an ownership society, about which George W Bush speaks with such gusto, is to build first a solid foundation of trust, most of all corporate trust. Growth and investment would follow. The cleaning up of corporate America one corrupt executive at a time is the way to save free market capitalism, the most remarkable engine of economic growth.

In fact, there seems to be a beeline of top corporate executives waiting for their turn to go to jail. Kenneth L Lay and Jeffrey K Skilling of Enron, Richard M Scrushy of HealthSouth and L Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco, for example, are facing criminal charges for various corporate crimes.

When at their best, some of these remarkable individuals had been bold, innovative and enterprising; and they raised their companies’ fortunes, but at some point greed blinded them and they became victims of the hubris. Even the most expensive white-collar crime defence attorneys might not save them. The founder of Adelphia Communications, John J Rigas, was convicted last year for raiding the treasury of his own company. Martha Stewart, the glamorous but false goddess of domesticity, completed her five-month prison term and has now been confined to her house until she has done her time. She was convicted for the inside trading of her stock in ImClone, a biotechnology company, albeit not for any fraud in her own media company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Unfortunately, the media treated her release from prison with such jubilation as if her conviction was justice gone wrong. No, she deserved the punishment, as do other high and mighty that commit crimes and betray the public trust.

Bernard J Ebbers, former chief executive of WorldCom, whose $11-billion fraud pushed the telecom company into bankruptcy, was convicted last week on all counts. The former financial chief officer of the company, Scott Sullivan, who turned into a crucial witness for the prosecution, after he himself had pleaded guilty, testified that he cooked books at the behest of Ebbers. The boss insisted that the company had to “hit the numbers,” and meet the financial and revenue targets. That was the only way to meet the market expectations. Ebbers, of course, blamed his underlings for the fraud, said to be the largest in the US history, and pleaded in his own defence that he did not know enough about accounting and financial matters.

But he should have known. Ignorance is no excuse for the CEO of a company. At its height in 1999, WoldCom had a market capitalisation of $180 billion, and Ebbers was a businessman’s businessman. Great pride and false expectations did him in. Accounting departments may not be known for their high ethical vigilance, but Wall Street analysts and financial journalists should not work as paid employees of big corporations. They should work only as watchdogs of public interest.

But they too went along with the web of illusion conjured by the WorldCom team until the whole edifice began to collapse in 2000, the year of the big bubble bust when millions of people lost their life savings; and the share prices hit the bottom.

Ebbers’ personal fortune too was locked up with WorldCom’s market share price; so to keep it high, he falsified and raised analysts’ expectations. But Wall Street is no body’s fool. One cannot get away with chicanery for too long, and the price a corporation, and ultimately the public pays, is exorbitant. The damage is not limited to one company. It spreads throughout the market.

Many wonder if anything can be done to save companies’ from the self-destructive behaviours of their CEOs. How can transparency and internal checks and balances be built into the system? If the news media keeps a constant watch on the daily working of corporate America, instead of playing up the scandals when they break out, CEOs would behave better and the financial future of millions of people would be safe. Keep in mind, when a business collapses, many more than its stakeholders get hurt.

Corporate America works on absolute leadership, one man at the top in all his or her imperial glory. The board of directors of the company seldom provides internal checks and balances. Some American CEOs are more powerful than even governors, who have to answer to so many constituencies. The temptations of misusing power are tempered by transparency and accountability in the case of politicians. That should be the case with corporate America where most Americans and even millions of foreigners are vested through their pensions and other retirement funds. We live in a world where corporate power overshadows most of our activities and must not be left unchecked. Good corporate leadership is essential, nonetheless. Corporate leaders rise to power on the promise of raising profits, market values and corporate growth but they should be watched where they are taking the company. Boards of directors need to play a bigger role in the running of the companies and their interests should go beyond maximising profits. No one should be allowed to get away with excesses.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Diplomacy and Dr. Rice

Cyber Age/ND Batra/ 16 March

It’s diplomacy in a new key with Dr. Rice

Condoleezza Rice is the most visible woman in the world today and there is no better person to advance President Bush’s international agenda and his evolving vision of global freedom than she. President Bush called her “America’s face to the world” at the time of her nomination for the post and said that the world would see in her "the strength, the grace and the decency of our country." He wasn’t exaggerating. She is also a most admired woman in America today, along with two other wonderful women in the public imagination, Senator Hillary Clinton and the media mogul Opera Winfrey.

However, Dr. Rice would have done better as a diplomat if she had learned to talk cricket while visiting the Indian subcontinent. In fact she should have landed in Kolkata at the opening of the second Test to begin her diplomatic mission. If she had done so, she would have drawn attention to herself as to why she is visiting the subcontinent. It would have generated a great feat of public diplomacy and would have given her tremendous media coverage, which no amount of spin could accomplish. Corporate America knows the cultural value of sports and seizes every event to piggyback its message. Diplomats too should learn to do it in order to win the hearts and minds of the people.

If you do a Google or Yahoo search on India or Pakistan, you would find that the most exciting headlines today are about India v. Pakistan Test series. It wouldn’t have escaped the attention of Dr. Rice that even President Pervez Musharraf is reported to have shown keen interest in visiting India to watch the cricket series. The unprecedented excitement over cricket series might symbolize the “tipping point” in relations between India and Pakistan, a convergence of diverse events that began with US seeking Pakistan’s cooperation in its global efforts to fight terrorism but has resulted in the opening of India and Pakistan to each other: a bus route across LoC in Jammu & Kashmir, agreement over Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, lowering of cultural and trade barriers between the two nations and other confidence building measures. Dr. Rice would not fail to notice that it is not deja vue; it is something new in the Indian subcontinent.

So much has changed in the world: the spectacular success of free elections in Iraq and efforts to rebuild the country on a democratic foundation, in spite of the continuous violence by Sunni insurgents; the formation of a free and democratic government in Ukraine after the first election results were overturned under the pressure of popular upsurge; the newly elected leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who has committed himself to a negotiated peace with Israel; limited but free local elections in Saudi Arabia; President Hosni Mubarak’s call for multiparty democratic elections in Egypt; and the Syrian announcement of withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon, probably the most surprising event in the Middle East that no one could have anticipated. Talking about a rising sense of indigenous empowerment, Dr. Rice told Jim Lehrer of PBS, “We are seeing in the Middle East that people are losing their fear of expressing themselves, of expressing their desire for the same freedoms or the same human dignity that we all enjoy, those of us who happen to have been lucky enough to been born on the right side of freedom’s divide…”

These transformational events couldn’t have escaped the notice of doubting Europeans, especially Germans and French, whose leaders now have begun to realize that in spite of differences over how to handle Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the lifting of arms embargo on China, Euro-Atlantic alliance needs to be freshened up so that it could play a more significant role in world’s trouble spots. “Let us be partners. We are not in competition. We complement each other…Europe and the United States have a privileged partnership by virtue of their history, common values, strong interdependence and shared risks,” said France’s defense minister Ms. Michele Alliot-Marie in a recent column in The Wall Street Journal. Europeans have understood that the ascension of Dr. Rice to the top diplomatic post represents the continuity of the Bush foreign policy, though with greater refinement and sophistication, especially in the use of diplomatic language, which had occasionally gone out of control during the first Bush term. The world’s trouble spots must be spotted and controlled, before they blowup, by using all available diplomatic means, nevertheless, keeping all options open. But the long-term goal is to spread democracy and freedom, first because they are the ultimate human values and secondly because it is much easier to deal with open societies than closed ones. Appeasement is not part of the Bush administration’s agenda. Make no mistake.

Dr. Rice is visiting the India subcontinent not with a mood of “triumphalism” but with a genuine feeling of have accomplished a great deal in foreign affairs especially in terms of triggering fundamental changes in the Middle East political landscape, the consequences of which at present are immeasurable. Although India is her first diplomatic stop, where at best she would re-enforce the existing strategic and cooperative relationship, her more important goal is dealing with Pakistan in terms of controlling nuclear technology so that footloose scientists like AQ Khan, in complicity with rogue politicians, are unable in the future to sell nuclear designs and hardware in the international black-market, which might eventually land in the hands of terrorists. That’s the Bush administration’s greatest concern and a driving force behind its foreign policy.
What would Dr. Rice offer to Pakistan in exchange for, let’s say, adult supervision over its nuclear program? That is almost a billion dollar question ($698.3 million for fiscal year 2006 plus another $ 300 million in Economic Support Funds). Throw in a few F-16s, may be.

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Cyber Age

Why can’t women do Einstein?
From The Statesman

Fearing it may be politically incorrect to speak about it, I have been keeping anecdotal evidence to myself as to how temperamentally and intellectually different women are, until Harvard’s president Lawrence Summers, in effect, said: Hey, what’s holding them back?


Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Wife swapping to information swapping

CYBER AGE: BY ND BATRA From The Statesman

The current season of the television sitcom Hope and Faith introduced a double episode about wife swapping, which despite its suggestive open marriage indecency wasn’t as naughty as it sounds. In fact Wife Swap is a separate reality show, where two housewives in culturally different states exchange households with children but without swapping beds. Americans too have morals.
In a parody of the reality show, in the Hope and Faith episode of wife swap, Hope leaves her home in Columbus, Ohio, and moves in with a family in Manhattan. She finds the high-tech New York family members have all the cyber age gadgets but seldom talk with each other as a family. The culprit is the workaholic father, Aaron, who in a delightful mockery of “always on, always available,” is always talking to someone on his hand-free cell phone. When he looks at his “swapped wife” Hope at the dining table, she thinks he is talking with her, but of course, no, he is talking past her, with someone else on the other side, a customer. The Manhattan man symbolises the multitasking man of the future, always in communication, always networking, always connected, except when it comes to touching someone emotionally and keeping relations on a steady keel.
There was a time, you would agree, when production, distribution and processing of information, news and movies, for example, existed in a state of balance. We consumed and assimilated what was produced. And then there was time for silence, for gossip, and for imagination. But that was before computers, microwave and satellite transmission created a deluge that seems to sweep away everything else from our lives. Some of us, especially of the older generation, raised on the logic of linear thinking and writing, can’t handle what we see as an information flood. Others, especially of the digital generation, raised on computer games, cell phones, instant messaging, kids born to multitasking, revel on this new culture.
David Schenk laments in his book Data Smog that – thanks to a ceaseless development of computer technology – information and data production has become so abundant that it clutters our minds as “a pollutant.” We produce too much information for our own good, and so fast that our minds can’t assimilate it. Of course what is a pollutant could become raw material for something new in the future, only if know we what to do with it. In other words we don’t have enough information on how to turn pollutants into useful products; we need more information not less.
Making a sweeping statement, Schenk says the phenomenon of accelerated production of data collection and information production is of recent origin; it began only a half century ago. “For nearly 1,00,000 years leading up to this century, IT has been an unambiguous virtue as a means of sustaining and developing culture… Then, around the time of the first atom bomb, something strange happened. We began to produce information much faster than we could process it.” He does not mean the atom bomb triggered an unstoppable information avalanche, though there’s no gainsaying the fact that the dropping of the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki created information explosion that could not have been handled by traditional means of information processing especially in a manner that would have created knowledge and understanding of: what man had done to man.
Like Luddites of the 19th century, who out of fear of loss of jobs and traditional lifestyles, destroyed machinery instead of adopting and accepting it, Schenk too seems to be giving up instead of trusting that the human mind has not come to the end of its development and evolution. “We have quite suddenly mutated into a radically different culture, a civilisation that trades in and survives on stylised communication… The blank spaces and silent moments in life are fast disappearing. Mostly because we have asked for it, media are everywhere. Television, telephones, radios, message beepers and an assortment of other modern communication and navigational aids are now as ubiquitous as roads and tennis shoes – anywhere humans can go, all forms of media now follow: onto trains, planes, automobiles, into hotel bathrooms, along jogging paths and mountain trails, on bikes and boats...” Of course, you can’t deny it. The world of information is too much with us, to paraphrase Wordsworth.
Re-visiting the Manhattan wife-swapping cell-addicted man, the episode ended with Aaron deciding to give up his always-on wireless communication gear, sell his multimillion-dollar apartment and return to his family’s bosom and turn to simpler things. How long that new lifestyle would last is in the realm of television fiction and might become another episode of a sitcom or a spin-off. Nevertheless, we have to consider the possibility that confronted with an ever increasing deluge of information, the human mind might evolve and adapt and learn to improve the signal-to-noise ratio; new technology might help us to see patterns in what is called noise and clutter. Human evolution has been a struggle to transform nothingness to information, from empty cave walls to primitive carving and murals, from rags and papyrus to manuscript writing, from zero-and-one sheep counting to decimal system to bits and bytes. Tools that help us create information would help us to find patterns and meanings in that information.