Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Digitally Seductive

What digital paradise makes of us

From The Statesman
ND Batra

The Internet has created a new media environment that not only enables people to communicate, discuss and exchange information, give 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 a cyber-environment that can be designed to be persuasive, that can motivate people to act and change their social behaviours.
Stanford University researchers call this rhetorical concept Captology, which according to BJ Fogg: “Focuses on the planned persuasive effects of computer technologies.” It may be the next challenge for software programmers to design virtual environments to motivate people, for example, not to drink and drive, to have healthy sexual behaviour, to avoid pregnancy, to become entrepreneur.
Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School has argued the view that computer codes can be a great source of power in society for the simple reason that most of our activities are taking place in cyberspace nowadays. But the rhetoric of software design, the persuasive code that entices, builds relationships, arouses and fulfils desires and makes the users come back has not been explored in areas other than cybersex and virtual reality Internet games.
There may be a fortune in developing codes that persuade the user to change his attitude, behaviour 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. Islamic jehadists, for example, share one another’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 paradise through suicide bombing, buying and selling on a virtual platform such as e-Bay, or sharing intimacies as companies such as MySpace allow members to do.
Internet communication can transcend face-to-face communication, can be persuasive, and in certain circumstances is even more desirable. The absence of face-to-face cues such as how a person looks and sounds vocal inflections, which might arouse scepticism, are absent in Internet communication, especially 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 chatrooms and instant messaging, communication can become as what one researcher, JB Walther, called “hyperpersonal”, that is, 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 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 as if we are in control of our environment, something that real life might deny us.
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 game 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 some time, that’s what a California teenager Marcus Arnold had tried to do a few years ago. Probably using his knowledge gained from television programmes such “Judge Judy”, and taking advantage of the pseudonymous freedom that a newly started knowledge sharing company 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 15-year-old boy and one day, he said: “I am not what I have been telling you.” 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. Although the free Website (AskMe) closed a few years ago, at its height about 10 million registered visitors posted questions and answers on everything from Armageddon to Zen.
There is so much appetite for knowledge. The seductive power of the Web (and the codes that make it possible) presents one of the greatest challenges to knowledge-creating companies and venture capitalists.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A low-intensity surveillance society

Surveillance: Getting used to it?
ND Batra

From The Statesman

Search companies like Google, Yahoo, AOL and others collect and archive huge amounts of personal data from which can be profiled the behaviour of the user.

A few weeks ago, America On Line, an Internet search company inadvertently released from its archives millions of search queries done by more than 600,000 users during a three-month period. Thought their names were not released but it would not have been difficult to put together the profile of searcher 167845, for example, and what was obsessing him or her.

The questions you ask and the searches you make online or in real life reveal your mind. The American people are quietly submitting to whatever brings them a feeling of assuredness. Protests against intrusiveness by the government and businesses into our personal lives have become muted. We are slipping into a low-intensity surveillance society.

Every time there is a terrorist attack, we feel that the government might be right. Online surveillance devices are being increasingly used by businesses to track users when they surf their websites. Tracking is done unobtrusively and the user can never suspect that he is being watched; nonetheless, the practice is questionable, especially when the Website does not declare in its privacy policy.

Most of us are familiar with cookies, small software programmes the advertisers put on our hard drives to track where we surf so that they can customise the most appropriate advertising message for us to achieve target marketing, reaching the right person with the right message. But a web bug can be programmed to collect whatever data is required without the knowledge of the user. When you look at your online mutual fund statement, or a pornographic site, the web bug too could be monitoring it. Some companies do inform their visitors about the tracking devices they use and for what purposes. Yahoo!, for example, uses web beacon, a single-pixel picture, to count and identify users. A web beacon can track whether a particular message, including junk mail, has been opened and acted upon or not.

Any electronic image that is part of a web page, including a banner ad, can be programmed to act as a beacon and spy on the user. Yahoo! claims that the information enables the company to personalise the surfing experience when a frequent user visits their portal. The company uses beacons to do demographic research on behalf of their clients, but asserts that no personally identifiable information gathered from the beacon research is shared with the clients. Users can opt-out, but most of them don’t know whether the option is available, nor do many of them pay attention to the privacy statement.

Surveillance technologies are not limited to the Net. Several companies are using biometrics, face recognition, radio frequency and global positioning system (GPS) technologies, to keep a watch on their properties and track suspects. Many car rental companies in the USA use GPS to keep track of their rental cars. If a car is stolen or involved in an accident, the company would know the exact location of the car. GPS also enables them to check the speed of a rental car. About five years ago, Acme Rent-a-Car of New Haven, Connecticut charged one of its renters $400 for exceeding the speed limit, which it tracked with GPS; but the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection sided with the renter and did not allow Acme to collect the fine. It also raised an intriguing legal question whether a private company can act as a traffic policeman and penalise the offender.

Many airports have started using digital fingerprint identification technology to conduct background checks without any protest from employees. Face recognition technology is being extensively used not only in airports but also in ballparks, banks and other business establishments. If a suspect turns up, his face is digitally matched in seconds with the image database. It is not a foolproof system; for example, a man with sunglasses could not be identified with face recognition technology. So far no terrorist has been apprehended by face recognition technology, but the security business is booming in the USA.

The US Customs and some airports are using low-dose x-ray machines, such as Body Search, to electronically scan a person for drugs, bombs and contraband. Body Search electronically strips a person naked and projects the image on the screen for scrutiny without the person being asked to take her clothes off – all in the name of security. Hundreds of air travellers, including women, are randomly subjected to electronic Body Search.

An interesting security tracking technology is the radio-frequency identification tag (RFID), which is attached to a suspect’s baggage as he checks in. The tagged baggage is automatically routed to a security area where it is screened with special cameras and sensors for explosives and other hazardous materials. Along with our baggage, we too might have to wear radio-frequency ID tags so that we can be monitored as we move from one airport to another, from country to country via GPS.

Only if we could put an RFID tag on every terrorist!

The most ironic part of being under surveillance is that it has not diminished American innovativeness, creativity and productivity.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

India Celebrates Freedom and Democracy

Freedom under the shadow of hope and terror

ND Batra
From The Statesman

On the occasion of India’s Independence Day observed yesterday, while the world has plunged into gloom because of the pre-emptive discovery of the terrorist plot to blow up ten transatlantic airlines ~ only a month after the horrific train attacks in Mumbai ~ I still believe the good will ultimately prevail.

The bonds between the United States and India are very strong. Terrorism will be finally beaten, if the free world continues cooperating. There is so much common between India and the United States that I can’t love one without the other. Freedom deeply rooted in secularism makes every one a productive citizen in the United States, for the simple reason that when an individual cannot assert his superiority or make a special claim on the basis of his race or religion, he has no choice but to show his natural born abilities and talents to succeed, which has turned the United States into a merit-based a society, more or less.

The idea that success, in whatever terms it is defined, is possible for any one with talent, from Wall Street to sports arena, Silicon Valley to Holly-wood, is essentially everyone’s ambition. It is a secular version of the Biblical oration: “If you knock, it shall open until unto you.” The price of not knocking at the door is that you are left in the cold. There’s no choice but to try and try again, which has made the US a highly competitive society.

Secular freedom has proved productive not only in economic terms, but in every field of human endeavor. It breeds in you a sense of equality, dignity and self-worth, and your heart cries out, Go and take the risk. Every field of activity in the United States teems with talented people drawn from various nationalities, cultures, races, and colors. Americans are so unafraid of the otherness of “others,” though it has not always been so if you recall the burning of witches to Japanese-Americans’ incarceration during WWII and the McCarthy era terrorism.

The foundation of secular freedom was laid in the United States with the Declaration of Independence, as it was done in India when Nehru evoked India’s “Tryst with Destiny” at the mid-night hour on the 15th of August 1947. It has been a long struggle to keep up with the demands of secularism, freedom and equality in the United States as it has been in India. The struggle isn’t over. It will never be over. It has been a long struggle when you consider how much it has taken for African-Americans to reach their present status. A generation ago it would have been impossible to think of an African-American woman occupying one of the most powerful diplomatic and political positions in the United States.

The rise of Condoleezza Rice as US Secretary of State demonstrates the truth that talent matters and freedom has many possibilities. So does the rise of a Muslim scientist to become the President of India; a Sikh to become the Prime Minster of India; an Italian-born Christian woman to become the leader of a major political party. The richest man in India is a Muslim. Some of the most successful and glamorous Bollywood personalities are Muslims. Christians in India run some of the best schools, colleges and hospitals. That’s what India should be celebrating. But the elevation of a few in the United States from the dungeon of invisible oppression might also give a misleading impression that all American Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans are upwardly mobile. Far from it.

The painful truth is that racial profiling is a common occurrence in the United States, which prompts the police sometime to shoot first then ask question, if the non-White person, especially if he is Black, Hispanic, or Middle-East/South Asian-looking, is not properly responsive. In India the equivalent of racial profiling is caste-and-religious profiling. A Muslim might be under suspicion for no reason except that terrorism has become associated with Islamic extremism with its hub in Pakistan. Like the United States, India has a long way to go to eliminate blind and irrational prejudice, though the most heartening aspect of it is that no one is giving up the fight. Acceptance of diversity has become a necessary condition for political survival both in India and the United States, which is another fascinating parallel between two great democracies founded on multiculturalism and secularism and now both fighting Islamic terrorism.

For me freedom has no meaning unless it breeds equality in the sense of equal opportunities for everyone, a level playing field where a person can prove his best and give his best and be rewarded for it. That’s more than a personal sentiment if you consider it from India’s national interest. You cannot have a strong market economy in upwardly perpetual motion unless the best and the brightest are allowed to come forward and compete for and expand economic opportunities.

The marketplace, howsoever Darwinian it might be at times—rather than one’s caste, gender, or religion—should determine the competition and reward the best. The government’s obligation is to build the infrastructure, maintain law and order and take care of the poor because the marketplace cannot solve these problems.

It is only through the power of the open marketplace that minorities and other left-behind-people could be integrated into the fabric of India. Hope is the best front against despair and terrorism.

On this Independence Day let’s keep our hearts and minds open, as Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru would have wanted us to do.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

TV and Attention Disorder

Make TV children-friendly

From The Statesman
By ND Batra

What happens in the cradle is much more important than what is happening in the killing fields of Iraq and Lebanon.

Children’s brain undergoes rapid development in the early years and exposure to violent and sexually explicit television might interfere in the neural wiring of the brain. Research shows that apart from triggering violent behaviour in children, television may be responsible for obesity in children, because instead of playing outside and doing physical activities children become couch potatoes.

A study published in the journal of the American Academy of Paediatrics showed that early exposure to television by children increases the risk of attention disorder. The research done at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center at the University of Washington, Seattle, led by Dr Dimitri Christakis concluded that for every hour of television viewing by children in the one to three age group, the risk of attention disorder increased by nine per cent.

The study did not mention what kind of content caused attention disorder. Would slow repetitive programmes such as Sesame Street, Mr Roger’s Neighborhood, for example, have the same effect as fast moving programmes such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Bugs Bunny? It is important to keep in mind that a child having attention disorder does not necessarily suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD children (and adults) suffer from some chemical imbalance in the brain. They can’t stay still, chatter incessantly, get bored easily, forget things and can’t finish the work they are doing.

To some extent all children show such tendencies, therefore, parents should not jump to hasty conclusions. Attention disorder is a matter of degree. At some point it becomes a serious illness. The question is whether rapid-fire television programmes cause or aggravate the condition.

Or could some programme reverse attention disorder?
While the University of Washington study concluded that an early exposure to bad television programmes might skew brain development, another study showed the tremendous learning potential of television for toddlers. The researchers found that toddlers as young as 10 months have the potential to learn when they watch television. The right kind of television programmes promote intellectual development and could help children to learn language skills, such as matching names to the objects they represent, and do things by watching them being done on television. For example, a toddler could take apart a toy and also put it together after seeing it being done on television, researchers had found. Psychologist Dr Mabel Rice of the University of Kansas concluded from her research on language acquisition that children at a very early age have the potential to learn from television if the programmes were specially made for them, such as Sesame Street.

Infants’ television programmes that create sharp focus on an attractive object, and a friendly person who repeatedly talks about the object stimulates infants’ brain to learn. Music plays a big role in learning. To be sure, fast-paced, slam-dunk children’s cartoon programmes, which are nothing but infomercials for action toys and sugared cereals, are not going to help children anyway except to turn them into passive-aggressive consumers of the multibillion-dollar toy marketplace. What goes into the programme content is important.

Television is not the enemy of children.
Children’s programme makers driven by commercial lust are children’s enemies.

A few years ago, The American Psychological Association suggested four steps that could be taken “to mitigate, moderate and minimise” the toxic impact of violence on children: (1) Watch at least one episode of a programme the child watches to know how violent it is. (2) When viewing together, discuss the violence with the child; why the violence happened and how painful it is. Ask the child how the conflict could have been solved without violence. (3) Explain to the child how violence in entertainment is “faked” and not real. (4) Encourage children to watch programmes with characters that cooperate, help, and care for each other. APA said these programmes have been shown to influence children in a positive way and suggested making “TV violence part of the public health agenda (as with smoking and drunk driving) publicising ~ through a vigorous public information campaign in all information media ~ its perils and effects.”

Television violence in children’s programming has not gone down for the simple reason that Hollywood has passed on the responsibility to parents, expecting them to use the V (violence)-chip to block out objectionable programming. Since each television programme in the USA is rated for violence and sex and all sets have programme or channel-blocking mechanisms, it is left to the parents to protect children from bad television. But the survey shows that parents are not pro-active, partly because of the pressures of daily life. Besides, there is little choice on television.

The First Amendment freedoms have been cornered by Hollywood greed, which has left little incentive for creativity. In this war-torn world, children have become a forgotten constituency. On the minds of most American parents, there are weightier issues: job security, retirement, healthcare, and the seemingly endless Iraq, Afghanistan and now Lebanon.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

A Step For India-US Friednship

Nuclear deal takes an initial step
But ND Batra says Indian diplomats still have their work cut out for them

By ND BatraAsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Those of us who watched last week's debate in the U.S. House of Representative over the United States and India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act of 2006 had very tense moments at the closing.
Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, introduced a motion to recommit the Bill to the House International Relation committee to include a provision that India must make a full commitment to U.S. efforts to isolate Iran in its nuclear ambitions. It was a daring political subterfuge that would have killed the deal.
The intensity of debate over the Markey-Upton motion, and the thin margin (235-192) by which the motion was defeated, showed not only how strongly U.S. lawmakers feel about Iran's development of nuclear weapons, but also that India has significant hurdles to face in making the nuclear deal.
The impression given by the final count, 359 votes to 68, that the House gave overwhelming support to the India-US nuclear deal is misleading. There is a strong substratum of opposition, which cuts across party lines as well as scholarly and journalistic communities, to let India bypass the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and indirectly become a member of the nuclear club.
In the coming months, Indian diplomats have their work cut out for them because some Americans have yet to be fully persuaded that an India-U.S. civil nuclear deal is good for the United States.
Of course, the nuclear deal is good for India.
By offering India "full civilian nuclear energy cooperation," President Bush made a bold act of statesmanship to establish long-term strategic and economic relations with a country that many Europeans and Americans are beginning to perceive as a reliable global partner. The pragmatic partnership to let India grow and play its rightful constructive role in global affairs is not about containing any other rising power. It is rather a partnership to let India develop as an alternative model of economic growth without compromising fundamental freedoms.
The rapid economic growth of Indian economy, which some estimate will increase 8 to 9 percent a year for the next few decades primarily through the efforts of its rising entrepreneurial class, would lift millions of Indians out of poverty. An economically dynamic India would make the military containment of any rising Asian power unnecessary. The more equal players there are on the Asian stage, the less chance there is for a single hegemonic power to rise.
The deal would remove hurdles in India's search for alternative energy sources to fuel its growing economy. In a joint statement with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Bush administration has accepted India as a "responsible state with advanced nuclear technology," recognizing it as an exception to the rule, a country that should "acquire the same benefits and advantages as other such states."
After the Senate vote in September, when Congress finally approves the deal, India will be able to buy nuclear fuel for its existing nuclear power plants and shop to build new ones. In the course of time, as trust increases and diplomatic relations further improve, a whole new world of sophisticated American technology would be open to India, enabling it to leapfrog past decades sluggish economic growth. In return India has agreed to do what other nuclear powers have been doing under the nonproliferation treaty -- to open some of its civilian nuclear power plants to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection and to continue the moratorium on nuclear testing. Its nuclear military arsenal would remain off limits.
Critics in India, particularly the Left parties, who fear that the deal would create co-dependency relations with the United States need to consider how China has benefited from its strong economic partnership without compromising its sovereignty. India must go beyond information technology outsourcing and penetrate deeply into corporate America.
An Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline -- if not a pipedream -- is only a very remote possibility; but even if it materializes, it may not be enough to meet India's gargantuan need for energy. Clean coal technology, nuclear energy and solar power are practical alternatives to which the United States has opened its doors.
Prime Minster Manmohan Singh was right when he told a joint U.S. Congress session last year, "There are partnerships based on principle, and partnership based on pragmatism. I believe we are at a juncture where we can embark on partnership that we can draw both on principle as well as pragmatism."
For the next decade, India's diplomacy should have a single-minded focus on one primary goal: speedy economic growth, which a partnership with the United States would hasten. Ironically, the opponents of the deal in the United States are banking on the Indian Left to scuttle the deal in the Indian Parliament.
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.
Date Posted: 8/1/2006