Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Who is looking after your children?

Let’s talk about little children

From The Statesman
ND Batra
Long before children in the US enter school, they have already been exposed to thousands of hours of television shows including commercials. Seventy per cent of day-care centres use television, according to KidsHealth, a website giving medical information for parents. In fact, children spend more time in front of the idiot box than in school.Several studies have shown that excessive television watching unaccompanied by parental supervision causes not only violent behaviour but obesity. Why obesity? Because children become couch potatoes, especially those from the middle class who are likely to keep snacking and drinking sodas. Obesity leads to type 2 childhood diabetes, according the National Institute of Health.Worse still, a study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics said that excessive early exposure to television increases the risk of attention disorder in children. Children’s brains undergo rapid development in the early years and exposure to television might interfere in the natural process of neural wiring.

Research at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center at the University of Washington, led by Dr Dimitri Christakis, concluded that for every hour of television viewing by children in the 1-3 age group, the risk of attention disorder increased by 9 per cent. The research didn’t mention what kind of content caused attention disorder, however.

Perhaps some programmes for pre-schoolers may have a more salutary effect than animated shows.Before we get panicky, it should be kept in mind that a child having attention disorder doesn’t necessarily suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD children suffer from a chemical imbalance in the brain. They can’t stay still or control their actions, chatter incessantly, get bored easily, forget things and can’t finish work begun. 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 what kinds of television shows cause or aggravate the condition. Or could some shows reverse attention disorder?While the University of Washington study concluded that indiscriminate early exposure might skew brain development, a study in the late 1980s showed television had great learning potential for toddlers. The researchers found that toddlers as young as 10 months can learn when they watch television.

The right kind of shows promote intellectual development and can help children acquire language skills , such as matching names to the objects, and do things by watching them being done on television. The research on language acquisition done on infants by psychologist Mabel Rice of the University of Kansas indicated it was as possible for children to learn from television as from a book if programmes were designed for learning. Unfortunately, they aren’t.To be sure, fast-paced Saturday morning children’s shows that are nothing but marketing ploys for toys and sugary cereals are not going to help children. All they will do is turn them into consumers in the multibillion-dollar toy and cereal marketplace.

But how do we explain the apparent contradiction between Dr Christakis’s research that television may cause attention disorder and Dr Rice’s that it has the potential to teach infants? Apparently, it matters what is put into a show, the purpose and the content. Television is an extraordinary pliable tool that can be used for senseless entertainment or for brain development. Children’s television programmes should not be left to the marketplace entirely. Parents and teachers should have the final say.The American Psychological Association (APA) has suggested steps that could be taken to neutralise the undesirable impact of purposeless violence on children. It says watch at least one episode of the show the child watches to know how violent it is; watch together and discuss the show with the child, why the violence happened and how painful it is. Ask the child how the conflict could have been solved without violence; explain how violence in entertainment is not real; and encourage children to watch shows with characters that cooperate and care for each other. APA also suggested making television violence “part of the public health agenda (like smoking and drunken driving) and publicizing its perils and effects”.

Since each television show in the US is rated for violence and sex, and all sets have a show- and channel-blocking device called V-Chip, it is left to parents to protect children from bad television. But a survey shows that parents are not as proactive as expected, partly because of the grinding pressures of daily life. Besides, there is very little choice on television because all shows are made with commercial recipes. Sometimes I feel fundamental freedoms have been overpowered by commercialism.

In this election year, none of the three candidates, neither Democrat contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama nor the Republican nominee John McCain, has seriously talked about children, except occasionally about the lack of universal health insurance.

So far as parents are concerned, there are much weightier issues: flight of jobs and growing insecurity, bleak prospects for retirement, mortgage crises, rising healthcare costs and out of control gasoline and food prices. And how can anyone forget the burden of Iraq, today and tomorrow?

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The pope, Islam and Tibet

Speaking in two voices: The pope, Islam and Tibet

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the US came at a very critical time. Just before his visit, the American people had witnessed massive global protests about the Olympic torch, which has increasingly become a symbol of Chinese repression against Tibetans and their religious beliefs rather than a celebration of freedom.

The 81-year-old pontiff summed up the crisis of faith in the modern world of unbridled free market capitalism when he asked, “Who can deny that the present moment is a crossroads?” He was admonishing his followers that while the church’s path is known, there is a danger of people taking the road less frequented. In spite of the promises of rising economic prosperity and globalisation, “we see clear signs of a disturbing breakdown in the very foundation” of the social order. American society accepts unmarried couples, unwed mothers, bachelor fathers, same-sex civil unions, multiple sex partners and all kinds conjugal or parental arrangements. Some Americans claim it their religious right to be polygamous. All lifestyles cannot be equally acceptable, according to the church orthodoxy.

The pope asked a meeting of bishops: "Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday and then during the week promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practising Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalised, to promote sexual behaviour contrary to Catholic moral teaching or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?” His views on abortion and homosexuality appeal to a much wider audience than 67.5 million American Catholics, the largest single religious denomination in the US. Although the pope opposed the Iraq war in 2003, on abortion and homosexuality he has a kindred soul in the White House, where he was treated as a most honoured guest.In spite of the settlement of thousands of cases of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, which cost the church $2 billion, the pope’s visit was overshadowed by a haunting sense of shame and embarrassment. But I wondered if he was trying to spread the blame across all of American society when he asked, “What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?” Although he met some people who were sexually abused as children by clerics, there was no profound sense of atonement in his speeches to the American public. It seemed he was trying to do damage control ~ the way a multinational corporation does when it is hit with a scandal ~ and bring the faithful back to the fold.

Throughout his visit, the pontiff talked about protecting individual rights without any reference to the recent bloody events in Tibet. Perhaps the pontiff does not think much of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama or other religions. He has pooh-poohed the idea of ‘relativism’, which means that other religious paths are not as good Catholicism. Last December the scheduled meeting between Pope Benedict and the Dalai Lama was cancelled because China protested that the meeting would “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”. The Vatican has been trying to restore diplomatic ties with China and assert its supremacy over the Catholic Church there, which of course China won’t accept.

While calling “for a dialogue of the Christian faith with the modern world, and for a dialogue between all cultures and religions”, Pope Benedict uttered unpardonably inflammatory words against Islam, at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, Germany, in 2005. He quoted Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who in an exchange with a Persian scholar said, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”The pope failed to imagine the reaction such an insulting statement would have caused and later tried to apologise. “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought,” he said.

Papal apologists on both sides of the Atlantic did not succeed in assuaging the outraged Muslims.
But what was the pope thinking when he chose a text that did not represent his own or the Catholic Church’s views? When on 19 April 2005, Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger became the pope, he became the defining voice of the Catholic Church. He could not have been unaware of what he was saying.No doubt the pope was trying to warn the global Catholic community about the gulf that separates it from Islam. His views are not very far from those of President George W Bush, who told the National Endowment for Democracy a few years ago that “Islamic terrorist attacks serve a clear and focused ideology, a set of beliefs and goals that are evil, but not insane. Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant Jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism.” The Vatican like most of the West does not look at Islam as a humane, gentle and kind religion.

In spite of his ambivalence about other religions and his diplomatic attempts to avoid offending China, the pope in his address to the UN called for outside intervention if a state failed to protect human rights: “If states are unable to guarantee such protection the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations charter and in other international instruments.”

Perhaps the pontiff should put his words into action, meet with the Dalai Lama and condemn Chinese atrocities in Tibet. Would the pontiff dare?

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

As security increases, would freedom decline?

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Last Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a plan for a nationwide text messaging system that would alert Americans on their cell phones about terrorist attacks, natural disasters, campus shootings (like the one that occurred in Virginia Tech in 2007), child abductions or a killer on the loose.

The initiative originates from a 2006 federal law, the Warning Alert and Response Network Act (WARN Act) that requires upgrading the national emergency system. Cell phone subscribers won’t be charged for the alert messages they receive from Uncle Sam; nonetheless, they could opt out. Although the wireless industry has endorsed the plan, according to news reports, service providers’ participation is voluntary. Target date for fully implementing the FCC plan is 2010.

Any organisation, private or public, that mass-distributes information instantly can also collect it from its users instantly. 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. They also cooperate with authoritarian governments as a price for working in their countries, especially when the lure of profits is irresistible.

There are cases of Internet search companies that have inadvertently released from their archives millions of search queries. Even if the names were not released, it would not have been difficult to put together the profile of searcher XYZ, for example, and what was motivating his search. The questions XYZ asks and the searches he makes online or in real life would reveal his mind. Web users everywhere are quietly submitting to whatever brings them a feeling of comfort and certainty. Protests against intrusiveness by the government and businesses into our personal lives have become muted. We are lapsing into a non-obtrusive surveillance society.

Every time there is a terrorist attack text message, we would 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 inconspicuously and the user can never suspect that he is being watched.

Most of us are familiar with cookies, Web bugs, small software programs the advertisers put on our hard drives to track where we surf so that they can customise the most fitting advertising message for us to achieve target marketing, reaching the right person with 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 financial statement, or a health Website, the digital bug too could be monitoring it. Some companies do inform their visitors about the tracking devices they use and for what purposes. A Web beacon can track whether a particular message, including junk mail, has been opened and acted upon. 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.

Companies claim that the information enables them to personalise the surfing experience when a frequent user visits their portal. 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. Clandestine observation 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 United States use GPS to keep track of their rental cars. If a car is stolen or is involved in an accident, the company would know the exact location of the car. But can a company withhold information from the police?

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. So far we don’t know how many terrorists have been apprehended by face recognition technology, but the security business is booming in the United States.

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 contrabands. 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. Depending upon the level danger alert, 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. From centralised text messaging on cell phones to radio frequency ID tagging, government and global corporate interests are converging.

Imagine the possibilities ~ good and evil!
What might a democratic country with a base of 300 million cell phones do?
Or think of an authoritarian rising super power texting a message to its captive billions: Beware of the devil in monk’s clothing preaching compassion.

(ND Batra, the author of Digital Freedom, teaches communication and diplomacy at Norwich University)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Brand India

Becoming a global brand and keeping it

From The Statesman
ND Batra

It is doubtful if Ford Motor Company would have sold a high-profile brand portfolio like Jaguar and Land Rover to a Chinese auto company. Tata is embedded in a multicultural open society where workers’ rights cannot be easily trifled with. Besides, Tata knows how to communicate in a global environment.

Tata is good because India is good.
Mittal Steel adopted a global corporate diplomacy to persuade Europeans that the Mittals were no carpetbaggers; they’re coming as partners. Mittal Steel’s takeover of Arcelor might have made Tata acquisitions of global brands comparatively smooth.

As corporate India expands globally, it must communicate well. Excellent communication is the key to effective corporate public affairs and global diplomacy. Without a comprehensive communications strategy that embraces all important stakeholders, who interact with the company and form its business environment, global corporate diplomacy cannot be effective. In this age of global transparency enforced by the “always on news cycle”, the Internet, the YouTube, and reporting standards established by global watchdogs like Global Reporting Initiative, multinationals can neither run nor hide.

Companies just cannot afford not to communicate about an issue that concerns stakeholders in their business environment. And since they have to communicate, they must do it efficiently. Corporate communication is essentially persuasion, even when a company is just trying to inform stakeholders.

Power to persuade is the soft power that transnational companies apply to win the hearts and minds of not only consumers but public at large. But to do so in a multichannel-Webbed environment over which they don’t have much control, companies need to be diplomatically smart, especially when a company has to operate in a foreign environment.

There are many reasons for doing so. For example, companies have become de-localised (Tata, Mittal Steel, IBM, Wipro, for example). They are no longer woven into the fabric of local communities only as they used to be in the pre-Internet age. Company employees do their work in a virtual environment and their mobility makes them less concerned with what is happening in their neighbourhood. In an environment like this it would take extraordinary efforts for global companies to communicate and present their position in a persuasive manner.

That’s why Sovereign Wealth Funds are so threatening. They are faceless behemoths and who knows they may have hidden political agendas. Perception is reality and many people perceive global companies as more powerful than the government, which draws enhanced critical scrutiny from the media and NGOs. The image of power, which global companies project, raises expectations as well as fear in the minds of the people. Growing expectations of corporate responsibility create unusual challenges for corporate communications and diplomacy. Because of corporate mismanagement and scandals in the United States (the subprime crisis that has rocked global finance) and Europe (Siemens corruption is the latest), public watch groups expect greater openness and transparency from companies.

A corporation in India may get away with any kind of behaviour, but that may not be acceptable in the United States or Europe. Since expectation of corporate behaviour differs from country to country, corporate communications strategies must take such variables into account. It is necessary to point out that effective communication takes place in a cultural context.

Understanding the host country’s political culture is very important for corporate communication and diplomacy to be effective, a lesson corporate India must learn quickly. Political culture includes the legal system, and the rules and regulations, which must not be violated in the host country. Good corporate behaviour may not be rewarded; bad behaviour is not only punished but also sullies the reputation of the company.

Since each country has its own enduring cultural symbols and icons, doing effective global corporate communication is quite a challenge. What is culturally and politically correct in one country may not be so in another country. Not understanding national cultural differences can create a nightmare for companies doing business abroad. Moreover, global corporate communication in order to be effective must be aimed at specific groups or audiences especially relevant to the company. They are: customers, financial analysts, government authorities, and non-business stakeholders such as NGOs.

Customers are the most important constituency for a company. They are the reason for doing the business and a very important source of a company’s strength. In a competitive environment, where one product may not be qualitatively much different from the other, keeping the customer coming back to the company requires communication at multiple levels ~ product, price, image, trust and most of all reputation the company.

Trust and reputation are the basis of communication with customers. Communicating effectively with market analysts and financial journalists is very important because it is through them that a company manages its image of financial strength and growth.

Raising false expectations for short-term benefits can destroy a company’s reputation. And sometime when analysts and financial journalists instead of being impartial and objective reporters and critics become part of the vicious conveyer belt, they destroy public trust and provoke harsher regulations. Corporate behaviour is regulated by rules and regulations, which are framed in the public interest and in consultation with the industry. But once the rules are in place, not only authorities but also public interest groups, many of which have established global network to monitor compliance, closely watch companies’ errant behaviour.

Recent Microsoft ordeal in Europe for anti-trust violation is a case in point. The US transparency law (Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002) was enacted in the aftermath of Enron’s collapse and other scandals.

There are thousands of global NGOs who have made it their business to scrutinise the behaviour of local, regional and multinational companies to protect the public and environment from exploitation. With clear and well-defined demands, global NGOs with huge and broad-based financial and legal support system can swing into campaign mode against a corporation and even a country very quickly and very efficiently.

Think how NGOs are pressuring governments and global corporations to boycott the Beijing Summer Olympics unless China lifts its stranglehold on Tibet. China has yet to understand the power of the shopping cart, especially in Europe which values quality as well as human rights.

(ND Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

China's enemy not in Dharamsala

China’s enemy in cyberspace

ND Batra

The ongoing struggle in Tibet shows how new Web technologies — cell phones, digital photography, texting and e-mail — are making it harder for the Chinese Communist authorities to control the struggle for self-rule and freedom. Wireless global networks are shrinking space and time, turning geographic space into cyberspace, and bringing people together for collaboration in the international political space. Since the renewed struggle began in early March with the Buddhist monks’ demonstrations in Lhasa, the whole world has been experiencing the agony of Tibet in a virtual environment created by global networked communications. As China dreams of Olympic glory, Tibetans don’t want to be left behind and they dream of the Dalai Lama returning to his homeland.

Telepresence technologies help us improve our awareness and responsiveness to the human condition in remote corners of the world. Every human activity — from Tibetan monks crying in public, “We have no freedom, we have no freedom”, to the most complex mathematical problem — is nothing but information. Every human activity that takes place in the real world can be turned into a digital stream and instantly distributed globally through networks, thus extending the reach of humans. Digital images can be stored, retrieved and replayed anywhere, as you see today in all major US and European newspapers which not only archive printed stories but also videos of the ongoing struggle in Tibet.

Of course, the same information can also be transformed into intelligence about human behaviour regarding commerce, national security or any other social or political activities. Political discourse, slogans, chants and cries for freedom become indistinguishable as they converge in a digital flow and surge through cyberspace. The Chinese may be prevented from seeing Tibet on YouTube but the rest of the world will be playing it again and again. If a picture is worth 10,000 words, video is forever.

Convergence, instantaneity and feedback make the Internet the most powerful medium of communication and resistance ever developed. Since the traditional media, including books, television, newspapers, magazines, radio, music and interpersonal communication (instant messaging), are converging on the Internet as a multimedia stream into which anyone can plug in, their power increases manifold and in ways whose implications the Chinese authorities still don’t understand. YouTube, for example, has given Tibet a constant state of telepresence in the European and American political and public discourse.

Normally we talk of offshoring manufacture and outsourcing research and development and other forms of intellectual and professional work to other countries; but China, because of its paranoid nationalism, has been offshoring the Tibetan people’s struggle and Buddhism to Europe and the USA, thus globalising Tibet. The Internet, thus, is revolutionary in the sense that it is lowering barriers for cross-border convergence of cultures.

Although ancient people tried to abridge space and time by sending messages, especially in wartime, through drums and smoke signals, not until the invention of the 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 possible. The telegraph altered the geography-based metaphor of communication, which ceased to be synonymous with transportation. As the telegraph triggered the development of new technologies in the early part of the 20th century, as the telephone, radio, and television became ubiquitous, 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 texting and instant messaging has a different feel of space and time than those of the pre-digital era. The mobile phone is the door to cyberspace and once you are there, you are simultaneously in a synchronous and asynchronous world, a world that gives a a greater sense of freedom and control than the real world. That’s how international organisations in the forefront of Tibetan liberation are helping the Tibetan people to continue their resistance.

The Chinese dilemma is that as more and more people experience Tibetan resistance in cyber media, the authorities don’t know what to do about it. Under the advice of public relations firms, China conducted a controlled tour for journalists but that would not help to “re-educate” the untamed minds and hearts of the Tibetan people.The enemy of China is not in Dharamsala but in cyberspace.

Canadian scholar Herald Innis said in The Bias of Communication that a new medium of communication created a specific cultural shift and changed our concept of space and time, with tremendous cultural consequences. “A medium of communication has an important influence on the dissemination of knowledge over space and time and it becomes necessary to study its characteristics in order to appraise its influence in its cultural setting.”

The Chinese public relations offensive included inviting a handful of selected diplomats on an officially-controlled trip, a visit that came after foreign journalists on a tour of Lhasa encountered a group of 30 Buddhist monks shouting that there was no freedom in Tibet. The Han Chinese “demographic aggression” into Tibet, which the Dalai Lama referred to last Saturday, was glaringly apparent during the monks-led anti-Chinese demonstration that began on 10 March, on the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation.

Besides its crude public relations propaganda and diplomatic intimidations, China is also fighting a cyber campaign with its Operation Golden Shield, the so-called Great Firewall of China. Of course, technologies of freedom can also be used for repression, especially inside China. But there is a cyber-world beyond China, over which no one has any control.

(ND Batra teaches communication and diplomacy at Norwich University and can be reached at narainbatra@gmail.com)