“Tsunami of e-waste” can be a multi-billion dollar opportunity

Too much of a good thing is also bad, it is said. In terms of rising number of gadgets and resultant e-waste around us, the above refrain surely makes a lot of sense. The question that may beg an answer is what is e-waste in the first place? The term e-waste is referred to electronic waste. It’s an umbrella term, which incorporates pretty much everything that has a plug, a microprocessor and runs on electricity or battery. They include smartphones, analog mobile phones, calculators, cameras, microwaves ovens, refrigerators, transistor, TVs, wi-fi modems, personal computers, laptops, monitors, air conditioners and many others.
Over the last 25 years these connected devices have brought tremendous ease in our lives as their numbers have grown. The strategy of “saturation-penetration” has resulted in a society that is hyper connected, generating gigabytes of information, leading to ever more powerful gadgets that increase the scope and depth of connectivity in our daily lives. However, this positive feedback loop has also resulted in an unintended consequence of piling mass of waste, which sadly isn’t virtual but actual and takes up a lot of space and poses extreme health hazards too.
“Tsunami of waste”
Till a few years ago electronic waste wasn’t considered worth enough to be categorized as a separate waste segment but within eight short years they have come to overwhelm the civilization from individual homes to landfills.
In 2014 the total e-waste generated globally stood at 41 million metric tons while this year it was 48.5 million metric tons, a jump of 19.8 percent. If the global acquisition rate of smart devices continues than according to the UN report (Global e-Waste Monitor 2018) we would be overwhelmed by a “Tsunami of e-waste” producing 120 million metric tons of e-waste annually by 2050. The Times of India in its info-graphics (dated January 26-01-2019) says that the total amount of e-waste in 2018 alone was equivalent of 125000 jumbo jets. These many jets haven’t been produced as yet. So the seemingly small gadgets in our homes have a much larger environmental impact than we credit them for. While every country, at least a small digitally active section of the society in every country, is guilty of generating their share of e-waste, there is no price for guessing who are the usual suspects here. Mostly the highly developed and consequently the most connected and digitally hyperactive societies of North America, Western Europe, Japan and South Korea are the ones generating more than fare share of e-waste. They dump this uncomfortable cargo on to countries like Egypt, Brazil, Ghana and Eastern Europe. Countries like China and India are unique as they are generating their own huge pile of e-waste as well as receiving it from the developed destinations.
A big unknown
Till today policy makers around the world have not been able to evolve an international consensus or a national plan to effectively deal with e-waste. There are many entrepreneurs and some geeks who have created patented technologies and processes to deal with the problem but mostly the politicians and policymakers as well as large manufacturers of these items world over are either groping in the dark or acting like ostrich, hoping the problem will somehow vanish.
As such today 80 percent of the e-waste either lies in our houses, or sold as scrap, which is a very poor substitute of professional recycling or is thrown into landfill.
So if we go back to our jumbo jet analogy, today waste amounting to a total of 100000 jumbo jets is thrown into landfill every year or 800 laptops every second.
A pile of opportunity
The seemingly daunting and gloomy picture presented by the growing pile of e-waste also hides a billion dollar opportunity for recycling and circular economy. The same UN report says that the present e-waste is worth $62 billion annually, if right protocols are applied by the companies and local as well as national governments.
It is because this waste is phenomenally rich in many metals some of them rare like indium and palladium. They also contain gold, copper, iron and nickel along with ceramic, silicon, industrial plastic etc.
If at 48 million metric tons the global value of e-waste stands at $62 billion than by 2050 when the e-waste generation would be at 120 million metric tons the value would be a $ 180 billion at current price. Even today $62 billion is more than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 123 nations.
So clearly this is the business opportunity that needs to be harnessed with right amount of will and consistency. New out of the box systems need to be in place. Right now small-scale companies around the world are working in the field of recycling e-waste by extracting various minerals and other materials from the discarded products and selling them to companies up the manufacturing chain.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The present lot doesn’t have the ambition or the ability to handle the gigantic task at hand.
A more comprehensive plan is the need of the hour and a “cradle to cradle” design approach embedded in product manufacturing will have deeper and far reaching consequences than the present “cradle-to-grave” approach. The large manufacturers will have to install their own facilities for recycling and would also need to invest in their product design to minimize waste as much as possible at the source itself. The product should also be designed in a manner that it’s easy to dis-assemble it and send every last nut and bolt into various recycling units.
In the new approach the companies can enter into an agreement with the consumers for a time frame ranging from 3 to five and up to 10 years depending upon the product. Under the agreement the company will buyback the product and offer a decent discount to the consumer who comes back with the old product in reasonably good condition that natural deterioration due to daily use offers. This product will go to their recycling plants.
This way the company will have a steady flow of raw material or at least a large part of it and captive consumer base while the consumer will get new and energy and resource efficient products at a competitive price at right intervals.
It can be a win-win situation for both. However, if the companies indulge in profit maximization by offering only nominal discounts and jack up prices of new products under the garb of inflation and proprietary royalty, people would rather use their old stuff longer than they should and will have no motivation to trade off the older equipment. In time it would increase the pressure on landfill, increase the cost of material acquisition of the companies and would lead to bad press in an age of environmentally aware world (read press and the NGOs).
So to save the company and the consumer, both should sit down and evolve a future strategy of product design, delivery and consumer engagement so that both can ride the “tsunami of e-waste” rather than being swept by it.

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This one CSR initiative can bridge the skill gap in India

About two years ago a FICCI-E&Y (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry and Ernst & Young) report said that nine of ten MBAs graduating from colleges were unemployable. Same is the case with many engineering and other general colleges. The quality of the graduates in both the hard skills (technical or job specific) and soft skills (presentation, conduct, interactive abilities, etiquettes and leadership qualities) are in short supply, to put it mildly.
The central, as well as state governments, have launched various schemes to improve the technical as well as general education. The central government has also launched a skill development programme in a mission mode and yet the skill gap refuses to go. On the contrary the gulf between the industry demand and what the schools and institute supplies have been increasing by the day.
A talent manager in a company was ruing the fact that they don’t find a fit for their company’s needs among the fresh graduates. So they take in raw talent and nurture it later when the talent is ripe where her potential can be fully utilised its already time for them to fly to greener pastures.
Over a period of time, a short and medium term solution is emerging which can act as a template for the beleaguered corporate and manufacturing sector before large-scale systemic changes take place sometime in the distant future.
Tap into ITIs
A few years ago Maruti Suzuki Industries Limited adopted the Elathur ITI (Industrial Technical Institute) in Kozhikode, Kerala. The private company helped the government education centre to spruce up its infrastructure, upgrade it, enrich the curriculum and trained the trainers at the centre as well as worked on the softer skills of the trainees to increase their chance of employability.
The result was that within no time all the 90 graduates were absorbed either within the company or got a job at private workshops.
However, this is just a beginning today’s corporate entities, as well as manufacturing giants, can benefit from the experiences of the early movers to fix all the bugs in adoption and its smooth as well as profitable execution.
Connect, Consolidate & Upgrade
As there is a wide chasm between industry need and what the educational institutes are churning in terms of human capital the corporate world should sit together and think through the problem of impending Industrial Revolution 4.0.
Using the fundamentals of backward integration a company can map out its need as well as the needs of its sector in the next decade. Based on that they should study the curriculum of an ITI that is closest to their manufacturing plant and adopt it either in full or in parts. They should then work with the ITI faculty to re-programme the curriculum to suit their needs and the need arising in their entire sector.
The curriculum should be renewed every two to three years keeping the fast pace of change in the sector in mind and the trainers should undergo simultaneous upgrade programmes through the year with the help of online training manuals as well as offline training sessions. But preferably they should not be conducted during holidays or long summer breaks as that would engender resentment. It should go hand in hand through the academic session.
Once the human capital produced is of a quality that fits the industry standards the company should make it known to other companies that they can tap into the resource base for good quality human capital. However, the first right of refusal to hire would be with the company that has been supporting or has adopted the said ITI.
This way they would not only be investing the lesser amount to train a raw graduate by hiring him or her for a salary and then going through the pain of seeing them leave, they would also help enlarge the pool of employable workers.
In time the number of graduates with the right skills and requisite experience will increase and the pool will keep enriching itself by the fresh dose of new talent. The moment company realises its intervention has created enough professionals where a glut is imminent it should recalibrate its focus on other skills where there is an existing or an emerging skill gap.

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Communication is Key for Effective CSR Implementation

There was a news item in the papers today that said the Delhi Government has embarked on a plan to treat to sewage water for drinking purpose. For this, it would take the sewage water upstream from Delhi and release it in Yamuna. Later the same water, purified due to natural flow, would be trapped at Pala village at the outskirts of Delhi and treated further before being released for consumption.
One reason for employing this expensive technique is because the mere thought of drinking the water which you flushed sometime ago is plain yuck!
But this is where communication comes in. The government should have invested a bit of its budget in creating awareness among the consumers. Groups of community leaders, old people, as well as women’s groups, should have been taken through the entire process and sensitized about the process of water treatment. A sustained effort for a couple of years involving many such groups would have softened them to the idea of accepting the treated water.
However, as the state government has lost a lot of time in putting the plan together and getting it off the ground for various reasons, now it has fallen on the tried and tested method of first completing the project and employing an expensive technique that they feel would automatically convince the end user.
The biggest CSR entity in any country (read the government) is not the only one that faces such communication challenges. Almost all the corporate entities who are into the CSR space have been in this space for some time or the other.
The challenge is two-fold. Convince the hierarchy within about a CSR plan and then go out to elicit the support of various stakeholders who would either be a part of the project on the ground or beneficiaries or both.
This calls for a stage-wise, staggered internal as well as external communication plan.
The first component of the plan should be to bring the company management, workforce and external stakeholders on the same page. Everyone should know where they are going.
The second stage should be to clearly spell out the shared vision and seek everyone’s approval.
In the third stage, consensus should be sought about what action, responsibility, and commitments are expected from each stakeholder. Deadlines can also be weaved in at this stage.
From then it would be about constant monitoring or as they say sticking to the plan, until and unless there is some major crisis that has hit the project. At this stage, you will have to go through the entire process once again to bring everyone back on track.

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Green Wall to Firewall Delhi against Dust-Storms

The Delhi government has initiated a programme to plant 3.2 million or 32 lakh trees around the periphery of Delhi as well as Yamuna flood plains. The move is seen as definitive step to combat the dust load that gets deposited in Delhi whenever there is a dust storm emanating from Western India especially Rajasthan.
Plan Details
All the government agencies have been given targets and have been requested to ensure that the survival rate of the plants is at least 70 percent. For the first time care is being taken that all the plants are of native variety including Pilkhan, goolar, mango, mahua, peepal, neem, banyan, berry, amla, jamun, amaltas, haara and, bahera.
There is provision of two audits one in March 2019 and the other in early 2020 by a third party to ensure maximum survival.
Uniqueness
The plan is unique as it insists on planting native trees. It also talks about third party audit for transparency. This is critical as there have been many green drives in Delhi during the last two decades with varying degrees of success. It has led to many claims and counter claims. People insist that if the earlier plantation drives were done rightly the green cover would have been enough to deal with the crisis of dust storms.
Challenges
Even in the present plan the Forest department which has the best results as far as survival rate of plants are concerned (on an average 70%) will be planting only 4.2 lakh (4020000) trees while the agency which has been tasked to plant the maximum number of trees is Delhi Development Authority (DDA). Plantation, raising forests, working on green covers is not its core competence. And yet it will plant ten lakh or a million trees.
Similarly the three Municipal Corporations which cover almost the 90 percent of the city population are tasked to plant four lakh (400000) trees while the NDMC or New Delhi Municipal Corporation which looks after only a small fraction of Delhi (Lutyens Delhi) will plant 3 lakh or 300000 trees.
So it would be interesting to see how the various civic agencies with different jurisdictions reporting either to the state as well as the central government are going to pull this ambitious plan off successfully.
The Way Forward
The Delhi Government initiative should be complement by the central government as well as the state governments of Haryana and Rajasthan. It is said that to weed out the problem strike at the root.
The dust storms emanate from Rajasthan. It’s an arid land with vast deserts. The winds blow from this region gather a lot of dust on their way in Rajasthan’s hinterland as well as Haryana, which too are arid and have sparse green cover, that lie in its path up to Delhi. These regions are Jaipur and Alwar in Rajasthan and Manesar and Gurgaon in Haryana.
The governments of the both the states should also initiate simultaneous green walls between Jaipur-Ajmer, Alwar-Neemrana at Manesar and then between Gurgaon and Faridabad. This will create four circuit breakers for the dust storm travelling from the west and absorb a large amount of dust before it reaches Delhi.
Green walls much before Delhi will not only help improve the local climate but also improve the qualitative and quantitative effectiveness of Delhi’s green wall.

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LET’S TALK SERIES: Why online activism doesn’t go beyond a point

The hyper-connected world is a doubled edged sword. Today it is very easy, quick and economical to launch an agitation, campaign or a revolution with the help of social media, smart phones, internet and telecommunication devices.
Be it Arab Spring seven years ago, or #metoo or #timesup or #iamwhatever campaigns they were created in a day and were all over the world within a short span of weeks. But the problem is it is becoming very difficult to sustain them beyond a season.
This maybe because once the revolution becomes global people from all walks of life start contributing to it. They bring their personal stories, interpretations and also react from their position of understanding and evolution. This sudden information avalanche leads to sensory overload among the followers or foot soldiers as well as onlookers who sit on the fringe gauging where to take a plunge or not.
Psychologists have been saying that humans are not programmed to such high levels of sensory and information onslaughts as is witnessed in the age of hyper connection over the last one decade.
This leads to a slight or complete shutdown among the recipient of the information. They either tune off or tune out of the constant barrage of information. This is reflected in their deleting information without reading it, blocking information source, or rolling their eyes with a silent “there you go” expression.
While they are shutting down from one hyperventilating issue another one crops up to demand their attention and before you know their attention is swept away by new surf of excitement.
In the new age of internet and social media, the crowd-sourced information is the king. However, most of the social media campaigns for change or justice begin with a personal hurt with a very personal villain as a target. And that is the Achilles heel of every modern day online revolution.
The moment personal hurt is resolved or the personal villain is punished or falls from grace the wider audience feels their work is over and it starts craving for something new. It leaves the basic issue simmering in the background.
Those who know the art of manipulating crowd behaviour know that the crowd is a like a primitive animal. It feels simple emotions of fear, anger and hurt. But its memory is extremely short. So they let the issue simmer for a week or two and then make a token action which is enough to assuage the feelings of a group or massage the egos of cyber warriors, revolutionaries and evangelists.
They feel empowered and experience a momentary sense of heightened self worth. Exhausted by a couple of weeks of cyber petitioning or sharing articles they now itch to jump to something new as the “inordinately long” engagement has drained their energy considerably.
This is first article in a series where I would be posing a question the readers. Everyone is welcome to present their views. I would request the readers to post their comments which would serve as the basis of other article on this particular strand of discussion.

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Politics in the age of digital technology

Every ordinary mortal is a potential giant killer
In the last week of 2016 when the world was busy making New Year resolutions or was out celebrating on the beaches or in the hills, a low ranking Indian para-military officer stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest. He uploaded a small video clip on Youtube and on Facebook citing pathetic conditions in which he was being kept thanks to the alleged negligence and corrupt practices of immediate seniors. As if on cue two more such videos surfaced, followed by rant through video streaming by a very high ranking military officer who was superseded for the post of chief of Indian army.
The central government panicked. It resorted to quick and clumsy denial. Casting aspersion on the character and mental state of the soldiers and swiftly acted against them. Simultaneously soldiers and their seniors were transferred from their posts and an inquiry was ordered into the allegations levelled by the soldiers that raised a storm in the virtual world. It also openly threatened the senior officer of dire consequences.
The sudden information ambush by “lowly” and lonely soldiers elicited a predictable and interesting government response. Initially it was baffled and confused, then irritated and embarrassed and finally it regained its poise.
The initial confusion was due to the fact that the extremely hierarchy conscious security apparatus was suddenly, simply but brilliantly out manoeuvred by a single soldier. Thanks to Facebook a foot soldier who would have thought twice to even knock on the doors of his immediate superior was effortlessly connecting with a large audience. He made his misery a talking point among the people. The minister of internal security, belonging to a party that rode to power at the centre on their patriotic plank, balked under intense public gaze. David had humbled Goliath.
Tsunami of sensory stimulus
This is not the first time when social media has helped under-privileged or “weak” to take up cudgels with the high and mighty and come out trumps. And it won’t be the last.
Since the beginning of the 21st century and especially after 2006 with the spread of internet and digital technologies the political landscape has witnessed a quiet but decisive shift.
Politicians are realising for the first time that the digital technologies are breaking down hierarchies and making it difficult to control information flow. The proliferation of digital technologies, particularly in the field of communication like social media platforms and Youtube have created a situation where it is both very easy to create an image as well as call the bluff.
As politics is in most parts but the art of managing perceptions, to that degree conducting their affairs seem like a tough ask these days for the practitioners of this art.
Historically the channels of information were limited. Information dissemination was through the word of mouth or through king’s decree. During these times a politician could invest time in building their image by withholding inconvenient truths about themselves and accentuating their positive aspects or successes. As access to the tools and sources of information flow to the people could be easily controlled, most of the politicians kept a distance from the people and this gave rise to myths about a person. Dedicated team of story tellers would fan out in rural heartland or in city squares and narrated stories glorifying the person and his achievements.
Folklores would be created around a person and his or her ideas would be presented as revolutionary. Perceptions would take time to build and then grew and endured. People would be slowly worked upon and around an idea where it became an article of faith for a huge majority or a committed minority with enough power to change the tide of time.
In the 20th century the first wave of mass media – newspapers, radio and television – offered politicians a very powerful tool. The first generation mass media was a misnomer in a sense that masses had no control over it. It was under strict control of either governments or powerful business elites. However, they were deemed mass media as they could connect with a large number of people at the same time. This form of mass media was a one-way-traffic. Especially tailored information could be dished out to everyone in the society.
There was no way the public could participate in it. Newspapers had their letters to editor columns, radio and television too had their people’s comment programmes but they were heavily edited and controlled. Anything that didn’t fit the neat narrative of the ruling elite, seldom found voice on these mediums.
At times there were attempts by people to raise their voice by starting community radio, or small television channel or small scale newspapers but they were no match to the over arching power of the organised mass media. It was very efficient at muzzling the alternative voice.
The one-size-fits-all information packets that these mass media organisations were adapt at churning out were a terrific tool in the hands of the politicians to perpetuate a carefully crafted mono-focal perception among the masses.
For example during the Cold War both the US and Soviet Union employed mass media, first the radio and then the television, very successfully to vilify each other and project each other as villains in their respective societies.
However, during the last decade of the 20th century the rise of internet brought about a subtle change in the way things were being run around the world. During the last 15 years the spread of internet and the digital technologies it brought in general and three instances in particular have given the world a glimpse of what lay in store for the future.
The new mass media
In the early years of the 21st century the war in Iraq witnessed for the first time the power of digital technology called the blog. While the mass media was reporting a sanitised version of the war the soldiers on the ground who were given access to internet and were allowed to maintain their own blogs to remain in touch with their family members started using the platform to air their doubts, anger, frustration, dejection and general state of degeneration that accompanies any war. They started questioning the rationale of the war and brought the firsthand accounts of its horrors to the general public. It shattered the dominant narrative peddled by the “embedded” traditional mass media in the US and the West European nations.
Four years later during the presidential elections in the US a rank outsider called Barak Obama first upset the apple cart within his own party to win the presidential nomination and then out smarted much well heeled Republicans by marshalling the power of the social media and digital technologies. His Twitter, Facebook and web-based outreach programme gave him an edge in both reaching out to people as well as collecting donations. The small donations from a wide base of the society added up to make a big difference to his campaign kitty.
As the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close the regions of Middle East or West Asia witnessed people’s uprising against their autocratic governments in what is now know as Arab Spring. The people’s movement was spearheaded by young who were using social media, especially Facebook, extensively to connect with each other, informing people about impending government crack downs and deciding upon a venue. It was also used for impromptu meeting on a spur-of-the-moment decided venue.
These three examples have been replicated since in many societies and in different circumstances with varying degrees of success. These events also teach us lessons in the emerging social and political realities.
They tell us that the new wave of digital media technologies is actually the “mass media”. Here the masses fully participate in generating information and accepting it. They are no more just passive consumers of information which is handed to them in top-down approach. They actively generate it and also reserve the right to listen, read or view it. In that sense they also have the power to be either a part of or the orchestrator of genuine or false information. They can be a tool or source of information, mis-information or dis-information.
Spectacles and echo chambers
This democratisation of levers of control in information generation and dissemination has hit the perception building mechanism created by traditional media. The oligarchy of control of traditional mass media made it easier for the politician to perpetuate themselves, black out others’ views and project their ideas as the ultimate truth. As crowding out the uncomfortable truth, a personal flaw or a group’s misdeeds was easier it helped the politicians in enduring their favourite perceptions for generations.
However, in the digital age and the social media perception management is becoming difficult.
Politics is a game of creating, managing and enduring perceptions. It makes personality cults and enduring ideas.
In mass media that was controlled by the few it was easy to maintain it for long but in digital real time technologies it has become difficult. It was visible during the recently concluded US presidential election where both the Democrat and Republican candidates faced extreme scrutiny and public opprobrium for even their slightest slips.
Republican candidate and now the 45th President of the US, Donald Trump, was specially targeted on Twitter and social media for his blunders. Even after his inauguration ceremony the controversy surrounding the number of people attending the event painted him in a poor light. His team tried to counter the claims of the media by putting forward bogus facts and when they were caught they said they were presenting “alternate facts”. The euphemism for lies was quickly denounced by Twitter and social media trolls.
As has been visible in the US elections as well as in other full, quazi or faux democracies around the world keeping people’s outburst under control in the age of digital technologies in general and social media in particular is becoming increasingly difficult. Similarly maintaining a perception for long is also turning out to be far more challenging than any other time in history.
To the curious onlooker it may seem that the age of politicians and politics is over. For the politicians and their spin doctors it may be trying times as they try to grapple with altered realities of their playing turf. But that’s just a part of the entire reality. The other side of the coin holds lot more promise than we think.
The idea that politics is nothing but management of perception has gained currency during the last few centuries. However, if we look at the classical meaning of the word politics it says, “The activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power. Or it means activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organization”.
This definition emphasises the role of action in the form of debates, positions taken in a debate and the follow up action taken on it. During the last two hundred years politicians have mistaken the call to action as just creating and managing perceptions. Too much emphasis has been laid on only one aspect of the political action. This has led to employment of subterfuge, double speak and deception.
Integrity the new currency
But the digital technologies are making this kind of politics of difficult. Now the space of saying something and doing something exactly opposite is shrinking.
Take the case of India politician, Lal Krishna Advani. Belonging to the right wing Hindu Nationalist Party, Bharatiya Janata Party, he cultivated a hard-line Hindu image. He projected himself as someone who was opposed to alleged Muslim appeasement practices of the more liberal Congress Party. After investing 50 years in that persona he tried to change it when he realised that strident positions will not earn him the coveted post of the prime minister. On a visit to Pakistan he praised Jinnah the father of Pakistan and a much reviled figure in India among Hindus. Within moments his comments went viral and people’s reactions came equally fast and thick. Fifty years of assiduous efforts in cultivation of an image went down the drain. In a matter of few hours he lost the plot and his core constituency deserted him. He became a pariah and his political career was gutted.
It served as a reminder to the rest of his ilk and when his protégé and current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was nominated as the prime ministerial candidate he didn’t make any mistake of being too many things to too many people. He stuck to a definite agenda and won. Later he tried to move away from his development plank and indulge in communal politics with disastrous consequences in regional elections.
These examples may make a person wonder that the space for politicians is shrinking as they are inherently unabashed liars and masters of subterfuge. But there is another aspect that reflects an equally interesting fact. The digital technologies are rewriting the rules of the political game and fundamentally altering the political landscape.
As the gap between the perception and the person is now easily visible and even easily exploitable it is creating a space for more honest and open politics. The new rules of politics are more upfront and the leader has to walk the talk. In that sense it is now demanding more accountability.
But people must not confuse accountability with morality or goodness of purpose but it means delivering and being what you promised.
In this game the right wingers are first off the block. They have understood the power of the medium earlier than the liberals. It helps as their in-your-face style connects easily with the person on the street. This is the reason we are witnessing the rise of the obnoxious and intemperate voices around the world. It’s always easy and spectacular to rouse people’s anger and base emotions than to convince them of cerebral ideas. Yet they will not be in the positions of power forever. Like the principles of yin and yang the liberals will return using the same medium.
However, the digital politics will demand a lot more involvement and responsibility from the people too. They will have to exercise care in choosing their representatives as what they see is what they will get. In a way it would be a fare game. When you choose a villain you will get a villain and will not have the luxury to blame anyone. The people in general will have to understand that those liberals who will work towards inclusive politics will by definition be called upon to find middle ground while managing disparate and at times divergent demands of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and economically stratified societies. In managing these contradictory demands to find a golden mean, at times, they would be seen eschewing populism, cherry picking from a bouquet of demands. People will also need to evolve to offer them that space for the greatest good of the greatest number.
In that sense the digital politics would be more active and evolved politics in which every section of the whole society would participate. Each segment (politician and the public) will have to bring their commitments to the table.
It would usher in an era of politics based on managing reality for a change rather than just perceptions.

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Politics in the Age of Digital Technology

 

Every ordinary mortal is a potential giant killer

In the last week of 2016 when the world was busy making New Year resolutions or was out celebrating on the beaches or in the hills, a low ranking Indian para-military officer stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest. He uploaded a small video clip on Youtube and on Facebook citing pathetic conditions in which he was being kept thanks to the alleged negligence and corrupt practices of immediate seniors. As if on cue two more such videos surfaced, followed by rant through video streaming by a very high ranking military officer who was superseded for the post of chief of Indian army.

The central government panicked. It resorted to quick and clumsy denial. Casting aspersion on the character and mental state of the soldiers and swiftly acted against them. Simultaneously soldiers and their seniors were transferred from their posts and an inquiry was ordered into the allegations levelled by the soldiers that raised a storm in the virtual world. It also openly threatened the senior officer of dire consequences.

The sudden information ambush by “lowly” and lonely soldiers elicited a predictable and interesting government response. Initially it was baffled and confused, then irritated and embarrassed and finally it regained its poise.

The initial confusion was due to the fact that the extremely hierarchy conscious security apparatus was suddenly, simply but brilliantly out manoeuvred by a single soldier. Thanks to Facebook a foot soldier who would have thought twice to even knock on the doors of his immediate superior was effortlessly connecting with a large audience. He made his misery a talking point among the people. The minister of internal security, belonging to a party that rode to power at the centre on their patriotic plank, balked under intense public gaze. David had humbled Goliath.

Tsunami of sensory stimulus

This is not the first time when social media has helped under-privileged or “weak” to take up cudgels with the high and mighty and come out trumps. And it won’t be the last.

Since the beginning of the 21st century and especially after 2006 with the spread of internet and digital technologies the political landscape has witnessed a quiet but decisive shift.

Politicians are realising for the first time that the digital technologies are breaking down hierarchies and making it difficult to control information flow. The proliferation of digital technologies, particularly in the field of communication like social media platforms and Youtube have created a situation where it is both very easy to create an image as well as call the bluff.

As politics is in most parts but the art of managing perceptions, to that degree conducting their affairs seem like a tough ask these days for the practitioners of this art.

Historically the channels of information were limited. Information dissemination was through the word of mouth or through king’s decree. During these times a politician could invest time in building their image by withholding inconvenient truths about themselves and accentuating their positive aspects or successes. As access to the tools and sources of information flow to the people could be easily controlled, most of the politicians kept a distance from the people and this gave rise to myths about a person. Dedicated team of story tellers would fan out in rural heartland or in city squares and narrated stories glorifying the person and his achievements.

Folklores would be created around a person and his or her ideas would be presented as revolutionary. Perceptions would take time to build and then grew and endured. People would be slowly worked upon and around an idea where it became an article of faith for a huge majority or a committed minority with enough power to change the tide of time.

In the 20th century the first wave of mass media – newspapers, radio and television – offered politicians a very powerful tool. The first generation mass media was a misnomer in a sense that masses had no control over it. It was under strict control of either governments or powerful business elites. However, they were deemed mass media as they could connect with a large number of people at the same time. This form of mass media was a one-way-traffic. Especially tailored information could be dished out to everyone in the society.

There was no way the public could participate in it. Newspapers had their letters to editor columns, radio and television too had their people’s comment programmes but they were heavily edited and controlled. Anything that didn’t fit the neat narrative of the ruling elite, seldom found voice on these mediums.

At times there were attempts by people to raise their voice by starting community radio, or small television channel or small scale newspapers but they were no match to the over arching power of the organised mass media. It was very efficient at muzzling the alternative voice.

The one-size-fits-all information packets that these mass media organisations were adapt at churning out were a terrific tool in the hands of the politicians to perpetuate a carefully crafted mono-focal perception among the masses.

For example during the Cold War both the US and Soviet Union employed mass media, first the radio and then the television, very successfully to vilify each other and project each other as villains in their respective societies.

However, during the last decade of the 20th century the rise of internet brought about a subtle change in the way things were being run around the world. During the last 15 years the spread of internet and the digital technologies it brought in general and three instances in particular have given the world a glimpse of what lay in store for the future.

The new mass media

In the early years of the 21st century the war in Iraq witnessed for the first time the power of digital technology called the blog. While the mass media was reporting a sanitised version of the war the soldiers on the ground who were given access to internet and were allowed to maintain their own blogs to remain in touch with their family members started using the platform to air their doubts, anger, frustration, dejection and general state of degeneration that accompanies any war. They started questioning the rationale of the war and brought the firsthand accounts of its horrors to the general public. It shattered the dominant narrative peddled by the “embedded” traditional mass media in the US and the West European nations.

Four years later during the presidential elections in the US a rank outsider called Barak Obama first upset the apple cart within his own party to win the presidential nomination and then out smarted much well heeled Republicans by marshalling the power of the social media and digital technologies. His Twitter, Facebook and web-based outreach programme gave him an edge in both reaching out to people as well as collecting donations. The small donations from a wide base of the society added up to make a big difference to his campaign kitty.

As the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close the regions of Middle East or West Asia witnessed people’s uprising against their autocratic governments in what is now know as Arab Spring. The people’s movement was spearheaded by young who were using social media, especially Facebook, extensively to connect with each other, informing people about impending government crack downs and deciding upon a venue. It was also used for impromptu meeting on a spur-of-the-moment decided venue.

These three examples have been replicated since in many societies and in different circumstances with varying degrees of success. These events also teach us lessons in the emerging social and political realities.

They tell us that the new wave of digital media technologies is actually the “mass media”. Here the masses fully participate in generating information and accepting it. They are no more just passive consumers of information which is handed to them in top-down approach. They actively generate it and also reserve the right to listen, read or view it. In that sense they also have the power to be either a part of or the orchestrator of genuine or false information. They can be a tool or source of information, mis-information or dis-information.

Spectacles and echo chambers

This democratisation of levers of control in information generation and dissemination has hit the perception building mechanism created by traditional media. The oligarchy of control of traditional mass media made it easier for the politician to perpetuate themselves, black out others’ views and project their ideas as the ultimate truth. As crowding out the uncomfortable truth, a personal flaw or a group’s misdeeds was easier it helped the politicians in enduring their favourite perceptions for generations.

However, in the digital age and the social media perception management is becoming difficult.

Politics is a game of creating, managing and enduring perceptions. It makes personality cults and enduring ideas.

In mass media that was controlled by the few it was easy to maintain it for long but in digital real time technologies it has become difficult. It was visible during the recently concluded US presidential election where both the Democrat and Republican candidates faced extreme scrutiny and public opprobrium for even their slightest slips.

Republican candidate and now the 45th President of the US, Donald Trump, was specially targeted on Twitter and social media for his blunders. Even after his inauguration ceremony the controversy surrounding the number of people attending the event painted him in a poor light. His team tried to counter the claims of the media by putting forward bogus facts and when they were caught they said they were presenting “alternate facts”. The euphemism for lies was quickly denounced by Twitter and social media trolls.

As has been visible in the US elections as well as in other full, quazi or faux democracies around the world keeping people’s outburst under control in the age of digital technologies in general and social media in particular is becoming increasingly difficult. Similarly maintaining a perception for long is also turning out to be far more challenging than any other time in history.

To the curious onlooker it may seem that the age of politicians and politics is over. For the politicians and their spin doctors it may be trying times as they try to grapple with altered realities of their playing turf. But that’s just a part of the entire reality. The other side of the coin holds lot more promise than we think.

The idea that politics is nothing but management of perception has gained currency during the last few centuries. However, if we look at the classical meaning of the word politics it says, “The activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power. Or it means activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organization”.

This definition emphasises the role of action in the form of debates, positions taken in a debate and the follow up action taken on it. During the last two hundred years politicians have mistaken the call to action as just creating and managing perceptions. Too much emphasis has been laid on only one aspect of the political action. This has led to employment of subterfuge, double speak and deception.

Integrity the new currency

But the digital technologies are making this kind of politics of difficult. Now the space of saying something and doing something exactly opposite is shrinking.

Take the case of India politician, Lal Krishna Advani. Belonging to the right wing Hindu Nationalist Party, Bharatiya Janata Party, he cultivated a hard-line Hindu image. He projected himself as someone who was opposed to alleged Muslim appeasement practices of the more liberal Congress Party. After investing 50 years in that persona he tried to change it when he realised that strident positions will not earn him the coveted post of the prime minister. On a visit to Pakistan he praised Jinnah the father of Pakistan and a much reviled figure in India among Hindus. Within moments his comments went viral and people’s reactions came equally fast and thick. Fifty years of assiduous efforts in cultivation of an image went down the drain. In a matter of few hours he lost the plot and his core constituency deserted him. He became a pariah and his political career was gutted.

It served as a reminder to the rest of his ilk and when his protégé and current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was nominated as the prime ministerial candidate he didn’t make any mistake of being too many things to too many people. He stuck to a definite agenda and won. Later he tried to move away from his development plank and indulge in communal politics with disastrous consequences in regional elections.
These examples may make a person wonder that the space for politicians is shrinking as they are inherently unabashed liars and masters of subterfuge. But there is another aspect that reflects an equally interesting fact. The digital technologies are rewriting the rules of the political game and fundamentally altering the political landscape.

As the gap between the perception and the person is now easily visible and even easily exploitable it is creating a space for more honest and open politics. The new rules of politics are more upfront and the leader has to walk the talk. In that sense it is now demanding more accountability.

But people must not confuse accountability with morality or goodness of purpose but it means delivering and being what you promised.

In this game the right wingers are first off the block. They have understood the power of the medium earlier than the liberals. It helps as their in-your-face style connects easily with the person on the street. This is the reason we are witnessing the rise of the obnoxious and intemperate voices around the world. It’s always easy and spectacular to rouse people’s anger and base emotions than to convince them of cerebral ideas. Yet they will not be in the positions of power forever. Like the principles of yin and yang the liberals will return using the same medium.

However, the digital politics will demand a lot more involvement and responsibility from the people too. They will have to exercise care in choosing their representatives as what they see is what they will get. In a way it would be a fare game. When you choose a villain you will get a villain and will not have the luxury to blame anyone. The people in general will have to understand that those liberals who will work towards inclusive politics will by definition be called upon to find middle ground while managing disparate and at times divergent demands of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and economically stratified societies. In managing these contradictory demands to find a golden mean, at times, they would be seen eschewing populism, cherry picking from a bouquet of demands. People will also need to evolve to offer them that space for the greatest good of the greatest number.

In that sense the digital politics would be more active and evolved politics in which every section of the whole society would participate. Each segment (politician and the public) will have to bring their commitments to the table.

It would usher in an era of politics based on managing reality for a change rather than just perceptions.

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