Thursday, 30 June 2011

Mousetrap - Beyond Television

Arunabha Sengupta

A child hunting for a mouse behind the television is a picture poignantly painted in Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, and recounted in our editorial as a symbolic snapshot of the modern world.

The age of passively consuming material prepared – and often carefully edited sticking to the need to know basis – by arbitrary aristocracy of the media is passé.  Television and press, predominant pillars of our social consciousness and substance, are currently struggling against the rising tide of cyber swarm buzzing about in the social media. Today’s individual is not content with the opinion of a select few who by virtue and accident of their position and profession have become self proclaimed information elites. Everyone today wants to have a voice, and that voice wants to be, if not heard, within hearing range of all. And these voices can throw themselves against the noise of journalism to challenge the degree of hollowness that previously passed unmeasured.

While the global phenomenon of a collaborative news sharing, social debates and communication is self evident through numerous websites, blogospheres, social networks and knowledge tools, some of the factors involved in the current change may seem counter-intuitive.

A lot of the social capital that is leveraged through websites such as Wikipedia, You Tube and also FaceBook are results of purely voluntary investment of personal time and effort. In rare, numerically insignificant cases, are they balanced by financial benefit. Most of the contribution is generated beyond working hours by people otherwise fully employed.

The obvious question is why do they take all this trouble? Why click away to exhaustion neither for gold nor glory? How does one manage the time to upload knowledge nuggets on Wikipedia or videos on YouTube or commentary on journalistic blogs after a full day and a half of energy sapping work at his primary trade?

For all of us who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century - with its presupposed television box in the corner, newspaper on the porch and the stereotypical economic thought of material benefit in the mind, this is indeed a paradigm shift difficult to comprehend.

Modern economics is heavily pre-biased about how every man works for his own self interest – the last couple of words directly translated into financial gain. Much of the economic turmoil of recent times may have been the result of this myopic understanding of human motivation, but that is the subject matter of a different discussion. When Adam Smith first laid down his theory, self interest was not limited to monetary profits but encroached and encompassed psychological aspects as well. It consisted of whatever made the individual feel enriched. Whatever led to his feeling of wellbeing.

Much of the last century was spent by man creating an island around himself that was primarily centred around his work, linked only to a few friends and colleagues, while weakly joined to the bigger world through the mass media of print and television. The epochal ‘accident’ of the dominance of print and telecommunication technology ensured this consumerist behaviour, aided and abetted by the ivory towers that were built around the upper echelons of these industries.

However, by nature man is known to be a social animal – and hence contributing to his parent group is one of his basic characteristics. With this new technological marvel of the internet, followed by the plethora of social networking applications cropping up, he has rediscovered a route to reconnect. The desire to form groups of likeminded individuals - to communicate with and exchange ideas, thoughts and labours of love actively - is fast winning through. His social self is coming to the fore yet again, while the sense of well being that comes from belonging with other resonating souls, mutually making lives meaningful are more than compensating for the economic benefits that such an arrangement lacks.

As far as time investment is concerned, one needs only to look at the hours spent by the previous generations in watching reality shows, sitcoms and professional wrestling. While television-conditioned addicts seldom enquire about the colossal man-years spent in following the lives of Big Brother participants, this perspective can shine a illuminating light in the search for lost time, today redistributed in the more involved brand of entertainment called social engineering.

However, does it compromise quality? Populist participation that breaks the barricades of elitist embargoes?
Robert McHenry, former editor in chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica, has gone on record likening Wikipedia to a public rest room. Steve Ballmer of Microsoft has denounced the shared production of open source software by invoking comparisons with something he feels is a swear word – communism. Andrew Kern, author of The Cult of the Amateur, drew parallels between bloggers and monkeys.  

Although loudly echoing vested interests, these concerns ask a common and important question. Can shared, unmanaged work, while fine for picnics, compete with serious labour carried out for money, directed by managers and conducted by organisations?
Let us look at one example.

Recently, a national newspaper of India published an article about the government banning deodorant commercials. Slightly off beat, it might have passed as a regular news item if vigilant netizens had not detected that it was a copy and paste job from a site named – quite indicatively – By virtue of its name and mission statement, FakeNews is a sparkling media-parody site, that publishes false bulletins to generate some hard hitting and some purely side splitting satires. This prestigious Indian daily had ripped off one such article. And due to the collaborative effect of the modern cyber-world, the story was soon picked up and published in a major UK based world news site, the classical media men still blissfully unaware of the faux pas.

The question that rises from this is whether this is a recent phenomenon, or lousy journalism of this sort has existed throughout history and is being unearthed today because of the heavily networked world?
Moving to a much weightier issue, the power of social media was realised recently when citizen journalists posted and tweeted reports, photos and videos of the disaster in Japan – thus producing text and footage which would never have made past the higher echelons of editorial desk.
In such contexts, individual contribution to world news and information is not only a productive pastime adding to a sense of social well being, but also a way of regulating half truths to make the world whole, to clean up the monopolistic complacence that has obviously crept into decadent establishments.

With the social radius having become infinite thanks to the web based tools and applications, which are simple enough for even the non-technical public force to contribute, the scope of social organisation, engineering and product is immense. Whatever in previous generations seemed limited because of groups of limited number of people working for a cause with personal constraints, has now been multiplied by infinity that comes with global connectedness. Unfinished work by a Chinese blogger can now be completed by someone from Alaska. All this makes us believe that such clean ups and an absolute change of the social dynamics is very much on the cards, in fact, being etched on them at this moment.

Wikipedia is a sterling example of such social engineering. An immense product created independent of centralised control, by individuals nameless and faceless, often identified only by a series of unremarkable dots and numbers of their IP Address.

And this makes optimistic political soothsayers grasp at the power of social connections as a panacea.
However, while so promising in terms of collaborative knowledge compilation, is social engineering also equally adaptive to the world of revolutions and overthrow of dictators as many would lead us to believe?

Several articles in this issue deal with this rather difficult question. 

Arunabha Sengupta is the co-editor of Scroll and the author of three novels, the latest being The Best Seller

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