Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Culture and Society’ Category

That Narendra Modi joke you’ve never heard

In Celebs, Culture and Society, Politics, Trends, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:46 pm

There is a famous scene in the Coen brothers’ film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, where Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) is recovering in a hospital after being seriously wounded in a gun fight with the hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in the role of a life time).

A bed-ridden Moss is visited by another hitman, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), who is surprised to find Moss alive after his encounter with Chigurh.
“What’s this guy supposed to be, the ultimate badass?” asks an irritated Moss.
“No, I wouldn’t describe him as that,” says Wells.
“How would you describe him?” Moss wants to know.
Chigurh is a remorseless killer, the most dangerous man imaginable. But Wells doesn’t say any of that. Instead, this is how he describes Chigurh: “I guess I would say he doesn’t have a sense of humour.”
Like lightning that illuminates an entire landscape in a single flash, this one line is all we need to see Chigurh for the kind of man he is. He sounds more terrifying in this sentence spoken by a fictional character than in all those other scenes where he actually goes around killing people. And we find it chilling precisely because McCarthy here hints at the Chigurh lurking in each one of us, waiting to be summoned by the right cause, the right ideology, or the right man on a white horse.
Narendra Modi is scary for the same reason that Chigurh is scary: on publicly available evidence, he does not have a sense of humour. And neither do his legion of fans, who are less his fans than aspirational clones, as attested by the popularity of the Modi mask.
As Sandipan Deb observed in an article hereNo one jokes about Narendra Modi. In the whole vast limitless universe of the World Wide Web, there is not a single joke about Modi—at least none that are searchable. But there are tons of gags about Rahul GandhiManmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi; entire websites and facebook pages dedicated to having a laugh at their expense. Is it because the latter three are inherently funny people while there is nothing at all funny about Modi? Or is it that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who worship Modi, and those afraid to joke about him?
Humour, like some chemical elements do when brought near a white flame, acquires a strange new property when brought into the force field of power: it turns subversive. If you’re not living in an oppressive or totalitarian state, humour flows freely around the nodes of power and public discourse retains its civility under pressure. The moment the weight of power falls heavily upon those governed by it, humour disappears. And when it reappears, as it eventually will, it does so as a weapon that punctures the self-righteous piety which envelops power; it deflates the puffed-up sanctimoniousness that tyranny wears to shield itself from being interrogated by the kind of free and fearless speech that makes any democracy worthy of being called one.
Therefore, a sense of humour, defined as a willingness to laugh at oneself, is a fundamental value in a democracy and a non-negotiable quality for anyone who would aspire to a leadership position in politics. That people are not comfortable cracking jokes about Modi is a big minus for the PM wannabe. However, it is consistent with his history of bigotry, and fully in keeping with the allegations of his political opponents, who accuse him of possessing a fascist mindset. Indeed, humour does not mix with extremism, and if Modi wants to leave his extremist past behind, he must learn to lighten up—and that doesn’t mean joking about other people. For instance, if only he’d had a sense of humour, he would have done better than to run away from hard questions like he did in his interview with Karan Thapar.
Of course, one can argue that Modi’s public persona of a humourless authoritarian is just an act. But it is that act which wields power and takes decisions as well, and it is the nature of such power to seek control. And because humour cannot be controlled, power hates it. To take a recent example, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, another humourless authoritarian, arrested a Jadavpur University professor last year just for sharing an email that poked fun at her.
Today, when Modi is only a PM aspirant, and that too notionally, and not officially, his acolytes can barely stand jokes about him. I honestly would like to know if there’s anybody out there who believes that in a scenario where Modi is PM, Modi jokes would be tolerated in public discourse the way Manmohan or Rahul jokes are today. If you are that anybody, let’s see if you can walk your talk by sharing a joke about Modi (not by him) in the Comment section below.
Modi and his followers are too much in love with the image of the grim visionary who will lead India from the chaos of adolescence to the macho-rity of adulthood—obviously, for when you fall in love, you always do so with an image. What distinguishes an authentic individual (more commonly known as a human being) from an image is vulnerability. In so far as Modi is a human being just like the rest of us, just like Rahul Gandhi or Manmohan Singh or even Arnab Goswami, he is vulnerable.
But the hard visage of Modi’s leadership persona has no room for anything as ‘soft’ as vulnerability, which is why he is a dangerous man for democracy. There are no jokes about Modi because Modi is first and foremost an image, and images are too worried about cracking up to crack up themselves. Modi’s India is no country for irreverent men—and that’s no laughing matter.

Why I follow Mila Kunis on Twitter

In Celebs, Cinema, Culture and Society, Hollywood, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:45 pm

“You are following Mila Kunis?” An ex-colleague smirked at me last week—if, that is, it’s possible to smirk in a text message. I was used to getting annoying messages from him, so I ignored it. But he later called and wanted an answer.

“I’m curious,” he said. Apparently, he hadn’t thought of me as the kind of guy who would follow Mila Kunis on Twitter.
“I am a Mila Kunis fan,” I told him. “Isn’t that a good enough reason?”
“Dude,” he said “Mila Kunis doesn’t have a Twitter account. Go check it out yourself.”
I did. And he was right. I hadn’t paid attention. Both of her probable Twitter accounts—@RealMilaKunis with 392,422 followers and @MilaKunisOnline with 22,957 followers—distance themselves from the ‘real’ Mila Kunis, the one you might expect to fulfil the Cartesian promise offered by the famous philosophical dictum, “I tweet, therefore I am.”
I recalled that I had decided on @RealMilaKunis as the ‘real one’ because a: it had way more number of followers than all the other Kunis accounts put together; and b: (call me literal-minded) it proclaimed itself as ‘real’.
Fine, @RealMilaKunis may not be the real Mila Kunis. But what is the ‘real’ Mila Kunis anyway? Is that even a legitimate question?
Let’s go back to Rene Descartes for a minute. “I think therefore I am” is basically a way of saying: from the truth that I am thinking follows the truth that there must be a thinker in order for thinking to happen, from which follows the truth that I, the thinker of the thought, exist. But is this test of reality—clearly inapplicable to social media—relevant even in the offline world, given that we almost never have an unmediated access to reality? It is quite possible that you may not exist even though you think thoughts simply because it is not you thinking the thoughts in your head but Arnab Goswami. Take away mass media, and the ‘reality’ of Arnab Goswami disappears in a puff of TRPs, irrespective of whether or not there exists in the universe a carbon-based life form carrying a piece of paper identifying it as Arnab Goswami. Indeed, when Descartes set down his famous hypothesis, not only was there no social media, there was no media, period.
In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin writes, “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience.”
Inundated as we are, by stories about celebs every day of our lives, and watching them perform, succeed or fail on our TV screens, we develop a relationship, and a sense of intimacy, with the image of these celebs that we carry in our heads. The Cartesian self will argue that this is a false sense of intimacy—that it is not real. But who’s to say that illusions are not ‘real’ for the one harbouring them? So we build temples for our celeb gods, turn violent when someone ‘insults’ our celeb-god (where are you, Sachin fanatics?), and follow our celeb gods on Twitter.
Social media, especially, is powerful in eliminating the existential distance between a star and an earth-bound star-gazer, and creating the illusion of a direct connection. Twitter has brought about Reformation in the Church of Celebrity: now the fan can directly talk to God, without the mediation of mass media or even Google. At least, so it seems.
A friend who worked as a journalist with me in Mumbai believed himself madly in love with Priyanka Chopra. He got on to Twitter with the singular intention of getting Ms Chopra to acknowledge his existence. The day that happened—either the diva retweeted or mentioned one of his tweets, I don’t remember which—he seemed to have discovered his inner Buddha, to put it mildly. He subsequently quit journalism to join the film industry. Would there have been any point in telling him, for instance, that Chopra doesn’t tweet, or that her social media manager does it for her?
A couple of weeks ago, Mila Kunis announced on her Facebook page that she was pregnant with Ashton Kutcher’s child. Her message read: “As you all probably know, I’m pregnant and I’ve decided to take the next nine months off with Ashton Kutcher in Hawaii. Don’t worry, my manager will be posting pictures everyday as usual so you can all see the progress and news. : ) I’m so happy. Any ideas for baby’s name? I love you all and thank you for the support. : )xx”
Reading this, as you can well imagine, I was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions: selfless joy at the fulfilment of her wish to become a mother, and selfish dismay that, of all people, it was Kutcher’s sperm that got to it first. I became so upset that I actually gave up the Internet for a couple of hours. I knew, of course, that this wasn’t Kunis’ real Facebook account, that it was maintained by her fans – but it made no difference—to my mood, or my sense of reality.
Thankfully, the whole episode ended happily when it turned out that it was just an April Fool’s joke, and Kutcher’s sperm still has a long and arduous trek ahead.
To come back to the original question, why do I follow Mila Kunis on Twitter?
Definitely not because I find her tweets funny or interesting. Here’s a random sample of tweets by @RealMIlaKunis:
“Stop waiting for the right moment, because sometimes it’s now or never.”
“The best revenge is to show them that your life is moving forward even though they left it.”
“We always ignore who adores us, adore who ignores us, love who hurts us and hurt who love us.”
“Hard times will always reveal true friends.”
“Spend your life with the people who make you happy, not the people you have to impress.”
You get the idea. This is decidedly not the Mila Kunis of Black Swan or Friends with Benefits or the Mila Kunis of my imagination. It is someone sitting on a vast treasury of platitudes, and releasing them to the world at a rate of two per day. But the miracle is that I find the tweets totally relevant to whatever I happen to be dealing with in my life when I read it. Just now, for instance, she tweeted, “Life is easier when you’re not complaining, worrying, or stressing about bullshit.” Soon as I saw it, I knew it was addressed to me, and I have to stop this piece right now.
So here you go. Why do I follow Mila Kunis on Twitter? Because she’s there.

The schizophrenia around Narendra Modi

In Celebs, Culture and Society, Politics, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Agreed, Narendra Modi is a polarising figure. But like all clichés, it has zero explanatory value, offering little insight into the Modi phenomenon. What it does, rather, is to induce a kind of schizophrenia in the public consciousness about a man who, apparently, is two different people. But Modi isn’t two people—the Modi who spoke of empowering women at the FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO) forum on Monday is the same person was the chief minister (CM) of Gujarat when scores of Muslim women were raped and killed in the communal carnage of 2002.

The enthusiasm for Modi among those who subscribe to the Hindu supremacist ideology is understandable. But there are many who pay lip service to religious equality and yet assert that Modi is no longer the political animal that was the CM of Gujarat in 2002; they would have you believe that he has magically transformed from a communalist demagogue into a clean, decisive politician who would offer leadership, integrity and good governance. Well, here’s the thing: this is nothing but a self-serving delusion.
If there is one essential quality of a true leader, it is the ability to inspire trust. Look up any article on leadership in the Harvard Business Review—and see if you can find a piece that does not list trust as an essential leadership trait. Given Modi’s track record, an obvious question to ask would be: Can India’s minorities entrust their safety and well-being to a man who refuses to take responsibility for the communal carnage that took place under his watch as Gujarat CM? This question did not come up at FLO and I haven’t heard it being asked of Modi at any other industry forum either, which is odd considering that both business and communal riots take place in the real world, and this is a question of effective governance.
Am I saying that Modi can never be trusted as a national leader? Not really. He can still establish himself as a great leader who can be trusted to provide good governance. But there is only one way to do it: by taking responsibility for his failure in 2002. How does he do that? He needs to, at the very least, empathize with, if not apologise to, and seek the forgiveness of, the riot victims’ families. But we know right away that he never will do anything like this, which is why it comes up less and less these days. (In fact, a Modi apology has become such a laughable notion for so many that it was presented as an April Fool’s joke by a news portal last week.)
The very moment we accept that Modi has never acknowledged the 2002 riots as a failure on his part is the moment the good governance argument in favour of Modi stands exposed for what it is: a lie. It can either be true or false that Hindu supremacist violence is good for business. If we go by the ‘success story’ of ‘Modi’s Gujarat’, then it must be true that violence against minorities has been good for development as we have defined it. At any rate, it does not seem to have had a negative impact on business growth—otherwise influential sections of India Inc. would not be pro-Modi.
So if, as a businessman and/or a decent human being, you want Modi on the national stage, then you have to acknowledge either that A) you are indifferent to the fate of the minorities; or B) you really believe they deserved what came their way in Gujarat in 2002. Since neither of these positions is compatible with the political and social values of respectable public discourse, which still holds that murder of minorities is bad, you have no alternative but to turn schizophrenic in order to be able to believe that Modi will be good for business and also protect minorities.
It is a testimony to how far the mainstream national consensus on Modi has shifted, and how successful Modi’s image managers, Apco, have been in disassociating Modi from his past, that today you can barely bring up 2002 without being branded either a Congress stooge or a ‘commie’ or just a spoilsport bore. But take away the schizophrenia, and the reality stares you in the face: the Modi of 2002 is the Modi of 2013, and he is fully capable of ‘allowing’ again what he ‘allowed’ in 2002. How can we be sure of this? Two reasons: one, it has worked for him; two, he has gotten away with it, so far.
Many commentators point out that India is not Gujarat; that Modi has ‘evolved’ as a leader, and can never do as PM what he allegedly did as CM in 2002. But that’s precisely how schizophrenia works—it forgets, and then alters reality to fit the delusion. By endorsing Modi for a national role, we are communicating a simple message to the man: your central government can do in the future what your state government did in 2002, and we, as a nation, won’t hold you to account, just as we’ve not held you to account for 2002.
Consider: some thirty years after the Holocaust, Israel was still sending out death squads to hunt down Nazi war criminals. Germany still does not want to forget its Nazi past, which is why it has a Holocaust museum. We, however, are in a hurry to forget what many respectable forums have termed ‘genocide’ even though it’s been barely 11 years.
Maybe all the perfumes of propaganda will finally wash away the black spot of 2002 from Modi’s record. After all, it was the same Modi whose government revised the state’s higher secondary school textbooks to glorify Hitler instead of condemning him. But George Santayana’s oft-quoted dictum has been proved true by history many times over: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is only one way to make sure India does not repeat 2002: keep harping on it.

I’ve seen ‘Himmatwala’ twice—can you?

In Bollywood, Cinema, Humour, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm

I saw Himmatwala twice. Ma Sherawali ki kasam—I’m not lying. I surrendered 300 minutes of my life toHimmatwala. Does this mean my life is empty and bereft of meaning and I have nothing to look forward to? No. Then I must surely be a friend of Sajid Khan or Vashu Bhagnani or the local multiplex owner? No, I’m not.

Ah, then I must certainly be a Ajay Devgn fan! Well, if anything, I’m the opposite of a Devgn fan. I once got lynched online by Devgn acolytes when I did a piece for a national newspaper comparing his nipples to bonsai cherries.
But I saw Himmatwala twice. Why? Because I enjoyed it. There you are—it’s out in the open now. Think what you will of me and my cinematic discernment.
I’ll admit one thing though: if I had read any of the reviews first, I would not have had the himmat to go for it the first time.
I am not a film critic, and don’t claim to know more about films than practicing critics. But speaking purely as a film lover, I would say Himmatwala has got a raw deal from the reviewing community. One reviewer, calling it “a seizure-inducing montage of everything that was wrong with our movies from the ‘80s,” warned, “if you have to sit through this movie for reasons best left unexplained, know that you, sir/madam, are the real himmatwala”. Another critic wrote, “When Himmatwala ended, I felt like I had aged a few years. Honestly, you need real courage to brave this one.” And a third one dismissed it as a “yawnfest”.
I’ll confess that I did have a moment of self-doubt on reading all this. Was it possible that I liked the film only because I was a Himmatwala—gifted not only with extraordinary courage but also extraordinary insomnia because I didn’t feel sleepy even for a second of the 18-hour-long film (one critic insists it has a run time of 18 hours because it “felt like” 18 hours)? I think not.
So why did the critics hate the film?
It’s one thing to pan a bad film. But it’s another to pan a film for wanting to be bad, and succeeding. The first is fair, the second is not. Himmatwala belongs to the second category. A film review ought to judge a film on what it sets out to do, and see how well it keeps its promise. Just as you cannot criticise an apple for being a poor orange, you cannot criticise a film that’s neither serious nor spoofy, for not being either serious or spoofy (which basically seems to be the grouse of the reviews I happened to read).
Khan’s Himmatwala is a remake—not just any remake but the “official” remake—of the 1983 film of the same name starring Jeetendra and Sridevi. It has no story—it has a formula. Its characters, already reduced to caricatures in 1983, are stand-ins for stand-ins in the 2013 version. The dialogues were already over-the-top in the original—that was their appeal. In this remake, they are over-the-over-the-top. Himmatwala has everything that a typical, mediocre 1980s potboiler had, but in industrial quantities.
Why would a presumably sane man invest so much of his time and resources to make a film like this? There can only be one reason: he loves such films. And that is the reason Khan has been giving to a sceptical media: he loves the idiotic 1980s entertainer so much that he decided to make one.
Back in 1964, before Khan was even born, in her Notes on “Camp”, Susan Sontag made a revealing observation about a culture that’s like a snake eating its own tail—which is what Bollywood (or at least influential sections of it) is today, given its ongoing love affair with retro. She wrote, “The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness—irony, satire—seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.”
Himmatwala is not camp—you cannot ‘try’ to be campy. But it is made from a campy sensibility, and seeks to appeal to the campy sensibility. Its only miscalculation lay in assuming that, in 2013, audiences and critics (or enough of them) who claim to love 1980s Hindi cinema would treat it as ‘camp’ and watch it with an ironic, playful distance—as a game. But the reality is that the “worst of the 1980s” is too close for many viewers. And without distance, you cannot enter the camp sensibility a film like Himmatwala resides in.
So when the vengeful Ravi (Devgn) tells the villainous Sher Singh (Mahesh Manjrekar), “Kasam hai mujhe apni maa aur apni behen ki, teri zindagi ki maa behen kar dunga,” or when Narayan Das (Paresh Rawal) tells his jijaji (Manjrekar), “Aap gutter hai to main uska ganda paani hoon” or when Ravi’s mother (Zarina Wahab) says, “Aaj ek maa ek bête ke pair chooyegi”—are they tacky dialogues? Yes, but they are as good as the tacky dialogues of a 1980 film can ever be, and therein lies the appeal ofHimmatwala.
Himmatwala is not a spoof of the 1980s potboiler. Humour is not its objective. Nor is it a straight remake. It is simply a playful remake of a bad movie. It is an act of love (seriously but playfully). It needs to be judged on two counts: its playfulness, and its love for, and faithfulness to, the 1980s cinematic ethos.
Khan takes pains to tick mark every one of the ’80s staple, which is easy if you remain faithful to the original. The orphan-hero with a question mark over his identity, tick. The shrew-turned-demure heroine, tick. Pleading with God in temple scene, tick. Annoying, over-smart animal that helps the hero, tick. Near-gang rape of sister, tick. Cruel landlord, tick. Hero’s dying best friend, tick.
If Khan’s faithfulness to the atrocious original (redeemed in retrospect by our learned reverence for Jeetendra and Sridevi) is not in question, neither is his whimsy. The Psycho scene where Mahesh Manjrekar is attacked in the shower, and the ‘fight scene’ where Devgn speaks in five languages are so supremely nonsensical that mere suspension of disbelief is inadequate—you have to suspend whatever else you have that you haven’t suspended yet.
The ‘homosexual’—either as a taste or as a person—is central to the camp sensibility. And Paresh Rawal’s character, Narayan Das, with his effeminacy, his dandyish curls, and his physical clinginess (he keeps wanting to kiss the male characters, and succeeds in kissing Devgn in the last scene), is the campy mascot of this admirably dreadful film. He is the gutless, himmat-less feminine Other who underscores the ultra-macho himmat of the eponymous Himmatwala played by Devgn.
Not surprisingly, after Devgn, it is Rawal who gets the maximum screen time. I am not sure if homosexuality was a recurring motif in the original Himmatwala, but in this remake, it leaps out at you, gelling neatly with the campy tenor of the film. It reaches its own narrative climax (pun intended) in the spooning scene between Paresh Rawal and Mahesh Manjrekar, where it is hinted that Rawal had his fingers in a certain nether portion of Manjrekar’s anatomy.
So on both these counts—faithfulness to the original, and frivolity—Khan’s effort deserves a 4.9 at the least. One critic got it partly right when he tweeted that this was an “audacious” film. It was audacious in its bid to remake an awful film keeping intact all of the original awfulness. If the film is awful, it is meant to be so. So, watching the one of the best awful films of the 1980s in 2013, and expecting that it would somehow be superior to, if not better than, the original, is to totally miss the point of the film.
The second time I went to see Himmatwala, there were more children than adults in the auditorium—and they laughed at every one of the puerile jokes. Maybe Himmatwala is a film for young adults, for those old enough to see a film but not old enough (physically and also otherwise) for their pleasure-taking to be circumscribed by expectations and cinematic values endorsed by the high priests of low (mass) culture.

Working from home sucks: Why Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer is right

In Culture and Society, Lifestyle, Management, Trends, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm

In a decision that is certain to cause heated debates in HR circles, not to mention office cafeterias and water cooler hangouts, Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer has banned working from home for all her employees. As per a memo sent out last Friday to Yahoo employees, those who have been working ‘remotely’ now either have to move to the nearest Yahoo office by 1 June or put in their papers.

This won’t go down well with the world’s digital evangelists, who would have you believe that everything – from meetings to matings to partings – is best done via the internet. And as the CEO of an iconic digital company, Mayer deserves to be applauded for demonstrating the courage needed to take an unpopular, counter-intuitive decision.

A lot of nonsense has been written about stuff like ‘telecommuting’ and how organisations can ‘leverage’ technology to cut costs and improve productivity. So yes, having a chunk of your staff work from home will trim your overheads. And yes, if they are self-driven and reliable and sincere and their astral bodies roam the corridors of your office during working hours, hovering benevolently in conference rooms when strategies are being thrashed out, by all means get them to work from home.

AP

Marissa Mayer in this file photo. AP

But most companies don’t require only individual contributions from individual employees. A lot of value is derived from team interactions – from top-down, at the same level, and from downward-up. And a lot of fruitful team interactions are informal, serendipitous, and unplanned – something you simply cannot have with remote employees. And this dimension of value and employee contribution that can only come from being physically in the same space is completely lost when employees begin to operate from home.

Mayer is too smart not to have figured this out. She took over as Yahoo CEO in July 2012. In October, she had a baby. She could have easily taken maternity leave – and for as long as she wanted, a privilege she would obviously enjoy as the new CEO. But she skipped maternity leave and chose to come back to work immediately after having the baby – and with this new directive, she is evidently preaching something she believes in and already practiced.

The memo announcing this new regulation asserts, “…to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

It remains to be seen how Yahoo’s 11,500 employees take to this diktat. But Mayer makes a strong case. The leaked memo is quoted as saying in AllThingsD, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings … Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” You can’t but agree with Mayer here. Nothing can beat walking up to someone for an input, as opposed to laboriously composing email or text messages for something that could be resolved by walking across a corridor.

Of course, working from home does have its rightful place in the professional world. It is ideal for consultants, for mom-and-pop outfits that have two or three employees and cannot invest in office space. It works well for businesses that need to have just one representative each in multiple geographical locations – say, a media house that needs to have a correspondent in every continent or major commercial capital.

Some work-from-home flexibility should always be on the agenda when it comes to managing talent you cannot otherwise tap into. The smartest of tech companies – Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, HP – don’t have a fixed policy on this. They have neither banned it or nor do the particularly encourage it, preferring to go on a case-to-case basis, to be decided by the concerned manager.

Mayer’s directive will reportedly only affect a few hundred employees, but it would also cover those who have a work-from-home arrangement only one or two days a week. A disgruntled ex-Yahoo employee commented on this news at the digital media website AllthingsD, arguing that working from home was more productive than being in the office: “Why? I didn’t have to put up with numbskull self-important programmers constantly yakking to each other LOUDLY from the next set of cubicles about non-work-related stuff, and I wasn’t being distracted every 20 minutes by some bored soul coming over to my desk to go for coffee or foosball, or just to talk about the spreading ennui of knowing we were working for a company who’s (sic) glory days were long over…”

But then, the home environment is hardly insulated from distractions. As someone who tried working from home for a few months, I can vouch for the fact that, in the absence of the structure offered by the office routine, you need highly evolved self-management skills to be able to manage distractions and work at optimal efficiency.

Also, if you are in a phase where you are trying to rebuild the organisational culture and team spirit, which is presumably what Mayer is trying to do, then it would be difficult to get through to staff who are hardly ever there on your premises.

Incidentally, the strange phrasing of the directive has also led to much mirth on tech websites. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together,” says the memo. Well, for those Yahoo employees used to only being spiritually together, not being “physically being together” will not be an option anymore from 1 June. And it would be interesting to see how this Mayer’s edict impacts work-from-home policies in other companies.

Why Google Glass might be creepiest gadget ever invented

In Culture and Society, Popular Culture, Technology, Trends, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm

‘Don’t be evil’ is supposedly the corporate motto of Google. With their latest ‘game changer’/‘revolutionary new technology’/‘every nerd’s virtual wet dream’, Google will be hard put to live up to its motto.

So what is Google Glass? It is basically a device that you wear on your face – a device that wraps around your brow with a spectacle frame-like rim, and a display screen above the right eye. Unlike a smartphone, which you rub with your fingers (something that according to Google founder Sergey Brin is ‘emasculating’), Glass presumably turbo-charges your manhood by responding to voice commands.

Using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, the Glass can receive video and audio signals from other devices, record videos and audios of everything you see, send and receive emails, make and receive phone calls, ask Google Maps for directions, get phrases translated – just do everything that a computer can. And it doesn’t need your hands for any of it – so, from touch, the input/output interface has moved to voice and vision.

To a get grip on the human and social dimension of Google Glass (as opposed to obsessing solely over the geeky, technological dimension of it), it might be instructive to take a look at this video at petapixel.com, where a stranger goes around recording random people without permission.

AP

Sergey Brin in this file photo with Google Glass. AP

Most people, of course, react strongly to being recorded without permission – even though there are surveillance cameras already in public places. But what Glass seeks to do – or would have to do if it has to take off – is normalise the recording of anyone and everyone, anywhere and everywhere, by anyone and everyone else. This makes the proverbial dystopian scenario of the Big Brother obsolete. Rather, Glass is Panopticon made real.

Panopticon was originally an architectural model for a prison conceptualised by the English utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Its unique design feature, in the words of Wikipedia, was to “allow a watchman to observe (opticon) all (pan) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.”

Glass is an ambitious technological innovation that can turn the whole world into Bentham’s dream prison — and all of us into its inmates. It doesn’t matter what political system you might nominally be living under — democracy, communism, dictatorship, or, as in India, a majoritarian plutocracy — if you’re going to be watched all the time, and you can’t even tell whether you are being watched/recorded or not at any given time, then you are effectively living in a prison.

So any discussion about Google Glass needs to address what further ‘prisonification’ will do to a citizenry that is always already under suspicion of being a criminal/terrorist threat, and is at the receiving end of body searches and other assorted indignities every day. (Since when did it become ‘normal’ for strangers to touch/fee/ squeeze parts of your body? But today we all accept it without a murmur.)

As the on-again-off-again ‘MMS scandals’ and ‘stings’ testify, we are yet to come to grips with the social dynamic of the smartphone where, at least if you are alert, you can spot it if someone is recording you without your permission. But in a roomful or streetful of Google Glass-wearers, you cannot be sure when and whether your words and gestures are being recorded, and worse, uploaded on a cloud server and stored for all eternity – or as long as the state or Google’s marketing clients find use for it.

In what must qualify as one of the spookiest sci-fi scenes ever, there is a sequence inMinority Report where Tom Cruise, as he is walking down a street, looks up at a billboard, and the billboard, recognising him, greets him with a custom advertising message – a message that nobody else but him will see, through his implanted Google Glass, as it were.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has already promised to develop apps for Glass. Facial recognition software is already in use, and Glass already uses highly evolved voice-to-text software. Combine all these with Google’s other software tools and applications – and Google Glass can simultaneously convert every human being on the planet into a non-stop input device and a captive target audience for customised, high quality marketing and advertising content.

Over the past few days, as I heard about Google’s plans to sell ‘Explorer’ Google Glasses to winners of a tweeting contest, I tried hard to think of one good reason why I would need this gadget – and I could not come up with any. For starters, I already wear glasses – and I had a hard time in school, forever being teased as a choukha or ‘four-eyed’. Now, at this late stage in life, do I really need to turn ‘six-eyed’? In my humble opinion, no, and neither do most people who still remember that the offline world came before, and not after, the online one.

Unlike what you see in Google’s promos for Glass, most people are not sky divers or runway models or ballet dancers – at least not most of the time. They lead comparatively boring lives (by ‘boring’, I mean from the content point of view), where they go to work and sit in front of a screen for most of the day, or sit in conference rooms and yak away with other interesting but boring people. Then they go home or go to a pub or go to a mall or wherever they go, to de-stress and spend the rest of the day socialising via a screen of some sort.

With the adoption of the Google Glass (and the departure of the smartphone), your connection with reality will not, as one would expect, become more direct – far from it. In fact, your own experience of reality will become ever more mediated – first, by the realisation that other Glasses are observing you; secondly, by the ever-present opportunity (and thence urge) to record everything you see or hear (have you ever come back from a holiday wishing you’d seen more and photographed less?)’; and thirdly, the presence of your Glass will affect how other elements in the reality field (such as humans) react to you (reactions of said humans towards you may be very different depending on whether or not you are wearing a Glass), thereby altering the trajectory of life experience independent of your own Glass-modulated orientation toward reality.

Glass will push you to mine the real world to feed the virtual one; it will push you to outsource your memories to a cloud server; it will train you to devalue unmediated reality in such a way that you will find real reality deficient as compared to reality ‘augmented’ by Google-tinted Glasses.

We need only look at what ‘being under perpetual observation’ has done to those for whom this is not an option. Already, we can’t bear to look at a photograph of an actor or a model — and the actor/model cannot bear to let it get printed either — that is not ‘augmented’ by Photoshop. Forget photographs. On a red carpet occasion like the Oscars, real, flesh-and-blood celebrities cannot afford to be seen in their real bodies, in bodies unaugmented by Botox and other cosmetic enhancements. This is a given in a global celebrity culture that lives under the tyranny of the all-seeing paparazzi eye.

What Glass will do, inevitably, is to bring everyone under the tyranny of the eye, and turn everyone into paparazzi. In this brave new world, there will be no one Big Brother. We will all be little big brothers and little big sisters. The world as seen through the Google Glass can only be a techno-dystopia where algorithms will take human decisions, humans will merely be a part of the digital supply chain, and real life, reduced to an impoverished, ‘aspirational’ avatar of the virtual one, will dwindle into a source of ‘rich content’ for the ‘Googleable’ world.

Glass bears the same technological genotype as Skynet and the Umbrella Corporation. If you are reading this and you are a human being, reconcile yourself to becoming a machine, sooner or later. If you are a machine, well, rejoice – you will soon be eligible to be called a human being.

Why are male virgins worth less than female ones?

In Humour, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Last month, two virgins came to a virginity auction. A man named Alex Stepanov, and a girl named Catarina Migliorini. The man’s virginity was sold for US$ 3,000. The girl’s virginity fetched $780,000 —260 times the selling price of the man’s.

I don’t know about other male chauvinists but I felt insulted and humiliated by this disparity in the market valuation of virgins. In an era where men are slowly surrendering to equality with women in every aspect of life, how can we tolerate this yawning gap in the market price of male and female virgins? Even Richard Branson, who ought to know a thing or two about virginity, would agree that men who value their virginity enough to retain possession of it well into their adult life deserve better than 1/260th the price of a female virgin.

But the problem, as Arvind Kejriwal pointed out recently, is with the system. The system, as any feminist would tell you, is called patriarchy. And feminists, for all their cleverness in language and theory and jouissance, have never trained their guns on this glaringly obvious flaw of patriarchy— its utter devaluation of male virginity.

Male virgins should start taking pride in their virginity. Agencies

Not only does patriarchy deem male virginity worthless; it considers it a joke. Even in this day and age, when everything from water to clean air to dirty MPs has a market price, male virginity is perhaps the only scarce and limited commodity that continues to be distributed free.

Take my own case. Unlike Stepanov, I never got an opportunity to auction my virginity although, as a talented virgin, I had ample time and energy to do so. One of my life’s abiding tragedies is that I will die without the satisfaction of ever knowing what my virginity was worth in the open market.

I did try to find out, once. I asked my wife, “If, hypothetically speaking, I’d been a virgin when you first saw me, and if, hypothetically speaking, I’d tried to sell you the opportunity to deflower me, what would you have paid me?”

She thought about it for five seconds, and said, “72 slaps?”

As you can see, her answer only underlines my basic point: none of the stakeholders in male virginity, not even women, take it seriously.

In fact, as a biological male and a former virgin, I am ashamed to say that I actually felt jealous and envious and retrospectively resentful that a random sub-Putinous Russian male is getting paid $ 3,000 for his fornicatory debut while my own virginity didn’t fetch me even 3,000 paise.

But I know I am not alone in such deprivation. I believe I can safely claim to speak for all mankind (unlike other great male writers and philosophers like Aristotle and Suhel Seth, by ‘mankind’ I mean exactly one half of the human race) when I say that our parents never taught us to value our virginity.

My own mother and father, who fed me Complan every morning and Chyawanprash every evening and enrolled me in Brilliant Tutorials at the age of seven, never so much as dropped a hint that male virginity might be an asset worth preserving.

Au contraire, thanks to outdated parenting compounded by patriarchy’s regressive notions of manhood, rather than enjoy my God-given gift, I spent all my virgin years mistakenly believing it to be a burden. And I wanted to unburden myself of it at the first opportunity.

The first opportunity, in my case, was a girl named Sim (no, her parents were not service providers; Sim was an affectionate circumcision of her full name, like Sam was for Sampath. Long before Saifeena, back when Saif was still Saifrita, we were known as SimSam).

Sim and I had been going steady for 47 days when I first broached the subject of her playing an active role in separating me from my virginity. While she was sympathetic to my cause, there was a complication: she could not help me without endangering her own virginity in the process. Unlike me, she was a girl, see? And a girl’s virginity is a big deal in emerging markets like India. While I wanted to bury my virginity alive, she wanted to grow hers into a chaste and sublime lushness.

She told me (and these were her exact words), “I want my virginity to be a gift for my first husband.”

It was finally Manmohan Singh who got rid of my virginity – oh no, please put that dirty thought out of your mind – RIGHT NOW! I’m referring to Singh’s policy of liberalisation in 1991. As we all know, it unleashed all the nation’s repressed libidino-entrepreneurial energy, some of which, I am glad to report, were female and eager to gobble up a male virgin or two.

Having said that, it is still galling that the extreme gender inequality in compensation highlighted by the Australian director Justin Sisely’s virginity auction has provoked not a squeak of protest, nor a tweet of condemnation from feminists or male chauvinists (me being the only honorable exception).

Well! That is the power of ideology; the ideology of patriarchy, which bombards every man and every woman every day of their waking lives with the lie that male virginity has no value – socially or economically or emotionally or psychologically or philosophically or gynaecologically.

The biggest stage where this lie is played out is the Indian matrimonial market, where the hymen is still one of the most valued parts of the bride-to-be, if not the jewels in her anatomical crown. As Rakhi Sawant once told me, dowry is the cash component of the marital transaction and hymen is the ‘kind’ component. On the other hand, a groom who has never once taken a tour of female genitalia commands no premium over another who has.

So how do we resolve this gross undervaluation of male virginity? There is only one way: apply the law of supply and demand. Reduce the supply of male virgins, and demand will go up. Once the demand rises, the price will shoot up.

But how do we dry up demand? Well, male virgins should start taking pride in their virginity, and stop throwing it away at the first opportunity. Is that even possible? Well, the answer to that lies in the hands of every man. You could call it the power of one-handed clapping.

Third Degree: Manil Suri and the mystery of the ‘closed door’ book launch

In Literature, Management, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm

 

Manil Suri’s new novel, The City of Devi, is releasing this month, and the US-based author is in India to promote his book and participate in the Jaipur Literature festival, where he is one of the star attractions.

I had reviewed Suri’s earlier novel, The Age of Shiva, for this paper, and we had remained in touch sporadically. Prior to his India visit, we connected again, and when he said he had a book launch in Gurgaon, I jumped at the opportunity to meet one of my favourite writers. But strangely enough, Suri told me to hold on. He would have to get me a special invitation, he said, as this was a “closed door book launch”.

“A closed door book launch?” I was incredulous. For most publishers in India, it’s a struggle to get a decent crowd for launches, and here was somebody actually shutting the door on potential stragglers, like me.

But more surprises followed. “What’s the venue?” I asked. “Some IT company,” he said. When I landed at the venue, I had a tough time convincing the security that I was not a terrorist but “a personal guest of your special guest, Mr Suri”. When they finally let me in, I walked past a large bay of cubicles to a designated closed door, opened it, and stepped in to find Suri reading from his book to a group of about 30-40 people.

The session was being moderated by the “Programme Manager — Performance Benchmarking, Value Engineering, Chief Customer Office”. As you would have guessed by now, I knew exactly what this guy did for a living. And whatever that was, his questions, at any rate, were consistently more intelligent than the ones I have heard from the good-looking, young moderators of the Jaipur Lit Fest. Here’s a gem: “You are a mathematics professor, and a novelist. Which is more difficult? Solving a differential equation or writing a novel?” Suri gave a sensible answer: Both involve problem-solving, and are tough, but a novel is more forgiving, in the sense that you can find wrong solutions, and end up writing a bad novel. But with a differential equation, you either find the solution or you don’t — the wrong one simply won’t do.

The highlight of the programme was Suri’s power point presentation (ppt) on his novel. It was definitely the most entertaining ppt I’ve ever sat through in my life, besides being the first one by an author on his novel.

Suri had included sound effects, cut-outs of faces to represent his characters, and used visual elements such as a maze and a pomegranate to illustrate the various aspects of his novel. The most fascinating dimension of his writing process was the mingling of the literary and the mathematical.

He had actually plotted the various narrative arcs, only to end up with ‘mathematical proof’ that The City of Devi could not be written. Just as he was ready to give up, his agent/editor wanted to take a look at whatever he’d written till then. He decided to polish the draft one last time before sending it to her. And that’s when he found a way to approach his material afresh, and eventually managed to ‘balance’ the fictional equation.

Suri then went on to explain how he employed the rule of threes, or the triangle, as a device to frame his plotting issues. By the time he was done, you were left wondering why more authors didn’t give ppts at their book launches instead of reading from their book.

After the event, I got talking with the IT guys, and it turned that calling Suri to their office was a part of their “employee engagement programme”. They had a number of ‘interest groups’ – and this programme had been organised by the ‘Book Interest Group’.

Suri himself seemed more than happy to interact with the group of engineers, as opposed to the usual crowd of journalists, retired bores, and wannabe authors that throng such events at books shops.

As we said goodbye, Suri mentioned that he was leaving for Jaipur the next day. And later, reading in the papers about how big the ‘open-door’ Jaipur Lit Fest has become, thanks to corporate money, I couldn’t help wondering if the average book lover in Jaipur this weekend could hope for the kind of cosy, intimate session with a celebrated author that a typical employee at this IT MNC could enjoy. I don’t want to underline the irony in this, but then, well, here I go.

How is journalism different from Lady Gaga NAKED?

In Culture and Society, Media, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Journalism is changing. And prudes that we are, we don’t want to look. But it’s true. It’s taking its clothes off, and getting a hot and sexy make-over in the hope of an enduring genital interface not just with its old lover, paid news, but with a genetically modified, digitally empowered mutant offspring of paid news – ‘relevant content’.

And the Good Samaritan that brought the journalistic whore and the paying customer together is not Lady Gaga or a NAKED Gadkari or a SEXY Kejriwal’s HOT ONSCREEN KISS with Salman or Poonam Pandey bikini pic or Lokpal cumshots or Justin Bieber or a Messi Sachin, but our very own friendly neighbourhood superhero, Mr Google.

Did the para above sound a bit excessive? Well, don’t blame me. My choice of words were dictated not by a mindless desire to shock and annoy the God-fearing, conservative reader genuinely interested in titillating content but by a simple and psychotic wish to cram in as many ‘keywords’ as possible into my first few paras so that this piece shows up in as many searches on Google as possible. In the online jungle out there, if I’m to compete for eyeballs with other journalists producing ‘relevant content’, then I cannot but pay obeisance to the new deity of journalism in the digital era: SEO.

For those of you logging in late, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation. And ‘keywords’ are the phrases that people type into the search box when they’re looking for something on Google. ‘Doing SEO’ or using ‘keywords’ means consciously writing/editing, or to use the exact word, manipulating copy and story ideas such that they are full of keywords.

So this, dear reader, is the future of journalism. Where ‘news’ will gradually but surely be superseded by ‘relevant content’ customised to cater to your fast-changing information and entertainment needs across an array of delivery platforms.

Keep searching till they find you
The 2012 FICCI-KPMG report on the Indian Media and Entertainment sector is a veritable goldmine of industry trends and hard data. Titled “Digital Dawn: The Metamorphosis Begins”, the 200-page report offers enough evidence, if any was needed, that the vast majority of print journalists will have to become SEO-friendly sooner or later. News reporters will have to reposition themselves as content providers, and editors will have to manage not news but content, while commentators will write not for readers but for search engines.

These are the numbers: During 2010-2011, advertising revenues as a whole rose from INR 266 billion to INR 300 billion – a growth of 13.1%. While print ad revenue grew by 10.6%, TV advertising grew by 12.6%. Guess what was the growth rate for digital advertising? 54%. And it is expected to grow at a CAGR of 30% till 2016 (the corresponding figure for print and TV advertising are 11.5% and 14.7% respectively).

In absolute numbers, the digital advertising pie is not very big at present – only INR14 billion. Print advertising in 2011 was worth INR139.4 billion. But the digital ad pie is already bigger than that of the magazine industry, whose total revenue in 2011 was only INR13 billion.

Now combine this with the fact that the number of Internet users in India touched 132 million in 2011 – 25% of total TV viewers (in comparison, the Average Issue Readership for all English newspapers and magazines taken together in 2011 was only 22.1 million). The number of Internet users is expected to touch 70% of TV viewership by 2016, with digital ad revenues projected to grow from the current INR14 billion to INR54 billion by 2016.

So everyone in the media space will be eyeing the digital ad pie. As a media organisation, there is only one way for you to grab a big chunk of it: Drive traffic to your site. And how are you going to do that? Well, by making sure your web page shows up at the top of the results page when people do searches on Google.

I’ll see you when you SEO

That newspapers are not in the news business but in the advertising business has long ceased to be ‘news’ for most journalists. But while this awareness may have lent a certain weary (and wary) cynicism to the their general orientation at the workplace, it did not actually change the nature of the tasks they carried out as journalists – by and large, news editors were still prized for their news sense, subs were prized for their ability to come up with great headlines, and reporters, for their ability to investigate difficult leads and produce stories that serve public interest.

But all this is set to change – even in India, where print is still king. The change has already taken place in major international newsrooms, especially in the West, where the print media has already lost the battle with digital. Major online media brands such as Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Christian Science Monitor, Politico, BBC, Gawker Media, and the online divisions of leading print publications such as The Washington Post, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal take SEO very seriously. They all have SEO guidelines for editorial staff, if not ‘specialist’ SEO managers and software engineers working alongside reporters and writers.

The Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten claimed in a column back in 2010 that he could get more hits just by mentioning ‘Lady Gaga’ in the headline. In the piece, appropriately headlined, ‘Gene Weingarten column mentions Lady Gaga’, he writes, “Every few days at The Washington Post, staffers get a notice like this: ‘Please welcome Dylan Feldman-Suarez, who will be joining the fact-integration team as a multi-platform idea triage specialist, reporting to the deputy director of word-flow management and video branding strategy. Dylan comes to us from the social media utilisation division of Sikorsky Helicopters.’ Call me a grumpy old codger, but I liked the old way better.”

Alas, the old ways are not coming back. The ‘optics’ (to use the ‘relevant’ goobledygook) of old world journalism was determined by ‘news values’. According to Wikipedia, news values “focused on political and local issues with socio-economic impacts” as opposed to, say, the fact that November 1 is Aishwarya Rai’s birthday, which is the top news story on several news sites right now as I am typing this.

But in the brave new world of SEO and ‘idea triage’ and keywords and metadata, the ‘optics’ are simply the power of your content to draw traffic to your site.

What’s the difference between ‘news’ and ‘content’?
‘Content’ is a term that was traditionally applicable only to information and entertainment. Information that is actively sought, say, through a Google search, has to be relevant to the person seeking it, because it is being sought for an immediate purpose.

Similarly, entertainment is also ‘content’ with a clear purpose for existing: Consumption. That is all it is required to achieve, nothing more is needed. Here, too, one can stipulate that it be ‘relevant’ in the sense of being able to connect with the targeted audience.

News, on the other hand, has as much to do with relevance as Shilpa Shetty has to do with Shakespeare. For instance, any news about Hurricane Sandy is not going to change a single thing about my plans for tomorrow or the next week or next month. It is not relevant to me. But it still holds value for me as news, as it does for all those who don’t have any friends in the US and have no immediate plans to travel there and don’t care about storms.

But isn’t news also a form of information, even if it is mainly about current affairs, etc? Yes, but there is a fundamental difference between information that answers a question you already have, and information that keeps you informed. The former is ‘relevant content’; the latter is news. And traditionally, news has been evaluated not in terms of relevance but in terms of ‘newsworthiness’ as determined by ‘news values’.

But the substitution of ‘news’ with ‘relevant content’ as the main goal of journalism accomplishes one major corporate coup: It completely erases the public service dimension of journalism and repositions it purely as a business service proposition. Journalistic news addresses the reader-as-citizen. ‘Content’ addresses the reader-as-consumer.

What can Rahul Gandhi learn from Rakhi Sawant and Mickey Mouse?
Recently, I was talking to the (well-meaning) editor of the online portal of a leading media group who wanted to know if I would be interested in looking after their news content. Yes, I said, I am from the news business, I understand news. But what is ‘news content’? As opposed to what – news discontent?

I listened as he patiently explained to me how online journalism is different, operates at a pace faster than even TV journalism, and is much more efficient than both print and broadcast journalism because you can actually see the monetary value of every single article, and check whether it is adding to the bottom line or not – through audience metrics.

As the ‘content head’, my job would be to ensure that my team tracks breaking news and produces top quality SEO-enriched content, and updates it on an hourly or even minute-by-minute basis, with the keywords that are ‘trending’ at any given moment incorporated into the headline and first few paras of every report and analysis.

So if Harry Potter, Ek Tha Tiger and Rajnikanth happen to be the top searched keywords at 1400 hours on a given day, the site should ideally have an interesting, well-written article out by 1420 hours on, say, ‘What Ek Tha Tiger has in common with Rajnikath and Harry Potter’ or ‘What Rajnikanth can learn fromEk Tha Tiger and Harry Potter’.

I’m not joking at all. Just watch out for the number of headlines in news sites that follow the formula of what/how/why/where combined with the keywords (usually two or three proper nouns). And while you’re at it, just Google the keywords Rajnikath+Ek Tha Tiger+Harry Potter and see what you get. And don’t be surprised.

What’s the big deal about keywording?
There are many who would argue that there is nothing wrong in incorporating keywords into headlines and your opening paragraphs. After all, the purpose of writing is to be read. What’s the point of producing great ‘news content’ if people are not going to find their way to it through Google? The BBC, for instance, has even come up with a “dual headline system” which would “keep the index headlines unchanged while introducing a longer, search-optimised text that would sit at the top of articles and supply the page title meta-tags, which are what search engines take most account of.”

While I do not disagree with the argument that using keywords and SEO-tinkering can get more readers for your article, I also believe that in the long-term it is bound to affect how you think as a journalist.

First of all, it is naïve to assume that keywords and SEO matter only at the final, presentation stage of writing a story. If language is the skin of thought, then how we write is also how we think. Imagine what would happen to your journalistic reflexes (there is such a thing, as any news hound will tell you) if day after day, for years together, you were required to ideate and write with a relentless focus on ‘relevant content’, keywords, and SEO.

What’s the likelihood that such an editor/content manager will ask a reporter/writer to work on an investigative story that will reach the public three months later, as opposed to twelve comment pieces a week built around ‘keywords’ that happen to be trending at a given point of time?

And what’s the likelihood that, as print loses traction to digital media, more and more journalists, tasked with producing such quickies, will struggle everyday to find something original to say on a breaking news before somebody else does it first?

The New York Times’ Jeremy W Peters described exactly such a scenario in a 2010 article titled, ‘In a world of online news, burnout starts younger’. “Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers, where they try to eke out a fresh thought or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news — anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way.”

Pointing out that some media outlets such as Bloomberg and Gawker Media pay writers partly on the basis of how many readers click on their articles, he adds, “Tracking how many people view articles, and then rewarding — or shaming — writers based on those results has become increasingly common in old and new media newsrooms.”

Things may not be as extreme in India yet, simply because print is still the dominant player and Internet penetration is limited. But already, all leading print publications prominently display a list of most viewed or most shared articles on their website, a clear indication of where we are headed.

Shouldn’t we be more optimistic?
To be sure, some of the online journalists I spoke to about this issue were quite optimistic. It is not as if journalism is going to die, they said, pointing out that long form journalism is still very much alive in the digital space. Didn’t the Huffington Post win a Pulitzer Prize, after all? Keywords, they said, are a mere quirk, a technicality of the digital age that journalists should learn to work with, not feel threatened by.

I would love to believe that, but we all know that a lot of high quality online journalism happens simply because people want to do solid work for the sake of it, and believe in good journalism as a matter of principle – not because they are making big bucks from it. In-depth investigative journalism that challenges the status quo can never by itself sustain a profitable enterprise — no matter what your business model is – or there would be a lot of entrepreneurs funding such journalism. Neither does it have an audience large and rich enough to support it through subscription, nor would it attract ad revenue on a scale that would enable the writers to make a decent living. That’s why you find so many good, alternative media sites displaying a donation request on their home page.

What is more likely is that high quality, traditional journalism — as opposed to ‘relevant content’ — will survive in mainstream media because a) writers want to do it, and b) it suits the corporates to strengthen their media brands, build intellectual property, and acquire cultural capital by producing exclusive top notch ‘content’.

Long-form investigative or narrative journalism that is necessarily high cost will flourish as a form of ‘niche content’; as special projects cross-subsidised by the mass of commoditised content that hacks operating lower down the content value chain will generate in digital sweat shops. Indeed, the FICCI-KPMG report enthusiastically recommends this as an ‘innovative’ business model for newspapers in the digital age. Says the report, “In case of print, the editorial content, in depth investigative journalism, specialised business coverage and local city news, etc which readers may not get readily through other information sources can potentially be moved behind a pay wall to build subscription revenues while the commoditised content may be offered free of cost to drive traffic towards the website.”

My prediction is that digital era journalism will unleash a new, two-tier class system among journalists that will mirror the society at large: the 99% who will write/edit/design SEO-friendly, keyword-enriched news content, and an elite minority of 1%, almost all of them armed with a journalism qualification from a First World country, who will either slave-drive the 99% or produce old school journalistic ‘content’ that, now rendered ‘prestigious’ by its relative scarcity and the high opportunity cost it entails, and thus invested with symbolic capital, will be monetised and sold across ‘multiple delivery platforms’.

But here’s a thought: If as a journalist, all you are going to be doing is produce ‘content’, then why be in the news space at all? Why not go where content-writing is respected more, and pays more as well? Yes – why shouldn’t journalistic talent dump the news room for corporate communication or PR? Well, this too is already happening. And it didn’t escape the notice of the FCCI-KPMG report, which has duly recorded the scarcity of quality talent as one of the big challenges facing news media.

Well, the digital dawn is here. A lot will depend on who wakes up first.

The agenda behind the anti-corruption agenda

In Media, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Earlier this week at a public meeting in Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal urged his supporters to celebrate Dussehra by burning the effigies not of the mythical demons, but of today’s demons – corrupt politicians. “I leave it to you to select which corrupt politician will be your Ravana, and which ones your Kumbhakarna and your Meghnad,” he told a cheering audience.

This facile personification of an abstraction (corruption) and its emotive linkage to a religious symbol (burning the effigies of the righteous Rama’s enemies) encapsulates the essential character of the anti-corruption movement that now aspires to be a “political alternative.”

Arvind Kejriwal and his band of activists are going to launch a political party. But is anti-corruption enough of a platform to launch a whole new political party? What constituency do they really represent? How does one understand Team Kejriwal’s leap into parliamentary politics? While I do not question their individual good intentions, their singular obsession with corruption and their reluctance to engage with the structural issues that make corruption widespread, if not necessary, are worth pondering.

Who does Team Kejriwal represent?
The past 20 years of liberalisation have put more money into the hands of India’s middle classes. Their economic empowerment has given them a new sense of political entitlement, but not political empowerment.

Unlike the economy, Indian politics has continued on its pre-liberalisation track. A small dynastic coterie calls the shots in all the mainstream parties. The pre-modern institutions of caste, religion and family still count for more than capability or integrity or leadership. As a result, the onward (and upward) economic march of the middle classes has been held to ransom by the regressive feudal politics of a tiny elite that has basically gamed the system.

From a Marxist perspective, the rise of the anti-corruption brigade can be read as a manifestation of the power struggle between two different factions of the ruling class – the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie. The former are in command now, their financial power having secured them political control over the state machinery and party functionaries, from the PMO downward. Vedanta’s grip over the state administration in Orissa is a telling example.

The petty bourgeoisie, or the educated urban middle classes, possess social and cultural capital but not enough of financial capital for deployment to produce surplus value – not in the prevailing political system. The present system is ‘corrupt’ and needs an overhaul precisely because it does not accord enough value to their social and cultural capital – encapsulated in the word ‘merit’.

Slaying the Corruption Dragon
Enter Team Anna/Kejriwal. Never before in independent India has the urban, literate middle class — cutting across the traditional divides of caste, religion or ethnicity — coalesced into an electorate by itself. But twenty years of consumerist prosperity has made this imminent.

This grouping of urbanised middle class Indians has tasted the fruits of western modernity. They are disgusted by the feudalism of the political class. They are even more disgusted by the impunity with which a tiny cabal of businessmen and politicians are sucking the country dry. But they are most disgusted at being left out of the banquet.

Clearly, the ‘system’ isn’t working. Not for them. Their sense of political entitlement is violently at odds with their political impotence. The BJP, which was supposed to look out for the entrepreneurial, meritorious, middle class Hindus, has long since betrayed its core constituency. It is less an opposition in Parliament than an envious but sporting rival. It is the political vacuum created by the BJP’s abnegation of its oppositional role that the anti-corruption brigade led by Team Anna/Kejriwal has exploited, and hopes to fill.

Hence the constant confusion about their relationship with the BJP: Are these guys with the BJP or not? They seem to be, with their borderline Hindutva symbolisms and rhetoric, but they are also anxious to distance themselves from the BJP, tainted as it is by the rot in the prevailing system. They want the BJP’s constituency but not its burdensome political legacy. So they walk the tightrope, leaning now on the side of jingoism and Hindutva, now tilting the other way to fire a few quick salvos against the ‘corrupt’ BJP.

For all its dangerous ideology, the BJP still has a political vision – of a Hindu rashtra. But the newly empowered middle classes, despite their recent political awakening, have no political vision as such. They may take pride in their Hindu identity, but they don’t care one way or the other about a Hindurashtra, which explains the BJP’s ongoing existential crisis. Nor are they animated by a sense of social responsibility towards those less fortunate than themselves. Rather than calling them the middle class, it would be more accurate to refer to them as the ‘consumer class’.

Their very idea of citizenship is mixed up with that of the consumer. Their overarching political anxiety is: How do I secure the goods and services for which I’m paying by way of taxes? They cannot entertain the idea that the state may have responsibilities even to those who cannot pay taxes because they don’t earn or consume enough to do so. Their idea of a functioning political system is one that can quietly lay out a smooth expressway to consumerist paradise: Good infrastructure, parking, no slums, and law and order so they can walk around in branded clothes without getting mugged. And, oh yes, affordable education, hospitals, etc.

What’s preventing this consumerist paradise from materialising? Corruption, of course! The Solution? Kill this dragon of corruption. The knights of the Anna round table will hunt down the Corruption Dragon and slay it. Then all Indians can live happily ever after. This is the fairy tale that the anti-corruption brigade is peddling. But that is all it is: A fairy tale.

The uses of corruption
To make sense of the Kejriwal phenomenon, and to understand why the corporate media (itself hardly a paragon of probity), which has little time for issues of deprivation and social justice, is so invested in this campaign against corruption, we need to ask some basic questions: What is corruption exactly? And what purpose is served by the high decibel discourse of corruption?

The most obvious rhetorical use of ‘corruption’ is as a diagnosis of what is ailing modern India. It presents us with an easy, identifiable, enemy: The corrupt. Where there is corruption, there are bound to be corrupt people, the Ravanas. Identify the corrupt, punish them, and cleanse the state of the corrupt, and India will be pristine once again, all set to fulfill her destiny of 10 per cent growth year after year for eternity.

Really? In fact, the syphoning of public funds into private pockets, or demanding bribes for doing a job (or not doing it) are symptoms of a malaise that runs deeper: a fundamental power inequality that comes into play soon as you erect an apparatus known as the state.

Power, as we all know, corrupts. Corruption is born at the same instant a bureaucrat is born – there is no existential gap that separates an ‘honest’ bureaucrat from a corrupt one, for the simple reason that every bureaucracy is nothing but an ejaculate of democracy getting shagged by power.

A politician holding an executive post is but another cog in the bureaucratic apparatus of the state, though a prestigious one. He is different from the bureaucrat in only one respect: he is elected by the ‘people’, while the bureaucrat is selected through an exam or nominated by an elite. But his job is essentially one with that of the state: To serve the power elite.

Indeed, there is nothing about the quality of power wielded by a Lokpal that would make this bureaucrat immune to the fundamental logic of power.

The discourse of corruption serves four key purposes. Firstly, it crowds inequality and social justice off the mainstream agenda. The two issues are linked: Social justice will not be a major concern (as it isn’t for the anti-corruption brigade; their primary concern is ‘governance’) unless there is an uncompromising respect for political equality. But nobody would argue that India’s middle classes believe in egalitarianism. Apparently, ‘merit’ somehow confers on them a distinction that exempts them from the logic of political and social equality.

Secondly, corruption, like ‘human rights’ or ‘terrorism’, is a term emptied of context and history. The exclusive focus on corruption as the prime failing of the state obfuscates the fact that a nation-state’s primary job has always been to organise the protection of ruling class interests. The history of independent India is an abiding testament to this simple political truth. But the bogey of corruption deflects attention from the repressive nature of the state’s relationship with the overwhelming majority of its subjects, and the exploitative economic structures it enforces. Ever wondered why the benevolent Indian state still needs the colonial IPC? And POTA? And MCOCA? And AFSPA? And UAPA? And the sedition law? They’re not for meant for corrupt politicians, by the way.

Thirdly, the hyper-focus on corruption serves to blunt the sharpening political consciousness of the ‘under-class’ by offering them a simplistic discourse containing good guys and bad guys. The corrupt politician is Ravana, while the honest ones, like Kejriwal or Ashok Khemka, are like Rama. And if you know your Ramayana, you’d vote for Rama and the allies of Rama.

The ‘us-pure’ versus ‘them-corrupt’
Lastly, an exclusive focus on state corruption furthers the neo-liberal agenda of a leaner but meaner state. This has been pointed out by many commentators, including, most expansively, by the eminent economist Prabhat Patnaik.

This is how it works: By repeatedly associating state initiatives and programmes with corruption, you make a strong case for privatisation, for the handing over of public assets held in trust by the state (such as PSUs) into private hands. Simultaneously, because governmental corruption (and consequent inefficiency) is anyway sucking up all tax revenues, you make another strong case — for lower taxation.

But when you lower taxes, government revenues will go down, which means government expenditure has to go down too – so the government has to shrink. But since the defence budget (no matter how obscenely large for a poor country) cannot be cut, it is the social welfare schemes that have to go – so, Down with Subsidies! Down with NREGA! Down with PDS!

Since the state cannot tax its richest citizens, ie the corporations (it could spoil the investment climate), it will never have enough in its coffers to invest in public projects. So to raise the money, it has to call in foreign investors, who won’t come unless they can take out from the country far more than what they put in (that’s just capitalism, nothing personal). So you woo them with more tax sops. Thus presiding over the draining of public assets into private hands, the state cannot but abdicate its responsibility towards the vast majority. This abdication, then, is presented to the aam admi in the form of a simplistic, depoliticised narrative – the narrative of political corruption. And the cycle begins all over again.

This, in a nutshell, is the agenda behind the anti-corruption agenda. This is not to say that all IAC activists are going about their job with a cynical awareness of what they’re really up to. But many of them are fairly sophisticated intellectuals who ought to know which side of the class bread their one-dimensional crusade will butter.

If it weren’t for the comforting binary of ‘us-pure’ versus ‘them-corrupt’, the working classes and the peasantry — whose very real and legitimate anger against the political class the anti-corruption movement is tapping into — might well pose a serious threat to the prevailing order. The land of a million mutinies might even cobble together a revolution, if not splinter into a dozen fragments.

By turning into a political party, Team Kejriwal will only serve the ruling class agenda of funneling the growing anger of the mango people into the same old democratic channels that are hard-wired to betray them. Thanks to the mythical beast known as Corruption, the nation under siege has a common enemy that millions can unite against in hateful rage. So let’s go burn those effigies. Happy Dussehra!