Thursday, June 27, 2013

Learning from Cognitive Surplus



Reading Cognitive Surplus was a great use of my time. I have not seen television in a long time now (unless you count Ninja Hattori) and have been a fan of the internet since the early days of blogging - nearly 10 odd years now.

So, while there is some level of confirmation bias in this argument, it is beyond argument that 10 years of participation is far better than 10 years of being a rather passive audience.

There are some interesting tidbits in the book. This is especially useful for arguing with some of our industrial age journalist dinosaurs who keep whining about the quality of debate on social media.

The first part is about how the ‘movable type’ printing press invented by Gutenberg made printing accessible to many people who in turn went ahead and published their own books. And how, people thought it was such an evil idea (sounds familiar?) that everybody wants to become an author.

As people found the freedom to publish, quality went down, apparently. As Clay says, ‘the easier it is for the average person to publish, the more average what is published becomes’. And of course, in the internet age, everybody has a ‘publish’ button. And this is what bugs those who sit behind comfortably behind the entry barriers of television channels and the connections with the powers that be.

In the context of publishing, people used to the old system argue that the publishing was an inherently serious activity – it never was. 

“In the world of the media, we were like children,sitting quietly at the edge of a circle and consuming whatever the grown ups in the center of the circle produced”

(Does that not ring a bell – news channels tell us that news is serious and tweeters like us are frivolous right. Now you know how to argue against such lines of thought.)

About people like us: People who share their writings/tweets/videos online don’t do it for money while the media journos actually share their writings/news/videos for money. The former does it because of other motivations – while for the latter it is also a means to make money. This distinction is very important – which is why they need to run after ads, support an organization structure, while you and I blogging away in our shorts need not (and do not) – because our motivations are different.

“Intrinsic motivations are those in which the activity itself is the reward”

What can the motive behind those motivations be?

“Broadcast media, like television clearly, filled some human needs but those needs that they couldn’t fill well became harder to see and ultimately harder to imagine”

In our context, it is that in India there has been very little right wing thought that finds its way into MSM apart from a few path breaking journalists (yes, we all know them) . Some of the pioneers  used the freedom of internet to bring a new line of thought into our minds. Since then, the internet, has freed up thoughts of many, like us, who would otherwise find it difficult to get a say, because unless you toed the line, you wont be allowed to express yourself in the old order.

“Back when entering the public arena was hard – like taking a separate job – most of us simply did not bother. Loose collections of amateurs may have been willing to try to accomplish things in public but the organizational hurdles were too high. Now the barriers are low enough that any of us can publicly seek and join with like minded souls.”

And this is the state of social media today in India especially for right wing thought – CRI being an example.

What does all this mean for us? One, that the entry barrier for expressing our thoughts is low.

Having said that, it is important to convert these into real life events in order to enable real change. As we saw in the recent elections, some of those are not easy at all. But, it has to be done.

Any revolution happens outside with the internet, at best, as an aggregating mechanism. Beyond that, work has to happen on the ground for any revolution to succeed.

Or else we run the danger of being an ultra niche group with  no possibility of translating it into real life success – at the far end of the long tail. 

(Cross posted at CRI)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Goodbye Google Reader

It was a little over 10 years ago that I discovered the joys of reading blogs. I recall starting off with Rajesh Jains Emergic.org and then with Seth Godins blog. And slowly, but surely, the number of blogs I read increased. And it was difficult to read them on a day to day basis – the favourites list on my browser was expanding and getting more and more difficult to track. And it would not sync across machines. So, all in all it was a pain to read it on a day to day basis.

And into this mess came Bloglines – in those days when blogs ruled the internet. I was a fan of bloglines.

And then Google Reader happened. The switch was almost seamless, it was even better than bloglines. And thus it is that for the past many years, my morning routine on my computer starts off with opening Google Reader on my machine. Even today, there are many who ask me ‘how come gmail opens on your machine’ (in the office network, gmail is not allowed, but reader is).

The Google Reader is my pipeline – my education pipeline. Supplying knowledge to me from across the internet, keeping track of what  I read, what I did not, storing favourites. In the olden pre RSS days, I remember reading newspaper sites from the US to Australia and back – on a good day.

But the RSS reader delivers knowledge to your screen - even twitter feeds and what better way of staying on top of news, reading what the thoughtleaders have to say and the pioneers and the early adopters are talking about.

Yes, the google reader has been part of my daily routine at almost any place I log in. For information consumers like me, it is a great pipeline. Google may have other interests, but the readers consumers have a single interest – that of tracking the feeds in a simple manner and the Reader does that job silently, without any fuss and efficiently.

You will be missed, Reader, but only till I find my feet on the next reader. Currently trying out Feedly, but perhaps Digg will work as well. 

What could a new reader do? 
G Reader has only an all time list of favourites – can I have a blogwise favourites too?
I wish I could have a handier reader for the phone – currently the way it reads has been quite sub optimal.
Or help combine it with twitter – like zite, but lighter and faster. Think 2G in India. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Cognitive Surplus, book review



Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky is a must read for those of us for whom the internet is an oxygen without which we would find it quite difficult to sustain ourselves.  The beauty of the book is that it offers a coherent justification all the kinds of things that we are upto.

Most of us have practically quit watching news as an audience. For this audience, news is now a participatory medium rather than a passive one way equation. And this is why people like us should read this book.

In Clays’ words, the time saved by not watching TV creates, what he calls a Cognitive Surplus which we can go about using in different ways. For the first time in the history of the medium – television watching is dropping much to the chagrin of television networks brought up in the industrial age.

More than the statistics, Clay analyses the rather misunderstood reasons behind why people actually make new choices (than watching television) and makes a very coherent scientific argument.

The book starts off with the Gin craze of London in the 17th century. Gin drinking, provided a coping mechanism for people thrown together in the early decades of the industrial age. Wwith nothing to do after 8 hours of work in the newly created industrial setting, people drank themselves into oblivion.

 The government had no clue how to reduce this and tried various means, including legislation but each and every time people circumvented the same. Ultimately the craze subsided as people found more avenues to interact, socialize in an urban setting – like sports, coffee houses, meeting people etc.

Tellingly, Clay compares the gin craze of the 17th century to television watching of the later ages. In a lifetime, he estimates, people would  end up watching upto 80,000 hours of programming. And the harmful effects of it, while not as apparent as gin drinking, are quite real from a psycho social perspective.

From here, Clay masterfully guides us into the internet age where the people who have said adieu to TV and use the available cognitive surplus with the power of the internet and newly created social collaboration tools to create news, campaigns, awareness, activity or activism among other things.

He then proceeds to analyse this Cognitive Surplus through 5 lenses - that of Means, Motive, Opportunity and Culture with a good number of examples.

I won’t go into the details of each of these, because each of these sections is a beautiful read in itself in which he takes a look at some campaigns around the world (some known, some not so)  – most of which have spawned digitally (or used a digital aggregation mechanism) but made a difference in the real world.

So, in a nutshell, a great book for us to read about ‘Cognitive Surplus’. Reading this book also helps us justify that we, while writing on blogs or tweeting away, are making productive use of our time than waste time watching television.

 Because, all said and done, television watching at its highest level is a passive activity and writing a blog or tweeting at its lowest level is an active activity. There is no way but up, from here.

All in all, a must read to understand the social media phenomenon and for people who are in the middle of it, a cool thought provoking read.

(X Posted at CRI)

On a deadline and a job with a hatchet

To say that I normally don’t read an Aakar Patel piece is kind of like saying I sidestep dirty puddles.  Yet, ever so often, life makes you step into a dirty puddle.

Is it worth wasting so much time on an article – especially when Mr. Aakar Patel makes money writing the kind of things he does – and I don’t? And writing this article is costing me some part of a good night’s sleep.

Is it not better to ignore trash?

But, sometimes, having stepped into a dirty puddle, one does the needful. Of stepping out.

Smita Barooah ripped apart Mr. Patels article on one count – that of Mr. Modi having not been to college. For the record someone who is one of the most prominent women politicians in the country given to renunciation and who often gives lessons to her son along the theme that power is poison does not have a college degree. But, well, such things are not important when one is on a mission with a job to be done with a hatchet and a deadline.

But there is more.  “He, on the other hand, has shown Muslims their place in Gujarat and kept them there.” Says, Mr. Patel.  Quite simply, music to the ears of those who want to hear this kind of music. Care to elaborate how, Sir?

If he disliked Muslims, would there be Muslims in his party? And there are. Surprisingly.  Many of them. And in the BJP all the way upto the top, is a surprising sprinkling of quite a few religions (check Goa BJP for instance). Or maybe Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi or Shahnawaz Hussain are not Muslim enough for Mr. Patel.

And what about Asma Khan Pathan, a councillor of a Gujarat Nagarpalika in Nadiad (@pathanasmakhan) who is both Pro Modi and a Muslim? And in what would warm the cockles of Mr. Patels heart,  ‘secular’ twitterati, not satisfied that a Muslim woman is pro-Modi have gone ahead and verified her authenticity with her husband (no less) that it is indeed she who tweets.  And she has joined the BJP recently from the Congress – and her tweets are worth reading. Modis dislike caused them to join the party maybe?

Or is Mr. Patel falling into the familiar claptrap that Muslims are ‘supposed’ to hate Modi in a theory propounded by our mass media and disproved on the ground? And in the last elections, his party won Muslim dominated constituencies handsomely. And the last time I checked, Muslim development indicators in Gujarat are better than other states. Maybe he dislikes them so much that he helps them develop. Oh, well, hatchet jobs and deadlines are not conducive to checking on statistics.

(And by the way, the goalpost on this has shifted. Only non-Gujarat Muslims do not like Modi after the 2012 elections is the latest theory.)

But perhaps, just perhaps, Mr. Patel is too busy to do anything than to stereotype Muslims into lazy clich├ęs of convenience ?

And he has one sentence where Modi apparently said something about meat eaters in some context. Well, meat eaters also think vegetarians are like cows who eat ghaas phoos? And yours truly hears that often too.
And in the elite, college going west are a lot of people who are turning vegan by choice. So if non-vegetarianism is a choice, so is vegetarianism?

But that part some how escapes Mr. Patel who by now  is on his own trip.

And if you read the last line, Mr. Patel has called Gujarat ‘a money minded, intellectually barren, segregated, ghettoized, non-drinking and vegetarian utopia’ that some like him have fled from?

That is lovely insult to the land from where the original Gandhi came from as did the venerable Sardar Patel and even a certain Mr. Ambani. And khakras and dhoklas and some wonderful handicrafts and bravehearts and entrepreneurs. So those who stay in Gujarat do not fit Mr. Patels description of ideal people.

Or maybe by his own admission (that the ‘Indian voter sees virtue in caste’), this has something to do with caste and that of a Chief Minister. Or perhaps as he says, his ‘simple views spring from his lack of knowledge’, apply to himself.

Or perhaps he refers to himself in the quote as intellectually barren. Perhaps.

Strange are the ways of people on a deadline with a hatchet job to complete.

(X Posted on CRI)