User discretion is required

Here is a thought-provoking article in Indian Express that advises Internet users to use their own discretion instead of simply following the algorithmic contents additions that are thrown at them.

Undoubtedly the world is experiencing the greatest phase of democracy (up till now) through the advent of the Internet. To get educated, to inform yourself, to get aware, all you need is a smartphone to connect to the Internet. All the information is available at your disposal with a few taps, provided you’re receptive.

“Being receptive” is the key here.

Since anybody can publish anything on the Internet, the instances of fake and fabricated news are much greater compared to conventional media. But it isn’t like fake news and fabricated/biased opinion didn’t exist before Internet. The problems that we are facing currently are the results of an unmitigated access to publication media and information dissemination mechanisms to a select few. We used to have a very lopsided information ecosystem. Their writ ran large. The leftist intelligentsia completely controlled what we read, what we watched and what we listened to.

So, fake news and fake opinion and twisting facts have always been there. The difference is, due to the Internet, since it’s easier and faster for people to express themselves, fake news and fake opinion can be immediately countered.

Interestingly, the writer says:

One of the primary reasons this is so is because we don’t know how to navigate the internet’s fast-paced and wide-laned information highways. And, as editors, we don’t have the ability to be the traffic wardens we once were.

The writer begrudges the fact that unlike the pre-Internet days, a select-few cannot now act as “wardens”. Although we have all known since time immemorial that the flow of information was always controlled by these “wardens”, actually reading such expressions is a bit unnerving. It is like hearing about someone being murdered and someone actually being murdered right in front of you.

Why does he think that the general public requires some sort of “wardens” for supervision? Why does he think that people are not capable of judging for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong for them, especially considering the fact that he thinks that the “wardens” know what’s right and what’s wrong?

A few months ago when Donald Trump became the US President, the writer of this Wired article suggested that maybe people are not ready for democracy and they’re not ready for free availability of information. Just because the politician of his choice didn’t get elected, he questions the very existence of democracy and information access. The same sort of questions are routinely raised in India after Narendra Modi (to great extent) and Yogi Adityanath (to marginal extent) used the Internet to directly communicate with their core supporter base.

Actually, it is this mentality that disturbs people. Controlling the flow of information these days is very difficult and in fact, the information flow can only be controlled for those who allow it to be controlled.

Yes, algorithmic content suggestions are bad and people shouldn’t go for them. If your Internet platform asks you to “personalize” your feeds refrain from doing so. The writer of the above Indian Express article rightly says that the more you read a particular opinion (a particular point of view), the more of the same opinion you are recommended by the algorithm. This is the reason if you are reading fake news, there’s a great chance you will go on reading fake news unless you make an extra effort to find something different, something contradictory to read or watch.

Overall I agree with the writer’s point of view, the only thing that got my attention was the quote that I have presented above, that, people need “wardens” to form an unbiased opinion. This is not so. People are intelligent enough to differentiate between different opinions and then make their own choices. Yes, aberrations can occur but public opinion and democracy are a number game and eventually everything evens out.

Is journalism worth a soldier’s life?

In a tragic turn of events a soldier committed suicide when he became a target of a “string operation” carried out by a The Quint journalist.

Army jawan/sahayak Lance-Naik Roy Mathew was secretly videotaped by a The Quint journalist named Poonam Agarwal, talking about the menial jobs the “sahayaks” have to perform for the officers they’re assigned to. These jobs may including walking dogs, dropping kids to school, taking care of the garden and running errands that are not an official part of their duties.

Assigning sahayaks to higher ranked army officers is a British-era practice the army has carried on despite attracting criticism.

According to the phone calls made by Mathew to his wife, he was afraid that he might lose his job and there might even be a court martial on him for criticizing his seniors. He first disappeared and then later was found hanging from a ceiling of a room.

In the video, which is no longer available, Lance-Naik Mathew, though his face is blurred, could be heard answering to various questions posed by Poonam Agarwal, and while answering to questions he admitted that work that is not part of their jobs is done by the sahayaks (buddies). He wasn’t complaining, he was just starting it as a fact. The objective was to show how these soldiers are exploited by their superiors simply because there is no way to refuse.

The problem with the video was that Mathew was easily recognizable to people who knew him. He could be recognized by his voice, and even by his clothes. No special attempt was made to hide his identity. They just followed a simple procedure that would make his face unrecognizable to people who wouldn’t know him, but people who knew him would immediately recognize him.

Ever since the tragic incident came to light the way such sting operations are carried out is being questioned. Mathew was not a criminal. He was simply having a conversation as the journalist had befriended him without telling him for what purpose he was being talked to. This is fraud, especially when the person being featured in the video is an innocent citizen and hasn’t been informed what’s going on. Journalist Shiv Aroor has rightly termed this as near murder.

It’s public knowledge that soldiers of lower ranks are often expected to perform domestic duties for their superiors. This aspect of the army needs to be investigated.

If 70% of Indians are still paying bribes, the entire blame doesn’t lie on Modi

It’s obvious that when you promise certain things during your election campaigns and then somehow if these promises are not fulfilled, or if somehow it can be proven that they haven’t been fulfilled, your opponents are bound to bring them up at every opportunity.

This Quartz article, for example, talks about a Transparency International report that has found that nearly 7 in 10 Indians have to pay a bribe to get even basic jobs such as admission in government-run schools and availing hospital services done.

Of course the article compares the findings of the report with Modi’s claims that he is fighting corruption with all his might.

First, Transparency International isn’t an unbiased organisation. Second, even if this number is correct, we must remember what a system Modi has inherited. The supernova of corruption that had been created in the past 70 years cannot be controlled within a couple of years. Every system, every institution has been corrupted, including bureaucracy and judiciary.

Even the BJP itself is a part of this corrupt ecosystem.

This is the reason Modi isn’t attacking the corrupt directly. It will be of no use. He is trying to create a system where it may become difficult to follow corrupt practices. He is digitizing as many government procedures as possible. He is encouraging the poor to open bank accounts so that financial help can be sent to them directly. He is encouraging people to own mobile phones to stay informed. He is computerizing the attendance system so that babus are forced to come everyday and stay in the office. He is eliminating the paper work.

Establishing systems that thwart corruption are much better than attacking individuals.

Does it really take 400 L of water to make 1 L of cold drink?

It is surprising to know that 1 million traders in Tamil Nadu, according to this Time update, are taking cold drink bottles from Coca-Cola and Pepsi off their shelves because these multinationals are using up the state’s scarce water resources. The traders are replacing these bottles of cold drinks with local, fruit-based brands.

It’s quite surprising to know that it takes 400 L of water to make 1 L of cold drink. If this really happens, it is such a waste and something desperately needs to be done about this.

Actually it takes 1.9 L of water to make a small bottle of Coca-Cola but that is at the factory level. Activists in the state say that  sugarcane farming takes up lots of water. Coca-Cola is the biggest buyer of sugarcane in the country and PepsiCo is the third-largest sugarcane buyer in the country.  So if you add up the water used to grow sugarcanes, it comes out to be 400 L water to make 1 L of cold drink.

The problems with multinationals is that  they’re very disconnected with local problems and this is why inviting foreign investment is always a double-edged sword. It brings advanced technology to the country  and it also generates employment but since  these companies are not directly connected to the soil of the country, they don’t have any long-term interest in taking care of the local environment.

The same happens with web server farms The use of lots of water, lots of precious water.

It’s a blessing in disguise though. Bringing for the gold rings anyway is not good for health and it is good that people are being encouraged to consume beverages made of fruits. Though this may bring its own set of problems.

Why Indian engineering graduates don’t pursue engineering?

In the early 2000’s for some time I worked with GE and my superior was a chemical engineer. Once he boasted to me that he earns more editing Word documents than his friends working at ISRO with the same qualification. When I asked what about work satisfaction, he said he was satisfied as long as he was being paid could.

This Forbes article says that most engineering students in India have to seek employment in other realms because they don’t get paid much in the court engineering field. For example, someone called Abhishek Sharma says that an engineer gets 60% more in a software company compared to a conventional engineering-related company. After completing his engineering, this person is working as a business consultant, and I can totally believe him, considering my senior was perfectly happy editing Word files.

Muslim polarisation automatically means Muslim polarisation

The BJP is being accused of polarising the Uttar Pradesh elections, and it might be, says Minhaz Merchant in this dailyO article, but polarisation from the BJP’s side is mostly reactionary. We all remember that initially the BJP talked about only development despite a few of its fringe members raising issues of Ram Janm Bhumi and Hindu-Muslim issues.

But the problem is, unfortunately, the politics of our country is intertwined in the mesh of caste, religion, class and even regionalism. For decades, parties like the Congress have been deftly playing the communal card to pitch Muslims against Hindus and then reap political dividends.

The Congress and its various offshoots and partners in crime have been easily able to pitch the Muslim community against the Hindu community because one, the dynamics within the Muslim community are such that they constantly feel threatened, shortchanged, victimised and when not all these, aggressive.

Two,  Hindus on the other side are divided. There are caste divides, class divides and regional divides. You name it, and they have that sort of divide. So they are not a very strong, collective vote bank unless they are moved by a very big cause.  In the early 90s it was the Ram Janm Bhumi that brought Hindus together and suddenly catapulted the BJP to the position of a national party.

The Ram Janm Bhumi movement taught the BJP that if communalism works for the Congress, if it has the right cause, it can also work for the BJP, and it actually did.

The problem with the BJP is, even if it wants to stay away from the Hindu-Muslim issue, the other parties won’t.

Hindu-Muslim-Caste issue in India is like water and color on the day of Holi. It’s very difficult to remain clean on Holi when you go out: someone will definitely throw water and color on you. If not an adult, then a kid. If you want to remain clean, stay indoors.

The same holds true for Indian politics. If you want to stay away from these issues, then forget about becoming a significant political entity.

No Mr. Amartya Sen, the space for public reasoning hasn’t shrunk in India

Here is another link from Live Mint about an interview with the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. In the interview he talks about his latest book, Collective Choice and Social Welfare, in which he argues that a democracy isn’t just about casting votes.  It’s also about people arguing with each other.

There is nothing wrong in this argument. Of course people should be able to argue with each other and have open debates without being threatened and accused of communalism and this phobia and that phobia.

But then he says that the space for public reasoning  has shrunk in India whereas, it’s totally the opposite that is happening. More people are able to express themselves. The Internet, especially social media, has democratised public discourse. No longer a particular clique can peddle its lies unchallenged. Every motivated propaganda is challenged. Every news that is suppressed is brought to the notice of the public. Every information that is being misrepresented, gets represented properly.

Noted lyricist Javed Akhtar condescendingly talked about “less literate” sportspersons talking about national issues and immediately had to face a backlash not just from the sports persons but also from general public. This couldn’t have happened in the “Golden Times” Amartya Sen talks of when they would have been no means for the sports persons to respond to Akhtar’s stupid retort.

This is what Javed Akhtar tweeted:

His  tweet was in response to a few tweets published by Indian players in the wake of the Gurmehar controversy. Below, I have pasted some of the tweets by these players:

It’s not that the space for arguing with each other is shrinking, it is expanding, and this is the real problem for people like Amartya Sen. Just imagine, a couple of decades ago, me publishing a newsletter that is sent to more than 500 people (at the time of writing this)  and among them on an average 20% opening it and reading it, every day.

These intellectuals first fabricate a world and then they start  creating stories and hypothesis around that world to such an extent that everybody starts believing that it is an actual world and the threats posed by this world are also actual.

Fortunately, contrary to what Amartya Sen says, the space for public reasoning is much expanded now and everybody can participate.

The problem with the leftist intelligentsia is, they haven’t yet learned how to deal with this new level playing field.