Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the keynote speaker at this ICTD conference happening here in London. The Michael Jackson in the computing world, Sir. Tim Berners-Lee has been credited for inventing the World Wide Web, launching the first basic communication via the Internet in 1989. So...he appears lost on stage, as if he walked into the wrong conference. A tech-geek at heart, it seems he is compelled to connect his general fabulous geekiness to starving children in Uganda. And sadly he tries. He brings up in some circular way this farmer in rural India who makes decisions on drilling the land and sowing the seeds and something about rainfall and er...as if he just had a crash course on farming ..farming for Dummies 1.0. And just when you wonder where its heading, he miraculously ties this to accessing the Internet for empowerment, a point already beaten to death not just at this conference but for the last decade in the ICTD field.
Okay, so while he may not be the development guru (nor does he claim to be which is the redeeming aspect here), he becomes more engaging when he actually starts to talk about his toys, his nerdy state of being and more. He talks about the creative process, particularly on how scientists inhabit the fuzzy world of stories and inspiration: "I spend a lot of my time in an anecdotal world." While nothing new per se, it is nice to be reminded that data often does not inspire, it often justifies...it's the after and not before of the creative process.
When asked (surprise surprise) as to what is the future of the www, a member of his www consortium reveals that voice technologies is where the www should be heading to. Seems so intuitively obvious given the high illiteracy rates around the world yet it is amazing how voice-based technologies has not taken off at an unprecedented scale; wish they talked more about this as to why this hasn't yet happened. Instead, questions concerning wikileaks seems to infuse the auditorium space, tying this to security, walled gardens, regulation and open vs proprietry software. Nothing too revealing in these discussions and predictive in terms of its place in this interdisciplinary conference.
So, post-keynote talk, I land up chatting with some Microsoft guys who are researching on search techniques. They tell me that they've heard Berners-Lee talk every year as a keynote speaker at the WWW consortium and apparently, he uses the same speech year after year after..year! Hard to beat the www idea huh? So just a tip here- if you're going to do something epic in life, just hope this happens later rather than earlier in your career. Of course, we often don't know a moment is epic until after the fact. This explains why often the initiation of epicness is marked by the mundane such as the testing of the telephone call by Bell saying "Mr. Watson come here, I want to see you" to Berners-Lee's first web address "Info.cern.ch" explaining the WWW project. So next time, you may be better prepared when you confront your own 5 minutes of fame...
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Who doesn't love a good idea! Here's one, aerial mapping of a community space in Palestine by attaching a regular camera to a kite. So picture this..."tampering" with a regular camera and attaching it to a kite that flies overhead your community allows for a aerial perspective of your local space; piloted by Palestinian youth make it even better. This stems from the Voices Beyond Walls organization, a collective of independent Palestinian and international media technologists, filmmakers, photographers, educators, and activists that hold digital storytelling workshops with the youth in the refugee camps in the West Bank.
Here's another kind of mapping: in Kibera, Nairobi, digital mapping of this "blank spot" on Google maps becomes richly detailed through the initiative of local information surveying and sharing to create a digital public map of their own community. And why should one care? Well, besides its invisibility online, it has more pragmatic purposes. Community maps allow for the planning of policy and practice initiatives. Kibera, in spite of its Hollywood fame, having been featured in Fernando Meirelles's film The Constant Gardener, is also a region which is one of the largest slums in Africa that is in dire need of attention. This project stems from the Map Kibera initiative, drawing from local participation through smsing on updates of their local space for planning, navigation, and community rejuvenation.
There are other kinds of mapping too...mobile traffic mapping during earthquakes, mapping of the virtual economy flow to understand the scope of digital labor in developing countries to mapping of hotspots of artists in Poland as tourist online guides. In fact, mapping seems to have gained tremendous attention amongst development practitioners as they look at capturing spaces as a platform to addressing issues such as youth education, healthcare, urban planning, emergency relief and more.
That said, who is actually using such maps is a looming question still. While very powerful to gain grants from sponsors and funders and legitimacy amongst INGOs, the actual locals are often unaware of the entire lifelines of such projects...
Monday, December 13, 2010
The ICTD conference for 2010 goes all Harry Potter on us, hosted by Royal Holloway, University of London. This university, started in 1886 and financially backboned substantively by Thomas Holloway who made his millions from patent medicine, is a fascinating site to hold the conference in. While we're immersed delightfully within the history of this educational space, we're confronted with the future of this relatively newly created ICTD conference space. Its a response to the persistent frustrations of the disconnect between academia and practice. It's about making "relevant" academia, to network these seemingly disparate groups in a fruitful manner and create sustainable thinking through interdisciplinary means.
So it is of little surprise that the conference launches with a panel of practitioners and moderated by Tim Unwin from Royal Holloway, University of London. In true academic self-flagellation, Tim remarks that only practitioners can truly "guide the next decade of academic research." Invited on the panel is Erik Hersman, co-founder and director of operations of Ushahidi, Anriette Esterhuysen, executive-director of the Association for Progressive Communications, Tony Salvador Senior Principal engineer, and Director of Research, Emerging Markets Platform Group, Intel Corporation, Anita Gurumurthy, IT for Change, Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net and creator of FrontlineSMS, and Indrajit Banerjee, Director of the Information Society Division, UNESCO. They were invited to speak their mind on what they think should be researched on in the near future, look deeply into certain issues and question certain dominant assumptions in the field. Of course, as predicted, the debate starts of with the usual practitioner-academic debate, with an underlying bias of making the "practitioner" very current, reflexive, insightful and "close" to the beneficiaries. Academics however, need a new PR agent apparently as they're viewed as parasitical creatures, feeding off on the "brain food" of practitioners as Anriette states. Banerjee, an ex-academic fuels this further with his comment that "“academics are talking to themselves while development is out there." Of course, there is some noise on who is this "practitioner" anyway? Aren't all academics, if genuinely effective, are practitioners too ? - as such, all "good theory is good practice too," as Anita states. So is that really true?
While this ritual perhaps is essential, given the role of rituals in general as markers that indicate that we're all part of this community that shares common tensions that at once divide and unite at the same time, there were more interesting points that were brought up by this panel, namely from Erik, a technologist who astutely asks why do we pigeonhole technologies as tools for development? Its like saying Mozilla Firefox is for development just because it's being used by emerging market demographics! So why do we naturalize certain tools as “empowerment tools” and does this really have a particular advantage for the ICTD field or does it long term do more damage as we exoticise typical tools and thereby create barriers on intergrating "exotic" populations into the typical user-interfacing group?
fodder for thought for sure...
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Granted, my profound ignorance of Dutch cartoons mitigated a little only due to self-centrism. Having learnt that us TEDx bloggers from the TEDx Amsterdam event (that recently wrapped up on Nov 30th) was covered by two specimens that don't wear pants, it piqued my attention for sure. Fokke, a run-of-the-mill duck wearing a small sailor's cap is accompanied by Sukke, a canary bird that wears a baseball cap backwards but apparently rocks the boat with their supposed tails that coincidently resemble male genitalia. But thats not all that they rock. Their benign disguise is coupled with politically incorrect humor and barbed sarcasms targeted at posers such as us TEDheadders, a subculture of The Economist reading, Mac hugging, Jon Stewart loving type of groupies.
So, Fokke & Sukke is a Dutch comic strip created by writer and illustrator Jean-Marc van Tol, and writers John Reid and Bastiaan Geleijnse and is published in the daily broadsheet NRC Handelsblad. These guys even won the Stripschapprijs, the Netherlands’ premier cartoon award. So no doubt then it is flattering that our esteemed little creatures decided to focus (albeit mockingly) on us bloggers given the numerous distractions going on at the TEDx event.
So the translation for this goes something like this..based on my pigeon Dutch:
Sitting down in the press balcony with pen and paper
Sukke! Everyone uses an apple! (holding onto their pen and paper)
Shh! Careful or they'll realize that we don't know shit about nanotechnology!
I m sure its more acidic when translated correctly...but hey, nothing like getting immortalized by a bunch of furry creatures that are still not extinct.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Performance by Muthoni, the drummer queen
Starving artists, rich recording labels…that’s how the cliché goes. Microfinance, usually reserved for talk on farmer loans and such is now making waves into the world of the music industry. Fans are putting their money where their mouth is, enabling start-up capital to aspiring musicians from developing countries around the world. The clincher here is that musicians do not give up ownership or control of their music rights.
microfinance + music + digital media= Muthoni the drummer queen!
for more, check out TEDx Amsterdam site: Moving to the microfinance beat!
Sarah Darwin talks about Darwin's journey replayed today
Like the usual family pressure is not enough, having Charles Darwin as your great great grandfather must hardly be an easy feat. That said, rather than hide from it, Sarah Darwin embraces it openly and audaciously retraces the “emotional” journe, as she calls it, of the HMS Beagle. A biologist herself, Sarah describes how she and her family set sail round the world on the Dutch clipper Stad-Amsterdam, starting at the same port where Charles Darwin embarked around 178 years ago...
Check out the TEDx website for more:
Sarah Darwin: Following in your footsteps great great granddaddy!
Peter van Lindonk's talk on demanding creativity as ground for unity for stimulating ideas
It’s about time someone added chutzpah into conferences! Aren’t most conferences about remembering the lines but forgetting the theatre of it all? Peter van Lindonk, the co-founder of the annual PINC-Conference, knows this better than most people as he rounds up people in Amsterdam around one theme and one theme only: creativity. PINC stands for People Ideas Nature Creativity and unites people on passion over content. Of course, there’s something to be said about embracing passion over discipline; think about De Bono, the creativity guru who was a physician, author, inventor, and consultant or Bucky Fuller, the American engineer, author, designer, inventor, and futurist who pioneered “spaceship earth.” What they all have in common is this irreverence for compartmentalizing ideas by discipline.
Peter van Lindonk: Pocket full of passion
Dr Anita Goel on Personalized medicine
It’s nice to know you’re special. Anita Goel backs this up with science, showing that no two people are alike in their molecular profiles, and as such no two treatments can be alike. Tailored diagnostics – personalized medicine has come to our doorsteps. Covered with ivy, Dr. Goel is a product of Harvard-MIT and Stanford, a physicist, a physician, founder and CEO of Nanobiosym, a company that has a not-so-humble vision to “to revolutionize healthcare globally.” She states that their goal is to give patients worldwide real-time access to their own diagnostic information via low-cost handheld devices and provide a personalized approach to cure through one’s genetic makeup. So what, individualism is the new holism? For more, check out the TEDx site:
Dr Anita Goel: healthcare at your digital fingertips
Santa Claus look alike, Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro, talks of chocolate through 26 Mayan languages. Where does cacao come from and why does this matter? Being the global director of plant science and external research at Mars Incorporated, he shares with us the buzz phrase of today= sustainable cacao.
Chocolate matters! But not in the way we imagine, Christmas stockings and all. He says, "everything is on the move, forced by nature," meaning that to satisfy our love for chocolate, we need to start thinking of its effect on people and cultures, nurturing nature and naturalizing this nurturing as a habit of the future. He approaches this through the eyes of a scientist and anthropologist, an important and yet surprisingly rare combination in the field. "We will not certify poverty!" he stresses, talking of how deforestation is deeply connected to chocolate and how corporations need to equate business models with eco-models, where co-dependency is but a must.
According to The Guardian, "approximately four-fifths of the world’s cocoa production takes place in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The majority of cocoa trees are grown on 2-3,000 family-run farms which are easily susceptible to the influence of climate, disease and price-shifts. This commitment to buying their crops will make a huge difference to the national and local economy"
So its time to give more thought to the bitter-sweet side of chocolate...
Green bordered Press Passes and RESERVED written on red velvet seats...its nice being the Press! Cookies and koffie; polaroids being taken to give some kind of instant energy feeling; long-bearded men, probably all eco-warriors or physicists... spotted! Admittedly, as we blog away with our Apple computers in a row (with every other minute checking Facebook), we're deeply concerned about more pressing issues such as what we should do with our goodie bags post conference when we go for the after-party to Chicago Boom! Such are the troubling times we live in.
Other issues do seep in such as what can we say about someone whose claim to fame is that she is the great great granddaughter of Charles Darwin...ok, but what about it? And of aliens on stage...er? and fake snow falling on a man who has come from Africa in his native costume, saying that this is the first time he has left his hometown and he receives unanimous applaud...because??? One is tempted to see this as condescending, and sensational but we resist for we're "Press" and as reality goes, we're representing TEDx that is representing Amsterdam/ The Netherlands that is representing a host of sponsors from Philips to Sonoma to Microsoft. And such struggles are punctuated by umpteen cups of coffee and organic sandwiches packed with biodegradable forks and knives and recycled napkins. Even the garbage cans seem to communicate some holistic citizen kind of message like Save the Planet or some such, disorienting us and compelling us to debate on whether we should drop our empty bottles of water into it lest we get accused of well, misusing disposal bins.
And if this isn't enough, TED speakers share the stage with a man in a box of ice, aka the IceMan, Wim Hof, the world record holder, adventurer and daredevil who immerses himself regularly in ice. And he does so again, but this time on the TEDx stage for an audience and Press who have been over this day, trained slowly but surely on becoming accustomed to the strange, the weird, the different...and as our host aptly calls him, the icecube on a stick!
Blogging live on Alef Arendsen:
Even trendy renewable energy requires PR. Granted, Al Gore helped to make climate change a topic again. But for the most part it’s been all about what you can do for the world and not for yourself. The New Motion, a company about “electric mobility powered by renewable energy,” turns this around. “If we want to create lasting change, we have to accept the premise that we act on self-interest,” says Alef Arendsen, one of the co-founders. For more, check out the TEDx blog site:
Alef Arendsen: Fixing my problem fixes yours
Jon Rosenfeld from Boom Chicago, an Amsterdam comedy institution known for its live shows and video productions is hosting TEDx Amsterdam today. He starts for sure with a bang, a boom and happily no bust, cracking up the audience with his witty oneliners such as, "we're all TEDheads here. We're the nerds from high school that made it!" or "we're the Economist readers ...we have that secret nudge, that all knowing wink of getting off on an orgy of ideas" and more, paving way for Prof. dr. Gerardus 't Hooft, the Nobel Prize winner in Physics. Now thats a hard act to follow! In fact, I believe usually scientists do not usually follow comedians when launching into their talks on how nuclear energy transforms the world. So well, kudos to him as he slowly works his way to engaging us with his facetious warning that, "blackholes are not safe to be close to...it can be dangerous!" While starting with the cliche of beam me up Scotty which is oh well, but expected from the man who talks of space, he gets less cliche as he talks about space colonization, setting up hotels of non-gravity and hanging out with "stupid" robots of the 20th century when sending people to Mars...one's social club will be er, confined to robotics of the past. He also talks of the typical commute of moon to earth and back, and we can wonder if audio books will do the trick to help us through this commute!
Monday, November 29, 2010
So, fanatic that I am for TED conferences...well, actually, calling this a conference is akin to calling caviar food or the ipad a computer. The cult of TED is more like it, from Ideas Worth Spreading to Fanaticism Worth Holding onto! It all started in the oh so cliche California where people came together to give "the talk of their lives " er...in 18 minutes. (Andy Warhol promised a 5 minute fame so lets just say inflation just kicked in). It started by pontificating about Technology, Entertainment and Design and now has spread to any topic that can be delivered in a way that will make an audience feel cool n cutting edge, and if you can squeeze in a tear or two from them, more the power to you! Ah and did I mention this is an invite only event, nurturing the VIP instinct amongst an eclectic group of people who need reassurances of their role in life like myself? There is nothing like a good dose of intellectual elitism to get people's attention...simple supply and demand that works brilliantly to make something more desirable, period.
So while I'm no doubt part of this emotive herd, I can be slightly objective to say that these talks are self promotional PR for ideas being launched... promising the end of today as we know it and the future as we see it through the speaker's eyes. But who cares given that conferences in general have become so content centric and delivery eccentric where people astonishingly can serve as sleeping tablets, missing the picture that the audience does matter! Perhaps its the Bollywood side of me, but I expect a mix of passion, counter-intuitive thinking, and sparks ...lots of em.
So it should not come as a surprise that with TEDx happening tomorrow in Amsterdam at the Stadsschouwburg, the grand city theatre, I'm going to be one of the live bloggers at the event. Something like chaining myself to the pillars of Stadsschouwburg crossed my mind if I were not to have gotten into this somehow. So on the 30th November 2010, ideas on the theme of "Science and Fiction" will play out, punctuated by tons of peacock performances in networking over meals and drinks, starting from 7:30am to 9pm in the evening. I will be blogging about microfinance in the music industry where Muthoni the drummer queen will talk, electric cars with Plug'N'Party campaigning to retracing of Darwin's journey by his great great grand daughter, Sarah Darwin and more.
Monday, September 6, 2010
At last, eight months in the Central Himalayas spent examining how people use computers and the Internet has panned out - my first book published by Ashgate publishing (UK) has just got released.
ABSTRACT: Billions of dollars are being spent nationally and globally on providing computing access to digitally disadvantaged groups and cultures with an expectation that computers and the Internet can lead to higher socio-economic mobility. This ethnographic study of social computing in the Central Himalayas, India, investigates alternative social practices with new technologies and media amongst a population that is for the most part undocumented. In doing so, this book offers fresh and critical perspectives in areas of contemporary debate: informal learning with computers, cyberleisure, gender access and empowerment, digital intermediaries, and glocalization of information and media.
'A towering piece of research and writing, imbued with theoretical and methodological vigor, and sensitively illuminating the intersections of digital media and human ingenuity in the Central Himalayas. A must read.'
Arvind Singhal, University of Texas at El Paso, USA, and Clinton School of Public Service, USA
'In every age, innovative technology has been met with an awkward mixture of enthusiasm, indifference, scepticism and hostility. The advent in our time of cheap, mobile computing and cellular telephones has drawn a similar response, especially in the international development community. In Dot Com Mantra, Payal Arora goes beyond the familiar juxtapositions to show how poor individuals and communities actively negotiate their engagement with twenty-first century technology, documenting the conditions under which they use, abuse and reject it in their everyday lives. The result is a book that is fascinating in its own right, but also highly instructive to a new generation of development policymakers, in rich and poor countries alike, caught between an imperative for easy answers and the reality of messy complexity.'
Michael Woolcock, World Bank
Sunday, August 8, 2010
The floating gay parade, 80 boats with specific themes sailed along the Prinsengracht/ Amstel river canal with Lady Gaga ruling the airwaves. Cher managed to seep in a little but gone are the days of Madonna and Barbara Streisand. While no doubt an enjoyable spectator sport, there were some troubling trends. For instance, the energy on the boats lay low (my benchmark = NYC and San Francisco gay pride parades). You start to think about the relationship between the parade participants or “actors” and the crowd or the “audience.” Usually, in such parades, the line between the spectator and the spectacle is blurred, with the run of the mill you and I dressing up with stringy pink wigs, rainbow socks, to sometimes a full blown, out-of-the-closet costume. And you cheer...like your life depended on it. Your vocal cords compete with the likes of a newborn baby. Yet, at the Amsterdam parade, there was a sober quality where the audience barely even cheered, let alone waved at the floats that went by. A beer and camera in hand, they waited diligently for each boat to have their say as they clicked away, almost voyeuristically so. You wonder how much of that played into the energy on these boats as you saw even the S&M boat with black leather shorts and straps retire on the boat, some barely shaking their hips. Was it the physical distance that created a psychological distance? Are street parades more high energy because proximity creates accountability? It is theatre after all, where small productions are more "involved" and "involving" than say, a Broadway musical perhaps? What was also strange was the United Colors of Benetton themes..niche boats like "Mensa gays," "Jewish gays," "black gays," to "gays for ING" and more. What happened to the rainbow unity, at least just for 1 day? And not to forget, the commercialization of these boats, of ING and ABN to the police and political parties all showing their progressive side, hoping to get a slice of the DINK (Double Income No Kids) population. There was also a “Fight Cancer” boat…seriously? Isn’t this a mission confusion statement here? Is this where gay parades are heading to – niche markets, competing causes, and spectator sport? So as I joined the masses in clicking away, I contribute to pictures speaking a thousand lies.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Commuting can be a drag, even more so in a densely populated city like Manhattan. I’ve done the uptown-downtown journey for years where you learn to block ungainly sights, smells and sounds on the subway. It’s a talent onto itself really. Jammed with the loudly enthusiastic tourists, the drunk and the homeless, and the emaciated college kids heading to east village, you develop a protective force field that usually is a potent combination of your iPod, the Economist and shades. That said, it is astonishing that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) takes this reality and turns it to its advantage. Understanding that New Yorkers are constantly on the move, it capitalizes on this and makes this commute a cultural experience. And we do stop and notice. While there is comfort in standardization through the quintessential subway blue and white tiles, there is also difference. Difference that reflects specific neighborhood stops. So if you get off the Natural history museum, that’s easy..you find different animals and their larger counterparts embedded in the tiles. Its as if the museum experience is extended and enhanced. If you’re in Harlem, you’ve got the color and character and jazz. And then, if you're at the Prince stop, you ve got interesting visual stories of figures in motion, all unique, quirky and artsy. Art has found a way of saving the commute. Of course, no one will ever accuse the commute within NYC to be monotonous, although it’s not necessarily culturally enhancing. So you learn to forgive the man picking his nose or the children yelling in your ears as you absorb the free art experience tailored to you, marking each neighborhood in its own unique way.
Monday, July 12, 2010
They say the legendary Paul, the German octopus who predicted all Germany’s matches and the final victor of World Cup correctly, is about to retire. I think not. He has a future awaiting him…
1) Paul is going to sign on for the hot remake of Bond’s Octopussy. The question is, can he seduce the British star Daniel Craig like the way he charmed the Spanish? Maud Adams, move over, Paul's the real deal.
2) Paul wonders how anyone in their right mind can actually think that entertaining kids in a German aquarium is retirement? That’s a load of work people! Instead, he wants to cash in! Although the Spanish economy is er, not doing as well as it did in the World Cup final, he wants his share! Lawyers, make your move!
3) Paul is thinking of joining Wall Street; while everyone was busy seeing his moves on predicting the World Cup final, no one noticed him picking out the next Google…oh well, you snooze, you lose.
Saying something profound about football is not my forte. Yet, here you have it, I'm in the Netherlands and its the World Cup final between Holland and Spain. As you will soon guess, this is definitely not the blog where you will get insightful commentary about Robben’s missed opportunity to strike a goal or Iniesta's amazing play that won the Spanish it’s world cup; I've barely wrapped my head around the fact that there are defenders, keepers and strikers…that there are referees who play bad cop with no real good cop around. It's a nasty job apparently.
Also, I realize that like any other ritual, there is the core and then, there are the spectators, ready to peripherally engage by following the code. It doesn't take much to learn the code. Wear orange. Wrap your beesies, those little furry creatures that come along with every 15 euro purchase from Albert Heijn around your headband like antennae of Dutch support. Scream "kill...kill...kill," and mumble along with the eclectic bar songs that sound more like ole Irish gigs. Do NOT do the step dance. And most importantly, do what others do - drink, stare at the screen while talking, and moan and cheer in accordance. Its simple really, a tribal lesson for survival in the world of football witchcraft. Besides, the "insiders" need us "outsiders" to feel inherently the "insider!" Let's not make any mistake about this...we, mere rubble, still serve a purpose through our skirting the boundaries. We define the boundaries. That will suffice for me.
There is also something liberating about my unsportiness; my profound ignorance pushes me to ask some questions to the "insiders" that make for an interesting discussion. Why, in this age of new technology where each move is documented and replayed does the referee still organically decide on who gets the penalty card? Why is this a contentious question? Why does this threaten the “authenticity” of the game as claimed by football purists? Why does “technology” find itself opposite “ritual?” Is there something profane about technology as much as there is something “sacred” about the ceremony of sport? Does the preservation of the “referee” role speak about a larger issue of the preservation of our humanity, our inherent flaws and human weakness as well as our intuitive and ingenious talent that defies or competes with new technology? Do we dare bring the two to contest?
Why why why… but questioning is just another form of outsiderness. If you want in, shut up and watch the game!