Thursday, December 29, 2011

Communes. Communities. Cults

A few colleagues and I went out for dinner some time back and bonded over the usual small talk of renting and work and relationships. One of my colleagues made the conversation rather spicy by telling us that he lived in a commune in Amsterdam where there were about 10 people and that they often had dinner together in the evenings. He admitted that it was partly due to the cheap rent that drew him to this commune as much as the ideals. This got me thinking of a commune I encountered in my fieldwork two years ago when writing my book. I had gone to the Central Himalayas for research where I encountered the Mirtola ashram, a place where people voluntarily left their 'material' life behind in the cities and dedicated to living a simple and 'honest' life through the tilling of the land, growing their own produce, living with and within nature and praying to the Gods through a ritualistic practice every evening. Within a matter of months, much infighting began. Some did less and some did more. In this forced egalitarianism, hierarchies pushed forth. A leader was born to maintain harmony amongst equals. Irony was born.
And then my mind wandered further into my past when I was eighteen and left home to join a Marxist artist community in Kerala, an unusual and heady state in the South of India which has been uniquely a voluntary communist regime within the larger capitalistic space of India. This community in a way was a small slice of the larger Kerala ethos of high education, strong emotion and deep political leanings. We all pursued our art on the side while we earned our living through odd jobs of sorts. I taught in Mary Roy’s school at that time, the mother of the now famous Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize winner of God of Small Things. There was something magical about living with artists…the passion and sharing of resources, ideas and inspiration; jointly marveling at fireflies that took over the skies at night as the electricity went out as part of our daily routine, and of course, sharing common indignation on the state of reality – the roads, the price of rice, the traffic jams, the soulless commute, the burdened families, the dowry system. Until, one day, we got the rude awakening that our commune was not sufficient to protect our kind from the common worries of the day when we came home one day to see our artist friend lying on the ground with his wrists slashed, blood gushing around him. He survived but the commune did not. One went to Mumbai and became a professional artist; another went to join another commune called Auroville, the City of Dawn in an adjacent State; another became a founder of a business, abandoning all art, while another became a web designer. Myself, I left for San Francisco to pursue my art, hoping to become a muralist or painter.
When I went to San Francisco, I lived in Tenderloin for the first two years. In 1996, this was the blind spot for cops where in principle, there seemed to be a live and let live agreement between the authorities, the prostitutes, and drug dealers. On my second day, my apartment was broken into. At the end of the week, my roommate got harassed by the local gang, pushing her off the edge, making her head back to New Jersey where she came from. Yet, behind this all, a communal feeling was formed. I got free muffins from the cafĂ© next door; I got a free pass into the nightclubs around there and was protected by the watchful gaze of the bouncers and pimps around. It seemed that my ticket into this commune was my waitress and immigrant status and my artist naivetĂ©. Today, there is little chance that I’d get entry into that same commune regardless of their familiarity with me. I no longer belong.
So one can’t help but think about what makes a commune and why is that different from a community? When does a commune become a cult? What does it take for a commune to be a commune and what is its staying power? Why do people have this need to share certain ideals over others and what is the role of economics in this social membership? Is economics really at the heart of this? Or are these micro experiments on reconstructing society the way we’d like to see it, an artistic product shall we say? As we move and (re)settle, year after year, often propelled by jobs, families and/or passion, how many of us continue to desire and seek for communes and more importantly are willing to commit to the larger rules of someone else's game?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Another review on my book "Dot Com Mantra: Social Computing in the Central Himalayas"

The Australian Journal of Anthropology (ISI/SSCI Indexed journal) Dot Com Mantra: Social Computing in the Central Himalayas P. Arora. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010. xv + 172 pp. Illustrmap, bibliog., index. ISBN 978-1409401070. £50.00 (Hc.) Arora’s book offers an ethnographic answer to a common question in development studies: can new technologies transform other cultures effectively and for the better? Not surprisingly for an ethnographer, her answer is a critique of the technological determinism inherent in this question. She focuses on the introduction of computers in Almora, a town in rural northern India where a long-standing web of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) has steadily tried to influence people’s behaviour. Computers are but one of the technologies that NGOs hope will transform these farmers’ and villagers’ lives. A pastiche of types of organisations are introducing computers in the central Himalayas—some strikingly hands-off educational NGOs, some government-sponsored projects for farmers and some for-profit cybercafes. Each merit a chapter in this ethnography as Arora turns to different sites throughout this village where computers have been introduced by NGOs or entrepreneurs. One might expect that farmers would find computers, and in particular the Internet, very useful tools. After all, the internet can allow them to see how people are pricing the items the farmers are growing over a much wider geographic area than word of mouth reveals. The Indian government decided to provide computers in the name of village empowerment and introduced one-stop shops to make available a wide range of agricultural information to local farmers. For a variety of reasons, these government computer kiosks proved too cumbersome to use for farmers. Without mediators between the farmers and these far-flung markets, the farmers cannot turn this information into action. The kiosks were placed in inconvenient locations, forcing farmers to travel to even more places to complete all their errands. They could print out government forms, but still had to wait in line to hand in the forms. And the computers often broke down, with only the private cybercafe owners, that is, the kiosks’ rivals, equipped to fix them. For all of these reasons, the government computers never became widely used. In addition, Arora deftly illustrates a tenet familiar to science studies scholars: it is not the objects but the networks they condense that shape efficacy and whether the object will be adopted or not. Computers presuppose infrastructures and networks, and when these do not exist, the computers will not be useful in anticipated ways. For similar reasons, an educational aid project failed in Almora as well. An NGO had convinced the Indian government and World Information Technology and Services Alliances to support a Hole-in-the-Wall project—computers would be placed in public walls available for any child to play on them. The idea behind this is that without teachers or schools, the children would be able to learn a large number of computer skills through experimentation. If instruction is discipline, as Foucaultian scholars of education would have it, no instruction is putatively freedom. While this project appears to have been successful in other locations around India, it was a resounding failure in central Himalayan towns. Arora argues that the failure is because of a complex absence of infrastructure. ‘In other words, the act of learning without conventional school constraints is contingent on the support of institutional, social and other factors, making it less ‘‘free’’ in that sense’ (p. 103). The public computers required supervision, not to assist curious children, but to prevent vandalism and to make any necessary repairs. In other Indian communities that could afford to provide such support, the computers were sought out by children over time. When Arora turns her attention to the entrepreneurial computer centres throughout the town, she finds relatively thriving businesses, in part because the owners are eager to provide the repairs and support lacking for the other projects. But what precisely are the services these cybercafe´s provide? After volunteering for a month at one of these centres, Arora determines that these computer centres are often extensions of the nearby schools for the students who enter. Yet in what sense are these centres extensions? The students learn how to produce documents that are collages produced by cut and paste. School projects are fulfilled through practices that in other contexts would be seen as plagiarism. Arora wants to put this label aside and focuses instead the skills one must develop to create these collages. She discusses how the upper-caste school girls convince the computer centre employees to manipulate keyboards on their behalf (perhaps so they can avoid touching caste-contaminated keyboards). Creating these documents require skills and coordination, a considerable degree of social coordination. Yet by sticking resolutely to only what takes place within these computer centres, she ignores the other ways in which this social coordination takes place. How are these documents received within the school grounds? Do teachers approve of these pastiches? Are some pastiches considered better than others? If Arora had not been writing so resolutely for a development studies audience, she also might have addressed questions about plagiarism that anthropologists invariably explore these days, that is, what ideas about authorship circulate among these school girls, within the school and within the town itself to accommodate this type of contextualisation? Dot Com Mantra can be used effectively in upper-level development studies courses and technology studies courses to explore how technologies such as computers travel. The sentences are a bit too dense and unwieldy for lower division students, at least in my university. Another caution: the price of the book is a bit steep, which course instructors should take into consideration. Ilana Gershon, Department of Communication and Culture,Indiana University

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Re-Branding of Middle East Youth: Identities, Possibilities, Connectivities

It’s a good sign when you don’t use much of your carefully planned PowerPoint slides when interacting with the youth. Had a wonderful discussion with an engaged and critical group of Language students at the University of Jordan on new technologies, business communication and culture as well as with a significant number of youth who attended the Leaders of Tomorrow event at the King Hussain Cultural Centre organized around this topic. Granted, many seemed to come from a privileged background with impeccable English and an international exposure. This by no means discounts their perspective. In fact, given my experience in India and the fact that I’m a product of such privilege, I’m acutely aware of that thin line between belongingness and responsibility that the fortunate feel towards their immediate surrounding versus the feeling of affinity towards that of afar. It is much too easy to become civically disengaged from our context and I’d even argue that much of the youth, be it in Jordan or India or other such nations are unintentionally primed by the education system towards detachment (often through convent schooling and other postcolonial institutions that still serve as key places for good and cheap education). It takes a certain introspection to shift from ones monocultural perspective that is fostered within walls of privilege and group affinities. The notion of diasporas sweeten the deal with the hope that we still belong to a community, giving us that warm fuzzy feeling of placement and a legitimate way out from responsibility towards ones nation. It’s a double-edged sword really as this very same notion can foster strong ties, relationships, and connectivity that has been accelerated and enhanced through social media. We are not rational creatures by any means and much of our decisions are emotively and personally driven, leading a Jordanian entrepreneur in Amsterdam or an Indian born regional manager in Silicon Valley to establish their outsourcing hubs in their own home towns to be closer to family, friends and somehow feel that they’re not “sell outs” of their culture. Fighting the oreo image or the coconut label of being brown on the outside and white in the inside is hardly easy. We constantly hear about the “authentic” citizen, as if geographic situatedness in itself creates rootedness and a sense of nationalistic responsibility. Interestingly however, today it has become unfashionable to use the term “patriotism” when addressing this phenomenon, as it connotes a lemming-like behavior; the herd-like movement and choices that one is attributed to make when driven by this concept. However, this is stronger as ever and has manifested itself in business opportunities flowing back “home” through deliberate orchestrations within multinationals by migrants of all stripes and colors. The much touted brain circulation has been embraced over the brain drain fear as migrants flow with their ideas, connections, and opportunities across these cultures, creating bridges to new markets and new possibilities in one’s social and political life. What I sense from being in Amman and interacting with the youth here is that they’re at some interesting and undoubtedly challenging junctions right now: of wanting to get out and seek opportunities elsewhere and yet knowing somehow that this is their time of being here and capitalizing on the euphoric expectations that have emerged through the much hyped twitter revolution enveloping this region. That somehow, this is their time to reify this hype and make it tangible by leveraging on the hope and positive attitudes and investor-oriented mindset that much of the outside world has towards them. The youth in the Middle East have been re-branded. They know that; it’ now a matter of converting this brand into something that will be fruitful to them and their people. There is also a sense of more choices and making use of promising opportunities and yet, there is deep uncertainty and fear and lack of guidance in this virgin territory given that their comfort zone is to abide by plans that their parents and the government has for them. Being a leader of tomorrow out here would be a little easier if they had leaders of the past to guide them. The pressure is intense but fortunately they have each other and as long as they’re communicating, interacting and sharing, it has to get easier somehow…

Friday, December 9, 2011

Does culture matter? Business practices across the Netherlands and Middle East

A few months ago I was contacted by the Netherlands Institute of Beirut to see if I would be interested in talking about culture and business in the Middle East. This is part of their upcoming initiative to create bridges between the Middle East and the Netherlands, starting within an academic setting. Part of this commendable drive it seems to me is a response against this growing Islamophobia within Europe which is of course deeply troubling. What better way than to engage the youth across these borders in areas of common interest. I like the idea that instead of going there to be preachy about intercultural harmony and respect, that we choose a topic that the youth are genuinely engaged with and from there see how culture actually matters. So of course it’s of little surprise that the topic that youth in the Middle East seem to be interested in is that of business, social media and globalization. And for good reason. Like other young people across the globe, I believe they are more concerned about how to shape their identities online and are striving to capitalize on these new digital platforms to create collaborations and sustain relationships. Perhaps some of them want to embrace entrepreneurship and experiment with their ideas online given that they’re entering an economy that has little to offer them and instead of chasing unpaid internships indefinitely and pricy master and doctoral degrees, perhaps they can be drivers of their own fate. But of course it’s worth communicating ones skepticism about overplaying the role of social media in this process. Much like the over hyped role of twitter in the jasmine revolution, I definitely do not want to communicate that this is their digital ticket to liberation and freedom from the current economic plight. More importantly, I do not want to get stuck with exhausting notions of culture as nation bound which is common when one is doing a “bridging” of cultures where on either end of the spectrum lies the Middle East and the Netherlands. Before you know it, we often get ourselves wrapped up with the typical discourses on religion and values and social customs, exoticizing the other and walking away with a reaffirmation of difference rather than commonality. On the other hand, one does not want to discount it completely. So I was very excited to see the Economist article on the Magic of Diasporas where it talks about how the youth from emerging markets are leveraging on these digital platforms to circulate ideas and connections that foster trust and propels business opportunities. The bottom line here is that the migrant is not a dirty word and that current protectionist policy is doing more damage within borders by blocking flows of people (and thereby fresh thinking) from different cultures. It talks about how crossing real and virtual geographies enables creativity that is essential to staying ahead in the game. We need to shift from our monocultural outlook and comfort zone, allowing us to view the typical as something that could be exotic again. I liked the way it framed geographies of diasporas over nationhood, geographies of innovation and networks over the usual notions of class and culture. Anyway, I digress... So when I first started to prepare for these workshops at the University of Jordan and St. Josephs in Beirut, it started with a couple of innocent workshops with students. Now its grown to conducting workshops with the Leaders of Tomorrow, a non profit for the youth at the King Hussain Cultural Centre in Amman to the Chambers of Commerce in Beirut where I'll be addressing mainly business people from Lebanon. I am keenly aware of my dearth of knowledge of their context and their current practices. But that said, I believe that my vagabond lifestyle of moving from India to San Francisco to Boston to New York and now the Netherlands may be of some interest as well as the fact that I shifted careers quite dramatically and have leveraged on multiple social media platforms in my work and personal life to move ahead. I hope that by personalizing this talk and drawing from my range of cross cultural experiences in work and my private life, and providing ample opportunities for them to share theirs, we'll be able to jointly see what these bridges can look like…less nationalistic I hope and more about reproduced social practice that is shaped through certain policies and politics. Looking forward to this adventure...