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 café 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 naiveté. 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...

Friday, November 25, 2011

My Favorite part of TEDx Amsterdam: The making of the "living brain"

Amazing performance and idea by the Dutch National Ballet and beautiful photos by Jan Jaap Heine

Alan McSmith: Time to get in touch with your wild side

For every ten of those Mac worshiping, crackberry addicted, Starbucks weekend worker bees, there is always someone who makes noise of living simply, living deeply, living…period. Modern life is defined by this antithesis; the romanticism of nature rises as we get more technologically dependent and removed from the workings of the daily struggles for sustenance. We immerse in nature temporarily and dwell deeply in concrete worlds; we prefer to be unfamiliar with nature and familiar with the city, our daily landscape that we navigate through. But every once in a while we are called upon to pause, to pay attention, to reflect by physically and emotively experiencing the environment that nurtures us, with a hope that we will realize why it needs to be nurtured in turn. Alan McSmith, a nature guide who has worked for 25 years in the wilderness of Africa and an advocate for environment conservation, is one such soul. His talk starts with the audience surrounding a digital campfire on the stage screen, transporting us to the dark and mysterious spaces of the Kalahari desert. We are taken on a journey through nature, as we put on our blindfolds and listen to his words: ...you feel the wind going through the trees ...you are out of your comfort zone ...a leopard is heard at a distance ...baboons ...the leopard and the baboons become your fear ...are you afraid of losing control? ...resist the temptation to lift the blindfold ...you feel the sunshine on your legs, your belly and eventually much to your relief, you feel the sunshine on your face ...you’ve done it! The audience looks like they’ve come out of a hypnotic state, opening up to his message about nature as a way of life. He wryly remarks, “you by now have figured that my office is slightly different from yours,” and goes on to talk about how our connection with nature, regardless of where we live, will keep us rooted and stable. He has given each of the members a stone to hold onto, a humble reminder of the bigger picture, “whenever you feel threatened by a baboon in a boardroom for instance, the stone will bring you back to this point.” McSmith hopes that we strive to create a balance, that of human innovation with humility towards nature. As we know, this is rarely looked at as a balance but rather competing principles as modernity has pushed us to make difficult decisions and we have often chosen the path of paying the price with nature. It seems like an inevitability that social development and the wilderness are in conflict. Yet what would happen if we felt this was not an option and that nature was a necessity for keeping our humanity, would we innovate differently? McSmith calls us to experience the simple living that the wilderness challenges us with, knowing that its often easier to hide behind the complex meanderings of the social web. Remember the Walden Pond experience of the 1800s where Henry David Thoreau decided to live with and within nature to reclaim his humanity? “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Naiveté to some, inspirational to many, we occasionally get a strong social voice that pushes us to explore what it means to get in touch with our wild side. McSmith extends this tradition of seeking and thinking as he states, “wilderness is more than just a place, it is a way of life!” CLICK HERE FOR THE VIDEO OF TALK ON TEDx AMSTERDAM website:

Baby Mozarts within us all?

Who doesn’t love ‘Baby Mozart’? A multimedia edutainment, this musical toy lures parents with the promise of opening up their child’s latent creativity and spatial-reasoning. In fact, the popularization of music within the cognitive domain has pervaded our day-to-day lives as we see this as a means to healing and a balm for many other afflictions such as autism, Alzheimer's disease and disabilities that result from stroke. Part of this attraction is perhaps in its primal status as it serves as a listening stimulus with seemingly transformative powers. Across cultures it appears that peoples’ pleasures and sense of well-being are tied to their passion for music. Yet, can we authoritatively say that we all have musical predisposition? Are we just little Mozarts waiting for the right stimulation to tap into the well of our primitive and latent musical nature? Are we all somehow born with a beat to our steps? Apparently, there’s no point denying it…regardless of who you are or where you are from, we are all born musical. While babies from Germany seem to cry differently from those in France, says Dr. Henkjan Honing, the KNAW-Hendrik Muller Chair of Music Cognition at the University of Amsterdam, they share the essential ability to identify music elements, even at that stage. He says that we are indeed musical animals and the more important question is rather on what makes us so. He subjects the audience to a series of sound experiments on testing our listening skills. As predicted by Dr. Honing, we lived up to the expectations of being the typical adult prototype who have somehow lost our skills to a degree and yet demonstrate some common agreements on sounds and musical tones. He exposes us to music snippets, baby cries, and even ropes in an audience member to sing the pop song “Staying Alive.” The TEDhead volunteer delivered to the delight of the audience, with the right high tempo and pitch for this song (that Dr. Honing jokes is perfect for heart patients). Dr. Honing claims that this proves his theory on how common our skills of listening are and how effortlessly we recall pitch, tonal variations and other more primal characteristics of music listening. So, the average Joe can indeed pleasantly surprise you (including that drummer who lives above your floor) with his musical expertise. Dr. Honing remarks that these are events that should be seen as less anecdotal and more evidence for the fact that we are indeed innately oriented and attuned to music. So how controversial is this claim about believing that we share the mental script for basic appreciation of music? What happens when this claim starts to encroach on the finer acts and the high cultural realm of music performance? Will there come a day when we will also argue that we can all be Mozarts and that this music genius is but a common talent that is waiting to come through with the right stimulus? TO VIEW THE VIDEO FOR THIS TALK, CHECK THE TEDxAMSTERDAM SITE:

Grey Matter: People Matter: Launching the ‘Living brain’

Sheer poetry through the hokey pokey! The launch of TEDxAmsterdam by the Dutch National Ballet compels us to emerge, engage, and enter with our left leg, right leg, and oh all of our senses! Ballet artists enter the stage and their seemingly random movements are shown from above behind them, allowing us to see how chaos slowly but surely comes together, becoming the sensible as well as the sensational. And what a way to represent the TEDxAmsterdam theme of 'human nature!' After all, what comes to mind when we speak of ‘human nature’ are notions of being organic, raw, and spontaneous. Yet, when grappling with what constitutes as being human in this current time, we have become more and more preoccupied with significant alienations that occur around us. Crisis looms and reminds us of our vulnerabilities from the possible euro meltdown, techno-hackings to the continuous struggle for political freedoms across the Middle East. The brain takes over, rationalizing, segmenting, dissecting; often churning out clinical solutions to human problems. But then we are surprised when, for instance, bank bailouts are met by OccupyWall Street movements…comfort zones are threatened and forcibly redrawn. This year, TEDxAmsterdam immerses us within the ‘human nature’ theme and fittingly has launched with this specially choreographed rendition of this theme by the Dutch National ballet. Along with dance2film (Altin Kaftira & Mathieu Gremillet), Ernst Meisner and Grand Sujet at the Dutch National Ballet has pushed the envelope, bringing the dancers to reproduce the complexity of the human brain in ballet form on stage. Perfectly symbolic, the dance takes on the deep sense of order within spontaneity, brings intimacy through structure and form, and creates an underlying pattern through a seemingly chaotic orchestration. We see the deliberate curling of the feet within this brain composition, with the heads and bodies overlapping and curving to take on the shape of the brain. At some point, the numerous dancers lose their status as people and become a unified person on stage, a composite whole, a living brain. This performance is not just live right now but is being digitally captured through The Netherland’s most creative minds from ballet, film, photography, interactive, design and communications. They have joined forces through the WE ARE Pi, an assembly of 100 professionals to bring to life a series of ‘living brains’ for this event. The production process apparently started with a question from WE ARE Pi to dance2film, whom have a strong history of dance film production – “Is a human brain made from people possible, has it ever been done before, and can you help us make it happen?” This poetic movement and dance creation serves to extend these brain waves across the room here at Stadsschouwburg to across physical and cultural borders in visual and interactive form. As we experience this magic, we are reminded of what TEDxAmsterdam intends to be, an intellectual journey that is woven with emotion, synergies, inspiration, community and creativity, and where the human being is central to this world of ideas and action. Now, that’s what its all about! CLICK HERE FOR THE VIDEO OF THE PERFORMANCE ON THE TEDx AMSTERDAM WEBSITE:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Here we go again! TEDx Amsterdam mania and fanaticism renewed

Let’s just get this out of the way. Yes, I am still a hardcore TED groupie. Okay, I did not spend all of last year crossing the days off the calendar but did engage with tremendous foreplay - the communication process building up to next week’s TEDx Amsterdam event. Creating the profiles of this years’ speakers to release to the press flirted with my senses, compelling me to look them up on Wikipedia, YouTube and other digital platforms, consuming them voraciously in their presentation style and novelty of their ideas. Almost started to stalk some of them on Twitter but my saner part was kind enough to remind me that I really don’t have much in common with Computer-mediated Epistemology or Musical Cognition in the long run. Ah but that is why this event, a gathering of artists, designers, scientists, architects, technologists, and activists is so unusual and addictive – the adrenaline rush of immersing into unknown territories and specialties with just one common thread –ideas worth sharing and worth pursuing. As an academic used to being surrounded by the usual suspect fellow scholars, this is refreshing and indeed how I believe new ideas often truly emerge.
This year will focus on the theme of “human nature” and will kick start with the “living brain,” the Dutch National Ballet rendition of the human brain through dance form. I also did not know until a few days ago while creating Jim Stolze's profile, the founder of TEDx Amsterdam, that he is the European ambassador of TED and that he did this fascinating study about how the internet positively impacts happiness. Also I have to admit, I am morbidly curious of Tinkebell, a controversial Dutch artist best known for handling animals in her work where she actually made a handbag from the fur of her cat. In the age of the YouTube cat video fandom, this is rather hard to get away with!
And what has changed with our communication team since last year? Well, it will be an exciting reunion as we have digitally engaged much through this year and will be nice to bond in our Press Corner again. Rumor has it that we have special lap pillows to not burn our thighs off with our laptops. Also, not sure if this year Fokke and Sukke can tease us on being Mac heads as I will be breaking the chain with my run of the mill PC due to a certain incident involving drowning of my MacBook Air with a bottle of water.
Evidently some people one may argue, do not deserve to be part of the Mac Commune but I do feel liberated though from the cult with my 'damn if I care' laptop. What is definitely an exciting new intervention is working with Louise Fresco, a former UN director and sustainability expert to come up with the days’ summary of good ideas and happenings. All in all, same place, same time, round the clock idea immersion from 9am to 9pm...the promise of a supreme high is just around the corner!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Battling Uncertainty: Old and New Experts in the Market for Visual Arts

Sotheby's Art Institute and University of Cambridge Judge Business School organized a very stimulating workshop with a lecture series on the new risks in the art market from multiple perspectives including economists, business folk, art dealers, auctioneers, and media experts: Exploring Risk and Uncertainty: Metaphors from the Art Market Questions about the role of information in valuation, the new sources of knowledge and the management of these sources for assessment, the place of originality of the art in contemporary valuation and more were tackled and discussed. Filip Vermeylen and I presented on specifically intermediaries, from the past to the digital present and the implications new media has in this age old gate-keeping space when it comes to making decisions and evaluations on art value. Battling Uncertainty: Old and New Experts in the Market for Visual Arts Our paper explores the position and purpose of experts in the art world over time. It has been long understood that art theorists, critics, historians, dealers, auctioneers, curators and so forth play a seminal role as intermediaries in a market that features significant information asymmetries and uncertainty. They facilitate exchanges and are instrumental in determining the artistic, social and financial value of a work of art. However, in this digital age, declarations surface on the death of the expert. The intrinsic value of a work of art is not (or no longer) a given, and various new intermediaries, both social and technical, now appear to contribute to and compete in shaping the valuation process. In the context of the art world, questions therefore arise relative to the role of the amateur in the evaluation and validation of art in current times. Do social media level the playing field and can we assume that equity and vastly increased scale in participation results in better judgments? Does online participation on art valuation impact its actual market pricing? In this paper, we contend that the traditional art experts have not necessarily been replaced by these new players, but rather that new voices have been added to the chorus. This said, many issues - particularly those involving trust and art quality - remain unresolved in the contemporary art market.

Past as a friendly ghost: The art world all over again…

It’s been almost a decade since I left the art world to pursue academia. From convincing CEOs and their interior designer sidekicks to buy a Toy painting from the Warhol series for the children’s room to now convincing students to learn how to communicate when selling themselves and their ideas, things have changed somewhat. But it’s hard to forget the adrenaline of clinching a deal, of convincing your client that a Chagall lithograph was meant for them as you dimmed the lights in the viewing room, got them to nurse some wine and relax on the leather couch in the privacy of the gallery room. In my naïve days, I thought information deeply mattered. I thought a buyer would be interested and would demand knowledge on the background of the artist, their historical significance, the artistic significance of the piece to the provenance of the artwork. Yet over time, you get to realize that decision-making is a more irrational process and rationality comes often after the deal is done to justify one’s choice. It has to fit with the art deco theme in the house or perhaps there is a romance with the location of the subject matter in the painting or loyalty towards the nationality of the artist. Indeed, this is information too but of a different sort, less intuitively connected and more personalized to the client. This was the real job of the art dealer, to get to detect the unique information that is needed to make the deal go through. Some called it intuition, some called it a matter of patience and then some called it good listening…the client always tells you if you’re willing to listen. That said, much of such mediations happened face to face. Even at the peak of the dot com bubble in San Francisco in the 1990s, it was a big deal to do transactions over email and the phone. There was fear that the client would slip away, would not need the dealer anymore; that the process of buying was emotive and that was possible more face to face than online. It was about building relationships and virtual connections did not serve well in building trust. Sure, one used the phone and email to keep the client reminded of one’s presence, of diversifying the means through which we could serve as a nagging presence in the back of their minds until they decided on buying the art piece. But there was no question of the gallery becoming defunct for the tradition of selling art. Yet, in today’s information and digital age, has the game changed radically in the art world? Are we still holding onto age-old gatekeepers and their possibly redundant traditions in connecting the buyer to the seller, the customer to the art, the gallery to the artist? How is trust being established as the art world goes online? Will the mass dictate now and the dealer listen? How closed are the gates to the art world and who is entering now? So more than a decade later, I find myself back at the gallery doorstep, contemplating its new fate and the role of art dealers in mediating information within this (once elite?) gated community.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review of My book "Dot Com Mantra" in The British Journal of Educational Technology

Reviews
_1187 58..64
Arora, Payal (2010) Dot com mantra Ashgate (Farnham, Surrey & Burlington VT) ISBN 978-1-4094-0107-0 190 pp £55
http://www.ashgate.com/default.aspx?page=637&calctitle=1&pageSubject=417&lang=cy gb&pagecount=1&title_id=9768&edition_id=12842

This book presents an ethnographic study on the use of computers, carried out in a marginalised town in the central Himalayas—hence among a group of remote, new computer users—with the aim to allow new perspectives to emerge and old views to be revisited. The study does not investigate if computers are good or bad, but spots the range of constraints and opportunities entailed by their use. It highlights relations between old and new technologies together with people’s beliefs, perceptions and modes of use, and reflects on the nature and implications of the learning induced. In order to reveal a perspective that is not biased by formal institutional difficulties, the study is concerned with computer use in public contexts outside school settings (cybercafés, NGOs and cyber kiosks), where it is possible to observe how people actually interact with computers for a variety of purposes. Emphasis is put on social learning—seen as a dialectic process enacting human ingenuity—which shapes the use of technology and is shaped by it. The author concentrates on understanding the place and space of technology, its boundaries, frame of reference, interpretation, functionalities and optimisation. The focus in not much on tools, but rather on human imagination, which is the root of people’s activity with the tools. The attention to everyday popular uses helps to de-romanticise and demystify the promise of computers as pathways to change.

The book starts by describing the nature and character of local people and their relationship with a variety of old and new technologies. Then it examines the links with policies related to education and development. Finally, it explores the range of activities that local people car ry out within cybercafés; these seem to be mostly not utilitarian but centred on social and entertainment purposes. What also emerges from the study is that computers are not neutral tools but a social phenomenon, a means of persuasion, seduction and remembrance. What people learn while interacting with them can widely differ from what we may expect them to learn. Multiple literacies entailed by computer use are not a set of universal skills but depend on the context of that use and on the power relations within it. There is an intricate relationship between leisure, labour and learning. Leisure, which is a demand and a necessity for all, can be deeply educative and provide long term accomplishments and deep-rooted skills through gratification. This implies that computers should be re-conceptualised so that they better fuse labour and leisure.

The book alternates descriptive parts, which are easy to read and entertaining, with dense reflections, which are thought-provoking but rather laborious. As you can guess from the above description, this is not the usual study on learning with computers. Traditional readers will likely fail to appreciate the ethnographic aspects of this study. The book, however, makes a pleasant and stimulating read for whoever wishes to reflect on educational technologies from a different perspective.

Giuliana Dettori (received February 2011)
Researcher at the Institute for Educational Technology of CNR, Genoa, Italy

Review of my book "Dot Com Mantra" in The Journal of Education, Community & Values

THE JOURNAL OF EDUCATION, COMMUNITY, AND VALUES
Dot Com Mantra. Social Computing in the Central Himalayas
Berglund Authority Level 4
Review by Jeffrey Barlow

Dot Com Mantra is an excellent work by Payal Arora, a much-published [1] Indian anthropologist who writes frequently on social computing, that is, the connection between society and the use of computers. This study is an ethnography (a branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures [2]) done in the town complex of Almora, in a fairly isolated area of Uttrakhand, India, formerly Uttar Pradesh.Dr. Arora is well qualified to write this particular work. She has studied at Cambridge (Certificate in Teaching ESL), at Harvard (M.A. in International Policy, Education) and at Columbia (Doctorate in Language, Literacy & Technology). This work is derived from her Ph.D. Dissertation, Social Computing in the Central Himalayas.

Dot Com Mantra focuses largely on the social, economic, and political aspect of development considered within a global framework. Dr. Arora speaks the language of the area and fully immersed herself in its day-to-day life, moving among farmers’ organization, development groups (non-governmental organizations-NGOs), teachers and students, and even volunteering her time working in an Internet café, from all of which she derived deep understandings. In many cases, Arora’s conclusions are counter-intuitive and the book sparkles with frequent flashes of insight. We learn also that many of the approaches of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and of the Government of India are ineffective in the area, because they have ignored the social aspects of technology.It is not that the area is under-computerized; many groups have distributed machines in a variety of settings, but these attempts fall afoul of existing social conditions. For example, schools are given computers, but one-quarter of the teachers never show up to teach. Of those who do, fully half do not teach even when present [3]. Most of them are held personally responsible for the books and machines sent them and will have to pay if they are damaged, so they lock them safely away. Aware of these issues, NGOs and the Government of India previously sponsored a variety of access points—via the Hole-in-the-Wall/HiWel program among many others [4]—to encourage children to teach themselves [5]. These meet with initial success, but in order to be safe from vandalism or theft, the centers have to be placed on school-grounds where the same conditions which vitiate the educational process also impact the use of the “free” computing facilities.

Arora’s insights are deeply rooted in a close knowledge of both practical and theoretical pedagogy and anyone interested in education could benefit from understanding this aspect of her research. Part of her progress here might be said to be “unlearning,” as she finds that many of her assumptions are simply irrelevant in the social context of village India. For example, after working in the Internet café, she comes to understand the limitations of Western attitudes toward plagiarism. Arora has focused closely on gender issues in her previous research. In her ethnographic research in Almora, she also derives a new understanding of gender issues. This comes about when she watches female students, usually treated in the critical literature as deliberately marginalized in the world of technology, ably manipulate not the machines so much as those who work in the cafes (including the author), on the model of traditional Indian mistress-servant relationships. She concludes that choosing not to work directly with technology is also a means of using technology, and a valid choice in many situations. The author also begins to understand the complexity of globalization when she assists two local girls prepare school papers on “Western” art by selecting a variety of graphics, including cowboy-style horse paintings done by a contemporary Chinese artist, side by side with the Mona Lisa and the works of a noted Indian painter [6].

The weakness of NGO and governmental assumptions about the link between development and I.T. development are treated directly in a section on farming. Farmers are given access to computers by the government in the belief that, with better information about markets and prices, they can avoid exploitation by traditional middlemen.However, the author learns, the middlemen are also a critical element in farming practices, advising farmers of how to develop new crops, for example. And even with perfect knowledge of the market, the farmers are still producing on such a small scale that they cannot take any better advantage of the information.Dot Com Mantra really comes alive and makes a significant contribution when Arora begins to reconceptualize the Internet cafes and their most frequent use as places not of learning so much as of recreation. Here she undermines one of the major assumptions of developmental economics: that the poor are so desperate that given the opportunity they will always choose to look first after basic needs and that idling away time is the province only of the wealthy. Arora concludes: “There is an assumption that the poor will somehow behave differently from their wealthier counterparts. Herein lies a deep bind of contemporary ICT development thinking [7].”

As with the issue of plagiarism, however, when the author situates the recreations of the Internet cafes in the local social context, she comes to see the play as also a valid social choice for the use of computing. We learn, for example, that due to widespread broadband access in Almora, local children and teens are now fully conversant in many elements of Indian urban culture, their rural dialects are now inflected by urban usages, and they are also fairly aware of international pop culture. These may seem to a developmental economist to be an inadequate result for billions of dollars of investment in I.T., but in fact, as Arora points out, in their own way, these consequences represent considerable progress. The work betrays its origins in that it is extremely dense and steeped in academic jargon. However, it should be of interest to a variety of audiences, including most especially those concerned with development, with I.T. investment, with teaching and pedagogy (in any context—many of the weaknesses she spots in constructivist practices in education are as relevant in London or New York as in village India—and generally interested, as are we, in the impact of the Internet). But given its cost ($99.95) most readers should probably seek it out in an academic library, where it properly belongs.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Paper presentations at the IAMCR Conference 2011 in Istanbul

I'll also be presenting on the following topics at the IAMCR conference 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey:

1) CULTURES OF CYBERSPACE: A PEDAGOGIC FRAMEWORK

It has taken the past decade to commonly acknowledge that cyberspace is tethered to real place. From euphoric conceptualizations of virtual space as novel, unprecedented and revolutionary an entity, the dust has settled, allowing for talk of boundaries and ties to real world settings. Metaphors have faithfully followed this scholarship; there is a clear mission to architect Net spaces, be it chatrooms, electronic frontiers, homepages, to information highways. This metaphorical approach allows for concretization and comprehension of Net spaces for policy regulation, private sector practice and pedagogic instruction. This paper focuses particularly on the pedagogic angle, providing a rubric of guidance for university professors to address the critical relationship of the real and virtual in new media studies programs. This paper proposes a conceptual framework of applying metaphors to systematize the connect between online and offline spaces. The design of spaces can be conceptualized into 5 typologies: utilitarian-driven, aesthetic-driven, context-driven, play-driven and value-driven, making explicit the diversity of online spaces and its innate characteristics. This framework applies lessons learnt from the architecting of real space to virtual space. In doing so, it spans the field of urban planning, architecture, and new media studies. Currently, there is little guidance for instructors in new media on how to teach this relationship of the real and virtual. Thereby, this pedagogic framework will allow professors and students to engage in the comprehension of cyberspace through a more sophisticated and interdisciplinary avenue.

II. WALLED GARDENS: AN ANALYSIS OF THE PRIVATE-PUBLIC NATURE OF ONLINE LEISURE
(Under the Program: Between Security and Privacy. Understanding the Balance be-tween Surveillance and Data Protection as
Local, Regional and Global Policy Issues)

In this Web 2.0 era, contemporary leisure is dominantly situated within the online sphere. It is now commonly believed that much of what users do online is of a social nature and if we are to understand their enactments, online spatial analysis of these cyberleisure spaces is a good starting point. This paper thereby proposes that if the Internet can be seen as a “digital city,” its online leisure spaces need to be seen as its virtual parks. Social network sites and parks share much rhetoric in common- they are both perceived as free, universal, democratic and non-utilitarian in nature. Yet, if we are to take on this metaphorical comparison through a historical and comparative analysis, we will discover the ongoing politics of keeping these leisure spaces “public.” For instance, the making of parks in the 19th century involved a significant struggle to shift from the State to the masses. Also, parks across nations and cultures, although one of the seemingly least regulated public spaces, is in fact bounded by social, cultural and economic constraints that shape its very nature. Furthermore, an interesting discussion can stem from the fact that contemporary leisure spaces are finding themselves more within “gated communities,” both online and offline, highlighting an interesting and important dimension of the semi-private nature of cyberleisure spaces. This paper leverages and re(situates) Habermas’s theory on the public sphere, essential for our understandings on notions of ownership, authority, regulation, class, inclusivity/exclusivity in relation to leisure. The tensions of the public and private can be revealed through this parallel as we delve into questions of current importance in relation to online leisure: can we equate “public” space with “free” space? What are the trade-offs involved in keeping a social space “free?” How do we understand the notion of access to these cyberleisure spaces in relation to its current socio-cultural and economic boundaries? How “open” are contemporary leisure spaces and what are its determining factors? Overall, an analysis of the public versus private nature of cyberleisure spaces, both online and offline can shed light on what regulates and shapes contemporary leisure.

IAMCR Conference 2011 in Istanbul: Theme: Cities, Creativity, Connectivity



Istanbul, here we come! The International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) will be starting next week from the 12th to 18th of July with papers surrounding the theme of Cities, Creativity, Connectivity.

I'll be Chairing a Program session on the "Second Wave of the Digital Divide" as well as presenting a paper on the following topic:

The leisure divide: Can the Third World come out to play?

In this Web 2.0 era, evidence is mounting on human ingenuity and creativity with and within online spheres. Much has been documented on how users innovate in a myriad of ways, opening possible economic and techno-social opportunities through play. From initially being viewed as “wasteful” and “idle,” cyberleisure is slowly but steadily being recognized as potentially productive, labor intensive and commercially fruitful. In fact, online leisure has stimulated a virtual economy where “dragon sabers,” a cyberweapon of the Legend of Mir III sells on ebay and “Farmville,” an online farming application on Facebook propels users to speed up their virtual harvest with real currency. In this global and information society, such innovation has become fundamental to getting ahead as the rat race moves online. That said, when we look at the world of ICT and international development, a different story seems to emerge. Much focus is placed on how the Net is being used for a range of utilitarian means such as healthcare, education, to employment. An army of commercial ethnographers from Microsoft, Intel, Google and Hewlett Packard as well as the usual INGO suspects, have been unleashed to capture the newly empowered in action. As billions of dollars are being invested to bridge the digital divide in developing countries, much is at stake on amassing evidence that the poor are, in fact, leapfrogging chronic socio-economic barriers through ICT. Hence, visions of the farmer accessing crop prices online, ridding himself of the tyranny of the middlemen infuse policymakers and practitioner discourses, streamlining research agendas even more so on measuring how ICT is being used for utilitarian ends. However, the underlying assumption here is that somehow users in Third World countries are inherently and intrinsically different somehow from the Western world. While there is no pretense on the fact that what most users do online in the West are primarily “purposeless” – social networking, porn, idle browsing and media consumption and production, there seems to be a belief that users in the emerging markets will have a more conventional work ethic online; they will virtuously reach out for ways to get information for healthcare diagnostics and treatment, online education to agricultural best practices. While undoubtedly this happens, this paper argues that there is a possibility that much of what users do even in Third World countries is, in fact, heavily leisure oriented.To build this case, this paper first examines the relationship between labor and leisure, a) historically and b) comparatively, online and offline. After which, we investigate how new information and communication technology usage has been perceived over time in the Third world nations - intentions versus actual practices. Lastly, this paper traces out the commonalities between supposed First and Third world nation’s practices of new media usage, making the argument that we need to stop exoticizing users in ‘emerging markets’ as more utilitarian driven and work conscious. Instead, this paper calls for a conscious inclusion of cyberleisure in the larger analysis of new media usage in supposed Third World countries.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Digital absence: The modern day sabbatical?






When you speak of sabbaticals, you perhaps picture a professor of art history sitting at a café in Florence, trying to come up with a new spin on Uffizi art. It seems that academia has usurped this practice that has been enveloped in biblical meaning for the longest of time. This hiatus from work has had the weight of Ten Commandments backing it up, allowing the masses to justify their temporal ceasing to labor. Henceforth, the weekend was born. Granted, this is a rather simplistic interpretation. Of course one needs to take into account other phenomena such as the industrialization era where leisure began to be viewed as not necessarily a waste of time but actually that which could enhance productivity. In fact, these strategic interruptions have served as a signal of the modern era where a society sees its inherent virtue. So the question is not on whether or not it is advisable to desist working for some time but rather, how long is it acceptable to leisure before it is viewed as unproductive? The weekend is now an accepted notion and serves as a common motivation for the average modern day laborer as they “slave” away in their routines of day-to-day work, keeping in mind the reward of a relaxing weekend with family and friends. However, beyond that, the option of time-off for its own sake is rather an alien concept in most private sectors.

Also, who is allowed to temporarily cease from labor and why? Sabbaticals implicitly bring to mind privileged white-collar workers where this is seen as a strategic incentive to sustain and retain this elite working class. And what happens when blue-collar workers embark on the same path? It will usually be perceived as part-time work or ill health, signals of a poor economic climate perhaps. Much like what makes a foreigner an “expat” versus an “immigrant” has more to do with economics than with other social aspects.

And of course, what constitutes as non-working time as new media infiltrates and blurs boundaries on work and play at a constant basis? Obama has raised our level of awareness of the Blackberry addict, the new drug of the digital and mobile era where we are now victims of our own constant and often involuntary urges to immerse in online busyness. Productivity and labor has never become so obviously disassociated as in today’s Web 2.0 era where being engaged during “work” and “working” have become issues of serious concern to the private sector at large. It’s a double-edged sword really. Companies benefit from this compulsion as they can reach their employees, the junkies of new media, even during the sacrosanct weekend. On the other hand, leisure stealthily creeps in during the routines of work life, enveloping their worker bees with the trivia of social life through Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. In fact, the spatial aspect of work, of being at the office to produce is also being challenged as technical mobility and the nature of work has undergone radical transformation one may argue. It may even seem that this laboring elite are their own worst enemies as they compulsively engage with work regardless of location and time.

Pushing this further, taking a digital absence is currently shrouded in controversy as expectations of instant gratification from customers as well as ones own Net addiction propels one to actively and with much effort, disengage from the cybersphere. There is no discreet way of excusing oneself from techno-laboring. It is yet to be seen how long absences from ones own blog or twitter is perceived and how that impacts ones legitimacy in the Web 2.0 world where ones absence is digitally clocked and paraded for one and all.

Monday, February 21, 2011

In-built democracy in the Middle East

Writing about the Middle East uprisings is intimidating as words barely do justice to the phenomenal spirit that has captured people in this region and beyond. How can one not be awestruck and humbled by these moments in time? If it were a movie, it would win the Oscars undoubtedly. It guarantees a lump in your throat each time it gains media limelight. We live vicariously through these times, getting a taste of what it’s like to be passionate for an ideal. Our palette is being honed for more exotic flavors of democracy. This media coverage has become our new high.

Frontpage coverage gives frontline feelings; it’s a battle and we, the reader, march along. To sustain this momentum, questions surface: are the people in the Middle East fighting for democracy or are they fighting against authoritarianism? Will this region create their own style of democracy, much like the Chinese, who have managed to defy the conventional coupling of capitalism and Western style democracy? And besides, are they even ready for democracy? Some say that they have little practice with this system of ideals.

As revolutions go, this is as expected, a contained chaos, an organized anarchy. Interestingly, one of the features of this domino effect of political action is its territorial containment. Over 2 million protesters gathered in Tahrir Square on February 10, 2011 in Egypt. In Bahrain, tens of thousands marched to Pearl Square in the country's capital Manama, calling for regime-change, one of the largest demonstrations in its history. In fact, there is an interesting relationship between public spaces and revolutions as history reveals and architects revel in. While streets serve the fervent and ignited marches, public squares provide a home for more sustained mass demonstrations.


If we look at the French revolution, the best-known architects of the time -Boullee, Ledoux, and Lequeu looked at designing public space to "educate, inspire, and serve" citizens. While meant for the government to create a sense of national culture and some argue, spread state propaganda, this very architectural fabric became and still serves as the battleground for public discontent. So for those who believe that this region has little history of democratic enactment, it is worth attending to the in-built architecting of public space within these urban territories...and shall we say, spaces of democratic performance?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Dutch government WANTS YOU to party!



The residential street of Gashouderstraat seems like any other in the Netherlands. There is a play space at the corner; houses have large windows and cycles lean precariously against anything resembling a post. A few potted plants scatter the footpath. And then it starts to unravel. A herb garden emerges on the sidewalk and we are told that we can access sage to thyme for our evening meals. This community garden effort has government backing. Nothing transforms a space as public gardening – an innovative strategy to create ownership of public property. Although seemingly an oxymoron, the idea of keeping things “public” requires certain privatization or belief in appropriating spaces as ones own. It’s been working across cultures, especially as a means of urban renewal in areas from the Bronx in New York to out here. After all, a sense of ownership comes with responsibility. You live a little longer here and the stories start to emerge of how a boy of 11 collected signatures from this street, as he wanted a play space at the corner. Dutch give bureaucracy a remake here as they apparently responded within 3 weeks to this effort. A children’s park was born. In some ways, this socialism comes with a very capitalistic drive – ownership, private property and freedom to shape your environment. Stretching the time spent here and you realize that it’s not just the material shift in public space but the temporal community gatherings that foster material investment in public space. In other words, the local government doles out petty cash for a street party to foster neighborhood feelings, with the very pragmatic logic that if people are bonded, communal change will be positive. And so we party for social change…Proost I say!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Does Culture fail to Shock?


When moving to a new country, there is much talk about “culture shock,” where inadvertently you discover that not everyone has heard of Shah Rukh Khan, forget Koffee with Karan Johar; where walking is interpreted as a sign of your cycle having been stolen and where Nutella wins over peanut butter as a choice of spread. But the truth of the matter is that this is not really a “shock” to the system as for it to jolt you, it has to confront you immediately.

In fact, momentum and pace is at the heart of such eureka moments, which, contrary to popular belief, creeps up on you at the most unexpected of times or perhaps never! You could be walking by the Marijuana Museum in Amsterdam everyday, oblivious to the fact that there is, after all, a museum on this much-adored weed. This term “culture shock”, although a cliché, is in fact barely representative of what one goes through when one shifts geographies. After all, we don’t just travel with our material luggage, we move with our well-encased worldviews that neatly insulates us from the new surrounds that you plunge into. So it is very much possible to float along for years without actually attending to what could possibly shock you. And when we do attend, it is often at the peripheral observation of confirming your deep-seated notions of how people are, in general, strange. Maybe you even celebrate your normalcy by accepting without much probing into the peculiar ways of the new tribe. Thereby, its not a shock, its an affirmation of all what you’ve held dear for so long.

“Shock” requires us to believe that people are inherently like you. Given that we live in a time of celebrated narcissism, that sensation will need to be earned. That said, if you were a brand manager, you can see why, “culture non-shock but a mild surprise” does not do the trick. We expect a punch but what often we get is a tap on the shoulder. But few, turn around nevertheless.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the cheapest of them all?

Today’s world is the world of consumerism. “Access,” even in the most economically disadvantaged areas is less about the basics. In fact, there is a thin line between what constitutes as necessity versus luxury. The farmer wants a mobile to listen to Radio1 94.3; the housemaid in Bandra wants a TV to watch her favorite soap opera; the watchman in Electronic City aims to get a car one day. With India’s massive consumer base of a billion strong, the economy of scale as a perennial cliché kicks in as predictably as ever. So there is nothing new in the fact that new technologies can become accessible at a faster rate in emerging markets than its western counterpart. What is new however is that products today are being developed from the start to be accessible – in one word –CHEAP. Patience is a thing of the past apparently. The new consumer has made the economy of scale redundant here.

The burgeoning middle class laps up the Tata Nano, the people’s car at $2500, an unprecedented figure for an automobile today. The legendary chairman, Ratan Tata remarks: “Today, we indeed have a People’s Car, which is affordable and yet built to meet safety requirements and emission norms, to be fuel efficient and low on emissions,” Mr. Tata added. “We are happy to present the People’s Car to India and we hope it brings the joy, pride and utility of owning a car to many families who need personal mobility.”

And this seems to be just the start. In the hardware world, the brainpower universities of IIT & IISc have pioneered the tablet computer at the cost of a mere $35 with promises of getting even cheaper for the students. And if we cross over to the medical world, we see pioneering innovations of cost effective treatment in major sectors, from prosthetic legs to eye treatment to HIV drugs, an invaluable model to learn for the West where healthcare is perhaps one of the biggest contentious issues of the day.

Best yet, cheap is no longer automatically equated to lower quality. In fact, the demanding consumer expects more apps, more features, and more gadgetry for less. Competition and choice have fueled such expectations, raising the bar for innovators. And rightly so. When we look in the mirror, we now want to see not the present but the future. The question is, who will present the fairest future for us all?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

When in India...swami style reflections in 2011



I left India 16 years ago. With every annual visit back to my hometown, Bangalore, there is a new version of the past created. The past becomes highlighted when the present changes. And changes are aplenty. Roads are constantly being expanded with colossal pillars for the fast train emerging smack in the middle. The guts of Bangalore are being opened up for the NammaMetro, “our metro” fast train, designed to control and digest the 7 million strong city residents. There is constant talk of the “center” being moved, given the construction of luxury gated communities and IT parks along the outskirts of Whitefield to Hosur road, with the future rotating around the new airport shaped after much championing for a new global image for this hybrid city.

And hybrid city it is as 60% of the residents come from across the country and NRIs (Indians who settled in the West) are making their way back to etch their place in this perceived dynamic market and simultaneously be close to their aging parents. The new ambition balances with traditional family values, working well for the Indian economy. On the other hand, the “center” remains entrenched and persists with the small fry shops that I grew up with, small corner comic book libraries, sweetstalls and jean shops surviving the onslaught of the new mall virus spreading across Bangalore. Within the last 5 years, malls have made their presence felt from 3 shopping complexes to now about 40 mega-consumer parks spread across the city. Marks & Spencer, Lush, and Nokia rests non-ironically with home grown stores within these new leisure park spaces, wrapped within the larger experience of masala popcorn and Bollywood in IMAX style.


Everywhere you go, you feel the presence of change. Sikkimese hairdressers, Malayali nurses, to Punjabi business people create the surround sound of the city. New policies emerge to streamline this dynamism be it new bank policies to stricter rules on getting a SIM card for the cell phone. Security measures have beefed up yet India has the knack of displaying ironies in the most entertaining of fashions. Pirated DVD shops, once hidden, now gain legitimacy as they take over a large shopping complex in the heart of Bangalore, selling “original quality” pirated movies of Sex and the City to Salman Khan’s latest big hit, Dabangg. What else? This city continues to hold the title of the “Garden City,” in spite of the systematic felling of trees and the “Pub city” in spite of recent year changes to pub timings to 11am, killing the liquor business to a great degree. Simultaneously, this city is being considered a serious contender from the typical Mumbai hotbed of cultural innovation, for Italian fine cuisine to fashion, expanding its reach beyond the software and call center nodes that represent it. With the New Year, new changes are felt. The city is a beast, consuming and being consumed at a faster rate than ever before. It is a lot to digest after all.