Dr. Suprakash Roy appears in The Best Seller, a novel by Arunabha Sengupta.

A cyber conscious mender of minds, he is interested in the effect of the modern world of the internet and social networking in changing human behaviour.

The following are a demonstration of how the doctor's own mind works, extrapolated from the novel.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Freud Restaurant in Amsterdam

The art-work is made of vegetables, but the depiction of thoughts is distinctly non-vegetarian
All the people working in the restaurant have been associated with psychoanalysis - some way or the other.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Point to Cover: Why do people criticise Sachin? - A Cognitive Psyc...

Point to Cover: Why do people criticise Sachin? - A Cognitive Psyc...:
Senantix speaks about the discussion he had with me regarding Cognitive Illusions and Belief Heuristics and Biases that lead people to criticise Sachin Tendulkar.
As he is much more passionate than about cricket, someone who writes about the game with his blood, I have let him tell the story.
Maybe I will follow up with some of the more technical details later.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Debugged - Swarms Caught in the Net

This post can also be found in the Scroll online magazine.

A lot of the mystique of the Social Media and the magical powers ascribed to it stem from a paradigm shift in the nature of organisation.

Through FaceBook, Twitter, Wikipedia and common open source platforms, we find the weird phenomenon of strangers, otherwise unconnected people, collaborating with each other without any economic incentive, with no central organisation or management. For a twentieth century citizen of the world, the products of social engineering built in infinitesimal packets by such collaborated effort of thousands is indeed a major shift in the way the world works.
The question of economic incentive and the lack thereof have been discussed in other places in this issue.
In this article we look at the pros and cons, the scope and limits of organisation without organisation, and to do this we observe other intelligent life forms which have been doing this ever since the advent of life on earth.
A lot of lessons on the unusually connected world, the combined power of thought and mass reactions can be deduced from the world of smart swarms. If we look at the working lives of ants, termites, birds, fish, locusts, caribou and other creatures, we get several insights into the world of organisation with central leadership. And from thence, I will try to infer how much of all that is possible in the world of birds and bees can be replicated in the human world of cyberspace.
People have  a problem in deducing how a lot of weakly linked efforts that are independent and chaotic in seclusion can produce phenomenally useful products. However, that is the hallmark of Social Engineering.
Wikipedia is a sterling example of the wonders of such collaboration, a fascinating integration of infinitesimal contributions across innumerable individuals – a freely editable, yet unregulated platform which has overtaken the scholastic institutional importance of Encyclopaedia Britannica and others. Contributors are often unnamed, identifiable by only a cryptic sequence of dots and digits signifying IP Address.
Amazon.com, a behemoth retail in its own right, is also a compelling study of how individuals unknown and at diverse ends of the world can influence one another through same or similar purchases, reviews, lists, tagging and discussions. The same can be witnessed in thousands of online spaces from Expedia to TripAdvisor to FaceBook groups.
The cascading effect of the connected world is also witnessed in Google.com, where popularity of search results propel them to the top, leading to more and more hits when subsequent people start searching similar keywords.
It is as if there is global consciousness at work, decisions influenced not by individual thought, but a combination of infinite nuggets of ideas and opinions.
Some of these phenomena are mirrored in striking parallels by the animal world.
When a group of ants forage for food, one can witness a lot of chaotic and unstructured individual movements all around, which somehow converge into effective and surprisingly economic gathering of food, with almost esoteric communication about dangers that lurk in the form of hungry predators in the neighbourhood.
Scientific studies have discovered that this communication is not just a result of messages passed by the rubbing of antennae. The ants use a communicating method that is very similar to the algorithms of page hits and external links used by Google and other engines. Whenever an ant leaves the nest and scours for food, it secretes pheromones that mark the path traversed. And when food is discovered, the ant comes carrying the booty back to the nest using exactly the same path, and hence the pheromone trail gets stronger. Pheromone tracks traversed once are lighter and evaporate with time, and thus only the successful paths retain the strong group history of foraging. Ants who venture out later follow the tracks which have the strongest pheromone prints, leaving their own pheromone trail on them, thus managing in the trial and error methods to collectively converge onto the food. Maximum efficiency through information sharing without centralised management. It is remarkably the same way that page hits and independent links dictate the subsequent search results on Google and other search engines. The same way that previous Amazon sales influence more purchase.
Moving onto the world of termites, we see remarkable gifts at building their elaborately engineered and extremely intricate homes popularly known as ant hills. These residences take years to be built and have complex indoor features, with air temperature regulatory ducts and channels, proper living and community quarters. Not only are these magnificent structures built through a series of chaotic movements without any leadership, the termites also demonstrate remarkable resilience in rebuilding entire sections damaged by external agents. Thousands of working insects just come together and do what is necessary, their individual movements as random as possible.
This remarkable self organisation is known as stigmergy. First introduced in 1959 by French Biologist Pierre Paul Grasse, it has now become an accepted term, which denotes indirect coordination between agents, with seemingly intelligent structures reacting to the immediate environment, without being in direct coordination or communication with one another, but producing something which is useful to all.
Termites carrying building material, start dropping their wares in random locations. When other termites, still bearing their building stuff, come across material already dropped, they simply start adding their load on the existing rudimentary components. And through repetition of the same principles, objects are placed on one another and soon scaffolding and structures develop.
None of the termites have a blueprint or plan. Every one of them react to the existing environment and pitch in to build something significant.
In more than remarkable ways, this resembles the method behind Wikipedia. In fact, in the Wikipedia article on stigmergy, it is stated that Wikipedia itself is an example of the phenomenon at work. Open source software projects are also examples of how this termite like technique can result in social engineering.
So, when we see that the cyber-connected modern species benefitting from behaviours which have their roots in insect habits, the question to ask is how far can the intelligent humans go with this? Can we not predict that these building blocks of information nuggets, these electronic tracks left by others pointing to important information, are gradually ushering an age of empowered information and knowledge aided liberation to democracy? Cannot rebellions be generated by the same principles of stigmergy?
To answer these, we need to turn towards the honey bees. When a swarm of honey bees change their accommodation to move to a new one, they send out representatives to scout for new locations, and through a unique mechanism, achieve consensus about the best possible new home. Invariably, their decision is always correct. They choose the best available option.
How do they do it?                                                                               
The scouting bees come across possible locations and zoom back to the group, communicating their respective finds to the rest of the group through elaborate dance movements. The other bees, attracted by the dances, go and check the places themselves, and come back to register their impressions to the remainder of the group. The best prospective accommodation, in due course of time, are sold to the others with a lot more prolonged dance routines and more and more of the swarm converge there. The inferior places soon find fewer supporters and consequently shorter dance recitals speaking of their merits to the rest of the group. Finally, majority triumphs, and the correct decision is made.

Can human beings replicate this sort of decision making?
If we look at historical data, from Mussolini to George Bush, from the Nazis to the Bay of Pigs, we can conclude that we are far inferior to the honey bees in decision making.
The difference between us, intelligent creatures, and them, the efficient insects, can be expressed in one principle of the celebrated process consultant Dr. Edward Deming. Constancy of purpose.
None of the honey bees, when coming back with the information about the prospective living quarters, dilute or overstate facts. None of the subsequent scouts who go to check out their finds approve or reject the locations because of personal dynamics with the other honeybees, hive lobbies or personal agenda. The insects have just one guiding purpose – to find the best place to relocate. This simplicity can guide them to the best possible decision, something that human beings can never aspire to. 
Would a human scout in similar circumstances limit himself to communicating only the relevant positives of the location, or would there be much more noise and dance directed by personal ambition, power play, relationships and agenda?
Consider the example of the ants leaving their pheromone trail.  In principle, Google search results work in exactly the same way. However, there are dirty secrets in the history of the premier search engine of the world.
Not long ago, J.C. Penney started topping the search result listings not just in searches for dresses, bedding and area rugs. For months, it was consistently at or near the top in searches for “skinny jeans,” “home decor,” “comforter sets,” “furniture” and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic (“tablecloths”) to the strangely specific (“grommet top curtains”).
This lasted crucially through the holiday season, when there is a huge spike in online shopping. J. C. Penney even beat out the sites of manufacturers in searches for the products of those manufacturers. When one typed in “Samsonite carry on luggage,” for instance, Penney for months was first on the list, ahead of Samsonite.com.
The search results were later discovered to have been manipulated by paying to have links placed on thousands of sites, each of which directly pointed to JCPenney.com, hence confusing the organic algorithm of Google and making sure that the retail chain was the most popular search result even when people were looking for recipes of Chinese food. Some of these sites were obviously created just to have the links pasted on them. 
A spokesperson from J.C. Penney, however, categorically denied that this manipulation was done by the company. Well, let us leave it at that to look back and laugh later.

When the ants leave pheromone trails guiding others to find food, the solitary instinctive purpose of the community is to eat and survive. However, if a similar trail is left on the net by a group of individuals, it does not necessarily mean that the direction pointed to is correct. Noise is created about unsuccessful forays ever so often, in fields as diverse as politics, corporate world, marketing and religion. There is no guarantee that the strong pheromones will actually lead to food, or that vaporised tracks do not eventually lead to delicious offerings.
We see the manipulation worldwide. In Amazon, new products are launched for pre-order accompanied by hundreds of favourable reviews of supposed users. Underground companies exist which write hundreds of five star reviews for a price.  There are ways and means to pitchfork products into the best seller category by synchronising purchases by organised volunteers, to doctor the Amazon ranking system.  Once in the best seller list, the pheromone phenomenon takes over, maintaining the ranks and sales of the products.

The difference with the insect world is that human beings do not have the single goal of converging on and consuming the best product. There are various factions at work to influence decisions. Constancy of purpose is conspicuous by its sacrifice on the altar of multiplicity.
While Wikipedia is one of the success stories in this environment, with the termite like stigmergy showing signs of working in the human world, it is not totally secure from abuse.
The CIA is known to edit Wikipedia pages on a regular basis, an extension of their age old experiments for mind and thought control. In fact, the agency is so impressed by the power of the wiki, they use a similar application – Intellopedia – for collaborating on information sharing.
Additionally, there are individuals – uncountable millions – who make inserts with vested interests on popular pages to promote their products or ideas.
In such a world, the constancy of purpose that is so important for success of internet aided ventures and revolution, unfortunately, is most likely to be found in the fundamentalist, fanatic organisations, government funded and intelligence monitored wikis and blogospheres.

While Wikipedia, sharing technical knowledge about specific scientific and educational interests, Google Books and Open Source Software are definitely the boons of the modern connected world, liberation in form of truth and online activism to promote democracy still seem some way off because human beings are too intelligent for that.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spoilt for Choice

Spoilt for Choice


Dr. Suprakash Roy
(Also available at Scroll)

"Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," said Rhett Butler. While Scarlett O'Hara
remained flummoxed in her "Where shall I go, what shall I do" dilemma, the piece of dialogue dribbled past the stringent Motion Picture Association's Production Code and warmed the cockles of the hearts of generations of viewers.

Was it only the trendsetting profanity that made it, according to the American Film Institute 2005, the number one movie line of all time? Did the mild four letter word have enough legs to run ahead of the myriad f-words mouthed like metronomic chants in movies of latter day Hollywood? Even in days when intelligible dialogue sometimes needs to be extracted with a fine toothcomb from the litter of the favoured expletive and its derived forms of participles, adjectives,
adverbs and common nouns in movies like Die Hard 2?

This article appears in the  Scroll online literary magazine.

Dr. Suprakash Roy, a fictitious character who appears in Arunabha Sengupta's latest novel The Best Seller, also writes Scientific articles for the periodical.

According to behavioural psychologists, there is more to it than the then blasphemous
expression. People have never stopped admiring the resounding decisiveness with which Clark Gable finally shut the door on Vivien Leigh. The reason for this regard stems from a sentiment that Kipling admirably voiced as, "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din." 
As a species, we find it insurmountably difficult to shut doors and move on with the most promising option. A task that becomes exponentially more difficult with increasing information about the choices.

Alternatives to us are forks in the straight path, often confusing us with unknown outcomes.
The human mind tends to weigh and reweigh the pros and cons of decisions based on all available information. Decisiveness in taking one course and shutting out the alternatives from the scheme of things is something we do not really excel at.

In the 3rd century Before Christ, Chinese commander Xiang Yu was leading his troops across the Yangtse Kiang to attack the Ch’in dynasty army. Waking up in the morning on the bank of the river, the soldiers found to their horror that the skies were full of black fumes of their burning ships. As they tore off the slumber chains in a frenzy to fight off the attackers, they were stupefied to discover that it was their commander who was the brain and brawn behind the arson. Not satisfied with this one supreme act of lunacy, he had also broken all the
cooking pots. 
Obviously, Xiang Yu did not do too much better than the modern leaders of the Arab world in the popularity charts among his men. His sentiments about his relative merits compared to his men were as radically different from that of Kipling’s British soldier in Gunga Din as possible. However, the army, left with no choice of either return or vacillation, plunged into
their only available option of war and won nine consecutive battles.

Xiang Yu, with his oriental wisdom, knew twenty three centuries ago what we are discovering in detail only in the present day. Whenever there are options, we are indecisive. The price of keeping doors open till the last possible minute in order to make the most informed decision costs us heavily, especially in the current day of abundant information availability and opinion exchange. 

Behavioural psychologists Jiwoong Shin of the Yale and Dan Ariely of the Duke University performed a series of experiments to underline this failing in man. Creating a simple
computer application they named ‘The Door Game’, they experimented with a number of students at MIT’s East Campus. 
The rules were pretty puerile for minds that were good enough to be housed in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The application loaded three doors – a green, a blue and a red – on the screen. The participants could enter any room by clicking on the corresponding door. Once inside a room, each click would pay certain amount of money that would be tallied on the screen. At any point of time, the player could click on another door to exit the present room and enter another. The challenge was to tote up as much as possible within a hundred clicks.

Logically, it is a fair option to switch rooms and find out which one seemed to pay the largest amount, with the small caveat that changing from room to room used up clicks. However, following these simple rules, the gifted MIT-ians performed admirably, each more or less honing in on the optimal strategy by a few clicks of trial and error.

Now the cunning pair of behavioural psychologists tweaked the game just a wee bit. With each click in a room, the unused doors got a little smaller. If unused for 12 clicks, a door disappeared from the screen. This curious little tampering with the rules triggered drastic reactions. None of the talented minds were prepared to follow the same logic they had discovered earlier. No one wanted to see a door disappear forever. Clicks were traded for the simple satisfaction of keeping doors on the screen, options open. And the best minds of the United States of America went away making a small fraction of what they could have had
they been prepared to stick to one productive door.

While the proverbial wisdom is to keep options open, we can see from the above that it has downsides as well, and sometimes the pitfalls are quite severe. And with the gamut of choices offered by the electronically connected flat world, the debacles caused by these drawbacks are popping to the forefront. 

As a kid and then a teenager, I grew up while my country was still trying to come to terms with post colonial bureaucracy. The nation’s windows were slowly opening in response to the call of time, but the wind that blew in through the cracks and crevices of suspiciously ajar doors was often dated and stale. These were days long before globalisation and internet. Bookstores seldom let us browse, at least not until we had bought something. The purchasing power of my middle class parents had not crossed the threshold of the one off gift wrapped classic on birthdays and a couple of indulgent purchases from the annual Book Fair. My
reading was restricted to the decent but limited collection of the school library, with the stifling stipulations of one book at a time and borrowing allowed Wednesday’s only – prohibitions normal in a country which had been sufficiently influenced by Chacha Nehru’s love for Russia to frown upon any immoderation.

The result was that I devoured book after book from the shelves, with the hunger of a malnourished growing child fed one full meal a week. When David Copperfield, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities were soaked up, I discovered to my dismay that they were the only Charles Dickens novels available. I longed for the school authorities to stock Martin Chuzzlewit, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and the rest of them, and kept waiting till I passed the threshold of manhood and stepped into college.

Nowadays, the complete works of Dickens is available on one click from Amazon Kindle for
a couple of dollars, or absolutely free on the Project Gutenberg website. One can walk into any decent bookshop in town and pick up a paperback copy of any Dickens novel. However, I have not read any more of his works. It is not that I have been held back in my literary pursuits by the research in cognitive psychology or other worldly burdens that I have to bear like the grown up Atlas. A tiny amount of self analysis reveals that mine is a problem of plenty. The dizzying abundance of choices dazzles the faculties, so much so that having the alternatives gives us a thrill and brings with it the dilemma of decision making, leaving little time for the act of selection followed by enjoyment of the chosen alternative.

In normal life, this phenomenon surfaces often as we debate, dally and defer decisions while
comparing information bundles associated with the options, especially in the present age of websites, instant updates, social networks, and text messages. 

We delay changing jobs till the best opportunity of career advancement passes us by as we sift through the intricacies of comparative pay package, employee benefits and stock options.

We cannot decide whether to move on in relationships by closing a resounding door on the Vivien Leighs of our life till the new person with whom we were having a wonderful time becomes tired of waiting and moves on.  

We evaluate package deals to Spain, Austria and Greece, the price of hotels, air fare, cruise and train alternatives and best possible discounts,  looking all over Tripadvisor.com and soliciting advice from FaceBook friends till the best deals are no longer available and we have to end up in Brussels as the only option that has not yet been booked beyond capacity.

We spend hours in Best Buy or Media Mart, driving sales representatives crazy, surfing
photography sites on our smart phones and texting our immediate circle of semi-professional
photographers about which SLR to purchase till the glorious summer gives way to the damp and grey days of autumn, taking with it the photo opportunities that had incited us in the first place. 

The adage ‘information is power’ is a throwback to the days when file-shots of landmark events took weeks to be packaged and sent to the other side of the world  to be beamed in one minute news channel slots. Today, information has too many dimensions for such unilateral verdict. With Twitter, FaceBook, text messages and countless applications in our ‘smart’ phones, the flow of facts and opinions never tend to tarry. While it empowers consumers, and sometimes as shown in the recent past, whistle blowers and revolutionaries, often the effect
is downright detrimental.

Information fatigue entered the pages of Oxford English Dictionary in 2009. That the
implied meaning was not merely clever wordplay was shown by a study led by Angelika Dimoka, director of the Centre for Neural Decision Making at the Temple University. According to her findings, after a particular limit, the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, the region behind the forehead responsible for decision making and control of emotions, just shuts down. Information force-fed by all the wires and cables that link hook us to the world has harmful cognitive effects.

Some of the effects are quite disastrous. During the British Petroleum oil-well blowout, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the incident commander, reported 300 to 400 pages of email , texts, reports and other messages on a daily basis. According to Allen, the torrent of data might have contributed to the mistake of failing to close off the airspace above the gulf on day one. While it is not axiomatic that better evaluation and damage control might have taken place had the information deluge been checked, it does make us think if we don’t resort to the
alternative of immediately posting this fact on FaceBook.

The virtue of informed decision is definitely hyped. As my psychologist colleague Ap Dijksterhuis of the Radboud University of Nijmegen shows in one of his studies, quality of decisions suffer with ‘a rather daunting amount of information’. A rather surprising discovery is that the best decisions are made by the unconscious process. In Dijksterhuis’s study, when participants were bombarded with information about four possible apartments for rent, the best objective choice was made by the ones who decided unconsciously.

Especially decisions that require a creative element tend to be best when it is made
through unconscious reflection rather than full frontal analysis. 
Hence, insights are more likely to shoot through us when we are in the shower or tucked away in a comfortable bed, rather than sorting and sifting through sites and messages of information and opinion. 
It is often necessary to sit back and think about how it all fits together. 

It is not simply because of some crazy coincidental quirk that Paul McCartney came up with the tune of Yesterday, Mary Shelley with the idea of Frankenstein, Friedrich Kekule his Benzene structure and Jack Nicklaus with a new Golf swing while tucked away in bed dreaming their respective dreams. 

If information builds up layer by layer on our consciousness in our zeal to know all
possible options and analyse every one of them to the limit before taking the final decision, another phenomenon of the mind affects the objective quality of decision making.

The brain is wired to notice change. When a new message comes through the numerous
channels open to us, the conditioning of our thought process gives it more importance than previously known factors. The accuracy of facts suffer, being skewed by the immediacy of information – creating the recency effect. When trying to take a decision at the last possible moment, the last few instigating messages or FaceBook posts, however inconsequential, tend to have a pivotal effect. 
The urgent rather than the important rules the decision.

Our natural inability of closing some doors and choosing one from many is thus compounded in the current day with each of the paths of the fork coming with its own cluttered bundles of hyperlinks, walls, posts and texts. 

It has been seventy seven years ago, T.S. Eliot wrote the following lines...

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

 In the second decade of the twenty first century, the words reverberate as an ominous
oracle above the wired wastelands of the day. It is somewhat difficult to think that this was written in days when Television had just been made commercially available.

The networked world moving to one beat almost sends eerie signals of being a connected cosmic consciousness. The different nerves and synapses exchange information at the speed of thought even as they are formed. Sometimes, for decisions, it makes sense to disconnect oneself from the over-connected world and let the power of the unconscious free, liberating our cognitive and emotional centres from bombardment and thus increasing our chances of making a less informed and more favourable decision.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Writing on Egypt's Wall

25th January to 11th February no doubt saw one of the greatest dramas of modern times, in which an ancient nation literally turned into a stage with a lot of her men and women becoming the players while the world tuned in to watch. Due to the media – social, traditional and hybrid – the planet was engrossed in the show, with the writings on the walls overflowing. Ultimately, when Hosni Mubarak – acknowledged as one of the leading despots of the generation – resigned as president, celebrations zipped across cyberspace, through tweets, messages, posts and shared videos.

It was a victory not only for democracy and freedom, but also for social media. FaceBook, in several self referential posts, has been flooded about the role it has played in bringing the revolution to a fitting end.

Within minutes of his resignation, I received numerous mails and text messages, all claiming that against whatever I have said and blogged in recent times, the ability of social media to bring about political change had been vindicated.  Understandable, since great occasions do great emotions stir.

Without playing the spoilsport by dampening the euphoria, let me nevertheless point out that the man had been ruling the country for close to 30 years, a reign marred by corruption, violence, suppression of democracy and manipulation of press. While his untold wealth has been cause of immense speculation, his policies have provoked concerned queries from adherents of democracy around the world. The government scored a low 3.1 on the CPI score of degree of corruption (on a scale of 0 to 10 with 0 being the most corrupt) in 2010, and freedom of press ranked 133 among the 168 countries. According to BBC, during his reign, Hosni Mubarak had survived six attempts of assassination.

As these facts and figures indicate, unrest and rebellion has always been as much a part of his reign as Cleopatra and Sphinx have been integral parts of his country’s folklore. The rebellion and protest marches were not a sudden effect, but a tipping point. And this goes on to underline the theory that I have repeated in the past posts, that social media can aid and complement a long standing rebellion through its features of low cost coordination. There is still no evidence that any socially networked media can start and sustain a revolution on its own. As an Egyptian proverb says about gauging the attractiveness of a girl - bathe her and then look at her (Look at a girl without make up or hairdo).

However, even though I agree that a lot of the harmonisation of the protest march of 25th January was aided by FaceBook, it does not change my general opinion that the networked world’s attitude to social and political issues is one of slacktivism - feel good measures in pseudo support of issues and causes.

Even as 105 deaths and over 2000 injuries were reported, the educated socially-networked-politically-conscious populace went about sending their merry wall posts ‘Walk like an Egyptian’ complete with smileys.  A defining example of an apology of political consciousness laced with lame wit and atrocious apathy, all masked under the cloak of supposed social activism.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Luther to Mubarak - Social Media in Politics

Even as we talked about Egypt and Tunisia, and Simon wondered about the respective merits of Sophia Loren and Catherine Zeta Jones in the portrayal of Cleopatra, the talk turned to Egypt's recent controls on the mandatory licensing of group-oriented text messaging services. The conversation was soon given the predictable twist my lovely young friend Shruti. In both these nations, social media has been used extensively to communicate, inform and organise.This was a major boost for her belief in the role that the tools will play in spreading democracy all across the world. 

Shaking her pretty head, she started airing her views, daring us to contradict with her tone.

She argued that this was not the first time. In January 2001, when the loyalists of the Philippine Congress had  voted to set aside key evidence against president Joseph Estrada during his impeachment, close to seven  million text messages had been set across the nation – assembling over a million people in Manila. In fact, after becoming the first national leader forced out by the social media, Estrada himself had agreed that “the text messaging generation” had brought about his downfall.

She went on with her examples, as we sat there and listened. Spain 2004. Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, having blamed the Basque separatists for the Madrid transit bombings, had been thrown out by demonstrations organised by text messages. Moldova 2009. The massive protests coordinated by text messages, Facebook and Twitter ousted the Communist party after a fraudulent election. Even the Catholic Church’s nexus with child rapists had transpired online and in full public view within hours.

Also, this was in line with the old tradition of political activism with tools of communication that was practised even during the cold war. The United States, while it stooped to communist witch hunting, did wisely promote tools like the Voice of America Radio Station, the Television Shows and also smuggled Xerox machines behind the Iron Curtain to boost the samizdat, or underground press.

Obviously, I don’t have such photographic political memories as my young friends. It was left to my Dutch friend to argue on my behalf.
Simon spoke about Belarus 2006, when street protests against President Aleksander Lukashenko’s rigged election grew with email based coordination, but then failed.
Iran 2009. The Green Movement activists used all the new tools of communication to protest against the miscount of votes for Mir Hossein Mousavi, but were crushed by a severe crackdown.
Thailand 2010. Red Shirt uprising by techno savvy protesters led to the siege of Bangkok until the Thai government resorted to violence.

Besides, the Cold War was not ended by samizdat, but by a twist of economic fate. With the price of oil falling and that of wheat shooting up, the Soviet economic model of selling dear and buying cheap faced a dead end. Kremlin was forced to borrow from the West, and to ensure that the loans materialised they had to stop interfering with the military of non-Russian states.

The debate gained heat, as Shruti pointed out that the states behind the Iron Curtain could well have allowed people to starve. Lots of dictatorships had done the same. Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong II. But, in 1989, demonstrations in East Germany, the Charter 77 civic movement in Czechoslovakia, the solidarity movement in Poland thwarted the communist regimes from doing so. And a lot of it was due to the communication tools, even simple photocopy machines. The economic bankruptcy and political decadence was not an open secret anymore, but had become a public fact. The same results were being obtained by the Chinese social media movement despite the Great Firewall and the lack of United States support for the Falun Gong engineered Freegate. The Government was being forced to take democratic measures. This was because of a better networked and connected middle class with political consciousness. If twitter and youtube were available in 1989, tanks would not have rolled in the Tiananmen Square.
Again, turning to China, one could see the ad hoc synchronisation of protestors in the wake of the 20008 May earthquake in Sichuan.  The social networks allow the public to reduce the advantage of the disciplined and coordinated efforts of governments, since orchestration is made possible without a great budget or machinery.

At this Simon argued back that the example in question involved parents, particularly mothers, who had lost their children – due to Chinese policy, their only ones – in the collapse of the school buildings. This was a great cause unifying the community. In most of the normal cases, political movements in social networks were actually slacktivism, an electronic click and share version of bumper stickers. Soon, everyone was back to sharing you tube videos of rock stars or funny animals.

Shruti retorted saying that this did not take away the importance of the social networks. In the 1500s, more people were reading erotic novels than Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. That did not take away the significance of the printing press. As German philosopher Jurgen Habermans said in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, the printing press helped democratise Europe by providing space for discussion and agreement among politically engaged citizens. Social media did the same in today’s world. In fact, as Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society points out in his ‘cute cat theory of digital activism’, specific tools produced to defeat state censorship, like proxy servers, can be shut down with minimal political penalty, but broader tools which the larger population use to share pictures of cute cats are harder to shut down.

The two of them having paused for a well earned breath, I spoke for the first time at this juncture. Social networking tools were too new and too untested in the history of man. Attempts to enumerate its effects would currently always lead to such a duel of contrasting anecdotes. In fact, some of the more serious and less gimmicky studies carried out by people like Jacob Groshek and Philip Howard say something as inconclusive as that they probably do not hurt in the short run and might help in the long run. Besides, they have the greatest impact in states where the public sphere already constrains the actions of the government.  The best way to think about these tools is as long term ones that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere.

Which is in line with another popular study of political opinion – carried out after the 1948 U.S. Presidential election by sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld – which showed that mass media alone does not change people’s minds. Instead the political opinions are formed when the propaganda of the media is discussed with colleagues, family and friends.  This is where social media can be most useful, since this is a unique media which can consume and produce material with unprecedented ease and amount.

True, banning the cell phone and internet is difficult for even the most authoritarian regimes of today. However, the state, we must remember, are a well oiled machinery with access to the best technologies. So, authoritarian – as well as a lot of democratic – governments are increasingly gaining access to and creating sophisticated means of monitoring, interdicting and co-opting these tools.

Simon here pointed out that Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute has argued that social media is as likely to strengthen authoritarian regimes. This is where the pretty lady among us went almost ballistic, giving vent to her opinions about the Open Society Institute, the atrocious way the name of Karl Popper was used for imperialist expansion across the world.

I reminded the young people that we were drifting away from the topic.  My conclusion was that the social media could be used as a tool for the second step of forming political opinion, through communication, through aiding and abetting political movements through coordination, making something like the Cultural Revolution of the 60s a complete absurdity through connectedness. However, I was sceptical about the extent to which this was beneficial.

Friends and family could ratify and refine one’s political views through discussions, but once online, ‘friends’ take on a different meaning. In social media, lots of our acquaintances are faceless, no more than an id. And one does not have to stretch the imagination too much to wonder about the infiltration of powers with certain interests into our virtual friend circle. Like the known bloggers of the Chinese government, there may be state machineries generating millions of posts, tweets and blogs to influence the second step of political opinion formation, aiding and abetting the first layer of propaganda.

It is these faceless interactions that I fear.  With the half baked slacktivism – as Simon put it – being the order of the day for the net savvy generation, a coordinated and strategic idea propagating and influencing machinery in the guise of a cluster of online accounts can go a long way in controlling the flight of public fancy. I am too pessimistic to believe that motivated powers that be are not doing that already.

About Me

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A novelist and cricket historian, Arunabha Sengupta is the author of three novels and the Chief Cricket Writer on cricketcountry.com. In his novels he deals with the contemporary world with acerbic humour. In his cricket writings he covers the history and romance in the game, while his post graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces