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, 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.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Of Rats and Men in the Cyber World

There have been a few requests of elaboration of the phenomena I called the ‘roulette of red notifications’ in my last post when talking about the helpless addiction to the social networks.

While most readers – some grudgingly – have agreed that social networking and constant communication is a sort of dependence and craving similar to substance abuse – something I have called addiction to the packets of data, what is difficult to understand is the relationship between FaceBook and gambling?

There have been studies on the stimulations in the brain correlated to the relative amount of time spent in front of the social networks with similar measurements in cocaine and cannabis addiction. Most of the data is still in experimental stage. Too early for pronouncement of judgement other than for the purpose of publishing hurried papers.

However, I am more inclined to see this addiction in lines of the lure of the casino, the clanking of chips  and the clatter of dice.

Of course, the general populace navigating the FaceBook, Orkut, iPhone and so on are not really playing for millions – making or losing money. Why then do I claim the gambling connection?

The answer can be found within something termed ‘schedule of reinforcement’ by behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner.

In an experiment involving the old reliable rats favoured by scientists, Skinner constructed something called the Skinner Box.  In this set up, a hungry rat would have to press a pedal a number of times to be rewarded with food pellets. The experiment was controlled to find the effect of fixed schedule of reinforcement – in which a pellet was served for a fixed number of presses on the pedal, and a variable schedule of reinforcement – in which the ratio of presses to pellets was random.

It was discovered that variable reinforcement schedules were better for motivating rats. The frenzy of activity increased when the reward was unpredictable. In particular, when the reward ceased, the rats under the fixed schedule of reinforcement stopped working immediately, while the ones under a variable schedule continued. Hope does play a big role.

In the human context, it is akin to having a fixed percentage of sales as bonus pay and as opposed to a variable percentage. The ratty behaviour is replicated in the human world with motivation increasing with the randomness of rewards.
This is the ancient lure of chips, dice, cards and horses kick in. The random rewards that may be attained through gambling, with the welcome clanging of coins disbursed from the slot machine.

Now, let us trade the rat for the mouse infested world.
A recent post on FaceBook by a friend read “I never thought Likes would become so important in our lives.” It rings true like the writing on the Wall it actually was.

The likes, posts, comments , messages – all the red notifications of FaceBook – do not follow a regular pattern. With each refresh, the rewarding visual and intellectual stimulation happens at varied rates, each reward promising gratification of entertainment and social status and acceptance. The same principle applies for emails coming into the mailbox. Whether or not one expects an important mail, a note, a notification – the refresh button is clicked on and on – until the minds become automatons, addicted, waiting for satiation – just another click, and further stimulation if something new crops up – if not, then ... well another click before quitting .

Late into the night. With red, sleep deprived eyes searching for that small red pop up – someone is out there communicating, caring enough to recognise your presence. The unscheduled returns making one cling on to the hope of interaction - hope that a combination of friends and connections in the cyber world will soon collaborate into a socially satisfying jackpot.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Net Effect - Politics 2.0

“The tweet is mightier than the blast,” may be the modern day sequel to analogous sentiments about the pen and the sword and the ballot and the bullet.

Twitter revolution may be crap
The human mind loves a panacea – a miracle cure. If it is powered by technology it becomes science’s answer to faith healing. Technology has made the world so flat that there is no place for the unscrupulous to hide. Any transgression which compromises human values will be scrapped – or tweeted, posted, walled, texted – electronically transferred across to millions of desktops, laptops, iPhones and so on and so forth …

Stop, stop … conspiracy theory has its clientèle, but we are sick and tired of a pessimistic psychiatrist casting his morose shadow over the dawn of a new era. More or less this is how my dear friend Shruti will always react, shaking her pretty and formidably intelligent head vigorously when I start bursting hopeful bubbles of the social network revolution.

I repeat my observations about the so called twitter revolution in Iran. New York Times had dramatised it as a battle between bullets and tweets. Supporters of social networks and technology had raised their electronic hands in collaborated salute to the victory of democracy in the cyber world.

And yet, in a detailed study after the debris of immediate euphoria were removed, it is declared that no more than 60 active twitter accounts exist in Iran. This revelation by Al Jazeera has largely put to rest the romantic christening of the twitter revolution. Yet, more to my point is what followed in its wake.

With the endorsement of the American media – the cyber urban myth of twitter protests caught on. And when the State department requested Twitter to delay the scheduled maintenance fearing disconnection of rebellious tweets, the Iranian authorities decided to put an embargo on social networks. The FaceBook accounts of the ones entering the country were checked for possible anti-national leanings.
The social networks can as easily be used by an unscrupulous authority to achieve exactly the opposite of the freedom and democracy that many believe the Internet and technologies bless us with. Besides, as Evgeny Morozov points out in his pessimistic manifesto The Net Delusion, the publicised optimism of the west about the social networks make the authoritarian regimes more vigilant when it comes to information flow.

Great Firewall of China
I have often maintained, that the propensity of the generation to be more focused on the world wide web rather than the whole wide world makes it more prone to manufactured consent. China has shown us that it is possible to be economically active on the web even when free information flow is restricted by the great firewall – showing that the world has remained stubbornly spherical in some regions. Add to that, it has an army of paid government bloggers for prodding the electronic herd into the desired mindset. In another part of the world, Hugo Chavez is on twitter and there is a reason behind it.

I refuse to believe that the West is absolutely innocent in this regard. With the cyber snifferbots busy detecting dissident phrases, keywords and sensitive information, is no censorship, blocking and spying performed by the friendly neighbourhood organisations like CIA and NSA? Legions of stasis need not be deployed for big brother to watch you in the new world view, some programmed bots will do it efficiently. And thanks to the esoteric electronic world, there will be no file storage establishments to be converted into museums later on. The virtual world is heaven for mind controllers.

Apart from this, let us not forget a very basic premise. The Internet, at the end of the day, is a huge source of entertainment for many, social networking most frivolously so. A captivating source of distraction which also boosts our ego by providing the pseudo satisfaction of projecting us as limited but zealous political messiahs.
If all that it takes to satisfy our politically conscious gene is to share a wall post, we can turn to the next semi pornographic item number on you tube with a clear conscience. With all these television channels and delicious feeds awaiting us on social media, is there too much time left for the traditional news channel? I think not. Political consciousness is not being built by the individual today through general awareness ... it is being mass manufactured in the cyber world by tweets and wall posts.
And when constant entertainment in this form is available, very few individuals actually think of taking to the streets for issues which are close to their heart. As it is, a important issues of one moment are buried in the next through information overload. Just reflect at how quickly WikiLeaks has been relegated to the remote recesses of our psyche.

The cross on the TV Tower
When the Fernsehturm , the TV tower in Berlin, stood reaching way up towards the heavens, almost in Freudian symbolism, the two Germanys used it to mock each other. To the East Germans, it was something that showed the West the stature and progress of the communist east. While the West Germans pointed out that when the sun shone on the silvery ball, the light was reflected in the shape of a cross, God’s way of mocking the godless. The Americans were happy at the promise of a better world that the people under a commie regime could witness from the American television shows. However, the truth was something much more down to earth. With the entire country tuning in to American television shows for relaxed entertainment, very few remained willing to take to the streets for a revolution.

History, in this sense, is being retold with technological amplifiers. The constant diversion, provided in the manner of the unpredictable roulette of red notifications and messages waiting, make addicts out of the majority – consuming the packets of data, clicking away in connected stupor. For authoritarian regimes, governments with vested interests, and the expanding imperialists, the opium of the people has been manufactured anew. Revolutions may not need suppression anymore – a well crafted and shared writing on the wall will do it admirably.
Political Consciousness on Facebook

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Blog of Simple Simon: Ritual Dance of Meetings

Blog of Simple Simon: Ritual Dance of Meetings:
This has been written by my good friend Simon van der Wiel.

Since he has taken the trouble, I am using the best practice taught to me by social networking - share.

Thanks Simon. Meetings do have primal roots, and I wish you all the best for withstanding them.

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