Friday, April 27, 2012

The many directions an ICT term paper takes

I have just finished reading the term papers written by students in my "Issues in ICTs" course. This course is a smorgasbord of new media and information technology concepts/issues from the viewpoint of communication studies. We begin with developing an understanding of the digital landscape and its history, throwing in ideas from scholars like Manuel Castells, Martin Lister, Neil Postman and others. We then go on to discuss the impact of new media technologies on our social, economic and cultural formations, from the digital divide to attempts to address it, from the problematics of identity and community online to the hope offered by mobile applications and the democratising potential of such technologies. The endeavor is to constantly examine theorizing about new media and its social impact through a variety of lenses including those of our personal experiences and beliefs, while also debating the macro-level flows of capital, power, and culture as they are shaped by and in turn shape these technologies.

As with all courses, this one too draws its character and energy from the peculiarities of a cohort: their interest in the course and their interests outside it, their interactions with technology and with each other, and their level of participation and engagement with the ideas that we bounce around. I've had varying class sizes over the years, from 9 to 23 to 28 (last year) and 10 (this year). Smaller classes of course allow for more sustained and involved discussion. But there are often good days in large classes too, when the discussion is sparked by a collective energy that suddenly animates the room.

But after thirteen weeks of hard reading, presentations, new terminology and sometimes obscure concepts, it's finally time for the term paper. Something that has been bandied about in name but held at arm's length until week 11 of the semester when I walk into the class and say, "I hope you're all working on your papers, remember, they're due in two weeks."  Suddenly, the air crackles with nervous uncertainty. Questions ranging from "how long?" to "how many references?" begin to pop into my cellphone inbox and my g-mail. Confusions about topic and level of detail surface and need to be addressed. About a week before the due date, we sit around the table and talk through our topics, getting feedback from the group and helping each other refine arguments or extend them. At this point, I can't help thinking, "A week left and they are still talking in outline! Are they ever going to get it done?"

The term paper can be a strange animal. It generates fear and extreme anxiety in most, and very rarely, excitement in a few. There is the firm belief that if it is left till the very end, it will somehow grow its own wings and fly into the professor's "in" tray. That on the last weekend, over fevered cups of coffee and expletives shared on facebook and elsewhere, the half-formed thoughts will write themselves into sentences with citations at appropriate pauses and dance in intellectually polished movements over the whiteness of bond paper as it emerges from the printer in the computer lab. I receive phone calls and text messages until fifteen minutes before deadline.

But somehow, between the eleventh hour and that proverbial stroke of midnight, it all falls into place (well, almost--there is still the printer to struggle with!) and the final key is hit with a definitive jab of the index finger. Done.

When I come in on deadline day the papers are handed to me without comment. The tired faces and bleary eyes certainly do not invite conversation or question. I take them and file them away, thinking, tired already, that I have ten thousand words to plough--sorry--read through now.

So here I am, having turned the last page of the tenth essay. And I must say it's happened again. Somehow, the thoughts have been pulled together. Somehow, the ideas have coalesced into a meaningful formation. And somehow, the disparate threads of a course that sometimes seems to have no centre, have come together in a sensible weave.

This year, I've had some fascinating essays, and I've learned from each one of them. They've taken me into spaces of my chosen discipline that I would never have the time or the energy to explore on my own. They have opened my mind to new juxtapositions of concepts and ways of viewing them. And they've affirmed, once again, that this is why I do what I do. Apurva's fascinating journey into transhumanism; Gautami's earnest foray into cyberspirituality; Aditya's enthusiasm for gaming coming through in his explication of fuzzy logic; Divya's exploration of travel in the digital age; Meena's careful outlining of how women's empowerment has been helped by mobile technology; Vamshi's explication of how the game of cricket now depends on high technology; KC's wondering about artificial intelligence and the human mind; Amulya's excitement about the possibilities of online feminist activism; Rajesh's measured examination of e-governance initiatives, and finally Abinaya's questioning of learning in virtual universities. The ideas are of course still formative; the papers could do with a great deal of revising and polishing. But they represent an effort to make meaning of a body of knowledge that is continuously growing and shifting.

I won't deny that reading student papers can be a drudge. It often leaves you hitting your head in despair and wondering whether you've made any sense to anyone all semester. But within all that frustration there are moments when you feel the pleasure of connections made, the sense that maybe--underneath all the cut-paste and copying--there has been engagement with ideas, that thinking has been sparked, or at the very least, you've left a dormant flint stone that can be struck at the right moment to produce understanding.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The original Silicon Valley pirate

I'm no expert on technology innovation, or on the politics or science of management, but it's difficult to be a consumer of i/e products and not be swayed by the Apple effect. So when the news breaks that Steve Jobs is finally calling it a day (never mind staying on as an "Apple employee") I can't not react. As someone whose digital life has been dominated by Apple products, from being an early user of the Apple IIe and the radical Macintosh (who can ever forget that it was the feisty little Macintosh that made us sit up and note that "1984 would not be 1984"), Steve Jobs has been a larger than life figure. He belongs right up there with other heroes like John Lennon and Bob Dylan and J D Salinger. He made success beautiful and edgy. And his products rode the divide between popular culture and technology in a way that made them inseparable, even before digitality brought culture into cyber-space. The unique design of the original Macintosh made it an object of desire for many who would have otherwise wanted nothing to do with a computer. Suddenly, to own one was to be part of the electronic counter culture. When Jobs was shunted out of the company he created by John Scully, many young people felt outraged, despite the obvious problems the company was facing because of some of his approaches to business. And it's not that he went on to one success after another. There were failures as well (remember Next?) and there were lemons in the apple pie, from time to time. But then there were also some brilliant ideas--I remember the duo dock, which allowed me to pull out the laptop-like hard disk from the powerful desktop and take it home to continue my work on, in an age before laptops were widely available. I remember the first desktop computer I bought--the Performa--which served me very well for a full five years before I had to give in and buy a Windows based machine only because there were no Apple dealers in my city in India. I very quickly went back to the Mac stable and have for the past ten years stuck with Apple products. Design may not be everything. But Jobs knew how to make design that turned productivity tools into objects of desire. No wonder there's all this outpouring of emotion on the web and in print. Jobs, the original silicon valley pirate, the maker of dreams, and the creator of windows into many new worlds, will be missed.

Lots of excellent coverage in the New Yorker here and The New York Times, as expected.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The old gossip mill, refurbished

Shashi Tharoor and Twitter notwithstanding, I had to experience it for myself to understand exactly how social networking can work to your disadvantage the moment someone takes it into their heads to use the power of an online following (a committed audience) to malign you! Of course, it can also be used to build reputation and foster credibility, but all that can be demolished in a second if a 140-character accusation (however incoherent or poorly substantiated) broadcast into the Twitterverse is then picked up as a status message on Facebook now accessible to friends and friends of friends (if you so desire) and finally talked about over the phone and around tables at lunch... you get my drift.

Which is, in a sense, what happened with the Lalit Modi-Shashi Tharoor Twitter war. Their followers got the message, they passed it on to their followers, who commented on it, and among these followers are some who have access to other forms of media as well, and soon it is on Page One of the national dailies.

While my life is not of the kind that is likely to make Page One of anything (thank goodness!), I do have a circle of friends who overlap across my different spheres of activity, and Facebook has been one way to keep in touch or at least have a window into their lives, and offer them one into mine. Posts on Facebook and Twitter have been fairly innocuous in my case, ranging from events of interest in and around work, family and the rest of life, to sharing ideas and information found on the web and elsewhere. In return, one has access to things people draw and like from their own reading. Posts about people are generally updates on what they're doing, how they're feeling, or milestones they or their children have crossed.

Given the genial nature of most interactions, I was surprised to be told that someone had posted on their Facebook page a comment about me, one definitely not intended to be complimentary or admiring, rather, the contrary. Since the "allegation" in this case had no basis and I have nothing to defend or worry about in terms of my reputation being affected among friends (or friends of friends), I did not set about correcting any impression that may have been created.

But it all seemed rather like the gossip mill spinning out of control, where a story is told over and over again, completely divorced from context and background, so that what people hear several versions down the line bears little relationship to the kernel that may have got on the grapevine in the first place! The issue with media like Facebook and Twitter is somewhat different. Hate speech and racist or otherwise targeted derogatory comments are one thing; spreading misinformation about a supposed "friend" on Facebook is another. The tools used for communicating on social networks enable personal editing/writing and global posting, so while a comment may be intensely conveyed on a phone conversation with a sympathetic listener, it is intensely composed and posted for all to see on a social network. Clay Shirky, in Group as User: Flaming and the design of social software, ( says, "Flaming is not just personal expression, it is a kind of performance, brought on in a social context." Read in this way, posting a negative or damaging comment on Facebook or Twitter or Orkut, as one's status message, is akin to standing on stage and saying it out loud, saying as much about yourself as about the subject.

Perhaps this gives the originator of gossip that much more power--to say, "Hey, I said it first, now do you what you will with this piece of information!" And then every person who responds or takes it forward has the opportunity to share that stage and the possibility for extended monologue it offers!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Ed-Tech, Tech-education and Education about Tech

A few months ago, Teacher Plus (a monthly magazine for school) looked at technology in education. The issue brought together a variety of perspectives, experiences and ideas all to do with how technology had impacted the process and product of education. Many of the articles can be seen online here:

What we were attempting to do here was to bring teachers a sense of how technology can be used in the classroom and outside, to enrich themselves and to bring new and different resources into their practice, but also to be critical about technology and what it does to us even as we (often unthinkingly) make it an integral part of our lives. This is something that bears thinking about in every realm of life.

More recently (just today, in fact) I finished grading the final exam for a semester long course on Issues in ICTs, a course that is offered to the MA-Communication students at the University of Hyderabad. The course takes a broad look at the development and the politics of new media, theories of the information society, impact of new technology, issues of identity and community in the networked society, and so on. Topics, one would think, are the stuff of the everyday in the lives of the digital natives that form my student community. But having reviewed the papers, it would appear that new media and ICTs have become such a natural part of their lives that they find it impossible to stand back or step aside from their immediate use and take a critical look. I wonder then about the essential disconnect here: as a teacher, and someone who has watched these technologies unfold and occupy certain positions in our work and leisure, analysis of their impact is almost second nature. But for my students, these technologies (mobile phones, iPods and MP4 players, smart phones and tablet PCs) are all nothing more than everyday tools that they do not separate from the rest of the environment. "What's the big deal?" they ask, when one comments on the way things have changed over the past ten or fifteen years. "This is how it's been as far as I know."

Given this difference in experiences and perspectives, is it at all possible for someone who is a digital migrant to teach a course on technological change/impact to a bunch of students who are digital natives? Is it somewhat like a well informed foreigner serving as a tourist guide to a bunch of locals? After all, is there any point to dissecting an effect that has already occurred? Of course, one cannot be an academic and not believe there is value in understanding something, from within or without, from a number of perspectives, so I suppose the effort to understand cannot stop.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Postmodern morning musings

Morning in a middle-class urban home. At 5 a.m. the alarm on the mobile phone sounds. Hit the snooze. Eight minutes later (precisely, our lives are now programmable to the second) it rings again. Hit the snooze again, knowing that the next time is the last, and there is no escape from the break of day. At five sixteen just before the first beep assails your ear drums, you drag yourself out of bed and almost as a reflex flick the switch on the modem so that cyberspace opens up its multiple gateways into your home even before your eyelids unstick themselves from the night. The bedside light is still on in the teenage daughter's room, competing with the dull glow of the laptop screen saver, logged out of its last social space at 3 a.m. or thereabouts. As your dominant hand lifts the toothbrush the other checks messages on the smart phone.

Life's a seamless, continuous space that seems to respect no boundaries. You squeeze your personality into multiple tubes, emerging through many windows transformed in some way, retained in others. Every space takes on a kaleidoscopic quality, your self and its nature changing with each shake, or every stroke of the keyboard.

So this is what it means to live in a post-post modern world? Each moment of experience is separate, un-integrated at one level, but rooted to some, sometimes unreachable core, at the deepest level. We break our moments of living, dipping into a window of news, sending intimate text messages, responding to strategic and professional questions, playing a game of solitaire.... Our mobile phones and laptops hold all the bits of our lives together--or seem to--and so holding them we feel whole, and disconnected when left alone with ourselves, device-less.

Is it at all important, or relevant, to think about how technology interfaces and interferes with our lives, or does it no more make sense than wondering about the sun rising in the east? Most of us who live in homes permeated with technology cannot imagine life otherwise--it has acquired, in Neil Postman's words, a "mythical" quality. But that is a non-question. As one pundit said, "The point of studying technology is not to study the technology but to analyse and contest the governing ideology that determines its uses."

The ways in which we unpack and understand that "governing ideology" can range from the macro, in terms of policy analysis and infrastructure development, to the micro and the ultra-micro, in terms of how technologies work in our everyday lives, even in terms of thinking and expressing ourselves--to ourselves., having readied myself for the morning and dealt with my phone messages, and found my coordinates in this world (or my various gadgets have positioned me within them, GPS tracked, IP address logged), I try to turn myself to the questions of the mind, in the silence of the mind...

Logging off...for now!