Month: November 2013

On Media And Hypocrisy

This post is not going to be about the business or technology aspects that I normally tend to cover here and it quite a rant, so feel free to skip.
The past couple of days have been really hard watching the terrible events at Tehelka unfold. Even though I have worked for a very short period at Tehelka during the really early days, I can’t claim to personally know either Tarun or Shoma and I have no clue about the identity of the victim either. The industry, though, is one where I have worked for a good decade and more and my relationship with it has been a troubled one. I still have very good friends in the industry and I do consulting work on and off in it.
Sadly, the incident and how everyone is reacting to it sums up my major problem with Indian media. We behave like entitled holier-than-thou cretins in the best of times and in instances like these it gets worse. Even senior journalists shed any modicum of responsibility they have towards bringing out the facts and everyone essentially turns into armchair inquisitors. Combine this with the readily-available lynch mobs that form only too easily on social media and reasonableness is nowhere to be seen.
Before I continue, I’d like to make one thing clear. What seems to have happened (‘seems’ because we need a proper investigation to look into it and I fear what comes out will be worse than what we know right now) is terrible. While I do enjoy the odd Tehelka story forwarded by friends, I am not a regular reader of the magazine and even while I am aware of its thinly-disguised bias or agenda, I find it has a significant role to play in providing a counterbalance to the fringe at the other end of the spectrum.
That said, it is also sad to see an organization slowly being bled to death like this. I have no idea why Shoma is doing what she is doing, but whatever she is doing is destroying the organization one statement at a time. It may well be the case that she is trying to save a dear friend or the company from a potentially devastating legal scenario, but saving it like this won’t leave an ounce of credibility left on the table when it is all over and done with. For the subjects that the magazine tends to cover, credibility is everything.
When you ask for exceptional things from the people you cover (honesty, courage, moral standards, fairness), it is only natural that people would expect at least a similar standard when the story is you. The internal emails that addressed the incident were so Clintonian in nature that I almost expected a diatribe on the meaning of “is” somewhere along the way. Not only were the choice of words extremely poor, but it also displayed a sense of denial about the gravity of the accusation.
Even so, the victim has every right to choose the manner she sees feels is the right way ahead. Unless you have been in a similar situation, which (fortunately), I have not been in, you cannot imagine even the smallest thing about what she is going through. So, pretending to understand and know what is the right thing to do for her is nonsensical. Similarly, it is for the law to determine what course it should take and pursue matters to the logical conclusion; it does not matter whether Tarun has recused himself or not.
Which brings us back to my main problem with the industry — which is that we are a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites. It is not uncommon for a senior journalist to be on a prime time show and criticize the hell out of a celebrity caught in a DUI/hit-and-run case and go straight to the Press Club for more than a drink or two, which is often followed by driving home drunk. Should a cop pull you over in such a state, the ‘press’ privilege is flashed and you go scot free.
I can bet that pretty much every single senior journalist raging at Tehelka has, at some stage of their career, known about some instance or the other of harassment or abuse in their organization that was hushed up. Media organizations, especially the news desks, are high stress, hostile environments to work in, especially for women. If we exercise the same degree of fairness and action that we are clamoring for from a Shoma, in organizations that we work in, a lot of these problems would not exist in the first place.
The fact is that most of us don’t and when it comes our own responsibility, all kinds of excuses start showing up.
It is hypocritical to be shocked by how Tehelka is handling this as this is how almost every media organization handles incidents of a similar nature. This is certainly not the first case of “drunken banter” the industry has seen. I am more shocked by how everyone is pretending this to be the case. It will be enlightening to do an assessment of the level of support for women on the issue of sexual harassment is in media organizations in India. I will not be surprised, if the results are shocking. Yet, every journalist out there is pretending that Tehelka is somehow a unique story.
It is not.
The sad reality is that this incident is yet another instance of everyone washing their hands off the problem. When the December 16 gang rape happened, the undertone was of a problem that is precipitated by poor, unwashed migrants who have nothing to do about their raging hormones. For the educated, cultured and privileged, such problems are always nicely compartmentalized away. It is something that happens to “those people”.
The sad reality is that in almost every family there is an uncle who is fond of pinching/fondling young kids a bit too much. The number of friends I know who have been sexually abused as kids is just way too high. These stories are all from so-called cultured, well-to-do, educated families where the solution is to hush things up. The unwashed gets the blame because there is nobody influential enough in their lives to ensure that there is no coverage, but they are, by no means, the only ones who are raping, molesting and harassing both the young and the old.
That said, lynch mobs or not, I consider it a good thing that these horrific stories are starting to come out. The first step towards solving any problem is to acknowledge that we have a problem in the first place. On that front, at least the well-to-do are in so much denial that only the shocking truth in more such revelations will show us how rampant abuse of every kind is in our society. But it will get a whole lot worse first, when we face up to our true selves, before it gets any better.

Filed under: Misc

Quitters, Speculators And Spectators

If you, like me, consume news and information mostly fed by the usual tech/digital sources, odds are that you would not have missed the outrage du jour — Google’s cumbersome attempts at streamlining the identities of their user base across their product lines. The right or wrong of it aside, I think we need something new to get worked up about every couple of weeks. Consequently, the highly-connected community goes through phases of quitting Facebook (because of privacy and UI/UX concerns), Twitter (because of how they treat the developer ecosystem) and Google (too big a list to be listed here).
At the end of each of these episodes, a bunch of geeks will go and attempt to build products/platforms that aim to provide a viable alternative. A handful actually will quit and a fraction of those will write blog posts about the whole experience, while most of the users stick on as the benefits from using these products outweigh their negatives. In a sense, quitting digital products is like weight-loss these days, only that the former is at best a niche hobby, while the latter is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Through all of this, the normal users (including my parents) seem to not care much. More of them are now exposed to the same products and engage with them without the worries that seem to affect us to no end. The number of people who seem to agree with Zuck’s assertions on privacy or Google’s assumptions on why enforcing real names and a singular identity is much bigger than what a vocal minority comprises. But, unfortunately, our proclivity towards pushing the ‘one right way’ to use a product or a platform, is something that blinds us to all of this.
That said, I deleted my personal Facebook account in 2011. I have a friendless, hidden account that work compels me to keep (same as a Google+ account I have) on the side to admin pages and I don’t miss it much. My concerns were really not related to privacy. I’d be very surprised if it is no longer impossible for the state to get its hands on any piece of information, should it want to. On that front, technology has always provided only reasonable safeguards and not an absolute one. Privacy is a social expectation and that technology can help in delivering. Most of us seem to not comprehend that minor, yet significant, distinction.
Anyhow, coming back to Facebook, I quit it because it was absolutely the best time sink I could ever find. I would waste hours mindlessly clicking through pictures and profiles and, even after trying hard, it was impossible for me to use it in a productive manner. The problem was with me and not with Facebook. It was as simple as that. Which, once again, brings us back to the same point, that technology and platforms are only amplifiers and enablers. They cannot provide motive by themselves. We, the people, provide that motive. So, instead of trying to fix technology, a lot of problems in the world can be solved if we try to fix our own (often) not-so-good motives.
Speculators
Speaking of motive, nobody seems to agree anymore on why bitcoin moves in any direction at all. It is, frankly, amusing to see the volley of “it is so dead” stories pop-up every time it drops in value and the corresponding “second gold” stories pop-up every time it goes up in value. For me Bitcoin is just a different form of derivative. In fact, it is exactly what a derivative would look like if it did not have its origins in the financial industry. But, that does not make it any less a derivative (which is mostly glorified legitimacy-clad-speculation).
In a world that is increasingly depending on speculation to work as they key driver of growth ($4 billion valuation for a 3-year-old company should be enough proof of that), bitcoins are a natural fit. The greatest attraction towards it is that there is no regulatory authority for bitcoins. But, as it is with any fringe phenomenon that goes mainstream, there are already workarounds being put into place. We have started to see legitimate speculators now move into the domain and it won’t be long (especially if it sustains its current levels of volatility) before cartels are formed around market movers. And we’ll be back to square one then.
Spectators
It has now been nearly four-months since I decided to quit Twitter for a week. The reason why I quit, I’ll save it for another post. It really has nothing to do with platform issues, tech or time-wasting. I do swing by regularly, read a bit of my timeline and go away. On most days it is painful an experience. The amount of snark and vitriol on display is amazing; so is the lack of consideration towards both individuals and organizations. It is almost like we are constantly on the lookout for a mistake or an error that we can put out on display as someone’s stupidity.
Once I accomplish what I need to, I will re-engage on Twitter, but this part of it troubles me a lot. Yes, it is wrong to say that everything is negative, there is a decent share of positive, which is what brings me back regularly to read up on the timeline, but I honestly believe that most of us are far better people than we allow ourselves to be seen as.

Filed under: Misc, Social

Mobile Data Tales From Rural India

One of the rather unfortunate aspects of most of us switching to air travel as a primary mode of getting to places in the country is that we miss out on a lot of what goes on in vast regions of the country that don’t fall into the urban/metro bucket. It is important know what goes on in these regions because unlocking the potential in our billion-plus market has a crucial dependency on producing products and services that make sense for this market. With travel being sparse this year, it was a pleasure to hit the highways once again a week ago and we traversed some rarely-visited parts of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana. It was back-breaking in parts due to the road conditions, but it was, as always, extremely informative.
State of Rural Mobile Data
At least in the regions we covered, mobile data was fairly ubiquitous. The speeds were not much to write home about. Outside urban centers, 3G in India is a joke, so I’ll not even try to address it. Airtel offers up EDGE wherever it can get a signal to you (which is, commendably, almost everywhere), but possible peak throughput on the network is often thwarted by abysmal backhaul. At one place (in Chakrata, Uttarakhand), I was getting 30000 ms pings to Google’s servers. Even 1997-era wired internet in India didn’t have to put up with something as terrible as that.
BSNL provides a service that is mostly there to make up numbers. If you put up a tower on a hill that can cover four villages, you’d be technically saying you cover four villages, but if within those villages you reception is limited to certain areas, what good is that service anyway? Similarly, they do offer data in these remote places, but they are often only GRPS services and not even EDGE. Then there are the longstanding complaints about the generators that power the towers running out of diesel and going offline for big chunks of time.
Low Data Usage In Low End Smart Phones
Between Airtel, Idea and Tata Docomo, you can now travel the country and stay connected with a barely-acceptable level of service. The modern, full-experience web is unusable under 20 Kbps and that is exactly the kind of data quality/speed on offer in a big chunk of the country. If you keep this in mind you can imagine why data services have not taken off at the lower end of the market. The first problem is cost, which I’ll tackle later. The speed and quality is so awful that it won’t be possible to even download apps that are less are 5-10 MB in size.
The small towns work around this problem, to an extent, with “mobile downloading” shops that sideload apps. This will work for the popular apps, but for ones that don’t fall into the popular bucket, you’ll be out of luck. And then there is the case of app discovery, which will be non-existent in an environment like that. Next time you feel like making fun of people using nearly zero data on lower end smartphones, do keep in mind that this is not just because they may be stingy (compared to the high-end smartphone owners), there are also other factors involved in it, which you won’t be aware of unless you travel regularly out of well-connected cities.
Form Factor, UI/UX Comfort
What was heartening to see, though, was that the newer devices have catapulted over a lot of interface-related issues that has hampered PC penetration in these areas. Even now, many decades after its introduction, the PC is still not an easy device to master or interact with. Even experienced users have a degree of discomfort in using a PC, which is hard to explain. Mobile devices, somehow, have seemingly decimated this problem. Even the lousiest tablet interface is picked up easily in no time by a user who otherwise has a lot of trouble using a PC.
Is this because there are fewer things — couple of buttons and a touch screen v/s mouse, keyboard, screen — to coordinate? I’ll leave that to the interface and UX experts to determine, but the change is palpable. It was interesting to see a bunch of soldiers in the small tea shop that we were in had one in their group who was immersed in his 7″ tablet. Compared to previous years, the mobile phone shops also seemed to market and stock a lot more of the 4-5 inch screen phones. Three-years-ago, such a thing was a rarity.
Where Are The Products?
The adoption gap, in terms of time, between rural and urban areas, for smartphones may be reducing, but we still don’t have products that mean much for them. Most of the existing products address either extremes — the really upscale and urban audience or the other extreme pushing alerts about agriculture and similar things — and there is really no product that is available that makes sense for the consumer in those markets. So, we wind up again with a situation where content served up on these phones are basically pushed in through the aforementioned “mobile downloading” centers that has been the perennial revenue leakage fountain in India.
Cost Of Data
Every year we have big numbers that are put out by different agencies about mobile data usage in India, but I have a hard time buying that. A remotely usable data plan in India will cost at least Rs 200 a month, even now. And that’s on EDGE and not even 3G. Considering that there’s still major resistance to a wired data connection at the Rs 500-Rs 600 price point, the Rs. 200 per month cost is non-starter. A wired connection can potentially be reused by members of the family, while mobile data is rarely shared.
Even if you consider two as an average number of devices in a household, it is a Rs. 400 outlay on a fixed cost basis for a family. In a market that is a price sensitive as ours this is not a good thing. Mind you, even at Rs 400 you are not going to get the full speed experience, which means that the user is more likely to try it and not continue because of the poor experience.

Filed under: Mobile, Mobile Data