June 24, 2013

Looking Beyond Social Media : Cloudcast

I know that Social Media is the toast of the town but boy, am I getting tired of it ! You may say that I am being a hypocrite, since I post regularly on Twitter (hence automatically by  passthrough on Facebook ) and Linkedin, but I will be frank and admit that I do so more out of habit and perhaps out of a misplaced sense of necessity.

Habit is understandable. At Level 4 of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, one needs esteem, the acceptance by one's peers and it does give you a kick if your post is liked and commented upon by a small band of people who form a mutual appreciation society. Of course, the key word in the last sentence is mutual -- if you want your posts to be liked and commented upon, then you have to return the favour as well and this is where the habit part kicks in. But other than casual chit-chat or  twitter (the guys who created this phenomenon, could not have named it any better) I doubt if social media has any purpose other than to keep an idle mind busy !

But somehow we all believe -- or at least the connected generation does  --  that social media is terribly important and if we are not there then we are missing out on something very important. While some people might have used social media to change the world -- turning obscure events into major causes -- let us admit that the vast majority of us are doing nothing useful. For us, it is necessary and important to see and to be seen on social media! That is about it.

So in a sense, social media is somewhat like the adda or gossip so beloved of the Bengali bhadrolok gentleman -- a gathering of like minded souls to talk, talk and talk about the world and its uncle but generally making sure that no talk is ever converted into anything actionable.

The chatter may be pointless but apparently listening to this idle chatter big business. Social media analysis has become a new field of study right from academia, through the popular press and all the way to conferences organised by professional bodies and learned societies. Everybody claims that once you can filter out the noise you can reach a gold mine of information that will drive your sales through the roof -- irrespective of what you sell !  Once again the amount of tangible actionable intelligence that is gleaned from such analysis is debatable -- most of evidence in support of this activity is anecdotalal -- but then, just as in social media itself, you must see and be seen by others in the process of analyzing social media.

In a sense this is like the dot com era once again, when it was thought that site visits and eyeballs could be easily monetized to improve the bottom-line of the company. Today, social media analysts believe that they are about to find the gold at the end of rainbow. We wish them all the best !

Turning to the rainbow itself, social media and its leitmotif, the incessant chatter, is becoming more of a fatigue. It is like having to keep up with the Mukerjees, Malhotras, Mehtas and Murugans of the world and meet-and-exceed them on a post to post basis ! If only the posts were a little more substantive ? But alas that is not to be. The real stuff, interesting articles, podcasts and videos that enlighten and entertain are not in social media. Instead they are out there in the real, searchable web.

However, to give social media its due, the location of this real stuff can be found as people share links in their posts. Social media helps play a role in that instead of having to go out and search for these nuggets on Google, they can be delivered to your timeline by a well defined set of social media friends.

Another important contribution of social media is the concept of user generated content, one of the pillars of the Web 2.0 architecture. Even the dumbest of social media enthusiasts, when they post something, are adding to the total content of the web. They are creating content. Unfortunately the content created on social media is too little, too meagre, too shallow and hence inconsequential.

Which is why at Engage 2013 -- an event organised by the Public Relations Society of India, Kolkata -- when I spoke about emerging trends in digital communications, I decided on the blasphemous route of ignoring social media completely and spoke instead of how to create your own radio and TV channels using free resources on the web. I introduced the concept of Cloudcasting or using the internet to create radio and TV broadcasts.

Internet radio and television is a refreshing change from the mindless chatter of social media. I like it because it serves two purposes namely, the possibility of creating significant content and the freedom to publish it on a rich medium.

Blogs were the initial liberators, allowing people like us to publish our thoughts, for whatever they are worth, on a media whose reach, technically, is as long as that of any mainstream media. Similarly internet radio and TV stations allow us to communicate our thoughts and ideas without having to suffer the ignominy of Raghav Mahato of Mansoorpur who started his own radio station but had to shut it down because of the crippling laws of the land.

 We have been consuming radio and TV content for far too long, it is time to create our own.

June 16, 2013

The Unbearable Dullness of Being an Indian

Today, on Facebook, I came across another wisecrack comment on the dim prospects of the Indian software industry. Someone was taking another cheap potshot at Infosys ( and similar IT companies for that matter ) for working at the low end of the value chain. Coding, cyber coolies and what not. Why can the Indian software companies not "move up the value chain" and develop products that leverage intellectual property and not merely cost arbitrage ?

Good question. And it is not that this question is being asked for the first time and so it is unlikely that the issue is not known to the management of the IT companies. Having been at a reasonable senior position in the IT industry I know for sure that many of my colleagues and contemporaries were seized of the matter.

But being seized of the matter is different from being able to do something about it and unfortunately most attempts to do anything different ended up in failure. Why ? Because we as a nation suffer from an unbearable dullness of mind !

image from Zazzle

Before you ejaculate in anger and consternation at this assertion and claim that Indians are doing wonderfully in Silicon Valley and in Spelling Bee contests in the USA, stop and think ... has anything great come out of India in the last 200 years ?

I posted this question in the IIT KGP friends forum on Facebook and the results were an eye opener. The thread went on and on and on but we really could not come out with anything, right anything, great that has come out of India in the last 200 years. The exact question was:
"Can you identify one great product, service or even an idea that has emerged from India in the past 50, 100, 200 years ?"
and I have summarized the results from 368 replies in this spreadsheet.

You would notice that there are just about dozen ideas of which the concept of Zero and game of Chess were in the distant past. In the past 200 years we have great difficulty in coming out with even ten new and original ideas. Now you may claim that we have  been under foreign domination and other adverse situations but even then for a country as large as India, this is a disappointment if not an outright disgrace ! To put things in perspective, Estonia, a country with a population just 4 times the number of employees in TCS, could create a product like Skype that has become the defacto telephone service in the world.

 As a member of the leadership team in two fairly large Indian IT / Consultancy companies I have felt this acute disappointment whenever I have had to deal with Indian programmers. They are consumers, not creators ! They will merrily download code snippets from the web to solve the problem at hand but would rarely upload samples of their own for others to get the benefit of. The number of Free and Open Source (FOSS) projects and contributors from India is another pointer in t his direction.

So net-net our people and dull and that is why no great product or idea comes out of India.

But why are we dull ? Is it something to do with our culture ? our religion ? our weather ? our ethnicity ? our genes ?

My guess is that it has something to do with our way of life or dharma (though not religion in the narrow western sense )

In the long term it could be our reverence for the past, our ancestors and the guru-shishya parampara or the concept of respect for (and hence not challenging ) the teacher. We believe that our gurus ( or teachers) are superior to us and I think that this is utterly wrong. While the philosophical concepts envisioned in the Vedas are indeed eternal, their interpretation and practice needs to change depending on the locale and time of its application and that is not something that we, as a nation are capable of or even prepared to contemplate.

Even at a more prosaic or mundane level, new ideas, processes, goods, services or products are not accepted in India unless someone else has shown us the way. We need a guru to look up to, even if today these are marketing and commercial gurus from western companies. Genetically, we have been programmed to  believe that we cannot do anything new unless it has been shown to us by someone else.

So despite the much vaunted "jugaad" -- which I personally believe is a tragic outcome of our failure to develop and deliver quality products and servcies -- we remain a nation of dull people and nothing perpetuates this unfortunate state of affairs more than our education system.

Our much vaunted, and greatly overrated, IITs and IIMs -- from where our corporates love to recruit their next generation of managers and leaders, are filled up with people who can simply  "crack" the notorious entrance examination through "clever" memorization and "brute force" practice. Creative and imaginative people with original ideas are squeezed out of the system early in the game and are forever at a disadvantage in the corporate world.

So India is caught in the pincers : Its companies do not have a pool of creative people to churn out new ideas and even if some ideas come out, the population outside will never accept these new ideas because they have not come from some foreign gurus.

Net-net let us not blame TCS, Infosys, Wipro and Cognisant -- they are doing a good job of providing the daily bread to many of us in India. They are what we deserve.

Thank you for reading till the end. Now you can go back to Facebook and "like" the latest pictures of your friends !