The Golden Cage of Personalization

As we sign up for any new website, we often click “I Agree” on a long list of fine-print terms and conditions. Some websites try to be a little ‘ethical’ and tell you that they are recording your information – either to improve their product or to improve your life.

Initially, this was great thing for most of us middle class citizens across the world. After decades of being relegated to obscurity, it was great to have something ‘tailor-made’ for us – something we thought was the privilege of the rich. Of course, it was only online but it was still something.

Except, we failed to realise that personalized experiences are nothing more than traps, locking us in a gilded well, giving the illusion of marginally new experiences that never take us out of your comfort zone.

We are circling within the same walls, with minor twists that make us believe that we are discovering something new, while never really allowing us to see the other side.

Videos are recommended based on what we have previously watched. We’re happy we are watching new content, but really, it is just slightly different words on the same context. We believe we are discovering something new, but when it is similar to what we’ve already seen, how is it a new experience?

Travel sites throw up offers and resorts based on what I’ve searched for. I get a million experiences ‘tailor-made’ for me, discovering places without ever really seeing them. We get sanitised experiences that make us believe we’ve seen the real thing. Sort of like how the white tourist comes to India, lives in a 5-star hotel, travels in an air-conditioned car, is shown a little bit of Dharavi to show the ‘other’ side and goes back believing that they’ve seen the real India. We rarely interact with the locals beyond what has been chosen for you. We rarely hear the narrative beyond what has been designed for you.

So where, tell me, do we create free-thinking, enterprising souls? Where is the innovation that is sparked by a new idea? Where is the thrill of discovering something absolutely miraculously new?

I recently decided to wipe my history on YouTube. I did have to score through horrific videos ‘trending’ in India, but I discovered some really cool comedians from Malaysia. Of course, now my YouTube is flooded with more such people.

Google kept throwing up information about a particular kind of phone that I almost missed the innovations happening elsewhere.

Let’s not even talk about Facebook and Twitter.

And this will be the future – a world of puppets.

The Media & Our Portrayal

It has been nearly half a decade since I was in a place where I interacted with several people from countries and cultures. Such interactions are always interesting, even if you do not agree with everything you learn.

In recent times, there’s been a general dissatisfaction over the way things are portrayed in the media. I understand, as a former reporter, that “news” is something that is current and notable for its cause alone. But there is a horrible distillation of “news”, which essentially comes down to what is controversial and what is sensational. While some of the news that is spoken about has to be highlighted, it ends up being a one-side story all too often. The other side is rarely highlighted.

One such instance came to light in the recent meeting. I was chatting with a woman from Zimbabwe and I asked her to tell me something about her country that we wouldn’t know from reading news stories. She wrinkled her nose and said “There’s so much! Everyone only writes about how Zimbabwe is a horrible place with so much violence. But we’ve a beautiful city, and one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world.”

Victoria Falls or Mosi-oa-Tunya is considered to be one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It is supposedly more stunning than Niagara Falls, which gets a lot of PR and talk.

I had heard about it once upon a time, but honestly, I wouldn’t have recalled it without her mentioning it.

Our conversation continued, and she expressed surprise that I was wearing a dress. She had been worried about India, with much of the international coverage focussing on the horrible rapes in the country. Well, this is an issue that needs to be addressed. But from the sounds of it, India had been portrayed as a horrible country for women. That women were being raped everywhere, and a woman couldn’t walk in the streets in broad daylight alone.

We cannot deny that is entirely untrue. There are enough stories going around about this. Then again, the perception created is of a country that’s similar to the Middle East, with archaic laws. Where are the stories about the progress in India? Where are the stories about our vast growth and developments?

For a country with a population of over a billion, some of the advancements we’ve made are quite commendable. For a population that’s essentially as diverse as the world, some of the laws we’ve changed are definitely noteworthy.

I’m not going on a India-praising spree. I know the shortcomings of our country. But in recent times, some of the comments of international media are getting annoying.

We launch a space program, and they say why aren’t we spending more on removing poverty. We sign a climate agreement, and people ask about trade agreements.

I’m really glad that people from various countries came to India and saw the reality of the country.

The Zimbabwe woman’s parting statement was “India isn’t really any worse off than my country. I’m not sure why media makes it out to be a nightmare, then again, they write about my country as a violent one as well.”

So essentially going back to the question I had when I chose to quit reporting: Who do we believe?

Reporters Without Borders

I was probably 14 years old when I first heard about ‘Doctors Without Borders’. I was toying with ideas of becoming a doctor, and it seemed that this is where I would head if I did take up medicene.

As things worked out, I decided to become a reporter. And I spent quite a few months applying for all possible posts at Reporters Without Borders. I had no experience. All I had was a vision that this is where I wanted to be. Being a reporter to me was not something simple. It meant you had to walk a tight rope between facts and giving into your idealogies and sympathies. Conflict reporting was something that I was absolutely keen about, and several people asked me why. Several people tried to dissuade me by saying that this wasn’t a place for women.

But what was the point of being a reporter if all you did was write about pretty actresses, annoying politicians and corporate espionage? Human life matters. Beyond race, creed, sex, religion or borders. Something we forget all too often. Something we ignore all too often. It becomes about religion. About terror. About politics.

I wanted to write about the people who were living through this. Give them a voice. Bring their story to the public. And perhaps, in this situation, being a woman was an advantage because women could go in some places where men couldn’t.

From the other side of 30, I can possibly see the naiveity of this sentiment, of this ambition.

But if I got a chance to do it even today, I wouldn’t turn it down. Today, I realise that this was also a desire to learn for myself what the reality was. Not what media writes. Not stories written by people. Perhaps that is selfish.

At the end of the day, it is a person who suffers. It is a child who is left alone. Religion, caste, sex, country – they fade in the light of the misery and the horror. Maybe it won’t make a difference to tell these stories. In today’s world, all it will gain is a like and a share on Facebook. But the story would have been told. It would enter some consciousness, becoming another drop in the ocean, and eventually, maybe it will add up to something.

More importantly, people need to know the stories beyond the bigger picture. The decisions might not always be changeable. They might even be important for the bigger picture. But we need to know the price we are paying for it. If we are building a naval base at the cost of an indigenous society, maybe it is crucial for national security. But that does not negate the fact that we need to know that our security comes at the cost of destroying a culture, destroying landscape.

Perhaps we are building factories on forest land. And this is important for the livelihood of several thousands of people. But you need to be aware of what is the price of that factory. And maybe sometime, we’ve to say that the cost of it is too high. The question remains about where to draw the line… but we need to know.

Hinduism and Buddhism (and perhaps many other religions) have prayers to thank nature for offering us our livelihood. They ask us to apologize for hurting nature or anyone else, even if it is a tree being cut. They ask us to take only what we need and nothing more. Our needs are much higher today, but perhaps one needs to know what you are sacrificing for it.

In any case, a reporter’s job is not to judge. It is only to report the facts. The facts are both that the land is beyond destroyed and thousands of people displaced, and that the new building will benefit so many people and earn them money. It is up to the individual conscience what they think is right or wrong. And that’s why sometimes we need an outsider to give us the facts, because we are too entrenched in our story to see all the details.

The 2010 News Chronicle

2010 nearly comes to an end… and personally, there are various things I remember. But I was wondering, news-wise what sticks in our mind? Public memory is notoriously short… and that includes me.

These are some of the things that remain in my mind as some of the most powerful things this year. They might not include everything and perhaps the most relevant… as journalists, we sometimes fail to see the forest for the trees.

  1. The BP Oil spill disaster: tons has been written and we’ll probably begin to face the consequences of this spill for generations to come
  2. Facebook privacy fiasco: Zuckerberg and his statements!
  3. The 33 miners stuck underground for nearly 2 months
  4. The iPhone 4, the iPad and all that jazz: I can’t remember much in terms of technology this year… was there something that I am forgetting? I mean… the iPhone isn’t really new, the iPad is also old news and there were repetitions of those things from various companies.
  5. Wikileaks drama: It shook the world and made me wonder about the purpose of Wikileaks
  6. Obama’s visit to India: Didn’t really shake the world, but as an Indian, it was hard to miss
  7. Commonwealth Games: and all that it entailed. News-wise I wasn’t sure how important it is. The lede probably got buried under all the media houses shouting, but definitely worth a mention
  8. The numerous scandals in India: the 2G scam, the CWG corruption, the Radia tapes…
  9. Aung San Suu Kyi being released
  10. Displacement of the gypsies from France: strangely, this is one issue that remains in my mind. I’m not sure how much international attention it gained and how long it lasted, but it stays
  11. Sachin’s 50th Test Century: The man is indeed a legend
  12. The Football World Cup: and the saddest, most boring final I’ve seen
  13. Inception: The Movie of the Year
  14. Endhiran: The Indian Movie of the Year


Things that I did not remember but was reminded by photographs:

  1. The earthquake in Haiti
  2. Floods in Pakistan
  3. Olympics in China (jeez my memory is really full of holes)

And then there are other things that I remember simply because I write about it… like China and its currency, the G20 Summit in Seoul.

Indian Media & The Circus

I perhaps shouldn’t pay attention to some random comments people have made on my blog regarding my job. But the point is, I have left half written drafts about the media in India, simply because I was too busy trying to get facts for my job. The one that pays.

For those who haven’t heard of it already (and this time it would be a vast majority) – some bigwigs in the media industry are involved in one of the biggest scams in Indian media/politics. Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi – to name a few.

Their offense? They crossed the line.

Every journalist knows there is a give-and-take policy with the flak. We make small compromises… a positively placed story in return for a bunch of other facts and such. Yes. It happens in media. Across the world. The problem comes when you turn from the watchdog into just… well, the lapdog. (Okay that was a little harsh). But when you start parroting what the PR feeds you, when you start asking the PR what you should write… you aren’t a reporter anymore.

We are taught in journalism class to strip out ALL the adjectives in a press release, unless they are really negative. It is the PR’s job to put them and ours to take it out.

The saddest thing here is Barkha Dutt is the face of Indian journalism. Ironically, what the public doesn’t recognize, that is because of the stuff she has done. It isn’t easy to get to her position. Toes are stepped on. I said this in my last article – “every person who signed up to be a reporter has some idealism in them. At least when we start out. We are all idealists who are brutally abused by the system, or by what we see, and we choose to either go bitterly cynical, or simply say ‘screw it’ and give the people what they want.”

I’m not sure which category Barkha Dutt fits in. I’m not a fan of Barkha Dutt. I admired Khuswant Singh, Tarun Tejpal, Maya Sharma. Barkha Dutt seemed more suited to the reality TV age. Perhaps my image of her was influenced by stories I had heard about her… but there you go.

It is horribly disappointing to me to hear that the Indian media has gone this way. But is it a surprise? Not really. Indian television and some other media is driven by advertising revenues (as I mentioned in my earlier post too). Any form of the media that has such sheer commercial interests cannot be objective. Times of India is one of the largest selling newspapers in the country. How much news content does it really have? Why do you read it? How many of my readers here subscribe to TOI? If you didn’t want sensationalism, there wouldn’t be a reality TV now, or crappy sting operations that wade into the grey area, or Big Boss or the million other reality shows.

We thrive on gossip. We love scandals. We like to get dirt on the others. And so the media dishes it out to you and boosts up their ad statements.

I’m not going on tirade against the public. I hate it that the Indian media has come down to this. But the point is… there are those people who still truly care about making a difference. As one of the people who commented pointed out, “why generalize and say all people are corrupt”

I never said that. The government has a few good people (and I’ve had the luck to interact with them). But it is hard to stick to that levels of idealism. It is hard to make a difference. It needs a collective effort to make a difference.

Indians, by large, are apathetical. Most of the Indian media has been silent about this issue. The two magazines that did speak about it – Outlook and Open – I wonder what’ll happen to them. My respect for the editor of Open magazine has gone up ten-fold. They are a small magazine who were struggling and were rumoured to be really short on funds. They wouldn’t last more than a few months, it was said. Maybe it was a last ditch effort… but kudos to them for putting it up.

I really do not have the time to write more… of course stones will be thrown now. Ironically, the media is responsible for the whole charade again. Through their silence, they’ve sensationalized this issue again. Is this what it really takes for us to wake up? Did nobody hear the alarm calls many of us had been saying for the past 3-4 years?

The Wedding Of The Century

At least for the next couple of decades – Prince William and Kate Middleton.

If you live anywhere in the U.K., you’ve probably heard every single detail that is to be heard, and perhaps a few times embellished as well. People are scared to call it the ‘fairy tale wedding’ because they did that once and look how that ended.

Anything to do with the royal family is always… exciting. You could say it is a waste of time and space but the truth is, we’ve all grown up with fairy tales and this is the closest you can come to one.

I am a huge Diana fan. The woman is what fairy tales were made off… she had the looks, the charisma and the completely bizzaro attitude that is required to be a princess. She perhaps even had the steel underneath it all but the public didn’t really care about that.

What she really was – a young, confused woman who was catapulted into the chains of traditionalism and confines or a royal family and expected to deal with it all really well. To top that off, she was married to a much older guy, who in public photos, didn’t have even an ounce of charm she possessed.

But things like this happen every day and if the media was not intent on capturing her every move on camera, we probably wouldn’t care. But she was a princess and she photographed so well. And people wanted to read about her.

This isn’t about Princess Diana though. This is about her daughter-in-law – the first non-blue blooded woman to enter the royal family. It is good to know that they are loosening their belts a little bit. I never really followed through every bit written about the couple or her over the years. I found Prince William extremely cute once upon a time and that was that.

Every British media organization, including the BBC is carrying pages and pages about the couple. And the hoopla about the wedding details has not even begun.

They are still speculating if they dare call her the next Diana.

Nobody else could possibly carry that hint of vulnerability and the charm Diana did. And we wouldn’t want a repeat of that either. Middleton seems more down to earth, practical and hopefully, a little more confident in dealing with royalty. She’s been with the guy for nearly a decade now, so she has some idea of what protocols are. Well, one could argue Diana was born into a royal family but that is a checkered past and she was a kid.

The next year will be a drama – who will design the wedding dress, where will they be married, who will be invited, who will not be invited, who will be the maid of honor, the best man, who will preside, who will be the wedding planner, where will they honeymoon, where will the live. And the question I probably care most about – who will be the photographer.

Circus. It starts again. And hopefully, this time, with a better ending.

Link of the day: This article on Guardian – talk about being snobbish!

Kevin Carter. Being A Reporter.

I spent much of yesterday reading about Kevin Carter. And his friend Ken Oosterbroek.

That perhaps explains the melancholy I felt at the end of the day. Carter’s story is a depressed one. While his image of the vulture and the little girl is absolutely captivating, his story was written a long time before that.

Artists are supposed to be tortured souls. It is pain that apparently gives us the power to write. Without misery, there would be no poetry. Maybe that could be simply because it is harder to capture happiness.

But Carter lived and suffered. The little things of society – racism, money, bigotry, famine and sheer hate – got to him.

Carter faced much criticism for his decision to walk away from the girl and just leave her there. Nobody knows if she survived. And sitting in the comfort of our living rooms, it is easy to judge Carter for walking away.

But was she the only single kid there, starving and dying? Didn’t he go there to shoot a famine? What do you do in the face of such sheer misery? Such vastness of misery? How do you explain your helplessness and sheer inability to help a whole country of people?

A reporter constantly has the struggle between intruding and merely reporting. We are taught in journalism class to be objective. But perhaps it is already too late by the time we are even in that class, so the best we can do is try to get both sides of the story and let people figure out where the truth lies.

So sometimes we shoot wars, people dying, accidents and other tragedies and all we can be is a spectator. Do we feel nothing?

I cannot really answer that question. There is a sense of detachment that comes from self-preservation. Those images haunt you when you go back to the hotel room or your home. The cries of grief that you managed to block out and tell the story come back in your sleep.

Maybe that was the reason I did not choose television reporting. Perhaps the people who are working in that media platform are equally sensitive. But the Indian media has gotten so sensational that sometimes there is no time to think. My friends who work in that world talk about it with disgust. Some of them. To the others, it is just another job at the end of the day and just another story at it.

Self preservation happens naturally. For the moment at least. But when you sit alone, there are some of us who simply are not strong enough to block out those voices, the cries and the images that haunt us forever.


Chilean Mine Workers

The rescue of mine workers in Chile is a prime example of the indefatigable nature of the spirit of human kind.

33 people lived deep underground, without killing each other. Sure there will be mental trauma but the fact is they survived when they could’ve gone the other way. It is sheer will power that takes one to survive so long.

What was more reassuring was the sense in which the rescue was handled. There was a Live TV (of course there would be!) and I watched the rescue of 19-year old Jimmy Sachez. I was surprised when I saw the tag line read ’19 años.’ What was a 19-year old doing there in the first place?

The whole operation is more bizarre and beautiful than reality TV could actually ever achieve.

[Side Note – What are the odds that some genius will actually get the idea to intentionally put people in such a situation and see who survives? People can be sick, I tell you!]

There weren’t tears and media rushing in to shove a mike in the survivor’s face. I’m not sure if this is because Chilean TV still has some sensitivity or they just weren’t allowed to do such things.

Five people are out at the time of this post and hopefully the rest will be out soon too.

The most awaited (for me) is the man who was responsible for the survival of those people in there – Luiz Urúza.

They say leaders are born, not made. And Urúza seems to be one such person, who could think even under pressure and lead the men into safety.

The danger isn’t past yet. There are a million things that could go wrong. But we have made it so far. Here’s to the rest.

Link of the day: Live TV Coverage of the rescue

Update: Just read this massive article on The Telegraph, which talks about the perils these men face after they are rescued. The media frenzy, as well as the other parts of their lives that could’ve gone unnoticed but now are known to every kid in the country.

Apparently they are being given media training, among other things. Of course the international media will descend on them like locusts, offering them big deals, movies and more… for the next 15 minutes and another tragedy breaks. I guess that is the dark side of mankind.

Who’ll watch the media?

I came across this interesting website today – CounterMedia. A watchdog for the media, you could say (though I wonder about the futility of such an act).

The way the Indian media is going these days, we definitely need someone to keep an eye out for the blatant disrespect for ethics and laws. Sting operations, screening violent and unnecessary images, sensationalizing every single thing and not to mention play those same old images a million times till you get bugged of them.

The screen at work was on continuously today, with one of the channels playing the whole political drama playing out in Karnataka. The ticker kept reading “breaking news” even after it was quite obvious it was the 100th time the Governor’s quote was being replayed. They looped the 1 minute clip of the fight in the Assembly, with people falling over, ripping their clothes out and more.

To be honest, I had not been following the drama so closely. This is not the first time JDU has pulled such nonsense and unless someone ousts the pests that run the party, it won’t be the last.

But I finally googled it to figure what the Governor said that created such a huge drama. And I was shocked to see the entire Democratic set up being ripped apart. The judgment of the Governor and the Speaker is considered holy. True, they are people too and hence biased. But in a shoddy democracy, they are the last hope.

A mere elected representative create such a drama. And now they are off to Delhi to get their case heard. They obviously have not heard of video conferences, telephones or cellphones. It has to be a face-to-face meeting, so they can yell and break things in person.

While I completely condone what is happening in the government, the drama on the television channel completely overdoses on the seriousness of the issue. The problem here is corrupt and power-hungry politicians (nothing new in that either). But I completely lose track of what is happening when I’m watching TV.

[Side note – Can we hope the President bans ALL these people from contesting elections EVER again? That’d be too much to hope for I guess]

The same thing happened with the Ayodhya verdict. For about half an hour, I couldn’t figure out what the hell was happening. There were people shouting.

It is perhaps easy to blame the television media for this kind of blatant disrespect to issues and sensationalizing things. But the problem lies in the viewership. The viewership that has grown jaded with the overdose of reality shows, that trips out on talking how ‘shocking’ that murder was. When you keep listening to the same thing every day, looking for gossip material, merely saying ‘it was a gruesome murder’ will not suffice at some point. We need to go into the genre of gore movies and show the blood splattered all over, the limbs cut away and lying in a pool of blood.

The reporters need to push harder to meet that bar set by their editors/superiors, who in turn are being pushed by the management to get high TRPs, which translates into bigger revenues and profits.

So where does the problem lie? With privately-owned channels that run on a revenue model and a gossip-hungry public.

They aren’t problems exclusive to India alone. Tabloids do more business everywhere in the world. We are curious people and we are mean, so we love to read about other’s miseries. In India, given our tendency to suppress natural desires, subjects like ‘a guy murdered his lover’ – with its tinges of drama, sex and whatever else – really sells.

We talk about it, all the while smugly saying “that would never happen to us.”

Of course, the reporters are equally responsible for bringing such news.  Perhaps as idealistic, just-out-of-college reporters without having bills to pay, we could say we will not report such news. And many do. I know people in the industry who are disgusted with what they do and try to hold on to some of those ideas with which we became reporters. But at one point, someone will slip. It is a high pressure job. 24 hours of news isn’t an easy job… particularly in days when the best you get is boring old economic data.

Would you watch 24 hours of boring economic data? Talking about how chilli prices went up while oil stayed down?

The question is – how far will the media go? Sting operations are now the norm at every channel, since Tehelka pulled one of eons ago. Nobody (excepts for the lawyers) whispers the word “privacy invasion.” It was acceptable with politicians taking bribes but busting into people’s homes for a story is just… sick. How far will we go before someone has to rap us and we lose all credibility?

Hell, I don’t trust what I watch on TV or read half the time. Real news, I believe, often lies in the content of half a dozen newspapers.

Link of the day: Times Now interview with Governor