Digital tryst with destiny

  • Raheel Khursheed, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 03, 2014 15:06 IST

A group of volunteers who did not know each other coordinated a massive relief effort for the flood ravaged people of Jammu and Kashmir earlier this month. They set up through an internet powered coordination effort, synchronised the rescue of hundreds of marooned victims and shipped more than 200 tons of life-saving supplies to the flood-ravaged state.

Calls, text messages, tweets and status updates on social media sites by a number of stranded people meant a great deal of digital noise. The group had a software code written in half a day which enabled it to distinguish between noise and the signal for help. It built a crisis map across platforms and pushed out a high-tech 'SOS Only' Twitter feed which was monitored and acted upon by the Army. It fed clean data from multiple sources into the Google People Finder so that data of survivors and those missing was available on a live basis. When the state failed and was slow to find its feet, social media created avenues for the lay people - the first responders - to help.

The website featured a live list of supplies, updated depending on what was procured from across the country and what was needed on the ground. A virtual control room directed the relief collection effort across the country with collection centres in many places, feeding information into a supply chain that brought together tech giants Google and Twitter, pharma companies Cipla and Biocon, corporates Pepsi, Aircel, Emami and Essar, and non-governmental organisations like Goonj, Uday Foundation and the Sajid Iqbal Foundation with Indigo airlifting the relief.

It was an ace effort of rescue and relief. More than that, it was a great example of the country reaping the benefit of a digital demographic dividend. Citizens of an information democracy are gradually ushering in change via their cell phones, their consumption habits redefining how information is created in this country and who creates it, in the process challenging and dismantling existing information hierarchies and establishing a new information order.

This was evident also in how the general election campaign earlier this year played out as much on the internet as on the ground. Twitter saw about 60 million election- related tweets from January 1 to May 16, with parties and candidates across the political divide taking to the platform to set agenda, compete, and reach out to young Indians on their own turf. That the Prime Minister, when elected, acknowledged his historic mandate via a tweet says it all.

Our national discourse is now a live, public conversation that has gone mobile. No wonder then, that digital is top of the agenda for the current government. This wasn't the case even two years ago. In the aftermath of the brutal Delhi gang rape in December 2012, thousands of young citizens spontaneously stormed the Lutyen's power base to demand tangible action. It was clear that the young people were speaking a language, the grammar of which was alien to those in power. The then government grappled to find a relevant response.

It tried to counter hundreds of over-charged Tweets, What's App messages, Facebook posts being fired per minute with an information regime reminiscent of the 1970s; it deployed the standard tropes of power - lathi-charges, water cannons, tear gas, shutting down of metro stations. "Who are their leaders?" the government asked, completely oblivious to the fact that this young collective was displaying a hierarchy-independent, bottom-up leadership model powered by the web.

December 2012 wasn't the first internet powered protest in India and it won't be the last. Young Indians are taking to the internet at a scorching pace, faster than the government can regulate it. And every time they want answers, the government will need to talk to anyone and everyone who owns a cell phone with a data connection, after it has listened to and deconstructed their social feed.

The Indian internet user did not get to this point of power overnight. Starting off well after the Western user, eventually catching up, the Indian user is now almost at par (internet speeds notwithstanding) with the global user. Large tech companies, Twitter included, are not just rolling out products for the Indian user, they are building products and experiences customised to the Indian market.

For context, my internet on-boarding happened in 2002 with my first email account. Unhindered by the constraints of letter pads, I went berserk with fonts and emoticons. My first emails are a veritable display of multiple fonts, multiple font sizes, a range of colours and ungodly emoticons. We will never get back valuable life hours spent waiting for that blue bar to reach nirvana just so we could see a full webpage. Remember Myspace and MSN? Me neither.

The internet evolved and so did we. Our browsing habits and sensibilities are now in lock step with the grammar of the World Wide Web. We now respond to memetic calls, participating in a pop cultural narrative that has us take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and customise it to a Rice Bucket challenge. Now, students in remote areas with internet access can download National Geographic and The Economist on their phones if they wish to, without waiting for weeks to buy a copy as we did in the 1990s.

The internet is the world's greatest equaliser. The young have used, are using and will continue to use it to upset and upturn traditional power hierarchies. Those harnessing its power are not necessarily people with status and money, they are people with information. Growing in an unstructured and immediate manner, demolishing and reorganising power structures in its wake, it has given users an unprecedented shot at an active voice that seeks change. A voice that carries with it the heft that sparks revolutions and dislodges dictatorial regimes elsewhere, and changes laws and effectively organises relief for national tragedies at home.

The very character of social media aids de-centralisation of power. I do not mean in the traditional hierarchical sense but from the point of view of being able to make a difference in society. Perhaps 30 years ago, only the government and large corporate houses would have had the capacity to respond to a natural disaster. Social media has devolved and distributed that power to people. Democratisation of information is key, absolutely fundamental, to the devolution of power.

There are debates about the digital divide but where is the divide? People with cell phones can participate in the making of their country. As more and more information moves into the public sphere, the issue is not one of data and access to data. The issue is of cell phones. Anyone with a cell phone connection can potentially interact with the Prime Minister. Right now, the Prime Minister's two accounts on Twitter have more followers than readers of the country's largest newspaper.

As the social media evolves, the state has a critical role to play. The first thing that the State can and should do is open up the bandwidth a great deal more. The sooner this is increased, the better the service delivery mechanism. When the government de-regulates the process and service providers are able to simultaneously offer 4G to established users and 3G to someone who has just on-boarded the digital highway, the playground will be a lot more even.

In the first round of building India immediately after Independence, our efforts banked on highways. In the re-making of India, information highways will be the key. How and how fast we deliver services on these pipelines will impact people's lives, crops, healthcare, banking, weather preparedness and disaster management.

It is imperative, therefore, that the government evolves a deeper understanding of how information is produced, how it is consumed and who is consuming it. In that sense then, the digital world and social media will potentially help address the inequity in the country. We may or may not be able to scale up the physical infrastructure to world levels but we can certainly scale up the information infrastructure to a world-class level.

If, instead, the government gets bogged down in trying to regulate the social media, it will always be playing catch-up. The beauty of the information infrastructure, social media and the internet is that it is evolves faster than regulation can keep pace with it.

The government has to be with the social media, not go after it or lag behind it.

Our national discourse is now a live, public conversation that has gone mobile. No wonder, then, that digital is top of the agenda for the current government.

(Raheel Khursheed (@Raheelk), is the Head of News, Politics and Government at @TwitterIndia)

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