Old habits in a new bottle: Is the digital age really changing us?

One hears constantly about how digital media is transforming us. How our attention span and even retention is shrinking. How we now use certain parts of our brain far more than other parts that will eventually dwindle away!

Well, I have always had an attention span issue. As a child, I wouldn’t be able to study the same topic for more than say 15 minutes. During my Boards in Class X and XII, I remember resorting to pacing and reading aloud to myself in the wee hours of the night to stay focused. It was never the subject matter, but the ability to sustain focus that was the big challenge.

Which is not to say that I am fickle or uninterested. I wander away and then return to things I consider important. The process of gleaning knowledge is different and I segue into other topics much like you dip into someone else’s food while eating at a communal table, only to return to your own with even more relish!

There is still a problem. The more serious matter sort of sits around for a while before I come to it. In the good old pre-digital days, it was a print out or a bookmarked chapter that sat at the edge of my study table while other relatively frivolous content (magazines, pictures, letters, cards, easier chapters from easier subjects…you get the drift) would occupy centerstage. On my computer screen, Gmail, WordPress, Facebook and Twitter tabs sit there providing the endless tempting and often unimportant snacks while the article I mean to read occupies a corner tab patiently awaiting its turn.

Now all this makes me wonder if my habits have indeed changed with digital media? It’s just the same tendency playing out on the computer screen, right?

I am also thinking that there is a certain merit in cultivating and sharpening this ability to segue, absorb other seemingly trivial inputs and then returning to consume more serious content (which you must, and give it adequate time and attention too!). Perhaps this dipping and returning adds more dimensions to your understanding and allows you to have a more enriched perspective, which then feeds into your output. Perhaps instead of constantly berating the digital age and shouting out dire warnings, we may just need to adapt a bit?

Building collapses, mapping woes and other stories about planning and construction

I browse through BBC News on my newly acquired iPad mini, and my glee at trying out my new toy abates as I read about the horrendous building collapse in Thane, Mumbai that has killed 45 and injured over 70 people. It’s one of those aspects of the construction industry hardest to reconcile, this widespread prevalence of low quality and illegal building practices that goes unnoticed across India, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives each year. Whereas preventive measures have been accepted as necessary by citizens in the field of health (think immunisation, health check ups) to some extent, an investment in quality and safety while constructing a roof over their heads does not seem to command high priority for the masses in India. This has been the experience of many organisations like mHS that work in the field of mass housing. Increased pressure on urban land and rising home prices make it imperative to find policy measures that enforce minimum standards for construction but also find ways to offer cheap and widely accessible technical assistance to all those who build their homes. Plus strict penalties for contractors and builders who indulge in malpractice.

On another note, I was amused to see in this morning’s paper that Google is facing a police enquiry basis a complaint from Survey of India because they consider their Mapathon contest a threat to national security. As planners, community-driven mapping is a powerful tool we use to help prioritise and even design interventions. If calling upon people to map their neighbourhood is illegal, then the profession of planning is illegal too! And if city maps that mark landmarks and buildings of national importance like the Parliament House are illegal, then the same goes for all those involved in tourism, business development, marketing or indeed anyone who needs to use a map to get around! Bizarre, to say the least!

Not a day goes by when I don’t find one or the other news item in the general news that directly pertains to the work I do as an architect-planner working on affordable housing. Yet it takes me several minutes to explain what I do to most people outside of my profession. Ironic!

Is ‘Cities for People’ the new mantra? Takeaways from the ’100 Urban Trends’ report

“Urban thinking, whether related to architecture or urbanism, has become dramatically less focused on infrastructure, and more on the ultimate goal and reason for the existence of cities — that is, the well-being of the people that inhabit them and constitute their very soul and essence.” I am quoting from the ’100 Urban Trends’ report brought out by the BMW Guggenheim Labs after a 33-day series of free workshops and citizen consultations in Berlin. This glossary of terms is an attempt to document the “temperature” of a specifc time and place, Berlin in the summer of 2012 and it is interesting to note how some things havent changed and at all and yet, how citizens and urban professionals alike are moving towards a more human, more experiential understanding of what a city is. So much for those bizarre robotic urban imaginations depicted in sci-fi movies. Cities for people are here to stay!

I find it heartening that this sort of people-centric thinking is gaining prominence and read it as a sign that there will be a growing movement towards changing the bureaucratic and technocratic mindset to a more interdisciplinary one. Here are some of the concepts I found really reassuring and exciting:

The idea of community life and accessible and well designed urban commons (better known as public spaces) is now well understood and established. There seems to be concern that urban environments are reducing the number of connections we make and a recognition of a need for city design to help us maximize human connections.

The role of citizens and non-designers/non-experts in how a city evolves- terms like ‘activist citizen’ and ‘bottom-up engagement’ are turning traditional thinking about urban planning and design on its head. Collaboration, crowd-funding, digital democracy, self-solving, place-making are some of the related terms that give an insight into the muria ways citizens can influence their urban environment. The citizen is no longer being viewed as a passive player at the mercy of policy and regulation, but as a powerful force of change.

Sustainability as a growing concern is reflected strongly and is intertwined with the ideal of a healthy city. This in turn includes ideas like the need for experimentation, walkability and cycling as a means to get around, a concern for food security and the links between urban and rural, mixed-use over the typical use-wise classification of spaces, intelligent buildings and smart cities, the reduce-reuse-recycle adage, the need to promote the share culture, the idea of upcycling (increase the value while reusing) rather than merely recycling,…many innovative trends can clearly be seen in this area. To me, these moves towards sustainable living combimed with bottom-up efforts can really be a potent combination for positive changes to happen. However, all of this will hinge on the ability to create awareness, dialogue, debate and a deeper and wider understanding of the issues among non-designer, non-expert citizens.I found it interesting that the report acknowledges the sheer complexity of urban form, and how the megacity is changing our notions of the centre-suburb model. This is a significant shift that will influence lives and the practice of city design considerably.

The idea of “Minimum Variation, Maximum Impact” in which small changes can be made to move towards more “sustainable and socially responsible cities” seems like a good way to do things.

The powerful concept of ‘cities as idea generators’ was in here too, and it is vital for cities to leverage their innovation power in order to grow economically and to survive in an ecological sense as well.

The idea of technology as a driver of change came across strongly, as a means to interact and have dialogue, as a means to deliver services, as a means to collaborate, design, a whole bunch of functions in fact.

[On another note, Disneyfication was a term I loved here. Its something I've always thought about and never realized it was an actual term! It refers to "a process of urban transformation that increases homogeneity and simulated reality rather than the preservation of historical elements and cultural difference.". Poor Walt! I'm sure this wasn't his intention....]

What does this report mean for another city, another time, another context?  I work in India, in the Delhi-NCR area, which happens to be one of the fastest growing urban agglomerations in the world! I certainly see many of these trends relevant for my city. As an urban practitioner, the 100 Trends outlined here help me think through and prioritize issues even as I often gasp with the sheer complexity of what we do as urban problem-solvers! Most importantly, some of the terms here helped me find specific ways to move to a more people-centric, people-driven agenda for city development, and that’s a big reward.

Tech is changing us deeply, scarily! So love your children more, as much as you can! #THiNK2012

Sherry Turkle has been thinking about the social and psychological impacts of the Internet and that makes this session super exciting. Technology is having a deep impact on us, changing who we think and even who we are. Is it taking us to places we don’t want to go? What are the ethics of advancement? Questions we ask all the time. Are we humanizing tech while we dehumanize ourselves? Robots become men, men become machines. This is her life’s work. Eager to hear what she has to say!

Hackers gave her a clue that humans now see their minds as a computer. Change in the way we evolve. Changing our identity. Initially celebratory about these changes, Sherry is now not so optimistic. As a psychologist, she thought it fascinating that people could experience playing with identity and learn from their online lives to live better real lives. The situation has turned darker now. She saw in the ‘90s that mobility changes. Transitions between computer identities and real connections become faster. We were never completely present to our reality. Another phenomenon was sociable robots. A new kind that doesn’t try to be smart, but tries to make you think it loves you. By using the right gestures, this robot pushes your Darwinian buttons to make you feel someone is home. Fascinating! We nurture it, we love it. She began to study these bots used in Japan for eldercare and to be nannies. Strong attachments to computers that do not deserve our love and that we never leave ourselves alone at all are disturbing trends we need to be aware of.

Why would we rather text than talk? Because it gives a larger sense of control, which is seductive. We can hide real feelings. Tech allows us to have the illusion of companionship without the demands and intimacy.

So does tech make us lonelier? All those of us addicted to technology, are we actually keeping the real people out? The real relationships away? I wrote about this recently. One of the wonderful things about being here at the Thinkest is to hear experts and researchers take forward my tentative musings about how we live life. That’s why so many of us are back to this fest.

People text at funerals, mothers in the park are texting…Are we losing the sense of human attachment? I find that scary, concerning. Why do we want to be elsewhere when we are somewhere? Why do we go there at all? I don’t want to be this sort of person, who forgets the difference between conversation and mere connection. The person who forget nuance. But yet I love what technology makes possible as well. When we have sessions at Shikshantar where my kids go to school, we often are told about how texting during dinner is not a great thing to do. We roll our eyes, hate the lecture! Well, Sherry used the exact same example today. Children deserve to grow up feeling they are important enough for us to set aside even something as important as technology. And I agree.

We need to set rules for ourselves that will help us achieve some sort of balance. We need to make a better attempt to really connect, with ourselves and then with people around us, then also with issues and events. Many levels of connection make life exciting.

What is reassuring is that Shirley thinks the younger generation is more likely to be able to build a tech Sabbath, build in breaks from technology. We, who came to it later, appear to be completely smitten! Kids might stand a better chance to achieve the balance. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that when children are little, say pre-teens and teens, we adults who ‘parent’ them (I say that in a larger sense) have the opportunity to give them a real sense of how important human contact is. We can love them with all we have got, reach out to them, involve them. Give them a legacy of humanity so that they can use technology to their advantage without being emotionally consumed by it.

Not possible to ‘control’ the Internet! Are you relieved or alarmed? @THiNK2012

That’s quite a radical statement from Ben Hammersley here at the Thinkfest 2012 in Goa. Apparently, it isn’t technologically possible to control content on the Internet. Governments want the good things that the Internet brings you, but not the bad stuff. That isn’t really possible.

Any sort of move towards censorship brings out a considerable amount of fury from Internet users. I don’t really see the same sort of fury from repression of other sorts of expression (writing, poetry, even cartoons!), so sometimes I really wonder! But to come back to the argument…. 

Ben argues that the need to censor or control the Internet is a social, or political problem. For parents worrying about what their teenage son is up to, it is a parenting problem! His argument is that we need to differentiate between a technological issue and a social one, or a political one. When you want to repress the Internet, you end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater and giving up on the benefits as well.

Point taken. But it still doesn’t give us a solution to deal with misuse, fraud, crime…. Also, like many other problems in the country, dealing with the social and political dimensions takes a concerted effort over a long period of time.

Sachin Pilot is arguing that the Internet itself is not run democratically. The compliance rates of requests from the Govt of India to Google and other platforms is much lower than similar requests from other, more powerful nations, like Norway and Germany, who apparently make far more such requests in the first place! Now that is something for us to think about. More democracy is needed and is being demanded by India and other countries. More representatives from Asia, Africa and South America is part of what he is talking about. Impressive. He also talks about the funds India is pumping into providing connectivity to remote places in India as part of an ideology that believes that the Internet can and should and must benefit the masses. Am eager to see that transformation play out over the net decade or so. I think it is a wonderful opportunity for entrepreneurs to tap new markets and for social businesses to make real impact!

So we come back to that social, political problem! Is society mature enough to understand the nuances of being able to sift content? No! But that too, like many other topics we are hearing about, is a facet of our society in transition, a society in flux….permanent flux perhaps! We have to live with it and bring up our children to become responsible citizens and human beings with strong values and strong powers of rational analysis.

Goa for Goans: My state needs governance, development and a new vision, NOT exploitation! March 06, 2012

A lot of newsprint has been dedicated to Goa in Delhi’s newspapers thanks to the elections. At least a lot more than nothing, which is usually the case! This morning, a heartfelt editorial by Sharon Fernandes in the Hindustan Times outlined the urgent need for a holistic vision for Goa’s development. Hurt by the stereotype of Goans as beer loving party animals, she argues rightly that Goa’s citizens have the same needs as others–jobs, better infrastructure especially in the face of growing real estate development and tourism, planned development, quality of life. I agree with her view; it is a pity that Goa is so totally focused on tourism. While tourism creates jobs, there is little to challenge the many intelligent and highly qualified citizens in the state. Many Goans leave the state with a heavy heart because they have no opportunities in Goa.

As if to confirm Sharon’s views, as BJP’s win in Goa hit news channels, a friend put up a status message on Facebook saying “Damn.. Its a Sad day for Goa..
If BJP wins Goa then its No Sex, No Drugs, No Alcohol please, We’re BJP.. :p
we shud rename Go-A as Go-away..”

As a proud Goan, I was loath to take that in good humor. A beautiful state that retains its simplicity and lure even in the face of blatant exploitation by its own politicians and irresponsible tourism deserves good governance. If the people (81% of Goans exercised their franchise this time) vote for BJP, it is because they believe the party will give them a better deal, a better life and not just milk the state without giving anything back to it’s people. Of course, what really happens remains to be seen.

Beyond good governance, Goa needs new ideas, a new vision and a passion to transform it into a sustainable paradise, not one with an expiry date! For instance, why can’t Goa become a hub for high-tech, R&D and other knowledge industries that utilizes (and attracts) highly qualified people, and causes relatively less pollution, and occupies relatively less space than conventional industry? Why can’t it be a hub for higher education, maybe even online education or remote medicine, or any other use that does not encourage in-migration in volume and increases the GDP of the state. In turn, sustainable tourism and eco-cities must be the norm in a state as small and manageable as Goa. It can set an example for the world. It is the one of the only places I know of that is so culturally diverse yet community-centric, close-knitted yet open-minded and welcoming, warm yet proud. Goa deserves better, Goans deserve better. And I sure do hope the new government can do justice to the aspirations of the Goan people!

Set in a bygone era, The Artist is really about contemporary issues like tackling obsolescence and remaining competitive- March 1, 2012

Watched The Artist last night. The film is a Guru Dutt-esque visual treat in black and white, each frame carefully constructed. A simple story beautifully told, it captures a bygone era when life was simpler.

It is easy to identify with the feelings of a great artist, someone used to being the darling of his fans, constantly in the limelight, fallen on bad times. What makes it interesting, in this case, and relevant to us in modern times, is that this downfall is a direct fallout of a new technology.

As talkies are invented and gain popularity, the silent film loses its appeal. George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, is too proud to make the transition. He insists on holding on to the old technique and loses his money in a failed self-produced silent film. The Great Depression hits and he becomes a pauper. Peppy Miller (played by Bérénice Bejo) who Valentin had once patronized when she was an extra, goes on to become the new star of the talking movies. In love with Valentin, she continues to look out for him, rescuing him from near death. Valentin’s ego and pride stop him from accepting her help and he continues to fall into a spiral of self loathing and pity. Ultimately, Peppy innovates him as a dancing star, and brings him back into the limelight.

The real reason for Valentin’s downfall, however, is not his pride, but his complete lack of self-confidence in a changing environment. He is good at what he does, the best in fact, and he cannot fathom the idea of acquiring new skills, changing methods and indeed, working hard, to remain competitive. This is the topmost challenge we face today. Individuals and corporations must adapt and reinvent themselves to stay ahead in the game, or opt out. The Artist reminds us to keep our pride in check, always be sensitive to change, keep abreast of new developments and have the right attitude towards learning, even at times from peers and juniors. Quite a lesson!

The iPhone addiction- Feb 25, 2012

Much as I hate to admit it, life has changed since february 14th. Since the iPhone came into my life. I had been dithering about buying a new phone for months but when the matter was taken out of my hands and I ‘found’ a brand new iPhone 4S under the quilt (thanks to Rahul’s enduring love for creating surprises!) my first reaction was self doubt. The first few days I was floundering to do simple things, even type on the touchscreen. Having used a blackberry the past couple of years, I missed push mail and bbm.
But slowly and surely, the apple interface has won me over. I now live my life via my phone. The major value add is the ease of surfing the net and of reading on the phone screen. Because this is now effortless, I access all the information I want to on the phone. The second pleasure has been the benefits of the touchscreen in using social networking sites. The third is a great camera. I now read, process info, write some of my blogs, and share my info via my phone. It’s not like my BB didn’t do these. It did. But a personal device is not about capability; it’s about how intuitive it is and whether it is able to draw you into its fold, take on the role of being an extension of you.
With my limited experience, I see my new phone growing on me. No inanimate object has ever done this to me before, not even the iPad! I also see this as a new way of living and experiencing the environment in which I live. It’s me and my phone working as a team now, recording things we see (people, built environment, nature through pics), hear (I use voice recordings to capture what my teachers demonstrate in music class or the way a tukda is to be spoken in kathak, in meetings to record important discussions), think (write notes, blog, emails), and share (connect via Facebook, twitter, chat apps, etc).
All this is helping me do many activities in real time rather than struggling to bring my thoughts to bear at the time of the day I finally get to sit at my computer! I know I seem wide eyed in wonder about this seemingly ordinary experience in these tech-driven times. But what the heck, I’m going to record this state of wide-eyedness in real time too. Happy belated birthday and a big thank you, Mr jobs!

Taking responsibility for how and what we consume can possibly save our planet! Jan 27, 2012

Andy Pag’s a guy who traveled around Europe, Asia and the Americas for two years in a truck fueled by used cooking oil. He recently blogged about what he learnt and the lessons were not about sustainable energy and the technology that went into retrofitting his truck to use a more eco-friendly fuel. Instead, he learnt that unnecessary consumption is the essential evil we all need to fight. To quote, “So much of the things we consume and the way we consume them are entirely superfluous and actually serves to isolate us from the communities we are surrounded by. In developed countries it feels like a system that feeds and feeds on dissatisfaction, while persuading us its delivering quality of life.”

While in the West the life of consumption has been the norm for decades now, what does this new realization mean for people like us who live in the so-called developing world? We in India are still holding as our ideal the quality of life offered in the developed world. We aspire to 24X7 services like electricity, Internet, water, etc. We expect controlled interior environments, thereby adopting air conditioning and heating in a big way. We argue about why we shouldn’t aspire to the good things in life and why we should be expected to give these things up when the West has had it for so long! Which is all very valid and is the sort of argument that has gone round in circles for years at the climate change conferences since the Kyoto Protocol was signed way back in 1997.

In the end, it’s about lifestyle choices and if we think our personal sacrifices can save our planet, we should probably be making them. It’s also about the culture of consumption, a culture that constantly asks us to compare our lives to others and follow a comparative way of evaluating our lives and the comforts in it. It is this that deeply disturbed Pag during his travels. True change could happen if we “start to value quality of life over aspirational living standards”, he says. We need to begin, in India, by evaluating the immense damage done by an oversimplification of the climate change-global warming story and the myth that using technology to reduce our carbon footprint is the magic formula to safeguard our future. Pag’s experience debunks the myth and urges us to take responsibility for our choices. Not something we like, but do we have a choice?

 

Is adapting to new technology changing humans fundamentally? – Jan 12, 2012

This is the day I was waiting for and was wondering how far down my blogging project (Project 365) this would happen! Day 12 nearly spelt the end for my resolution, as my Internet connection refused to work. Was nearly giving up and feeling pretty miserable when, on the umpteenth reboot of the modem, it has started working feebly once again!

Our urban lives have become so dependent on technology, especially mobile phones, computers and the Internet, that it is impossible to imagine what life was before! I am pretty tech-dumb and have taken long to adapt to each new technology change. Today, when I am able to figure out a cellphone menu, its only because these devices have become inseparable from us and literally rule our lives.

So does technology only mean that we do things faster and more easily, or does it signify a deeper shift in the way we think, learn, experience and communicate? Up until recently, I had the more conservative, former view. But as I watch my children effortlessly navigate an ipad, I am changing my views on this.

Not so long ago, I read an interview with a gaming technology expert who talked about how gaming, if used correctly, can help in skill development, education, enhancing reflexes, etc. Then, I went blah! Today, I think there might be something to it.

Sam Pitroda, at a curtain raiser to the India Urban Conference organized by Janaagraha, Yale University and IIHS in November 2011, spoke about our inability to adapt to the mind blowing changing that are taking place in technology. Life no longer has to be the way we have practiced it for so long, but since human nature is to resist change, we continue to live life in the same vein. He gave the example of how much energy was wasted traveling to face-to-face business meetings and how much more efficient it would be to do these by teleconference. In the past few years, I have been on the editorial team of an international publication and have used Skype innumerable times to conduct meetings and interviews. Since I have crossed the invisible line of acceptance in this specific context, I didn’t find his suggestion strange. Many in the room sniggered, though!

My concern is with battling with the mental acceptance of technology change as an inevitable reality that we constantly need to adapt to. Is it crazy to lead your entire social life on social networking sites? We all thought so a few years ago, but many of us are actually able to have meaningful conversations with dear long-lost friends and family only because we DO live our lives on FB!

As a parent, its doubly confusing. I have total screen-time limits for my kids per day, which means computer+ipad+TV+cellphone. Right now, its an hour for holidays and half an hour for weekdays and these are increasing as they grow older. Is this too conventional, based on the thinking that staring at a screen is bad for your eyes, that watching mind numbing programming is killing your brain cells? Already, interactive software on ipads and computers (and even TV!) have blurred the lines terribly!

Technology will continue to blur the lines, challenge our business-as-usual attitude, create excitement and shape our behavior. Will it also impact deeper things like our value systems, the depth of our relationships, the tenor of our emotions?