Monday, July 09, 2018

Digital Media and its Echo Chambers

The Japanese have a phrase to describe Indians - インド人 "Oshaberi Indo-jin", which translates politely into 'Chattering Indians'. A term reserved for insensitive folks who talk for the sake of talking, without consideration to others.

Nowhere is this more painful than at public lectures, seminars, workshops and conferences. At international events, it is often a nightmare for the organisers that unfolds at three levels: First, the embarassment about key speakers not arriving on time, leading to announcements that the event is delayed because so-and-so got held-up at an "important meeting"; Once the meeting starts, it is about speakers who ignore the clock and carry on blaberring, ignoring frantic signals to cease, and finally, the pain of enduring a Q&A session. Here again the organisers plead for short, pointed questions from the audience, and what they get instead is long speeches from folks who refuse to let go of the mikes.

Last Friday, I participated for the first time, in a seminar where the organisers tried a novel way of dealing with the Q&A problem. This was an event organised jointly by IIC, CPR and the Niti Aayog called Metamorphoses - part of series that calls itself "a modest effort to try and bridge the gap between digital technologies, which are transforming our lives, and our understanding of their multiple dimensions".

Despite the absence of one of the main speakers, the event started more or less on time. As expected, the event had its panel of heavyweights on stage: the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, along with representatives from Twitter, the Silicon Valley, and think tanks. The format for Q&A came with a digital twist. 

A slip of paper placed on each chair in the hall had a certain number to which you had to send an SMS, if you had a question for any of the panelists. A representative from IIC/CPR would then choose from the messages received, and convey selected questions, to the panelists on stage.

Much like the Twitter algorithm discussed in the seminar, this Q&A format created an echo chamber in which the panel received only sanitised, insipid questions that gave an illusion of public engagement. The organisers may have suceeded in sticking to timelines while nipping out presky mike-grabbers and their long-winded questions, and but it also robbed the event of its human touch. A podcast may have served their purpose just as well.

SMSs at the Q&A Session@IIC, New Delhi

After this event, I now have a greater appreciation for the "Explained" events organised by the Indian Express. It starts with a public advertisement in a newspaper (not a mere mailing list), attracts SMS confirmations from a fairly broad spectrum of the public (not just retired bureaucrats), and their Q&A sessions are orderly without being overbearing. 

It also helps to have an alert moderator on stage, who also directs a team that passes wireless mikes to the audience. Since the norms are enforced with an even hand, the post-event discussions turn out to be lively and spirited, giving you a much deeper understanding of the issues discussed. 

When it comes to organising real public engagements, perhaps it is time IIC, CPR and Niti Aayog learned a thing or two from folks at the Indian Express. We could all then step out of our echo chamber's and have a discussion that is really worthwhile.


* Centre for Policy Research and its Metamorphoses -
* Explained by the Indian Express -

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