Lurking: How a Person Became a User – Joanne McNeil

Lurking: How a Person Became a User: McNeil, Joanne: 9780374194338:  Amazon.com: Books

Art and technology critic Joanne McNeil’s debut work “Lurking” is a trenchant, topical and thoughtful verdict on the incredibly complex but almost symbiotic relationship between digital platforms and users. The adjective lurking, usually employed in a pejorative sense, is however used in an ingenious and original fashion by Ms. McNeil to conflate innocuous prying with insidious stalking or even usurpation. Such a usurpation is more likely than not, of intangible attributes such as dignity, privacy and opinion.  

While paeans extolling the achievements of tech entrepreneurs compete with excoriating indictment of cut-throat Information Technology mercenaries for shelf space and eyeballs, there has been a surprisingly, and unfortunately negligible coverage dealing with that one important element in the entire digital/online transactional or consumption value chain – the passive user. Before Ms. McNeil’s book, that is. She hold forth on the now well recognized and accepted principle prevalent in internet communities, going by the moniker of the one percent rule. An alpha numeric euphemism for lurking, this rule expounds that only one percent of users in any given digital community create new content. The remaining 99 percent hover about apparition like (my analogy), clicking links, absorbing posts, and unwittingly volunteering to be the fodder driving the digital economy. It is this 99% that is the focus of Ms. McNeil’s engaging book.

But who is a ‘lurker’ in the esoteric and ephemeral online universe? A lurker is one whose involvement is not tantamount to participation. For example, I personally neither leave frequent comments on Facebook, not “like” posts. But I keep browsing through the variegated feeds appearing on my timeline. This makes me a ‘lurker.’ However, an inveterate gravitation towards Twitter to express my angst, anxiety and anger in 280 furious characters makes me an active participant. Blending together a tapestry of personal experience with interesting interviews, Ms. McNeil takes her readers through the early social networks, like Friendster, MySpace, and local BBSes (bulletin board systems), explaining how users of devolved their online identities. An identity brought about via a technological visibility that serves as “another tool of privacy—a way of controlling one’s image as others regarded it.” Ms. McNeil also highlights the unquenchable thirst for profits that has made the Big Tech commodify the user. The experience of a user is a contrived, artificial one dictated by the unseen workings of complex algorithms and powered by the insatiable greed of advertisers. Stoking fuel to an already brightly burning fire is the invidious impact of cyber ostracism and bullying that leads to undesirable consequences such as segregation and totalitarian outlook. “Google and Facebook… have taken over functions of a state without administering the benefits or protections of a state.” But this is not a recent phenomenon. As Ms. McNeil informs her readers, the once ubiquitous AOL, during their pioneering days, once ended up hosting a page for the Texas Ku Klux Klan. The ridiculous and febrile argument for such an act being the right to assemble as accorded by the first amendment.

Ms. McNeil reserves her choicest polemic for Facebook though. “Facebook shoehorns values into patterns, removes nuance, and presents it as ruled by a ‘fundamental mathematical law.’”  As Ms. McNeil illustrates once a raw and not so suave Mark Zuckerberg famously termed people voluntarily handing over data to him as “dumb fucks.” Even though this irreverent remark was made when the concept of a social network was just a seed germinating in the founder’s mind, this did not prevent the global populace from willingly handing over both themselves and their data to this glorified Ivy league drop out. According to Ms. McNeil Facebook is a corporation of “data gluttony and shamelessness,” as well as “endless ethical quagmires.” The monolithic and leviathan status of Facebook was given a slight tickle when Ello an online social networking service created by Paul Budnitz and Todd Berger in March 2014 made a hopeful appearance. Created as an ad-free alternative to existing social networks, it was noble in its intent, but miserably and woefully short in its execution. As Ms. McNeil informs the reader about her personal experience with Ello, an attitude of misogynistic pugilism and patriarchy put paid to the hopes of this upstart, to dismantle the behemoth. At the time of this review, Ello has morphed into a poor man’s Pinterest exhibiting art, photography, fashion and web culture.

We have traversed a long, exciting and conflicting journey in so far as the internet is concerned. Our experience has ranged from the vaudevillian to the vapid. However, as Ms. McNeil illustrates in a poignant manner, it was always not like this. “The internet was never peaceful, never fair, never good,” says Ms. McNeil, “but early on it was benign, and use of it was more imaginative, less common, and less obligatory.” ECHO, an acronym for “East Coast Hang Out” was one classic example of a benevolent version of the internet. The quintessential idea underlying the creation of echo was for users, most of whom lived in the New York City area, to meet one another. The group organised open-mic nights, softball games, and film screenings. An unseen celebrity was the young John F. Kennedy Jr. posting under an imaginatively titled username, “flash.” Echo founder Stacy Horn describes the platform’s essence in her invigorating and compelling memoir: “Everybody has a trace of an ache—some eternal disappointment, or longing, that is satisfied, at least for a minute each day, by a familiar group and by a place that will always be there.”

But as Ms. McNeil brilliantly demonstrates, internet in the current age only goes to exacerbate the ache that Ms. Horn refers to instead of acting as an ameliorating balm.

The Hammer

Wokeism, cancellation culture and platform denial are all deemed to be concepts zany;

Even though not making an iota of sense to so many

A herd mentality grips the homo sapiens as the whole world is a nail

Hammers go away flailing in all directions like a viral email

While we idiots rant, riot, and rave

Vested interests just smile and wave

(Word Count: 62)

Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #176

The Art of Rest: How to find Respite in The Modern Age – Claudia Hammond

The Art of Rest: How to Find Respite in the Modern Age by Claudia Hammond

In an utterly compelling and engaging book, “The Art of Rest”, British author, occasional TV presenter, and frequent radio presenter with the BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4, Claudia Hammond, takes head on, the one elephant in the room which has been singularly responsible in stymying creativity and exacerbating stress levels in the modern contemporary professional world. The hustle and bustle of everyday life, the perennial rat race, not just leaves a greater part of the populace disillusioned, exhausted and unhealthy, but also takes away the critical aesthetics of contentment and fulfilment from the very lexicon of life. At the heart of the book lies the “Rest Test.” The Rest Test represents a survey involving 18,000 participants spread across 135 jurisdictions. The participants provided their own choice of activity that each one considered to be the most restful. “The Art of Rest” dissects the top 10 activities (in reverse order) that were considered to be most restful by the participants. So, without further ado, here goes a concise review of the top 10 activities that participants in the aforementioned study deemed to be restful. With an avowed objective of not depriving readers of Ms. Hammond’s unique and lovely work, I am providing a mere sneak-peek into each activity:

10. Mindfulness

It is not surprising at all to see an ancient Buddhist technique find itself in the list of activities deemed to be most restful. As Ms. Hammond informs her readers, ‘The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness” defines the practice as “the skill of thinking you’re doing something while you are doing nothing.” This Tantric relaxation methodology perfected by experts such as Jon Kabat-Zinn has almost discarded its avatar of a noun to become a ‘hot’ verb. From Corporate Boardrooms to Constituencies of Ministers, mindfulness is the order of the day. While there is no doubting its efficacy in so far as stillness of a mischievous mind is concerned, as Ms. Hammond warns her readers, this is not for everyone, and aspirants should be careful and convinced about the authenticity of Mindfulness courses and the experience of the teachers.

9. Watching TV

Yes! You read that right! Poleaxed? If yes, we are not done yet. The ‘Idiot Box’ that has been at the receiving end of so many recriminations and reviles might not be that insidious an influence after all. In a study that has now attained legendary proportions, and has also been encapsulated in stupendous detail in the best seller “Flow”, Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered, amongst others, that people declared that watching TV was more relaxing than playing sport or even going to clubs. But as Ms. Hammond illustrates, TV viewing is not immune to the rule that anything done in excess is dangerous. While you can indulge in a nostalgic delight dished out by a Big Bang Theory or 2 ½ Men, (the Charlie Sheen version only), once in a way, ensure that you do not binge watch for more than five hours a day, since a Japanese study found in 2016 that if people exceeded 5 hours of TV watching a day, their risk of dying from pulmonary embolism doubled! Correlation and causation notwithstanding, it pays to be safe. Personally, I am not a huge fan of the telly, except on those occasions when there is a live telecast of a cricket match, which unfortunately is almost every day!

8. Daydreaming

Who on earth would have thought that a mind which impudently wanders off in the middle of a conference to mull about dalliance with damsels and duels with demons would constitute an exercise in restfulness! Not until one read Ms. Hammond at least. She brings to our attention a complicated method named Descriptive Experience Sampling which is used to analyse daydreaming and its patterns. The psychologist Russell Hulbert identifies five elements that creep into the wanderings of the mind: visual imagery, inner speech, feelings, sensory awareness, and unsymbolized thought. The brain as Ms. Hammond explains even when in a state of rest is extremely busy with its hardwired circuitry as illustrated by the pioneering neuroscientist Marcus Raichle. If the word daydreaming sounds too very prosaic then how about ‘mind wandering?’ Left to its own contrivance, this mind wandering focuses on the future. As Ms. Hammond illustrates once a future event actually occurs, this mind wandering ensures an element of preparedness in the dreamer.

7. A Nice Hot Bath

Even though the merit of a good bath has been extolled since Roman times, I will give this a go since yours truly has to be contended only with a walk-in shower! Watch out for the name Amou Haji.

6. A Good Walk  

The virtues of walking have been explored, evaluated and expounded at length. The therapeutic benefits of a peripatetic lifestyle have been captured in reams that would take more than a lifetime to absorb. Some of the inveterate walkers are immortal geniuses such as Henry David Thoreau, Soren Kierkegaard, William Wordsworth, Immanuel Kant, Aristotle etc. They have all declared an invigorating walk to be an uncompromising facet of their life. However, the most absorbing aspect of this Chapter is the author’s own experience hiking through the Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile to view the three vast granite spires. These are the spires after which the park itself takes its name. Ms. Hammond’s agony and ecstasy during the hike itself and the transformation the experience ushers in her makes for some remarkable reading.

5. Doing Nothing in Particular  

This is the most peculiar, yet most obvious choice for activities epitomizing rest. Hence it is a surprise that is occupies only the fifth, and not a higher place. For a bewildered soul, the answer lies in the very quandary. In a world where a premium is placed on sleeplessness, workaholism and accumulation of flying miles (at least before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic), doing nothing in particular can seem to be the most difficult act. I thought I wouldn’t do anything for a fixed period of 2 hours post lunch this noon. An hour and 25 minutes after consuming my food, here I am furiously typing away at my laptop eager to complete this review and tag Ms. Hammond on Twitter! This Chapter is a perfect complement to Jennifer Odell’s brilliant book, “How to do nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” But as Ms. Hammond clarifies doing nothing does not mean sitting in a statuesque fashion and glancing at the wall in front. This refers to consigning the taken for granted hustle and bustle to the confines of neglection and doing something that will accord relaxation.

4. Listening to Music  

An act which resonates with universal acceptance, listening to music bags the 4th place in the survey on most restful activities. Ms. Hammond illustrates in detail why. Extensive research has been performed on the myriad ways in which music soothes and mellows a restless mind – and head. For instance, mothers started playing Mozart to babies after a research waxed eloquent on the positive impact of listening to Mozart on infants. Even though there was skepticism in terms of correlation and causality, there is no disputing or doubting the alleviating effect music can have. Yet another study conducted on Finnish teenagers revealed that music at once made them feel relaxed and also instilled in them energy. I personally play an advertising jingle on loop whenever I hit the sack.

3. I want to be Alone

“Me Time” has to be arguably one of most frequently employed words of late. A need to extricate oneself from the claustrophobic grip of a mad, perpetual motion machine that is the everyday rat race has spurred people to seek solitude. A solitude that is quite different from loneliness. Ms. Hammond educates her readers about empirical evidence that unearthed the startling fact that a study of eighteen-to-twenty-five-year olds in the USA revealed that spending time alone was associated with greater creativity. However, Ms. Hammond also warns her readers of the peril of getting into a rut of loneliness as was illustrated in great detail by great figures such as Petrarch, Montaigne and Wordsworth.

2. Spending Time in Nature

In sharp contradistinction to walking, spending time in nature refers to getting oneself ‘immersed’ in nature. Ms. Hammond illustrates this fact beautifully with reference to the Great Fen Conservation Project which is currently one of the largest restoration projects of its type in Europe where a barren landscape is being restored and transformed for the benefit both of wildlife and of people. With an ornithologist for a father (and an avid gardening enthusiast herself), Ms. Hammond undoubtedly possesses the credentials to hold forth on the benefits of being enveloped amidst nature. This Chapter has one of the most poignant passages in the book. Ms. Hammond explains the ‘overview effect’, (the impact which a view of earth from outers pace can have on people) as elucidated by Annahita Nezami. The intense feeling that almost overwhelms an astronaut not just makes us realise our infinitesimal place on the Planet but also makes us cherish the same. Remember “The Pale Blue Dot?”

1. Reading

An inveterate bibliophile myself, this finding warmed the very cockles of my heart. The participants in the Rest Test overwhelmingly voted “reading” as the most restful activity of all. I can unequivocally and wholeheartedly vouch for the same. Irrespective of the genre, a book paradoxically keeps me both rooted at a spot for hours on end, while at the same time transporting me across continents separated by mountains that are unscalable and oceans that are unnavigable. Whether it is a Carl Sagan or a Virginia Woolf, Scott Fitzgerald or Daniel Kahneman, I am an armchair Alexander Humboldt measuring the world from the confines of my settee. Digest this: “A poll of 5,000 people living in Britain found that 38 percent of those who watched TV in bed said they sleep poorly most nights, while 39 percent of those who read before they go to sleep said they sleep very well.” That, ladies and gentlemen, should seal any debate!

“The Art of Rest”, is persuasive, provocative and poignant. An essential read in today’s tumult and turbulence caused by a pandemic and exacerbated by politics.

(The Art of Rest by Claudia Hammond is published by Canongate Books and will be released on the 20th of October 2020.)

Man Down – Irma Venter

Man Down (Rogue Book 2) - Kindle edition by Venter, Irma, Schimke, Karin.  Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Alex Derksen is an intrepid reporter who finds himself bang in the middle of the crosshairs of an ugly duel between the South African cops, and hoodlums of the illegal Zama-Zamas illegal mining syndicate. Breathless running and dodging, bruises and scratches, a dead constable, and a bullet lodged in his Kevlar vest later, Alex is unbelievably lucky to find himself alive, let alone in one untampered piece. However, curiosity gets the better of him and bests his good luck, when he gets a midnight call, while convalescing in a motel. The caller identifying himself only and imaginatively as “Gadhafi” lures Alex to a shady pub, promising a wealth of information on the Zama-Zamas cartel. A hastily drunk beer is not the only disappointment greeting the report as within the blink of an eye Alex finds himself abducted.

The only individuals capable of rescuing Alex from his predicament are two women, both having a bit of history with Alex. Ranna Abramson, a fighting fit, tall lanky photographer and Alex’s lover, with a gruesome past of her own, has for some unfathomable reason disappeared like the night from Alex’s life. Sarah, a geek of the highest degree and a wizard with anything remotely resembling an automobile, had a brief dalliance with Alex when he was torn apart by the disappearance of Ranna. When Sarah succeeds in tracking down Ranna in a small cubby hole bang in the middle of a claustrophobic environ in the teeming metropolis that is Mumbai, both women know that there has arrived a point of no return. Poles apart in both their attitude and outlook, the only factor that unites the duo is a raging purpose and relentless intent to save Alex from the clutches of his kidnapper.

Ghosts that were thought to have been exorcised in the past come with renewed fury to haunt Ranna and Sarah as they go about the most dangerous task they have ever attempted until now in their lives. Their enemy is not just unseen, but also seemingly unpredictable and invincible. Will the courageous duo succeed in their mission? Or has Alex tempted his fate one time more than what was acceptable? Irma Venter in “Man Down”, which is the second book in her “Rogue” series, (“Hard Rain” being the first), once again puts her main protagonists, the romantic duo that is Alex and Ranna into a bind. However, the book is more of a Sarah-Ranna combo than Alex. Alex’s angels perhaps!

Unlike a gripping tome by Tom Clancy where the cast of characters exceed the stars in any Galaxy, Irma Venter’s book is an exercise in thrilling simplicity. There are protagonists and there are antagonists. They combat each other both savagely as well as subtly. “Man Down” is more “Die Hard” than an “Inception” or “Minority Report.” There is absolutely no tedium whatsoever as the plot races through in a crisp and tight fashion. There is a judicious blend of wit and vitriol. The action sequences are taut, yet never overboard. There is not a moment that is neither dull nor vapid in the book.

“Man Down” – a feast for thriller aficionados!

13 ½ Reasons Why Not to be a Liberal – Judd Dunning

13 1/2 Reasons Why NOT To Be A Liberal: And How to Enlighten Others -  Kindle edition by Dunning, Judd. Politics & Social Sciences Kindle eBooks @  Amazon.com.

What could and should have been an engrossing and enlivening book peters out into a discursive assemblage of thoughts.   Marinated in right wing ideology and sautéed in its philosophy, “13 ½ Reasons”, is an unashamed paean to Conservatism and the Conservatives. Judd Dunning, in his book, pays exaggerated obeisance to Donald Trump and in the process resorts to waging a blistering attack on the Democrats and their principles. While the intention as professed at the outset – to engage in informed deliberations with a bipartisan bent of mind in tackling issues that transcend party politics and philosophies – is noble, the execution falls explicitly and woefully short of the avowed cause. The end seems to be tangentially divergent from the means. While Dunning raises a few issues that are both topical in their contemporaneity, and ambivalent in their perception, the better part of the book, however, is lost, unfortunately in a byzantine exercise of personal vilification and vituperative outrage.

The title of the book itself is a throwback to the transformation induced in Dunning, in so far as shifting allegiances go. An actor and a producer known for his roles in ‘The Young and The Restless” amongst others, Dunning hosted a horde of television shows, including ‘Conservatively Unplugged!’, and ‘Judd Dunning Unplugged!’ A former liberal and a Democrat, Dunning is now an uncompromising Conservative, and 13 ½ Reasons is a Handbook for Conservatives to handle the many popular allegations hurled by Democrats against their opponents.

Part 1 of Dunning’s book titled “Economics” glorifies free market capitalism and also expounds on the supposed fallacies and foibles of a big government. There is no pulchritude or putsch here since, the segment is a reinvention of the tried and tested spiel that has become the hall mark of every Economist graduating out of the neoclassical school of economic thought pioneered by Milton Friedman, and perfected by the Chicago School of Economics. Railing against measures that advocate redistribution of wealth and lambasting selective bail out strategies that rescue a Bear Stearns but leave Lehman Brothers all strung up, Dunning pooh poohs Keynesian economics. As he does in every part of his book, he takes recourse to a few books to bolster his arguments. His Man Friday in the Chapter on Economics is Tom Del Beccaro, and his book, ‘The New Conservative Paradigm.’

The most interesting segment of the book however deals with the climate change and global warming conundrum. There is no semblance of doubt that the common man/lay person is left staring from the depths of a cleave which has at either side an outlook that is contrasting and conflicting. From one side abutting the chasm, emanate Panglossian voices in the mode of a Steven Pinker trying to assuage us that all is well. From across the optimistic side of things are hurled pessimistic warnings from prophets of doom such as Andrew Dessler, who claim that the only opportunity we had to save Planet Earth was the one that passed us by, yesterday! The outspoken student environmental activist Greta Thunberg recently was the receiving end – rightfully so in my personal opinion – of the scorn of a million Indians, when she expressed umbrage, via her Twitter handle, over a decision made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India to go ahead with a professional examination called National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (“TEET”) in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thunberg’s hold on the intricacies surrounding the topic is as good as the hold which the Cro-Magnon Man had over the laws of thermodynamics. While acknowledging the perils of climate change, Dunning exhorts the need for cultivating a balanced outlook between anthropocentric changes and natural causes that imperil the environment.

Dunning also makes some telling points about the disturbing ascendancy of the woke mentality where every harmless and genuine comment is painted with the brush of neologism. As Dunning illustrates, according honest appreciation for the manner in which a woman is dressed or for the patterns in her attire would attract a cant of prejudiced mentality and an incredulous accusation of judging a woman not for her intellect but for totally extraneous factors.

The most controversial Chapter in the book is reserved for gun control, or rather against it. Taking firm refuge in the Second Amendment, Dunning argues that gun control is evil and the possession of guns solely as a matter of self defense leads to a considerable reduction in crime. Resorting to arguments ranging from the shallow to the silly, Dunning engages in a circular argument about employing guns for defensive purposes rather than for any offensive action. He also brings about an incredulous argument that elucidates that “in England, where it’s almost impossible to get a gun, a woman is three times more likely to be raped than in America.”  In so far as support from books are concerned, Dunning’s companion for this Chapter is National Review’s John R. Lott Jr, the President of the Crime Prevention Research Centre and his book, titled, surprise surprise, “More Guns, Less Crime.”  Dunning in all probability has been reading the wrong book. His point of reference ought to have been “Repeal the Second Amendment: The Case for a Safer America” by Allan Lichtman.

Dunning also shoots himself in the foot on a few occasions in the book. Whilst directing his anger at the woke brigade for misinterpreting genuine comments of appreciation as exercises in gender bias, he engages in some of his own with gay abandon. In listing out a litany of ‘improper sexual conduct’ practiced by Joe Biden (every single one of which looks like Montessori stuff when compared with the shenanigans of Trump), Dunning completely absolves Trump of all his sexual misdemeanors by terming them as consensual.

The final Chapter of the book however makes for some poignant reading as it touches on various facets of the abortion debate. A debate between pro-life and pro-choice. Here Dunning takes a measured approach. While scorning at the landmark verdict in Roe v Wade, he also emphasizes that each State ought to be accorded an element of latitude in formulating their own choices, and well within the limits of statutes such as the Human Life Protection Act, and Reproductive Health Act.

Overall, 13 ½ Reasons flatters to deceive.  

 (13 ½ Reasons Why Not to be a Liberal by Judd Dunning is published by Humanix Books and will be released on the 10th of November 2020.)

Elevated Economics: How conscious consumers will fuel the future of business – Richard Steel

Elevated Economics: How Conscious Consumers Will Fuel the Future of Business  by Richard Steel

On the 3rd of January 2020, two of the largest Private Equity funds, KKR and TPG, with a combined asset base of approximately $330bn between them, decided to report by April 2020, both the positive impacts as well as negative externalities, of their investments, on environmental, social and governance aspects. This announcement illustrates the growing popularity amongst investors to adhere to the tenets of Socially Responsible Investing (“SRI”). SRI has transcended from being a mere exercise in lip service to a set of binding principles that determines the growth trajectory of many Multinational Enterprises. In tandem with the investor bent of mind, even corporates themselves are beginning to transform the way they operate. Shareholder activism is no longer the sole driver spurring a company along. Shareholder value has been replaced by stakeholder value where the latter encompasses within its ambit the Environment, Society and Governance (“ESG”).

American entrepreneur, investor and former advisor to the White House Business Council in his forthcoming book, “Elevated Economics” illustrates these transformational trends ushered in by a shifting consumer mindset that demands ‘values’ over value and invests in a product more for what it stands rather than for what it does. The book is an outcome of extensive research and interviews conducted with CEOs and Ivy League Professors of business, marketing, and consumer behaviour. Hence the plethora of anecdotal emphasis that runs throughout the book.

Mr. Steel defines Elevated Economics as “a coalescence of several complex factors. Changes in consumer employment, social, marketing, environmental, and corporate governance practices all contribute to this single term. Essentially the Elevated Economy represents what research and analysis seem to indicate will be the next great change in capitalism.” This change, Dr, Steel emphasizes, would be triggered, to a significant extant, by a humungous “Wealth Migration” where approximately $68.4 trillion would change hands over the course of the next couple of decades, from Baby Boomers to Gen Z and the Millennials. When it comes to customer preferences, the new owners of wealth surely know to put their money where the mouth is. They also demand accountability, responsibility and societal obligations. This is the very demand that made Nike abandon their whole ‘sweatshop’ initiative and remake themselves as a brand of responsibility. Not to be left behind, its fiercest competitor Adidas teaming up with “Parley for The Oceans”, are making sneakers out of plastic ocean waste. As Mr. Steel illustrates in his book many companies such as Method, Impossible Foods, Patagonia, TOMS shoes, and Birdies have taken the concept of ESG to hitherto unseen levels. In India, the business practices of the TATA Group of companies have birthed a paradigm shift in the very fundamental manner in which a Corporate Group goes about its activities. The “TATA way” thus stands for integrity, empowerment and aggrandizement. One classic illustration of the apotheosis that is the TATA way is the path-breaking labour welfare measures which were instituted within the Group even before the relevant statutes were incorporated. Some of them include an eight-hour working day, free medical aid, establishment of a welfare department, leave with pay, workers’ provident fund scheme, workmen’s accident compensation scheme, maternity benefits, profit sharing bonus and retiring gratuity. Maybe this is the direct result of TATA employees putting in decades with the company, ignoring much more lucrative competing offers.

On the 19th of August 2019, some of the top CEOs in the US, jointly pledged to place stakeholder value over shareholder value in a remarkable show of societal obligation. Mr. Steel identifies four “Cornerstones” that might have a solid and significant influence on the changing Corporate Philosophy.

  • Diversity and Inclusion (going beyond mere tokenism and compliance with hiring policies);
  • Equality in Pay;
  • Impact (ensuring that ESG activities impact the community as illustrated by Wells Fargo in its CSR initiatives);
  • Bring The Market (instead of Go To Market);

The impact of all this is a burgeoning growth in “ESG” assets. According to the US SIF Foundation’s “Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends”, Socially Responsible Investor assets are growing at nearly 40% year-over-year since 2016. In fact, more than $12 trillion are invested in a variety of socially responsible ways.

While the book contains many interesting illustrations of companies consciously deciding to invest in CSR initiatives and the consumer loyalty towards such companies, the one segment where I have serious issues reconciling with Mr. Steel’s views and his own practice is his patronage towards Starbucks. Waxing eloquent over their matching 401(k) payments even for part time employees and The Starbucks Partner Achievement Program, Mr. Steel says he will not mind dishing out a premium to enjoy his Pike Place every morning. In a report damningly titled, “How Starbucks avoids UK Taxes”, Tom Bergin of Reuters illustrates that “Accounts filed by its UK subsidiary show that since it opened in the UK in 1998 the company has racked up over 3 billion pounds ($4.8 billion) in coffee sales, and opened 735 outlets but paid only 8.6 million pounds in income taxes, largely due because the taxman disallowed some deductions.” Over the past three years [since 2012], Starbucks has reported no profit, and paid no income tax, on sales of 1.2 billion pounds in the UK. McDonald’s, by comparison, had a tax bill of over 80 million pounds on 3.6 billion pounds of UK sales. Kentucky Fried Chicken, part of Yum Brands Inc., the no. 3 global restaurant or cafe chain by market capitalization, incurred taxes of 36 million pounds on 1.1 billion pounds in UK sales, according to the accounts of their UK units.”

Katherine Campbell and Duane Helleloid of the University of North Dakota have published a full-length paper titled, “Starbucks: Social Responsibility and Tax Avoidance.” The European Commission has also initiated proceedings against the tactics initiated by Starbucks to avoid paying its rightful share of taxes, even though to the credit of the beverage giant the European Commission was unable to demonstrate the existence of an advantage bestowed by the Dutch Tax authorities in favour of Starbucks.

Thus, this is the only part of the book that rankles me. Else “Elevated Economics” is a thought-provoking work that illustrates in telling detail the future vector of both buyer behaviour and Corporate Strategy.

 (Elevated Economics: How conscious consumers will fuel the future of business by Richard Steel is distributed by the Green Leaf Book Group and published by Fast Company Press, and and will be released on the 6th of October 2020.)

SOCIAL DILEMMA – JEFF ORLOWSKI

The Social Dilemma, Director Jeff Orlowski | Film School Radio hosted by  Mike Kaspar

If you are wondering how to keep yourself occupied over the coming weekend, fret no more! Netflix might be the solution. Before you exasperatingly throw your hands up and resentfully complain that there is no series or movie remaining to be viewed, and moreover you are experiencing “streaming fatigue”, let me assure you that we are talking about a potential transformation here. A potential personal transformation. The documentary “Social Dilemma” by Director Jeff Orlowski, is arguably one of the best ever offerings of its oeuvre. Lasting just over an hour and a half, the documentary highlights in chilling detail, the unintended consequences of an addiction to social media, on the common individual. An addiction, which unlike say that relating to opioid, pornography, or other hard narcotics, is not self-inflicted. The social media addiction is an ‘induced’ obsession that has at the centre of its philosophy, the very machinery of greed and avarice. The grease that lubricates this perpetual motion machine is the human populace. Me and you, and the dog named Boo. The new Emperors of capitalism, the Big Tech are doing everything to get into our hearts, heads and minds, from where they can wreak havoc and bring about wanton damage.

Ingenuously framed against the backdrop of a fictional family that has two smart phone addicts, the documentary takes its viewer along a journey of techno-psychological deceit that has the whole world eating out from the hands of a few oligarchs. We are all puppets on a string manipulated every second, minute and hour, to dance to preset tunes and lend our voices to prerecorded music. A macabre dance of deceit and doubt. Taking us all through this journey are some of the greatest ever minds in the world of Information Technology and Advanced Computing. Hell! Some of these chaps, in a phase, that is now representative of their past lives, were also the progenitors behind our addiction. Yes, we are taking about some of the biggest names from the domain of Big Tech, who now are serving as the closest thing Silicon Valley can come to a conscience.

As Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google and founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, says there are three kinds of drivers/goals which an organisation like Facebook thirsts for: “engagement, growth and advertisement”. These goals fueled by complicated algorithms ensure to keep the user hooked perpetually to his “timeline”, “feeds”, and “likes.” As Harris illustrates there is also a growing scientific concept imaginatively titled” Growth hacking.” This is a method by which organisations keep ‘hacking’ away at the psychology of the user in search of more engagement.

Guillaume Chaslot was a former engineer at You Tube,  before being the CEO of Intuitive AI and founder of Algotransparency. Reminiscing on his experience of working at Google, Chaslot, chillingly explains, “An algorithm that I worked on increased polarization in society. But from the view of watch time, this polarization is extremely efficient at keeping people online.”

A polarization that was unearthed in all its ghastly detail when a team of researchers at Northeastern University, the University of Southern California, and the progressive nonprofit Upturn released a study. Moonlighting as political advertisers, they discovered that Facebook’s algorithms make it tougher and more expensive for a campaign to get its message to users who disagree with them even if they’re trying to.

As the great recluse of the tech world and the father of Virtual Reality, Jaron Lanier, gravely emphasizes in the documentary, “It is the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the product.” Adds, Aza Raskin, former employee at Firefox and Mozilla, inventor of the infinite scroll and co-founder of Centre for Humane Technology “Advertisers are the customers. Users are the things being sold.” In fact, even a person of the enviable capabilities of Raskin had to struggle to overcome social media addiction. In a startling confession, he admits to having had to write a software to break his addiction to Reddit!

It is this very addiction that has birthed a quandary to many a plastic surgeon across the world. “Snapchat Dysmorphia” is a deadly affliction where young patients desire surgery so that they can look more like they do in those filtered selfies. According to 2017 data from the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS), 55 percent of fascial plastic surgeons said that patients requested cosmetic procedures to look better on social media — an increase of 13 percent from the year before.

American social psychologist, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business, and author, Jonathan Haidt, informs us that social media has been the cause of an increasing tendency among teens to harm themselves. This is on account of a dopamine release in the reward pathway of the brain. This consistent, continuous and catastrophic craving for rewards further pushes users towards and into rabbit holes which would have amazed even Lewis Carroll!

The documentary is embellished by the powerful presence of a league of extraordinary gentlemen who are striving to bring hapless and helpless human beings out of the vice like grip of social media addiction. Hoping to hell that they achieve in their bold and ambitious endeavour, else the world is toast!

(Cast of Primary Characters in the Documentary):

Revanchist Redux

Keyboard combats, labels and a bewildering culture that ‘cancels’

Vicious and vituperative, every peaceful overture it repels ;

For emblems it has looting and shooting, pillaging and rioting

At times enforcers of the very law embracing this new found calling

Thereby giving to an insidious pandemic, a complete free reign

The world is uncomfortably privy to a horror hitherto unseen;

Brother v brother; neighbor against neighbor everyday is enacted the morbid play

Are we as humanity, even sentient any more as we continue in this gory way?

(Word Count: 86)

Courtesy: Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #173

Enduring Jingles of Indian Advertising: Ten Adorable Culprits – PART 2 MONDELEZ INDIA FOODS LIMITED (FORMERLY CADBURY INDIA)

In Part 1 of the series, the focus was on the zest and zeal with which Nerolac India regaled the Indian television viewer with their innovative commercial jingles. Part 2 pays tribute to Cadbury India and their slobber knocker jingle that formed part of the “Shubh Aarambh” (“auspicious beginning”) campaign. Before diving into the jingle, which even after a decade of its initial appearance, continues to remain memorably fresh, a clarificatory note on the name “Cadbury India” would be in order.

Cadbury India Limited, a subsidiary of Mondelēz International Inc., changed its name to Mondelez India Foods Limited, vide a Press Release issued on the 21st of April 2014. However, for the purposes of this piece the name Cadbury would be employed throughout since during the launch of the Shubh Aarambh campaign, the company was not renamed, and more importantly, even now, the word “Cadbury” is used in a manner fond and spontaneous, by young and old alike in addition to being carried on the product labels.

SHUBH AARAMBH COMMERCIALS

Cadbury India has always been on the ball in so far as commercials are concerned. Selecting endearing themes with a precision that can be termed surgical, the brand has symbolically and literally permeated and penetrated millions of households and taste buds! The hallmark of a Cadbury commercial is the accompanying jingle. Whether it be an ecstatic lady invading a cricket pitch, or a pair of young lovers manipulating puppets on a string whilst at the same time devouring Cadbury chocolates in a messy manner, the attendant jingle is what makes the commercial tick. Cadbury seems to know where and when exactly the rubber meets the road.

But Cadbury India, in my personal opinion bested their own high standards when they unleashed the Shubh Aarambh series of commercials. Conceptualised and created by Ogilvy India, Cadbury India took the simple and prosaic Indian tradition of partaking something sweet before embarking on any endeavour, to heights hitherto scaled. The messaging was powerful, profound and poignant. If the messages made for profundity, the jingle, in synchronized lockstep, served as the handmaiden of nostalgia. The beauty of the jingle lay in the fact that it looked designed for posterity, with a deliberation that was calculated and prescient. To be savoured not in the here and now, but ever after. The singularly fascinating feature of the jingle in the Shubh Aarambh series is its impeccable surprise. The timing is so delectably wicked! As the protagonists carry on their conversation a gentle and barely perceptible melody wafts in the background almost like a benevolent apparition. The viewer knows that there would be a stronger follow-up but has no clue where it might be lurking. Stealthily creeping up on the unsuspecting watcher, it makes a grand appearance. And by jove, doesn’t it pack a punch! Hitting the uninitiated like a ton of bricks, the damned ditty not just makes an impression but remains permanently imprinted in memory.

Since the proof of the pudding lies in the eating, here’s paying obeisance to my all-time favourite 3 “Shubh Aarambh” specials”

THE ELOPEMENT

To a muted and haunting tune in the background, an anguished young girl is seen collecting her meagre belongings (that includes a tiny teddy bear soft toy) in a rush, fleetingly pausing in front of framed photographs of her father, before rushing down the stairs trying to wipe her eyes dry. We know that she is planning to elope with her boyfriend, when she gets into the car and exclaims to the man at the wheel, “Chalo.” (“lets go”). Her boyfriend in response, nods at the back seat, switches on the interior lights before remarking, “Yeh kuch kehna chahte hain” (“they want to say something”). To the girl’s utter bewilderment, the back seat is occupied by her family made up of a benevolent looking father, a slightly distraught mother, and a sprightly younger brother. The father looking at his daughter advises, “Shubh kaam karne jaa rahi ho. Kuch Meetha nahin khaoge? Kaam Accha hoga” (“you are embarking on an auspicious deed. Won’t you eat something sweet? The deed would be done”). The music picks up momentum when the small boy breaks away a small bit from a slab of Cadbury Diary Milk and offers it to his sister. She girl takes a bite of the chocolate and bursts into tears of joy!”

AN ABSOLUTE MASTERPIECE!

JEANS

A commercial that is jaw dropping in its originality and lasting in its impact. The middle-class shades to the advert is unmissable! The commercial begins with an elderly woman hiding behind an open door. It’s very apparent that she is planning to go out with her husband. “Jeans pehenke nahin aa sakthi” (“I cannot come wearing jeans”) she whispers in a voice filled with trepidation and apprehension. A calm and collected husband responds, “Arre kal tak to tum badi badi baaten kar rahi thi” (“But until yesterday you were waxing eloquent about this!”). “Padosi kya kahenge? Aur tumhari maa kya kahegi?” (“What will the neighbours think; what will your mum say?”). The lady by now is visibly aghast. With a fantastic spontaneity, the man casts a glance at the interior of the house digs into his satchel, brings out a Cadbury Diary Milk chocolate, and breaking a tiny slab offers it to his wife before explaining, “Maa? Maa to kahegi, shubh kaam karne se pehle meetha khalo, kaam accha hoga” (Mother! Mother says, “Before embarking on an auspicious deed, have something sweet. The deed would be successfully accomplished”). With a smile the lady bites into the chocolate and steps out with her husband. The lilting tone hits the reader in full force as a neighbor conveys his appreciation and surprise at the woman in jeans.

AN ETERNAL CLASSIC!  

CHILD’S PLAY

‘Child’s Play’ shows a soon-to-be-mother practicing hard in front of the mirror trying out various ways of breaking the news to her husband. When the husband catches her in the act, she blurts out to him that she feels like eating something sour. With a nod the man gets a Cadbury Diary Milk Chocolate, breaks away a slab and tells his wife to first eat something sweet before taking her in his arms. Again, the jingle in the background serves as a powerful medium and conveyance that carries the message through.

ENDEARING!

BONUS FOOTAGE

Enduring Jingles of Indian Advertising: Ten Adorable Culprits – PART 1 KANSAI NEROLAC PAINTS INDIA (NEROLAC)

Every one of us has been held hostage, albeit willingly, at some point in time, by that one mesmerizing jingle that keeps playing on loop within the confines of our heads. The damned ditty just refuses to fade away, clinging on to us with the obduracy of a leech. While hanging on to the handrails of an overcrowded bus, crushed between an impatient and sweaty mass of humanity, or when showcasing an eager employer’s offerings to a demanding client, the mulish tune keeps wafting in with a severe purpose. Whether, while in a state of contemplation, or bracing to face a ball about to be delivered by a sprightly bowler, a consistent hum assails our auditory faculties. The world of Indian advertising has over the years bestowed upon its enthusiastic viewers many such jingles. Unforgettable musical achievements that have threatened to even overshadow the brand they are invested with showcasing, thereby paradoxically making the product/service cherished. From chocolate to bathing soap, these jingles have captured the imagination of a populace transcending age, and gender, colour and creed. Paraphrasing Brandy Miller of Creative Technology, a communications firm, “The motor center is activated in order to process the rhythm, the auditory center is activated in order to process the sound, the language center processes the lyrics and the limbic system processes the overall emotional core of the song. It’s a powerful recipe.”

So here goes the first installment in my personal “top ten adorable culprits”, whose mellifluousness has never left my mind and for which I am more than just delighted.

NEROLAC

Razzmatazz, Clutter, Colour, Effervescence, Mischief, Hope, Laughter, Boisterousness, Innocence, Gratitude and Empathy are some of the words that instantly come to mind when one hears the immortal Nerolac jingle. Whilst multiple versions, short and extended have graced our television sets over many a year, Nerolac Paints India has, to a significant degree, never veered away from the original tune “Jab Ghar Ki Raunak Badani Ho” (roughly translated as “When the lustre/shine of the house needs to be embellished”), and this is exactly what has made this jingle so indelible and enduring. The leitmotif of a happy effusion of colours coalescing with a happy family tugs at the deepest chords of sentiment and emotion. An innovative medley of music proceeds in perfect lockstep with the clash of colours, that understandably forms the heart of the commercial.

It would be a challenge to identify any one Nerolac Commercial as being the best, since the viewer is spoilt for choice. Hence, I have chosen the following 3 variants as my personal favourites. So, go ahead, shake a leg, wield a brush, wear a smile, shed a tear and enter a world of unbridled happiness! “Kuch Change Karo; Kuch Paint Karo!” (Change something; Paint something”)

(Note: Even though the alluring commercial has been dubbed in multiple languages, my review is restricted to the Hindi version, even though the tune is equally catchy in all the dubbed languages. )

  • The Original

It is but logical to begin at the very beginning. Premiering during the early nineties, the original and iconic Nerolac jingle was mellow in stark contrast to the contemporary version. The commercial has a trio of friendly and cheerful painters giving the walls of a house an alluring coat of paint. While they are at their job, a young girl and her brother engage in some mild mischief. Lasting all of 30 seconds, the commercial ends with a splash of red framing the “Nerolac Tiger.”! I personally felt it was sheer genius to give the viewers such a delightful piece of music and abruptly terminate it just when they were lolling on the couch immersed into it. A perfect case of Oliver asking for more!

 
  • The Paint gets a Song!

A case of Oliver getting what he demanded, the popular jingle got an extension. Almost a full two minutes lengthier than its original predecessor, Nerolac Paints was no longer a condensed and concise jingle but a “hummable” tune approximately half the length of an average song. The Company again demonstrated how it could pull off the extraordinary with the least degree of fuss and furore. A group of young men and women celebrate the sanctity of relationships. Clad in white they represent an unsullied purity as they vibrantly dance, and drum away while in the background the Nerolac song plays on. The only complaint that one can perceivably harbour about this commercial is that although the background at the outset has a dazzling profusion of a brilliant array of colours, the rest of the song is enveloped in a white background thereby taking a bit of the deserved shine from the dancers who are also clad in white. Watch out for the lady drumming on barrels of Nerolac Paints as the song climaxes to an energetic finish!

  • King Khan and Kids

Nerolac India and their advertisement agency captured the pulse, mood and fervor of a nation by getting one of India’s biggest actors to shake a leg and wag a brush in the company of a bunch of egregious kids. This was nothing short of a coup by Nerolac. The “festival” series of commercials where Shahrukh Khan in the company of his child brigade brings colour to an otherwise dull and drab household which is none too eager to welcome either the festival of lights, Diwali or the biggest Muslim celebration of Eid, warms the very cockles of the heart. Who ever thought that a man wielding a roller brush could induce such a surge of electric vitality, vivacity and verve! Beginning with a whistle before climaxing into a crescendo of drums, guitars and a medley of other instruments, the jingle induces the viewer to almost experience the camaraderie and an almost telepathic sync between Shahrukh Khan and the children. This is a joyous case of a seasoned professional and a set of innocuous and adorable brats living  and celebrating the reel role given to them. The iconic jingle was thus given a transformational face-lift. Have a look!

  • Bonus Footage