Help wanted: Show me (again) how to do nothing at all…

When young, we all used to be good at this. What happened?

Trust Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, to remind us what really matters in life.

As kids, we had no difficulty in filling our time with completely esoteric, fantastic stuff that had no measurable value in the adult world…what the grown-ups would describe as ‘unproductive’ (a very subjective term!). We all specialised in the art and science of goofing off, and our school vacations and even weekends were all filled with…doing nothing in particular!

What happened? I’m still not sure if I’ve grown up – my own child and close friends are convinced I haven’t – but I no longer seem to have the time or skill to just hang loose, goof off and do absolutely nothing at all. Even if I rest my tired body, my mind wanders in all sorts of directions. Even my dreams are too dramatic, layered and nuanced.

When I browse, I find whole heaps of books and websites that offer to teach me how to do nothing. From Zen to Chinmoy to Robin Sharma, everyone is offering wisdom about nothing. But I hesitate. I don’t want structured, step-by-step guidance that feels like…a personal development course.

I want to unwind. I want to just take it easy, get completely and hopelessly lost in my day dreams and have no care in the world. At least for a few days every year. I’ve not done that for a long, long time.

So I need help to re-learn how to do nothing at all, and to enjoy that without any feeling of guilt about lost time or opportunities. I want a friend – furry like Hobbes or otherwise – who can help me in this journey of re-discovery.

Busybodies need not apply. Ditto grown-ups.

Hakuna matata!

Celebrating Kalpana Sharma, a super-star of good journalism

My friend Kalpana Sharma just stepped down after serving on the Panos South Asia board for over a decade. The Executive Director A S Panneerselvan asked me to write a personalised piece felicitating her. Part of this was read at the annual meeting of the Board held in Dhaka last weekend. Here’s the full essay — a couple of mutual friends who read it say it isn’t too eulogistic! Now you can decide for yourself…

* * * * *

The Curious Ms Sharma of Mumbai

I knew Kalpana Sharma from her by-line long before I met her in person. Now, more than a dozen years after we became friends, she remains an inspiration and a role model.

Kalpana Sharma

Kalpana has been a path-finder and trail-blazer in journalism that cares. She has set the gold standard in investigating and critiquing development in the Indian media. Today, she continues her nearly four decades of association with the Indian media as a respected columnist, journalist and writer. Her stock in trade is a mix of curiosity, sense of social justice, wanderlust and a deep passion for people and issues. She is living proof that quality journalism can be pursued even in these turbulent and uncertain times for the mainstream, corporatised media.

Kalpana has been covering the ‘other India’ that is largely ignored by the Indian media. Its denizens are some 456 million people living under the global poverty line of $1.25 per day — a third of the world’s poor. (If they declared independence, they would immediately become the world’s third most populous nation.) Kalpana’s reporting from the ‘Ground Zero’ of many disasters and conflict zones has highlighted the multiple deprivations of these people living on the margins of survival.

For many such communities, a headline-creating event is just the latest episode in their prolonged and silent suffering. The media pack that descends on them after a sudden development can’t seem very different from the assorted politicians who turn up periodically during election campaigns. For too long, the grassroots have been treated merely as a grazing ground for stories or votes.

Kalpana doesn’t hesitate to be part of the media pack when duty calls, but once in the field, she sees connections often missed by other journalists looking for a quick sound byte or dramatic image. Unlike some news hounds, she doesn’t exploit the misery of affected people (“Hands up who’s poor, speaks English – and looks good on TV!”). And she returns to the same locations months or years later to follow up.

For all these reasons, Kalpana was our first choice to write the last chapter in a regional book on disasters and media that I co-edited with Indian journalist Frederick Noronha in 2007. Her 2,000-word reflective essay should be required reading for any journalist covering disasters and social disparity in South Asia.

Here is a passage that sums up her views on the subject: “Much of disaster reporting sounds and reads the same because the reporters only see what is in front of them, not what lies behind the mounds of rubble, figuratively speaking. What was this region before it became this disaster area? How were social relations between different groups? What was its history? What were its relations with the state government? Was it neglected or was it favoured? How important was it to the politics of the state?”

Kalpana has been asking such probing questions all her professional life. And it’s not just in the rural hinterland of India that Kalpana has travelled extensively listening and talking to people from all walks of life. Living in the world’s second most populous city Mumbai, she has been equally concerned with its burning issues of urban poverty, gender disparity, environmental mismanagement and governance.

Kalpana once wrote an insightful book about the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, looking at both its social inequalities and the people’s remarkable resilience. Titled Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s largest slum (Penguin, 2000), it was called ‘a model of sane, human, down-to-earth writing’. All this was years before the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008) popularised the location through a dramatic tale.

In her quest for untold human stories, Kalpana has taken a particular interest in the plight of poor women. She has written many authentic and moving stories about women who struggle on the margins of the margin. A recurrent theme in her writing is how invisible ‘superwomen’ hold the social fabric together in much of India. Many communities and production systems –ranging from domestic work and child care to waste disposal and farming – would simply grind to a halt if these unseen and unsung women took even a single day off. In reality, of course, they just can’t afford such luxuries.

Kalpana’s column The Other Half, which started in The Indian Express and now appears in The Hindu, is a regular eye-opener. She takes a current topic – from politics, culture, sport or environment — and explores its gender dimensions. She does so by carefully blending facts, personal insights and opinion that makes her writing very different to the rhetorical shrill of gender activists.

Make no mistake: Kalpana is an activist in her own right, and one of the finest in modern India. It’s just that her approach is more subtle, rational and measured – and in the long run, wholly more effective. Long ago, she found how to balance public interest journalism with social activism. This is one more reason why I look up to her.

Partners in crime: Nalaka and Kalpana speaking at the Education for Sustainable Future conference in Ahmedabad, India, January 2005.

In her writing, television appearances and public speaking, Kalpana stays well within the boundaries of good, old-fashioned journalism based on its A, B and C: accuracy, balance and credibility. In my view, she enriches the mix by adding a ‘D’ and ‘E’: depth and empathy. Without these qualities, mere reporting is sterile and dispassionate.

And once we get to know her, we also discover the ‘F’ in Kalpana Sharma: she is a fun-loving, cheerful woman who doesn’t take herself too seriously. We can count on her to be adventurous, enthusiastic and endlessly curious.

Cultivating these attributes would certainly enrich any journalist. I can’t agree more when Kalpana says (in her chapter to a recent book on environmental journalism in South Asia): “Journalists are good or bad, professional or unprofessional. I am not sure if other labels, such as ‘environmental’ or ‘developmental’, ought to be tagged on to journalists.”

I hope Kalpana has no retirement plans. She has earned a break after a dozen years on the Board of Panos South Asia. But we want her to remain a guiding star – a bundle of energy that shines a light into the Darkness, and helps make sense of the tumult and frenzy that surrounds us.

In praise of slow reading: Let the words go marching by…

Don't run races with me...


I’m a slow reader. Let me qualify that: I’m a slow reader of books.

I can read fast when I need to — and I do that with newspapers, magazines, websites and many other displays of text that surrounds us. It’s almost an essential survival skill for today’s information society.

But when it comes to books, I take my time. Especially with good books (and I try to discern). Books are not to be rushed through; they are to be taken slowly, one page and one chapter at a time. I savour books as I savour a good meal. (And unlike with a meal, I regurgitate good books, which further slows me down.)

As a writer myself, I enjoy good writing by others. I can appreciate how hard it is to produce readable and enjoyable prose out of an alphabet of 26 letters (I write only in English) and a handful of punctuation marks. If a fellow writer went to all that trouble to create something out of nothing, the least I can do is to absorb and digest it well. (I should also add: I’m ruthlessly discerning in what I choose to read.)

Those around me are sometimes amused and puzzled by this. They know my capacity to marshal information and ideas, so they can’t figure why I don’t read books fleetingly. My friends as exasperated by another trait: how I read several books at the same time, progressing through multiple titles by switching between them. I guess this means I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Ah, well…

I was delighted to discover recently that there are others who cherish slow, reflective reading. There is, in fact, a slow reading movement — an eclectic group of academics and writers who want us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical texts, and the ability to process them fully.

Read a book, lately?

“Readers make choices in the kinds of attention they give to texts–from scanning, skimming and speed reading to deep reading and rereading,” says Professor Catherine L Ross, Faculty of Information & Media Studies, University of Western Ontario when reviewing a recent book, Slow Reading by John Miedema.

Miedema, a technology specialist at IBM in Ottawa, Ontario, draws on both his personal reading experience and the extensive research literature on reading to make a powerful case for the deep pleasures of engaged, reflective reading.

He likens the slow reading movement to the Slow Food movement, which was founded in Italy in the mid 1980s as a backlash against American-style fast food. Both movements encourage increased mindfulness in the conduct of routine activity. As he says: “It’s not just about students reading as slowly as possible. Slow reading is about bringing more of the person to bear on the book.”

In a recent essay in Newsweek, Malcolm Jones asked if slow reading is antidote for a fast world. As he wrote: “…But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that we are all reading too much too fast these days. Yes, we’re drowning in information, but, clearly, reading faster and faster is not the way out of the deep end.”

It’s from this article that I found out there is now an International Day of Slowness, June 21. The Canadians, reflective and thoughtful people as they’ve always been, are giving leadership to it. By the time I read about it (slowly, of course), the day had already passed. But there’s always next year…

Another article, in The Guardian a few days ago, posed related questions: Has endlessly skimming short texts on the internet made us stupider? The writer, Patrick Kingsley, summed up recent research suggesting that an increasing number of experts think so. He came to the same conclusion as Miedema: it’s time to slow down…

Here’s part of the book’s promotional blurb: “Slow Reading brings attention to emerging ideas in technology and culture. The traditional technologies of print and the book have persisted as part of our information ecology because of the need for slow reading and deep comprehension. The theme of locality in the Slow Movement provides insight into the importance of physical location in our relationship with information. Most of all, Slow Reading represents a rediscovery of the pleasure of reading for its own sake.”

Read Chapter 2 of the book: Slow Reading in an Information Ecology

I want to read this book — but not online. I’ll get hold of it and meander slowly through it, as I do with any good book. This particular writer would expect nothing less.

FIFA World Cup 2010: Media Conquering Planet Football!

Most Earthlings have just spent a month on this!

“If you’re an alien planning to invade the Earth, choose July 11. Chances are that our planet will offer little or no resistance.

“Today, most members of the Earth’s dominant species – the nearly 7 billion humans – will be preoccupied with 22 able-bodied men chasing a little hollow sphere. It’s only a game, really, but what a game: the whole world holds its breath as the ‘titans of kick’ clash in the FIFA World Cup Final.

“Played across 10 venues in South Africa, this was much more than a sporting tournament. It’s the ultimate celebration of the world’s most popular sport, held once every four years. More popular than the Olympics, it demonstrates the sheer power of sports and media to bring together – momentarily, at least – the usually fragmented and squabbling humanity.”

This is the opening of my latest op ed essay, which appears in several print and online outlets this weekend. It’s timed for the finals of the FIFA World Cup 2010 – the most widely followed sporting event in the world, which will be played in Soccer City, Johannesburg, South Africa today, 11 July 2010. The Netherlands will meet Spain in this culmination of international football that has been distracting a good part of humanity for a month.

This sporting event is tipped to be the most-watched television event in history. Hundreds of broadcasters are transmitting the World Cup to a cumulative TV audience that FIFA estimates to reach more than 26 billion people. Some TV channels offer high definition (HD) or 3-D quality images to enhance the mass viewing experience.

The essay was written a few days ago, after the FIFA World Cup 2010 had reached the semi-finals stage. To be honest, I’m not an ardent football fan. But as an observer of popular culture, I’ve gladly allowed myself to be caught up in the current football frenzy. I just love to watch people who watch the game…

It’s a light piece written to suit the current global mood, but I acknowledge that the World Cup is really more than just a ball game. The basic thrust of my essay is to comment on the powerful mix of fooball and live coverage: “For the past month, the winning formula for unifying the Global Family seemed to be: international football + live broadcasts + live coverage via the web and mobile phones.”

The Times of India, 11 July 2010: Planet Football: Sports unites a fragmented humanity

The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, 11 July 2010: Conquering Planet Football

Groundviews.org: Beam Me Up to Planet Football

United Colours of Football, courtesy FIFA

The essay builds on themes that I’ve already explored on this blog – for example, how President Nelson Mandela used the 1995 World Cup Rugby championship to unite his racially divided nation, as told in the movie Invictus.

I also touch on FIFA being a wielder of formidable soft power in the world today, arguably more influential than the United Nations.

Here’s my parting thought, on which I invite reader comment: “On second thoughts, those invading aliens don’t need to worry too much about the Earth’s political leaders or their armies. Without firing a single shot, the globalised media have quietly taken over our Global Village — and now it’s too late to resist! We can argue on its merits and demerits, but the facts are indisputable.”

FIFA: Empire of Football or a global super-soft power?

The Empire of kicking around

If one acronym has dominated the world’s media and public minds in the past month, it must be FIFA.

It stands for the International Federation of Association Football, and is derived from the original French name, Fédération Internationale de Football Association. It’s the global governing body of association football, founded in 1904 and with its headquarters in Zürich, Switzerland.

FIFA is responsible for the organisation and governance of football’s major international tournaments — most notably the FIFA World Cup, held once every four years since 1930. The current World Cup, being held in South Africa from 11 June to 11 July 2010, is the 19th edition. The next will be hosted by Brazil in 2014.

As a global body with substantial financial resources, FIFA has had its own share of controversies and been criticised for its lack of transparency and internal democracy. It’s true that FIFA controls the media rights to key international games with an iron fist (which inspired the above cartoon). They are not alone: the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has its own detractors and allegations on similar considerations.

Who's got the soft power?

But there is little argument on how far and wide the influence of these global sports bodies extend. In an op ed essay being published this weekend, I contend: “FIFA, with its 208 member associations, is probably more influential — and certainly better known — than the United Nations, with its 192 member states. The difference is in media outreach. It signifies the rise of soft power in our always-connected information society.”

Indeed, the UN itself is well aware of this. In one of the most memorable op ed essays he’s written, the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged in 2006 (during the previous FIFA World Cup): “The World Cup makes us at the UN green with envy. As the pinnacle of the only truly global game, played in every country by every race and religion, it is one of the few phenomena as universal as the UN. But there are better reasons for our envy.”

He continued: “This is an event in which everybody knows where their team stands, and what it did to get there. They know who scored and how and in what minute of the game; they know who saved the penalty. I wish we had more of that sort of competition in the family of nations. Countries vying for the best standing in the table of respect for human rights, and trying to outdo one another in child survival rates or enrolment in secondary education. States parading their performance for all the world to see. Governments being held accountable.”

Of course, FIFA’s domination over the global public mind will wane after the FIFA World Cup 2010 ends. But how many other global bodies can claim to hold billions of people so engaged for a month? And in this era of 24/7 information society, that’s formidable soft power indeed.

What can we call the wielder of such soft power? How about Super-soft-power?

And can this kind of power also intoxicate and even corrupt its wielders? We’ve seen how power manipulations work in other centres of soft power, such as Hollywood and Bollywood. The challenge for FIFA — and all others who are connected to it through the love of football and/or media’s outreach — is to watch out that this concentration of soft power doesn’t corrupt.

The very same media that helps FIFA attain the status of a soft-super-power needs to keep an eye on how this power is being used. Perhaps that’s the ultimate game in the media-saturated 21st Century: Emperors of Eyeballs vs. Titans of Kick.

Remember, you read it here first.

Why are ‘Smart Mobs’ also very fickle? Looking for an antidote to fleeting activism

Smart but fleeting mobs?

‘Smart mobs’ is an interesting term for like-minded groups that behave intelligently (or just efficiently) because of their exponentially increasing network links.

The idea was first proposed by author Howard Rheingold in his 2002 book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. It deals with the social, economic and political changes implicated by developing information and communications technology. The topics range from text-messaging culture and wireless internet to the impact of the web on the marketplace.

In the eight years since the book first appeared, we’ve seen a proliferation and evolution of smart mobs, fuelled by the growth web 2.0 tools and, more recently, the many and varied social media. In fact, author Rheingold is credited with inventing the term virtual communities.

But the reality is that smart mobs can also be very fickle — their attention can be easily distracted. A smart mob can disperse just as fast as it forms, even while its original provocation remains.

This was demonstrated in dramatic terms in June 2009. Following a hotly disputed presidential election in Iran, there was a surge of online support for pro-democracy activists there who launched a massive protest. A main point of convergence for online reporting and agitation was micro-blogging platform Twitter. Within a few days, mainstream media like TIME and Washington Post were all talking about this phenomenon in gushing terms.

'Rescued' by Michael Jackson?

Then something totally unexpected happened. On June 25, Michael Jackson’s sudden death in Los Angeles shocked the world. As the news spread around the world at the speed of light, it crashed some social networking sites and slowed down even the mighty Google. Online interest on Iran dipped — and never regained its former levels.

As I wrote at the time: “I have no idea if the Ayatollahs are closet fans of Michael Jackson. But they must surely have thanked the King of Pop for creating a much-needed diversion in cyberspace precisely when the theocracy in Tehran needed it most.”

Other recent experiences have demonstrated how online interest can both build up and dissipate very fast. Staying with a single issue or cause seems hard in a world where news is breaking 24/7.

Here’s a current example. Following the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that started on 20 April 2010, local communities and environmental activists deployed various social media tools to track the unfolding disaster. BP, the giant oil company implicated in the disaster, has also tried to use social media to communicate its positions, but not too successfully. On Twitter, it was not BP’s official account but the satirical @BPGlobalPR that was dominating the online conversation. As one commentator wrote: “It is an object lesson in how social media can shape and control a company’s message during a crisis.”

Beyond PR?

By early July 2010, however, there were already signs that online interest on the issue was already waning — even as the oil continued to leak from this largest offshore oil spill in US history. In a detailed analysis of main social media platforms’ coverage of the issue, Mashable noted last week: “An estimated 100 million gallons or more of oil have surged into the Gulf of Mexico…Yet on Twitter, Google, blogs and even YouTube, we’re already wrapping up our collective discussion of the oil spill and how to repair its damage.”

Riding the wave can be fun, but waves form and break quickly. Those who want to use social media tools for social activism still need to learn how to hitch a ride with the ocean current beneath the fickle waves.

How I wish I could get some practical advice on this from a certain ancient mariner named Sinbad.

From Michael Jackson to K’naan: Anthems for the Global Family?

A song that will outlive the games?

FIFA World Cup Football enters its final few days this week, culminating a month of international football at the highest level.

Played across 10 venues in South Africa, this is much more than a sporting tournament. It’s the ultimate celebration of the world’s most popular sport, held once every four years. More popular than the Olympics, it demonstrates the sheer power of sports and media to bring together – momentarily, at least – the usually fragmented and squabbling humanity.

And one upbeat song has characterised this World Cup more than any other: the FIFA World Cup Anthem, “Wavin’ Flag” (The Celebration Mix). Sung by K’naan (born Keinan Abdi Warsame) a Somali-Canadian poet, rapper, singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist.

It opens with these now famous words:

…Singing forever young, singing songs underneath that sun
Lets rejoice in the beautiful game,
And together at the end of the day.
We all say
When I get older I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag…

“Wavin’ Flag” is the third official single (eighth single overall) from K’naan’s Troubadour album. He specially recorded a version of the song for the tournament, hosted by South Africa. The remix of “Wavin’ Flag” is part of Coca-Cola’s global integrated marketing campaign “inspired by the joyous dance celebrations familiar to Africa.”

The song is popping up and pouring out from billions of radio and TV sets, mobile phones, websites and other devices. So much so that I wonder if it might as well be our planetary anthem — an idea that some social activists and artistes have dreamed about for decades?

Last year, shortly after Michael Jackson’s sudden death, I wrote a blog post that looked back at his songs that celebrated social and environmental themes. Referring to one, I said: “…the Earth Song had much wider and more lasting appeal, almost becoming an anthem for the global environmental movement in the past decade. But its real impact was not among the converted – with this song, Jackson took the green message to the heartland of the Facebook generation.”

We can argue about that (please do!). For now, here’s the celebrated song, currently the most popular on the planet:

FIFA Wold Cup Anthem “Wavin’ Flag” (The Celebration Mix) by K’naan

Wavin’ Flag lyrics (Celebration Mix) by K’naan

Ooooooh Wooooooh Ooooooh Wooooooh

Give me freedom, give me fire, give me reason, take me higher
See the champions, take the field now, unify us, make us feel proud
In the streets are, hands are liftin’, as we lose our inhibition
Celebration, its around us, every nations, all around us

Singin’ forever young, singin’ songs underneath that sun
Lets rejoice in the beautiful game
And together at the end of the day

WE ALL SAY

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

And then it goes back…And then it goes back…
And then it goes back…And then it goes…

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

And then it goes back…And then it goes back…
And then it goes back…And then it goes…

Ooooooh Wooooooh Ooooooh Wooooooh

Give you freedom, give you fire, give you reason, take you higher
See the champions, take the field now, unify us, make us feel proud
In the streets are, hands are lifting, every loser inhibition
Celebration, its around us, every nations, all around us

Singin’ forever young, singin’ songs underneath that sun
Lets rejoice in the beautiful game
And together at the end of the day

WE ALL SAY

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

And then it goes back…And then it goes back…
And then it goes back…And then it goes…

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

And then it goes back…And then it goes back…
And then it goes back…And then it goes….

Ooooooh Wooooooh Ooooooh Wooooooh

WE ALL SAY

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

And then it goes back…And then it goes back…
And then it goes back…And then it goes…

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

And then it goes back…And then it goes back…
And then it goes back…And then it goes…

Ooooooh Wooooooh Ooooooh Wooooooh

And everybody will be singin’ it

Ooooooh Wooooooh Ooooooh Wooooooh

And we are all singin’ it