Imagine and Innovate to celebrate Sir Arthur C Clarke!

When Steven Spielberg (left) and Harrison Ford (middle) visited Arthur C Clarke in Colombo during filming of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in Sri Lanka, 1983 - Photo owned by Arthur Clarke Estate

When Steven Spielberg (left) and Harrison Ford (middle) visited Arthur C Clarke in Colombo during filming of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in Sri Lanka, 1983 – Photo owned by Arthur Clarke Estate

19 March 2015 marks seven years since Sir Arthur C Clarke passed away.

In the weeks and months following Sir Arthur’s death, many asked me what kind of monument was being planned in his memory. As far as the Arthur C Clarke Estate is concerned, there is none –- and that seems to surprise many.

Yet it was fully consistent with the man of ideas, imagination and dreams that Sir Arthur Clarke was. Monuments of brick and mortar — or even of steel and silicon — seem superfluous for a writer who stretched the minds of millions. Commemorative lectures or volumes cannot begin to capture the spirit and energy of the visionary who left behind a rich collection of books, papers and ideas.

Photo courtesy ORBIT '15 event organisers

Photo courtesy ORBIT ’15 event organisers

Imagine and innovate to honour Sir Arthur C Clarke! That was the theme of a tribute I wrote on the first death anniversary.

Speaking at ORBIT’15 astronomy event last week in Colombo, organised by the Astronomy & Space Science Association of D S Senanayake College, Colombo, I reiterated this point. Here are the most relevant slides from my talk:

From "Ride Your  Imagination to Space!" by Nalaka Gunawardene

From “Ride Your Imagination to Space!” by Nalaka Gunawardene

From "Ride Your  Imagination to Space!" by Nalaka Gunawardene

From “Ride Your Imagination to Space!” by Nalaka Gunawardene

From "Ride Your  Imagination to Space!" by Nalaka Gunawardene

From “Ride Your Imagination to Space!” by Nalaka Gunawardene

From "Ride Your  Imagination to Space!" by Nalaka Gunawardene

From “Ride Your Imagination to Space!” by Nalaka Gunawardene

 

Full PowerPoint:

 

 

 

 

 

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7 ‘ups’: A rough guide to engaging social media in the public interest

Depictions of social media: Conversations Prism (left) and Social Media Starfish

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, in the of social media, we need to be as daring and adventurous as Sinbad. Like the legendary sailor of Baghdad, we have to take our chances and venture into unknown seas. Instead of maps or GPS or other tools, we must rely on our ingenuity, intuition and imagination.

During his seven voyages in the Indian Ocean, Sinbad had fantastic adventures going to magical places, surviving assorted monsters, and encountering a host of supernatural phenomena. Armed simply with his guts, wits and wanderlust, he sailed to places where no man had gone before, and certainly none had returned alive from!

Preparing for my Beijing session last week on using social media to communicate in the public interest, I did a good deal of web browsing and online reading. I came across many attempts to map or visually depict the social media (including two shown above). I also found some interesting lists and guidelines – my favourite so far is 10 Things Your Grandmother can Teach You about Social Media.

This inspired me to come up with my own rough guide to get you started and keep you going. As a salute to Sinbad’s seven voyages, I call it the 7-‘ups’.

Turn up. As Woody Allen famously remarked, eighty per cent of success is just…showing up. You won’t get anywhere by simply observing or critiquing from the sidelines. You have to wade in and set sail — for better or worse.

• Once we join the planetary conversation, we need to do some catch up. Find your feet – and niche – in the online world. The Internet turned 40 in 2009, and its graphical interface – the World Wide Web – is now 20. So much has happened in that time – and a lot has also been superseded. You need to know what’s on, and what’s not.

What's your winning combination?

• After catching up, we also need to keep up — at least with the mega trends. Large companies like Google – as well as hundreds of individual geeks – keep releasing new applications frequently, many for free use. Popular websites (such as Wired, Mashable and their local equivalents) help us navigate through these depths and currents.

• Next one is harder. We have to give up our baggage of old habits and attitudes picked up over the years. For many Digital Immigrants, leaving the comfort zone of paper was scary enough. How can we let go of complete control over our communication products and processes? But that’s just what the social media demand. It’s not a choice, but an imperative.

• It’s also helpful – though not quite essential – if we are less glum, prim, exacting and academic in how we relate to others in social media. In short, ease up, mate! There are some basic norms for online behaviour, but crusty intellectuals or matronly bureaucrats don’t gain much traction. Keep things short, focused and simple. And hey, it’s okay to be funny, cheeky and irreverent…

• Conversations in this realm can last for weeks, months or longer. Some topics and discussions tend to have ‘long tails’. When we start something online, we have to be clear when to engage whom and how. Equally important is knowing when to shut up. (A bore is a bore, offline or online!).

• And if all this is making you feel dizzy…just cheer up: there are no real experts in this field. No one is an authority. Everything is ‘in beta’. We are all learning by doing. Neither is there a definitive road map to the social media world. In fact, in this partly Undiscovered Country, there is plenty of scope to explore, innovate and be original.

Are you a land-lubber who doesn’t trust any seas? Let me then offer you another metaphor. Think of this as hitchhiking or back-packing online. Take your chances. Be adventurous. Discover a whole new world!

We have some advantages over Sinbad. The virtual world poses no real danger to our lives. But beware: social media can be very time-consuming and even addictive.

You have been warned.

Here, for some edu-tainment, is an interesting video on social media that I found on…YouTube:

A more compact version of the 7-Ups appears in MediaHelpingMedia

Pay it forward: A charming idea for our hard times?

The power of three...to do good!

The power of three...to do good!

Just imagine…
You do a favour that really helps someone, and tell him/her not to pay it back…
Instead, you ask that it be paid FORWARD to three other people who, in turn, must each pay it forward to three more…and so on.

Impossible? Well, not quite – if you believe (as I do) in the essential goodness of human beings, no matter what their class, race and other divisive factors are.

This idea is known as ‘Pay it forward’. It is really simple: it asks that a good turn be ‘repaid’ by having it done to others instead. Paying it forward has been around as a concept for more than two millennia, from the time of ancient Greece. It was rediscovered in modern times by Benjamin Franklin and later, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of my favourite essayists.

In his 1841 essay titled ‘Compensation’, Emerson wrote: “In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.”

During the Twentieth Century, science fiction author Robert A Heinlein popularised the concept in his book Between Planets (1951). It formed the central theme of Pay It Forward (2000), a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, which was soon turned into a movie by the same name.

In that story, a thoughtful teacher challenges his seventh grade students with ‘an assignment to save the world’. One perceptive student devices a scheme where one has to carry out three good deeds for others as repayment of a good deed received. Such good deeds should be things that the beneficiaries cannot accomplish on their own.

It was through Pay It Forward the movie, made in 2000 and directed by Mimi Leder, that I first came cross the idea. It’s one of those simple and elegant ideas that packs so much power to change people and the world. Its implementation requires trust, honour and imagination, which most human beings can muster in sufficient quantity when challenged.

Then I realised that, without a conscious plan and not labelling it as such, I was already ‘paying it forward’ myself — and not just to three new people, but many. That was the least I could do for the many breaks, blessings and opportunities I had received in my professional life.

More about that in a minute. First, take a look at the official trailer for Pay it Forward:

And this is how it all started in the movie, with one thoughtful class teacher challenging his seventh grade pupils with ‘an assignment to save the world’:

Here’s an extended, unofficial trailer remixed by a fan using the official trailer, some scenes from the movie and a few interviews with the key stars:

Journalism – especially the industrialised, mainstream version of it – is by definition a highly collaborative business: newspapers, magazines, as well as TV/radio broadcasts are produced by several or many people working together, each playing a specified part.

And because the media are a mirror on our society and our times, the stories we journalists produce just won’t be possible unless our sources share their information, experiences and insights. This is why Bill Moyers, one of the most respected and credible voices in American broadcasting (a land where such professionals are endangered), says: “We journalists are simply beachcombers on the shores of other people’s knowledge, other people’s experience, and other people’s wisdom. We tell their stories.”

During the early years of my career as a science writer and journalist, I was enormously lucky in both respects. I had kind, indulgent, nurturing senior colleagues who showed me the ropes, expecting nothing in return except good stories. And I benefited much from the kindness and thoughtfulness of many accomplished men and women – mostly in the worlds of science, environment and development – who took the time and trouble to talk to me, clarify even basics to a rookie like myself, and allow me to attribute information or quotes them. I was a complete stranger to many of them, yet they cared enough in spite of busy schedules (there were also a few didn’t, but that’s only to be expected).

Then there were opportunities, some competitively earned, others bestowed on me. In those formative years, the opportunities for training, mentoring and other influences sharpened my skills and shaped my worldview. It was easy to grow up angry with the world and seeing conspiracies everywhere; it was much harder to acquire a balanced view of the world and to become a skeptical enquirer without turning into an incurable cynic.

Among those early influences were:
• Working with the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in India, under the late Anil Agarwal and his worthy successor Sunita Narain
• Regional and international training programmes, organised by various UN agencies and other entities such as the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy
• Invaluable support from the International Science Writing Association (ISWA), which leverages far more benefits than its modest resources would indicate at first glance (again, the power of networking!)
• Editorial training and global syndication from Panos, which provided my first outlet to publish internationally through Panos Features (sadly, no more).

Then there was my mentor Sir Arthur C Clarke, who gave me the rare privilege of spending 21 years as his research assistant — a long and unique apprenticeship that enriched me so much.

These and others helped fill gaps in my formal training in science journalism. And such exposure was worth so much more in the days before commercial internet connectivity. There was no Google or YouTube, and early versions of email were just beginning to roll out.

Just do it, and hope others will keep doing it too...

Just do it, and hope others will keep doing it too...

And now it’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’. It’s plain and simple; there’s no grand pledge or plan. No one asked me to sign up to any binding agreement. There is no spiritual or intellectual compulsion. I just do it, because that’s a good thing to do.

This is why, despite pressure of work, I work with young journalists and producers, organising training workshops through TVE Asia Pacific, or readily agreeing to be a resource person for good programmes organised by others. This is also why I mentor a few eager, committed young professionals in my native Sri Lanka and elsewhere in developing Asia. Read here my tribute to one of them, whose death four years ago was hard to bear. And this is why every year I donate a couple of weeks of my time serving on boards of management of two media/development related charities whose vision and mission I share.

This is also why I spent a good part of my recent Easter/New Year holidays putting together a detailed response to a young script writer who is passionately promoting a film project related to climate change. I have never met him in person, and until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of him. A cynical British colleague used to caution me that any crazy nut sitting under a banyan tree can write a letter (or more likely an email these days) claiming to be anything he wasn’t. There’s always that risk. But I’m taking my chances.

Years ago I stopped counting the favours I paid forward, and I no longer even keep track of the people that I give little nudges along the way. Being a secular rationalist with no absolutely religious belief of any kind, I don’t collect brownie points for any ‘next world account’. I just do these little good deeds to make this world a little better place.

If further justification were needed, I cannot say it better than Steven Grellet, a prominent French Quaker missionary who once said (and I quote him for its secular essence): “I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Wanted: New Arthur C Clarkes of the 21st Century!

The legend lives on: Arthur C Clarke (1917 - 2008)

The legend lives on: Arthur C Clarke (1917 - 2008) - photos by Rohan de Silva

Today we mark the first death anniversary of Sir Arthur C Clarke. Exactly one year ago, when he passed away aged 90, I was thrust into a media frenzy. I’d been Sir Arthur’s research assistant and, in later years, his media spokesman and in the hours and days following his death, the family asked me to continue that role.

This blog recorded my experiences and emotions as they happened (see several posts in the latter half of March 2008). A year later, all of us who worked closely with him still miss Sir Arthur, but I can now take a more detached, longer-term view. And that’s what I’ve just done.

In an op ed essay published today in Groundviews website, I argue that sparking imagination and nurturing innovation are the best ways in which Sri Lanka can cherish Sir Arthur’s memory in the land he called home for half a century.

Despite his well known ego, Sir Arthur never sought personal edifices to be put up in his honour or memory. When a visiting journalist once asked him about monuments, he said: “Go to any well-stocked library, and just look around…”

In the weeks and months following Sir Arthur’s death, many have asked me what kind of monument was being planned in his memory. As far as the Arthur C Clarke Estate is concerned, there is none –- and that seems to surprise many.

Yet it is fully consistent with the man of ideas, imagination and dreams that Sir Arthur Clarke was. Monuments of brick and mortar — or even of steel and silicon — seem superfluous for a writer who stretched the minds of millions. Commemorative lectures or volumes cannot begin to capture the spirit and energy of the visionary who invented the communications satellite and inspired the World Wide Web.

A life of no regrets...except for a minor complaint

A life of no regrets...except for a minor complaint

In my essay, I suggested: “Instead of dabbling in these banalities, Sri Lanka should go for the ‘grand prize’: nurturing among its youth the intellectual, cultural and creative attributes that made Arthur C Clarke what he was. In other words, we must identify and groom the budding Arthur Clarkes of the 21st century!”

Easier said than done. In fact, in a country like Sri Lanka that is still partly feudal, insular and stubbornly clinging on to the past instead of facing the present and future, this becomes formidable. This is why I noted: “But can imagination and innovation take root unless we break free from the shackles of orthodoxy? For transformative change to happen, we will need to rethink certain aspects of our education, bureaucracy, social hierarchies and culture. Are we willing and able to attempt these?”

I then discuss some of the key challenges involved in nurturing imagination and innovation. I end my essay with these words: “Let’s not kid ourselves: sparking imagination and innovation is much harder than launching a gleaming new satellite in Sir Arthur’s name. But the rewards would also be greater: if we get it right this time, Sri Lanka can finally take its rightful place in the 21st century.”

Within hours of its online publication, the essay has attracted several comments and a discussion is evolving. Just what Sir Arthur would have liked to see happen…

Read the full essay, and join the discussion at Groundviews