සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #72: ඉන්ටර්නෙට් නොදැන ගොස් මංමුලා වූ උගත්තු…

My Sunday (Sinhala) column in Ravaya this week was on impressions of the National Media Summit 2012 held at the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, on 24-25 May 2012. My own talk at the Summit, during a session New Media policies for Sri Lanka, was titled New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far?.

I shared my impressions in an English blog post on May 25 itself.

National Media Summit 2012 at University of Kelaniya, 25 May 2012

සාමාන්‍ය ජනතාව බැලූ බැල්මට පෙනෙන පරිද්දෙන් හෝ කලක් තිස්සේ සිතේ මුල් බැසගත් ආකල්පයන් පදනම් කර ගෙන හෝ ප‍්‍රශ්න විග‍්‍රහ කළත්, සරසවි ඇදුරන් හා පර්යේෂකයන් ඊට වඩා විවෘත මනසකින් ක‍්‍රමානුකූලව කටයුතු කරනු ඇතැයි අපේක්‍ෂාවක් තිබෙනවා.

පෙනෙන මානය (perception) හා සැබෑ තත්ත්‍වය අතර වෙනසක් තිබිය හැකියි. මේ හිඩැස අඩු කර ගන්නට අපට සමීක්‍ෂණ, නිල සංඛ්‍යා ලේඛන හා විද්වත් පර්යේෂණ උදවු වනවා. සාක්‍ෂි මත පදනම් වූ තර්ක වඩාත් ප‍්‍රබලයි. එහෙත් යල්පැන ගිය දත්ත හා තොරතුරු භාවිත නොකිරීමට අප සැවොම වග බලා ගත යුතුයි.

කැළණිය සරසවිය 2012 මැයි 24 – 25 දෙදින පැවැත් වූ 2012 ජාතික මාධ්‍ය සමුළුවේ නව මාධ්‍ය හා ප‍්‍රතිපත්ති ගැන සැසියේ කථා කරන්නට මට ද ඇරැයුම් කර තිබුණා. සංවාද කරන්නට ඇරැයුම් ලද විට මා කරන්නේ බහුලව එල්බගත් මතවාදයන් හා ජනප‍්‍රිය තර්කවලින් ඔබ්බට ගොස් අසම්මත විදියට ප‍්‍රශ්න විග‍්‍රහ කිරිමට මා අමතන සභාවට අභියෝග කිරිමයි.

මෙරට ජන මාධ්‍ය හා සන්නිවේදනය උගන්වන හැම සරසවියකින් ම ඇදුරු හා සිසු මට්ටමේ නියෝජිතයන් කැළණිය සරසවියට පැමිණ සිටියා. අපේ ජන මාධ්‍ය ක්ෂේත‍්‍රයට ඉදිරි වෘත්තිකයන් බිහි කරන්නෙත්, මාධ්‍ය හා තොරතුරු සමාජයට අදාළ ප‍්‍රතිපත්ති ගැන රජයට උපදෙස් දෙන්නෙත් මේ දැනුම් ගවේෂක උදවියයි.

මේ අයට මා සරල ප‍්‍රශ්න දෙකක් ඉදිරිපත් කළා. මේ ප‍්‍රකාශ දෙක සත්‍ය ද අසත්‍ය දැයි විමසුවා.

• මෙරට ග‍්‍රාමීය ප‍්‍රදේශවල තවමත් වැඩිපුර ම ප‍්‍රචලිත ජනමාධ්‍යය රේඩියෝවයි.

• ඉන්ටර්නෙට් යනු අපේ ජනගහනයෙන් 5%කට අඩු ප‍්‍රතිශතයක් භාවිත කරන, ඇති හැකි අයට සීමා වූ වියදම් අධික මාධ්‍යයකි.

සභාවේ බහුතරයක් දෙනා කියා සිටියේ රේඩියෝව අපේ ගම්වල ප‍්‍රචලිත ම මාධ්‍යය බවයි. ඉන්ටර්නෙට් ගැන ප‍්‍රකාශය හරි ද වැරදි ද යන්න ගැන ඊට වඩා මත බෙදුමක් ඇති බව පෙනී ගියා.

මෙහි සැබෑ තත්ත්වය මොකක්ද? නිල සංඛ්‍යා ලේඛන පදනම් කර ගනිමින් මා පෙන්වා දුන්නේ බොහෝ දෙනා සිත් සෝදිසියට විශ්වාස කරන දේ සත්‍ය නොවන බවයි.

• ජන ලේඛන හා සංඛ්‍යාලේඛන දෙපාර්තමේන්තුව කළ 2009-2010 ගෘහස්ත ඒකක ආදායම් හා වියදම් සමික්ෂණයට අනුව මෙරට නාගරික, ග‍්‍රාමීය හා වතු යන ප‍්‍රදේශ තුනේ ම නිවෙස්වල මේ වන විට රේඩියෝ යන්ත‍්‍රවලට වඩා ටෙලිවිෂන් යන්ත‍්‍ර තිබෙනවා. දීප ව්‍යාප්තව නිවාස 80%ක ටෙලිවිෂන් හමු වන විට රේඩියෝ ඇත්තේ නිවාස 75.4%ක පමණයි. (2012 පෙබරවාරි 26 කොලම කියවන්න) www.tiny.cc/HIES910 බලන්න.

ශ‍්‍රී ලංකා විදුලි සංදේශ නියාමන කොමිසම එක් රැස් කරන නිල තොරතුරුවලට අනුව 2011 අවසන් වන විට මෙරට ස්ථාපිත ඉන්ටර්නෙට් සබඳතා 375,000ක් සහ ජංගම ඉන්ටර්නෙට් සබඳතා 711,000ක් තිබුණා. මේ දෙක එකතු කළ විට සබ`දතා 1,086,000 (මිලියන් එකයි අසුහය දහසක්) වුණා. එක සබඳතාවකින් තිදෙනකු ඉන්ටර්නෙට් හා බද්ධ වනවා යයි උපකල්පනය කළොත් ඉන්ටර්නෙට් භාවිත කරන්නන්ගේ සංඛ්‍යාව මිලියන් 3 ඉක්මවා යනවා. ලෝක විදුලිසංදේශ සංගමය (ITU) දත්ත දුවා දක්වන තවත් මුලාශ‍්‍රයක් කියන්නේ ශ‍්‍රී ලංකාවේ අඩු තරමින් ඉන්ටර්නෙට් නිතිපතා (සතියකට දෙතුන් වතාවක්වත්) භාවිත කරන සංඛ්‍යාව මිලියන් 2.5ක් පමණ වන බවයි. මේ අඩු ඇස්තමේන්තුව ගත්ත ද එය ජනගහනයෙන් 10% ඉක්මවා යනවා.

මෙරට ඉන්ටර්නෙට් භාවිත කරන සමස්ත සංඛ්‍යාව හරිහැටි ගණන් බැලීම ඉතා අසීරු නමුත් 2012 පෙබරවාරිය වන විට එය මිලියන් 2 හා 2.5 අතර සංඛ්‍යාවක තිබු බව තොරතුරු සමාජයේ ප‍්‍රගමනය අධ්‍යයනය කරන ලර්න්ඒෂියා (LIRNEasia) පර්යේෂණායතනය ඒ මාසයේ ප‍්‍රකාශයට පත් කළ Broadband in Sri Lanka නම් වාර්තාවේ කියනවා. http://tiny.cc/BBSL බලන්න.

මෙබදු නිල සංඛ්‍යා ලේඛන හා විද්වත් විශ්ලේෂණ අද වන විට පහසුවෙන් ඉන්ටර්නෙට් හරහා ම සොයා ගත හැකියි. එසේ තිබියදීත් අපේ ඇතැම් ජනමාධ්‍ය ඇදුරන් පිළුණු වූ දත්ත මත එල්බ ගෙන සිිටින්නේ ඇයි?

ශ‍්‍රී ලංකාවට ජංගම දුරකථන තාක්ෂණය 1989දීත්, වාණිජ මට්ටමේ ඉන්ටර්නෙට් සේවා 1995දීත් හදුන්වා දුන්නා. වසර 23ක ජංගම දුරකථන ඉතිහාසයක් හා වසර 17ක ඉන්ටර්නෙට් අත්දැකීමක් ලක් සමාජයට තිබෙනවා. මුල් වසරවල ඇති හැකි අය අතර සෙමින් පැතිරුණු මේ නව මාධ්‍ය තාක්ෂණයන් 2000 දශකයේදී සමාජයේ විවිධ ආර්ථික මට්ටම් හරහා විහිද ගියා. නිසි විදුලි සංදේශ නියාමන ප‍්‍රතිපත්ති හා වඩා ලාබදායක විද්යුත් උපකරණ බිහි වීම මෙයට දායක වුණා.

ඉක්මණින් පරිනාමය වන විද්යුත් මාධ්‍ය හා වෙබ් මාධ්‍ය ගැන විද්‍යාත්මක පර්යේෂණ නිබන්ධන හා පෙළපොත් ලියැවෙන තුරු බලා සිටිය නොහැකියි. ලෝකයේ වෙනත් රටවල මාධ්‍ය ඇදුරන් හා පර්යේෂකයන් කරන්නේ නව මාධ්‍ය හා නව තාක්ෂණය ඔස්සේ ම ඒවා ගැන නිරික්ෂණ කරමින්, අළුත් මතවාද හා සංවාද ඒ හරහා ගොඩ නැංවීමයි.

බි‍්‍රතාන්‍යයේ විවෘත විශ්ව විද්‍යාලයේ ආචාර්ය ජෝන් නෝට්න් (Dr John Naughton) එවැනි අයෙක්. ප‍්‍රධාන ප‍්‍රවාහයේ The Observer පුවත්පතට කොලම් ලියන අතර ඔහු මාධ්‍ය හා තොරතුරු සමාජය ගැන ඒවා හරහා ම බ්ලොග්, ට්විටර් ආදිය ඔස්සේ නිතර කථා බහ කරනවා. එබදු ගවේෂණය කරන ඉන්දියානු, ඉන්දුනීසියානු, තායි හා සෙසු ආසියානු පර්යේෂකයන් ද සිටිනවා.

අපේ කිසිදු සරසවියක එබදු නව මාධ්‍ය පෙරගමන්කරුවකු සිටිදැයි සොයා ගන්නට අපහසුයි. කැළණියේ මාධ්‍ය සමුළුවේ වෙබ් මාධ්‍ය ගැන සංවාද හරවත්ව හෝ ඉලක්කගතව කිරීමට රැස්ව සිටි උගතුන් අපොහොසත් වුණා.

නව මාධ්‍ය (new media) අර්ථ දක්වන්නේ කෙසේ ද? මෙය සෙද්ධාන්තිකව ක්ෂේත‍්‍රය හැදැරීමේදී අදාළ සහ වැදගත් වුවත් ප‍්‍රායෝගිකව විග‍්‍රහ කිරිම එතරම් ලෙහෙසි නැහැ. නව මාධ්‍ය සැසියේ සැළකිය යුතු කාලයක් මේ ගැන තර්ක විතර්කවලට වෙන් කෙරුණා. මගේ අදහස වුයේ ඕනෑ ම මාධ්‍යයක් “නව” මාධ්‍යයක් වීම පුද්ගලයාට මෙන් ම ජන සමාජයකටත් සාපේක්ෂ සාධකයක් බවයි. (1980 දශකයේ ටෙලිවිෂන් අපට නව මාධ්‍යයක් වන විට ලෝකයේ බොහෝ රටවල එය අරභයා පරම්පරාවක හෝ දෙකක අත්දැකීම් සමුදායක් තිබුණා.)

ඉන්ටර්නෙට් මාධ්‍යය හරහා ප‍්‍රවෘත්ති හෝ ඕපාදුප බෙදා හරින වෙබ් අඩවි සුළුතරයක් තිබෙනවා. මේවා ගැන උඩින් පල්ලෙන් බලා පොදු නිගමනවලට එළඹීම හා ප‍්‍රතිපත්ති නිර්දේශ කිරිම අනතුරුදායක මෙන්ම ඇතැම් විට හාස්‍යජනක ක‍්‍රියාවක්. “රජයට හා ප‍්‍රභූන්ට අපහසා කරන වෙබ් අඩවි පාලනය කළ යුතුයි”, වැනි සරල උද්‍යොගපාඨ දේශපාලන වේදිකාවලින් ඇසී පුරුදු වුණත්, විද්වත් සභාවල මීට වඩා කරුණු තෝරා බේරා ගෙන සමබරව විග‍්‍රහ කිරිමේ හැකියාවක් උගතුන්ට තිබිය යුතුයි. අවාසනාවකට එදා සංවාදයේ මෙබදු විසමතා, අතිශයෝක්තීන් හා අනවශ්‍ය තරමට ලඝු කිරීම් ගණනාවක් දකින්නට හා අසන්නට ලැබුණා.

උදාහරණයකට බොහෝ කොට සංවෘත අවකාශයක් වන Facebook සහ සහජයෙන් ම විවෘත හා පොදු අවකාශයක් (Public Space) වන සමස්ත ඉන්ටර්නෙට් මාධ්‍යය අතර මූලික වෙනස පවා තේරුම් නොගත් උගතුන් සිටින බව පෙනී ගියා.

ලක් සමාජය අන් කවරදාටත් වඩා වේගයෙන් වෙනස් වෙමින් පවතිනවා. එය ආර්ථික, දේශපාලනමය, සාංස්කෘතික මෙන් ම තාක්ෂණික අංශයන්ට ද අදාළයි. මේ වෙනස්කම්වලට ජන ව්‍යූහයේ (demographic), තාක්‍ෂණයේ මෙන්ම පාරිභෝගික රටාවල බලපෑම ද හේතු වනවා. අපේ පෞද්ගලික අත්දැකීම්වලට සීමා වී මිලියන් 20ක ජන සමාජයේ තත්ත්‍වය ගැන නිගමනවලට එළඹීම ශාස්ත‍්‍රවේදීන් නොකළ යුත්තක්. ඔවුන් ඊට වඩා පර්යේෂණ හා තර්කානුකූල පදනමකින් ක‍්‍රියා කළ යුතුයි.

ඉන්ටර්නෙට් හරහා පැමිණෙන මාධ්‍ය අපේ සමාජයේ හා ජනප‍්‍රිය සංස්කෘතියේ තවත් පැතිකඩක් බවට පත් වී ගෙන යනවා. මෙය එයට සමීප හා එයත් සමග ගනුදෙනු කරන අයට නම් අරුමයක් හෝ අසාමාන්‍ය දෙයක් නොවෙයි. එහෙත් එයට ආගන්තුක උදවියට නම් මේ ප‍්‍රවාහය “උන්මාදයක්” හෝ “මනෝ විකාරයක්” ලෙස පෙනිය හැකියි.

නමුත් ඉන්ටර්නෙට් නොදැන හා පරිහරණය නොකර වත්මන් තොරතුරු සමාජයේ යම් මට්ටමකින් ඔබ්බට යා නොහැකි ආකාරයේ යථාර්ථයක් බිහි වෙමින් පවතිනවා. විශේෂයෙන් නව දැනුම සොයා යන, දැනුම ගවේෂණය කරමින් එයට එකතු කරන පර්යේෂකයන්ට, ශිෂ්‍යයන්ට හා සරසවි ඇදුරන්ට නව මාධ්‍ය හැකියාව අවශ්‍යයි.

එයින් අදහස් වන්නේ පරිගණක දෘඩාංග හා මෘදුකාංග ගැන ඉංජිනේරු මට්ටමේ දැනුමක් හැමට තිබිය යුතුයි කියා නොවෙයි. වසර 20කට වැඩි කලක් දිනපතා පරිගණක භාවිත කරන මට පරිගණකයක් අළුත්වැඩියා කිරීමට හෝ එහි කාර්මික ගැටළු විසඳීමට හැකියාව නැහැ. මා එය දකින්නේ මෝටර් රථ භාවිතය වගෙයි.

වත්මන් සමාජයේ මධ්‍යම පාංතික බොහෝ දෙනා තමන්ගේ කාරයක්, මෝටර් බයිසිකලයක් හෝ ත‍්‍රීරෝද රථයක් මිළට ගෙන පදවා ගෙන යන්නට පෙළඹෙනවා. එසේ කරන බොහෝ දෙනා මෝටර් කාර්මික තාක්ෂණය ගැඹුරින් දන්නේ නැහැ. වාහනයේ ඉන්ධන, ලිහිස්සි තෙල් හා වතුර අවශ්‍ය පමණට යොදන්නටත්, හදිසියේ රෝදයක හුළං බැස්සොත් එය මාරු කර ගන්නටත් රියදුරන් වන අප බොහෝ දෙනාට හැකියි. එමෙන්ම මාර්ග නීතිවලට අනුව ආරක්‍ෂාකාරී ලෙස රිය පදවන සැටි අප දන්නවා. වඩාත් සංකීර්ණ නඩත්තු හෝ අලූත්වැඩියාවක් අවශ්‍ය වූ විට අප මෝටර් කාර්මික ගරාජයකට යනවා.

පරිගණක භාවිතය හරහා සයිබර් අවකාශයේ සැරිසරන අයටත් තිබිය යුතු මූලික දැනුමක්, කුසලතාවක් හා රීති මාලාවක් තිබෙනවා. මේවා නොදත් ඇතැම් විද්වතුන් හා වෘත්තිකයන්, ලෙහෙසියෙන් වළක්වා ගත හැකි තොරතුරු තාක්‍ෂණ වැරදි කරනවා. බැට කෑ විට තාක්‍ෂණයට දොස් පවරනවා. කුමන්ත‍්‍රණවාදී තර්ක කරනවා!

ස්වයංමුලාවට පත් සරසවි ඇදුරන්ගෙන් උගන්නා සිසුන් මෙන් ම ඔවුන්ගෙන් ගුරුහරුකම් ගන්නා රාජ්‍ය නිලධාරින්ට කුමක් සිදු වේද? තොරතුරු සමාජයේ ඉදිරි ගමන උපෙක්ෂා සහගතවත්, මැදහත් ලෙසිනුත් නිරික්සමින් විද්වත් අදහස් දැක්වීමේ වගකීම සරසවි ඇදුරන්ට තිබෙනවා. එය හරිහැටි ඉටු නොවන බව පැය කිහිපයක් ඔවුන් සමග ගත කිරිමෙන් මට පෙනී ගියා. http://tiny.cc/NMOM ද බලන්න.

New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far?

National Media Summit 2012 at University of Kelaniya, 25 May 2012


New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far?

This was the title of a presentation I made at National Media Summit 2012, at University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, this morning. I was asked to talk about New Media and policies for Sri Lanka.

In my audience were academics and researchers on journalism and mass communication drawn from several universities of Sri Lanka. I was told the biennial event is to help frame new research frameworks and projects.

Now, I’m not a researcher in the conventional sense of that term, and am fond of saying I don’t have a single academic bone in my body. Despite this, occasionally, universities and research institutes invite me to join their events as speaker, panelist or moderator.

University of Kelaniya, a state university in Sri Lanka, has the island’s oldest mass communication department, started in the late 1960s.

Perhaps inertia and traditions weigh down such places — while I had a patient hearing, I found our ensuing discussion disappointing. The historical analogies, policy dilemmas and coping strategies I touched on in my presentation didn’t get much comment or questions.

Instead, rather predictably, the ill-moderated discussion meandered on about the adverse social and cultural impacts of Internet and mobile phones and the need to ‘control’ everything in the public interest (where have I heard that before?).

And much time was wasted on debating on what exactly was new media and how to define and categorise it (I’d argued: it all depends on who answers the question!).

Part of the confusion arose from many conflating private, closed communications online (e.g. Facebook) with the open, more public interest online content (e.g. news websites). Similarly, the critical need for common technical standards (to ensure inter-operability) was mistaken by some as the need for dull and dreary orthodoxy in content!

Concepts like Citizen Journalism, user-generated content, privacy, right to information were all bandied around — but without clarity, focus or depth. Admittedly we couldn’t cover everything under the Sun. But we didn’t even discuss what options and choices policy makers have when confronted with rapidly evolving new media types.

Half anticipating this, I had included a line in my talk that said: “Academics must research, analyse & advise (policy makers). But are Lankan academics thought-leaders in ICT?

I was being a polite guest by not explicitly answering my own question (but as a helpful hint, I mentioned dinosaurs a few times!). In the end, my audience provided a clear (and sadly, negative) answer: far from being path-finders or thought-leaders, they are mostly laggards who don’t even realise how much they have to catch up!

And some of them are framing Lankan media policy and/or advising government on information society issues. HELP!

Don’t take my word for it. Just try to find ANY online mention of National Media Summit 2012 that just ended a few hour ago. Google indexes content pretty fast these days — but there is NONE that I can find on Google as May 25 draws to an end (except my own PPT on SlideShare!).

Or try accessing the Mass Communication Dept at University of Kelaniya. For the past few weeks and even now, it remains inaccessible while the rest of that university website works.

New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far? YES, for now, it does seem that way…

Just how many Internet users in Sri Lanka? Depends on whom you ask…

Have smartphone, will travel...

Just how many Internet users are there in Sri Lanka?

Looks like a simple question, but there’s no simple answer. Trust me, I’ve been looking.

Oh sure, it’s not possible to calculate such numbers precisely because there always are more users than are subscribers. But official and industry sources usually have a good idea. In Sri Lanka’s case, their figures vary considerably.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) is the official data collector. It used to publish a quarterly compendium of telecom industry related statistics.
The last such report, for December 2010, cites these cumulative figures for the whole of Sri Lanka by end 2010:
• Mobile phone subscribers: 17,359,312
• Fixed phone subscribers: 3,578,463
• Internet & Email Subscribers – fixed: : 280,000 (provisional figure)
• Mobile Broadband Subscribers: 294,000 (provisional figure)

The 2010 Annual Report of Central Bank of Sri Lanka, which provides an official state of the whole economy, draws on these statistics. However, in Chapter 3, on p59, it lists “Internet and e-mail” as 430,000, attributing it to TRCSL.

Although for the same point in time (Dec 2010), it doesn’t tally. TRCSL’s own data, when we add up fixed and mobile subscribers of Internet, comes to 574,000.

Both these state entities seem to be hooked on “email users” — a throw-back to the early dial-up days when some subscribers simply signed up for email facility and didn’t want web browsing as the latter was more costly. As far as I know, that demarcation disappeared years ago. But I may be wrong.

Even if we take the highest case scenario, of a total 574,000 Internet subscribers (fixed and mobile), it still comes to less than 3 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total population of 20 million (exactly how many people live on the island will be known after the latest census is taken in December 2011).

That’s the number of subscribers. The number of users is usually higher. Assuming an average 3 users per subscription, we can imagine around 1.72 million (approx 8 per cent of population) getting online. This calculation brings us closer to the number given for Sri Lanka in the Internet World Stats website. It lists for Sri Lanka: “1,776,200 Internet users as of Jun/10, 8.3% penetration, per ITU.”

As far as I know, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) collects national statistics from its member governments and collates them to discern regional and global trends. ITU’s free country data compilation on Internet users says Sri Lanka had 12.00 Internet users per 100 population in 2010.

The ITU focal point in Sri Lanka is the TRCSL, whose own published data is mentioned above. What am I missing here?

A researcher friend who had access to Wireless Intelligence, a subscription only service containing well over 5 million individual data points on 940 operators (across 2,200 networks) and 55 groups in 225 countries, found yet another statistic.

According to WI, Sri Lanka by end 2010 had:
• 1,971,018 mobile broadband subscribers
• 213,000 fixed broadband subscribers

This produced a total of 2,184,018 — which takes the percentage of population to almost 11%. And if we apply the same average number of 3 users, it could give us 30% of population accessing and using the Internet. But is that assumption of 3 users per subscription equally applicable to mobile devices? I’m not sure. I’ll wait for industry experts to clarify.

In fact, neither industry sources and researchers have a reliable figure of how many smartphones are in use in Sri Lanka. Because a significant number comes in through private channels (via returning travellers or Lankan expatriates), the looking simply at the import figures could be misleading. A conservative estimate is that at least one million smartphones with Internet access capability are in use. The number keeps growing.

Exactly how many such smartphone users go online on a regular basis? What kind of info do they look up? How long on average do they stay online per session?

If you know the answers, or have reflected on these, please share.

Let’s hope more reliable data would emerge from the 2011 countrywide census of population. An early report (July 2010) said: “Information will also be collected for the first time on people’s communication methods.”

4 April 2011: Fraudband or Broadband? Find out for yourself! New film tells how…

28 March 2011: What’s the universal icon for the Internet? Is there one?

Arthur C Clarke Institute in Sri Lanka: Time to ask some tough questions!

Read also: 4 Oct 2011: A Tale of Three Telescopes and a Blind News Media

Sir Arthur C Clarke at the ACCIMT in better times


For many years, I’ve been explaining and clarifying to everyone that I worked with the late Sir Arthur C Clarke in his personal office in Colombo, which was completely separate from a government entity named the Arthur C Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies in Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. This is not just an institutional demarcation; the latter body set up by the government of Sri Lanka in 1984 and sustained since then with public funding has completely under-served its founding ideals and remains mediocre and unproductive after a quarter century. I have no wish to be associated, even mistakenly, with such an entity.

I remained quiet about this for as long as Sir Arthur was alive, as it was not tactful for me – as part of his team – to criticise a state entity named in his honour. A year after his death, I broke that silence and wrote a media article which was published in the current affairs magazine Montage in April 2009.

That elicited some strange ‘reader comments’ on the magazine’s website — several of which alleged that I was a ‘traitor’ who was out to discredit the hard-working (‘Sinhala Buddhist’) engineers and managers of this institute! I could not fathom how and why the staff’s ethnicity or religious faith was relevant.

Beyond such vitriol, these pseudonymous ‘readers’ never once responded to my specific questions about the public-funded institute’s scientific productivity and public accountability.

Unfortunately, Montage went out of publication and its website, which was located at http://www.montagelanka.com, is also no longer available online. So in the public interest, I’m reproducing my article below, unedited as it appeared in print in April 2009. Alas, I never saved the online comments so those are probably lost forever…

As always, this blog is open to a rational discussion of the core issues raised below, as all the concerns still remain valid. And there are no ‘sacred cows’ in my book!

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Published in Montage magazine, Sri Lanka; April 2009 issue (print issue and
originally online at: http://www.montagelanka.com/?p=1476)

Monument for Sir Arthur C Clarke: Time to ask some tough questions

By Nalaka Gunawardene

As the first death anniversary of Sir Arthur C Clarke approaches, Lankans are still debating how best to cherish the memory of the celebrated author and visionary who called the island his home for more than half a century.

Ours is a land where private individuals — and governments –- just love to put up ostentatious and often superfluous structures to honour the departed. We typically don’t assess their cost-effectiveness or utility. Neither do we pause to ask how the person being honoured would have felt about it.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) recently announced plans to launch the country’s first satellite, which is to be named after Sir Arthur. According to news reports, it will be launched into low earth orbit (LEO) at an estimated cost around US$ 20 million.

Would naming Sri Lanka’s first satellite be a fitting tribute to Sir Arthur, universally acclaimed as inventor of the communications satellite (comsat)? Or should a monument to this ‘one man cheering squad for Sri Lanka’ be more rooted in the Lankan soil, where people can see and feel its presence everyday? And, by the way, what about the state technical institute in Moratuwa that already bears the Arthur Clarke name?

Sir Arthur, with whom I worked closely for 21 years as an aide and a decade as spokesman, would surely have wanted an open and frank debate on this matter. He opted for rational, evidence-based decisions based on cost-benefit analysis. He frowned upon grandiose plans made for their own sake, whether their implementation was going be paid for by public or private funds.

Besides, he already had an asteroid, dinosaur species and a geostationary comsat named after him during his lifetime. Topping that without going over the top would be a challenge indeed.

A living legacy

The tussle for the Clarke legacy started within hours of his death on 19 March 2008. He had left clear written instructions for his funeral to be held on a strictly secular and austere basis. He didn’t want any decorations, and explicitly disallowed official involvement by British or Lankan governments.

As this news spread, it fell on me to explain to government officials why offers of a state funeral and other types of state patronage could not be accommodated. This raised some eyebrows and dashed hopes of some who wanted to turn the sombre event into a carnival. In the end, the state appealed for a symbolic radio silence of two minutes to coincide with the funeral.

In the weeks and months that followed, many have asked me what kind of monument was being planned in Sir Arthur’s memory. The answer, as far as the Arthur Clarke Estate is concerned, is none –- and this seems to surprise many.

Yet it is entirely consistent with Sir Arthur’s personality and vision: he never sought personal edifices in his honour or memory. When a journalist once asked him about a monument, he said: “Go to any well-stocked library, and look around…”

That evokes memories of the well known epitaph for Sir Christopher Wren, one of the greatest architects of all time, who significantly changed London’s skyline: “Lector, Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice”(“Reader, if you seek his monument, look around”). It also begs the question why Sir Arthur chose not to make any mention of the physical entity that already bore his name: the Arthur C Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies (ACCIMT).

Indeed, the ACCIMT is today a perfect example of a good idea gone astray, becoming a disgrace to the very man it was meant to honour. How did things go wrong to the point where Sir Arthur Clarke distanced himself from the Arthur Clarke Institute in the last few years of his life? These thorny questions need to be asked now that we are discussing matters of legacy.

The world was very different, and aspirations were very high, when ACCIMT was established in 1984 by an Act of Parliament to help transfer and adopt modern technologies in five areas: computers, telecommunications, energy, robotics and space technology. The Institute, initially called the Arthur Clarke Centre, was to undertake research and development as well as train technical professionals in ways that would accelerate economic development and advance the quality of life.

Several leading Lankan professionals were associated with its creation. Among them were civil servant (later Minister) Dr Sarath Amunugama and diplomat (now academic) Dr Naren Chitty. In 1985, President J R Jayewardene appointed the eminent biochemist (and his science advisor) Professor Cyril Ponnamperuma as its founder director.

As patron, Sir Arthur had no executive functions or responsibilities, but generously provided advice, guidance and some funding to the fledgling institute. He donated US$ 35,000 received for the 1982 Marconi Fellowship. Just as importantly, he mobilised his far-flung network of international contacts in scientific, technological and engineering circles. The Arthur Clarke ‘fan club’ stretched far and wide -– from the White House to the Kremlin, and from elite academia to geeky Silicon Valley. Carrying this unique calling card, ACCIMT had access to a global reservoir of goodwill, partnerships and external funding.

Tragically, despite this head start and advantages, the Institute reaped little benefit. While it did show some early promise, it has failed to consolidate itself as a credible and productive technical institute. Its founding aim of becoming a centre of excellence for the developing world also flopped. When assessed using universally accepted measures of scientific productivity -– such as research publications in refereed international journals, peer citations and patents for innovation — it shows a dismally poor track record.

For sure, it has been dabbling with a few everyday technologies such as traffic lights, telephone locks and domestic gas leak alarms. Useful as these applications are in specific situations, they cannot justify 25 years of substantial investment of Lankan tax payer money as well as international donor funds.

March of ICTs

Perhaps an institute with this kind of lofty mandate could have been more influential at the apex policy level. The past 25 years have seen Sri Lanka adopting many new information and communication technologies or ICTs (e.g. mobile telephony in 1989, commercial internet connectivity in 1995). There has been an unprecedented and phenomenal growth in the coverage of telecom services. These developments have thrown up many policy and regulatory challenges for the state and private sector players.

Alas, ACCIMT has not kept up with the rapid evolution of information society, and failed to carve out a clear niche for itself even as Sri Lanka engages the Global Village through a multitude of ICTs. Its voice is neither heard nor heeded in key debates on bridging the digital divide, and on how best to prepare our youth to ‘exploit the inevitable’ in a globalised marketplace. These concerns were very dear to Sir Arthur, who continued to talk and write perceptively about them to the very end of his life. But ACCIMT is still stuck in the obsolete analog concerns of the 1980s.

Peer acceptance and recognition are indicators of any technical institute’s standing. ACCIMT would struggle to demonstrate its worth on these criteria. It is routinely bypassed by state policy making mechanisms and agencies. It is curious how the telecom industry regulator is spearheading the government’s newly announced satellite project. Why is ACCIMT, with a statutory mandate in this subject, not playing a more prominent role in such plans and discussions?

When the rest of government ignores the institute, it’s not surprising that technology-based industries don’t turn to it for advice either. The institute’s principal activity these days is conducting training courses in electronics — useful, no doubt, but for which purpose there already are several dedicated vocational training centres.

For much of its 25 years, the Arthur Clarke institute has taken cover behind its famous patron to avoid adequate public scrutiny. Large sections of society, including many in the media, harboured a misconception that Sir Arthur Clarke was personally involved in its management and research; in practice, he had none.

Early sparks

Things didn’t always look this bleak. For a while, it seemed as if the institute would live up to its founders’ expectations. For example, it was the first to downlink and relay CNN broadcasts in Sri Lanka. CNN founder Ted Turner‘s respect for Sir Arthur made this possible. The institute was also involved designing low-cost dish antennae for households to directly capture satellite TV transmissions in the 1980s when only two terrestrial channels were available. March of technology and commerce later made these services redundant.

One far-sighted activity that Professor Ponnamperuma started was the Science for Youth programme. On a national and competitive basis, 25 of the brightest high school leavers were selected and introduced to modern technologies over six consecutive weekends. Out of that exercise eventually emerged the Young Astronomers’ Association and Computer Society of Sri Lanka, the latter now a professional body.

As part of the 1986 batch, I can personally vouch for the insights and inspiration Science for Youth gave me in those pre-Internet days. I was especially fascinated by the outspoken views of inventor and aviator Ray Wijewardene. The friendship I formed with him has lasted for over two decades and enriched me enormously. Later, as a young science journalist, I used to cover the institute’s public events hosting of visiting tech pioneers and Russian cosmonauts. For a while, ACCIMT was a ‘happening place’.

Then, sometime in the 1990s, the institute abandoned most of its public engagement and outreach activities. This inward looking attitude didn’t change even after the government decided to locate the country’s largest optical telescope (donated by Japan) at the institute. I remember how exasperated Sir Arthur was to hear schools being told that they may visit and look at the telescope during the working hours from 9 am to 5 pm!

But by then, he was not going to intervene. After he turned 80 in 1997, Sir Arthur adopted a policy of ‘benign neglect’ towards the institute on which he had pinned such high hopes only years earlier. Ever conscious of his ‘resident guest’ status, he chose not to criticise the institute in public, although he shared his dismay and disappointment in private.

As we debate how best to preserve Sir Arthur’s illustrious legacy, we cannot afford to continue such ‘benign neglect’ on the publicly-funded Arthur Clarke Institute. A good starting point would be to belatedly ask tough questions and engage in some serious introspection.

Sir Arthur would have expected nothing less.

About the writer: Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene worked for Sir Arthur Clarke’s personal office, which was totally separate from the Arthur Clarke Institute. The views in this article are entirely those of the author.

Photographs courtesy Rohan de Silva, Arthur C Clarke Estate.

Read also these other critiques of the governmental Clarke Institute in Sri Lanka:

16 June 2010: Sri Lanka’s Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams: Asking difficult questions

4 Oct 2011: A Tale of Three Telescopes and a Blind News Media

9 Oct 2011: සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #35: දුර දැක්මක් නැති දූපතක දුරදක්නවල ඉරණම

FINALLY, SOME HOPE OF SALVAGING ARTHUR C CLARKE’S LEGACY — ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PLANET!

24 May 2013: New Arthur C Clarke Centre to study Human Imagination