Dreaming in Digital

Six months ago, we, in the midst of recovering from the delirium of Obama’s victory and promises of change, let ourselves be seduced by another changemonger’s campaign slogan. So what if “Digital Bangladesh” is nothing like “Yes We Can”? It was still just enough to make a disillusioned populace start to dream again.

And so, enraptured by this dream of change, like millions of Americans in early November, we swept a new government into power. “Digital Bangladesh” spoke to our hearts and souls, even if we had no idea what exactly it is that it meant.

Six months later, we still have no clue. And, even more worryingly, neither do the politicians who dreamt it up in the first place, it seems.

Let’s face it: Digital Bangladesh makes a great vision statement. Although it isn’t time-bound in any sense, it ranks up there with those tired old visions we’ve heard our politicians espouse so frequently – middle income country blah blah blah. At least it’s a newer, cooler vision, and is something that can appeal to the youth.

However, one would expect that, six months down the line, someone would at least have come up with a few accompanying mission statements, to articulate or explain what all this hype is about. But nobody’s done anything about it – the phrase remains just as ambiguous as it was six months ago. The longer it remains ambiguous, the more it will lose its allure.

We’ve seen this before – politicians hooking on to a concept or idea, then selling it to the people as the miracle cure for all societal or economic ills, and then beat that particular horse to death until nobody cares anymore.

So, in the absence of a proper explanation of Digital Bangladesh, I’m forced to create one myself. I see Digital Bangladesh as being the junction of two different dimensions – at least from the government’s point of view.

First, there’s the issue of service delivery. The e-governance train has long been a popular one for politicians, bureaucrats and civil society alike to jump aboard, but badly done e-governance is just as bad – if not worse – than none at all. What does this mean?

The government delivers services to its clients, whether they are civilians, businesses or institutions. We’ve all been through at least one such service delivery process: most readers have a passport, I’m sure. There are lots more we could potentially go through, but we tend to avoid them like the plague – they are all long, slow and terribly bureaucratic, not to mention cesspools of corruption and nepotism.

Transferring these inefficient processes to a computerized system won’t do any good for anyone – the delays will continue, and there will still be opportunities for corruption. What therefore needs to happen is that the government, prior to computerizing, needs to look at the entire process and find the steps that are unnecessary, or pose the greatest opportunity for corruption or harassment, and cut off these links in the chain. This will ensure government service delivery is simple, smooth and transparent, both online and offline.

The second dimension is the issue of infrastructure, which itself requires action on two fronts. The issue of physical infrastructure seems most challenging, but it can be easier than it looks: the government should let the private sector handle this entirely. GrameenPhone advertises its Community Information Centers, with computer access for all, and there are now computers on boats traversing our rivers. These days, you can buy a simple plug in device that turns your SIM card into a portable modem. Giving tax breaks to mobile companies who operate such free information centers would spur them to set up many more, since the marginal cost of an extra mobile intranet user is very low. The cost of the centers could easily be offset by the savings from the tax break; plus, it looks great from a CSR perspective.

Human infrastructure, however, is inherently more difficult. The government should help ensure that there is sufficient ability to use computers and online systems. These days, this is simpler and cheaper than ever – just the other day, I saw advertisements for computer training for 300 taka. What the government needs to do is provide this training for free to whoever wants it, or they can incentivize the private sector and NGOs to provide it on their behalf.

In the meantime, there are clearly lots of unemployed youth who are computer-literate who could help others use computers – a year or so ago, they were helping the Army build the new voter list. Reemploying them to help out in, or even run, Community Information Centers should be easy enough. Mobile companies can even franchise out these centers, like the way they’ve franchised FlexiLoad services.

Tying all of these dimensions together is a set of policies and regulations that enable and protect all these activities. We need tons of them – for data security, data integrity, data backup, system compatibility, online fraud prevention, electronic payments – the list is endless. All of these need to be in place before anything else can happen. At least by now, one would have expected the government to have assigned someone to start working on all of this. But nothing’s happened yet.

I’m writing this blog on a BlackBerry while listening to music on an iPod and texting on my mobile – clearly there’s no way I could become any more digital without becoming some sort of android. But for millions of Bangladeshis, Digital Bangladesh can make a massive difference in the way they live their lives. All they are waiting for is for the government to transform this vague vision into reality.

book reviewer? me? no way!

i realize this is very late, but it seems i’ve started a career as a professional book reviewer! here’s my review of “devil may care” by sebastian faulks, published in the daily star, bangladesh’s premier english language news source.

what’s that you say? one review doesn’t make a career? you’re probably right, but as it says at the bottom, i really wish i had more time to read books. i haven’t read one since this review came out. not even a page.

why i quit facebook…and other short stories

a week ago today, i fought my way through the maze-like account settings on facebook, and clicked on the “deactivate account” button. this was not done by mistake, by any means, but was completely intentional – heck, i even had to go to a second page that asked me, in big bold letters, “ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DO THIS?”, as if i was commiting some sort of grave affront to humanity. for those of who haven’t been to this dark side of facebook, the page also asks you why you chose to undertake this vile action, and lists some helpful suggestions. i chose the least intimidating, which is “i’m doing this temporarily, but will be back later.”

a week before that fateful day, i announced to the great black void that is my friends list that i was going to quit the site in 7 days. i’m not quite sure anyone believed me, and quite a few (you know who you are) thought i was doing it to get some more attention. like, seriously. do i strike you as the kind of person who craves attention so much that i would have to quit facebook to get it?

anyway. the reason for the 7 day deadline was that i wanted to migrate the features i found useful to some other platform, and craft an explanation for why i was doing such a drastic thing. however, given my addiction to procrastination, i probably should have given myself a period of 2-3 months, since i managed to do none of that. and so, two weeks later, here’s the long explanation for why i did this.

the reason one should be shocked that i quit facebook, if you need a reason for that, is because i used to be their biggest advertiser, at least in mouth-to-mouth terms. i got almost everyone in my office to join, even people who had never tried or considered social networking. within a couple of months, everyone was safely ensconced in everyone else’s friend lists.

i also spread adoption of facebook gaming, thanks to the 20-20 cricket game, which quickly became a whirlwind of activity and the topic of intense discussions and debates during working hours. it got to the point where the office had to ban playing facebook games during office hours altogether, because it “was consuming excessive amounts of bandwidth”. yeah, seriously. as if the use of youtube to watch funny videos by others wasn’t. thankfully, by then i had gotten bored of the game already, and had moved on.

given my amazingly high conversion ratio of people (only 1 colleague refused to join, out of 20-odd others), it was quite surprising to lots of people that i actually did end up quitting. but of course, there’s an explanation. here it is:

i quit facebook because i’m not good at keeping in touch with people.

yes, you did read it right. no, i’m not completely crazy.

you see, the main advertising tag line i used to sell people on facebook in the first place was that it was a fantastic and easy way to keep in touch with people. at the click of a mouse, you could find out what even your most obscure friends were up to, and use the knowledge that you gained about their lives, from their short status message, to make yourself feel that you were still as intimately connected as you were in first grade.

but that’s the problem. for people like me who suck at keeping in touch, that momentary glimpse into someone else’s life, as it scrolls through my news-feed, was as far as i got in terms of keeping in touch with them. i found myself not even bothering to write a sentence on their wall, and although i used to use it to keep tabs on birthdays, i found myself not even wishing people anymore. to me, the whole keeping in touch process had transformed into a very simple process, where just reading people’s statuses was enough, whereas i made no moves to ever drop a line or say something to them in passing.

in reality, keeping in touch with people is much harder, and requires a lot of work, something which i’ve never put in. as a result, i wanted to remove the illusion of appearing to keep in touch with 300-odd people from my life, so that i would make an effort to keep in touch with those people that matter to me. now i have to send emails, and make phone calls, and meet people to know what’s happening in their lives, instead of just reading a one-line status message and thinking i know everything there is to know about them.

of course, i’ll miss the site, because i had no end of talented photographers on my friends list, and so i could see some amazing pictures on an almost daily basis. plus, i also had some of the funniest people on my friends list, so i had no shortage of good humor available. and mob wars is a really addictive game, although it just involves clicking a mouse repeatedly.

but i’m hoping that now, i’ll finally be much better at being a friend, instead of just another profile in your friends list.