Centre for Internet & Society

Parmesh Shahani enters the New Year inspired by the various ideas he’s been exposed to in The Hague and Lavasa.

The time between December and January is the time to hit the ‘re’ button. Re-fresh. Re-start. Re-think. Re-imagine. One’s own self as well as the world around us. It is the time for new ideas. The year is just beginning and everything is possible. I decide to spend this time by taking a short learning break away from the Radia tapes, 2G scams, WikiLeaks and what have you.

My first stop is Amsterdam where I go to museum hop for exactly one day. My friends are surprised when I tell them that I’m not doing any weed, and that, yes, I’ve seen it but no, the red light district isn’t really my thing. “Well, you can’t really say you’re in Amsterdam,” declares a particularly wise one to me over Facebook.

I politely disagree. My visit is intensely enjoyable and I manage to pack in the Anne Frank House (very moving, especially if you’ve read the diary, and who hasn’t?), Rijksmuseum’s famed Rembrandt masterpieces as well as the Van Gogh Museum (indescribably moving, despite the line of tourists) all in one day. It helps that I am staying at the super luxurious Sofitel The Grand. The renovated 16th century royal guest house is full of heritage listed heirlooms showcasing Amsterdam’s history dating back to 1578, so my art tour continues even after I return from my outside excursions.

Not for too long, because I quickly have to rush to The Hague, where Nishant Shah and Sunil Abraham (who together run the Centre for Internet and Society in Bengaluru, and are in my mind, two of the smartest people living in India right now) have collaborated with the Dutch organisation Hivos to put together a thinkathon on ‘Digital Natives with a Cause?’ This is the third event in a series on technology, youth and engagement, that began in Taipei, moved on to Johannesburg, and will finally end in Santiago, Chile this coming February.

Nishant and Hivos’ fabulous Fieke Jansen set the tone by talking about why the question mark at the end of the title ‘Digital Natives for a Cause?’ is important. Can one think of digital natives as simply youth who have grown up with technology or can we include other older people within this term? What does it mean talking about digital natives and questions of transformation and change? What does it mean to even have a cause? Does a cause have to be framed in certain language? I discuss and debate all of this and much more with an incredible group of change-making activists, policy makers and artists from all over the world.  

 Art installation

These include folks like Prabhas Pokherel from UNICEF Kosovo, Eddie Avila from Rising Voices Bolivia, Dorothy Okello from the Women of Uganda Network, and Simeon Oriko from the Kuyu Project in Kenya. I’m fascinated by all that they are doing. Kuyu, for instance, aims to teach young African students how to use various forms of social media to make a positive impact in their communities, through online Wikis, mobile phone networks and digital training camps. Nonkululekho Godana’s uniquely South African fashion sense catches my eye and we discuss shopping during the fun dinners, each of which is at a spectacular location in The Hague. Our thinkathon venue is the Museum of Communication, which itself is very special, with its talking installations and special multimedia galleries.

Blank Noise 

Being here gives me a chance to meet Sam Gregory from Witness, Peter Gabriel’s organisation and website that trains and equips individuals across the world to use video to document human right violations and effect change. I’ve been a big fan of what they’re doing ever since they started. It’s also great to hang out with Ushahidi’s Juliana Rotich, even if it’s only for a little while. Ushahidi develops free open source software for information collection, visualisation and interactive mapping that anyone can use to further their cause. For example, Vote Report India – that catalogued the 2009 general elections – was built on this platform. 

I am extremely happy with the quality time I share with co-TED fellow Jasmeen Patheja. I’m sure that you’ve heard of her Blank Noise Project; it is a physical and virtual artistic intervention that aims at creating public awareness about eve teasing. See http://blog.blanknoise.org/ or the image of one of their Bengaluru park interventions that accompanies this column. Jasmeen has just returned from Tokyo where she’s been cataloguing Japanese women’s stories about harassment. Together, we roll our eyes at how similar men all over the world are!

At the thinkathon, a hot topic of discussion is slactivism or slacker activism that a lot of social media seems to be promoting. Is signing an online petition the same as protesting on the ground, in real life? How might we conceptualise a button clicker as an agent for social transformation? Beyond this, how might we engage digital natives in terms of policy-making processes?

I mull over all these questions on my crazy 30-hour journey from snow-bound The Hague to the artificially created city of Lavasa on the outskirts of Pune. Jetlagged as hell, I make it just in time for the first talk of the INK India conference. Compared to last year’s TED, I find everything to be smaller at INK, including the audience. The Bollywood night with Kunal Ganjawala, for instance, has about 20 people dancing in front of the stage as opposed to the 100 or so from last year. And, there are problems galore, with the poorly organised transportation, constantly crashing sound system, and general organisational chaos. 


I’ve been a Lavasa sceptic ever since I heard about the project and now that I’m finally visiting, I see my worst fears have been realised. It feels like being on the set of the Truman show, with the fake looking lake, pastel coloured houses, and ever-smiling and possibly ever-afraid staff members. It seems like, at least to me, that they have been trained to not draw attention to themselves, to forcibly ‘invisibilise’ themselves, lest they prick the bubble of the middle-class fantasy of an idyllic foreign-like ‘home’. I continue to be surprised as to why the conference organisers would chose a location like this to host a conference that aims to showcase the best of innovation and knowledge. The court cases against Lavasa that are being flashed on the national news even while INK is taking place, don’t really help very much in making me change my views.

But despite the logistical hiccups and weird choice of location, INK still manages to score for me on the sheer power of its excellent speakers, and I’m glad to have been there. Where do I begin, even with the highlights? Should I tell you about James Cameron’s effortless charm, as he offers his 3D cameras to Indian filmmakers who might want to play with them? Deepak Chopra’s incredible mind on display making connections between the sub-atomic and the Vedic? Phillipe Starck’s sense of humour and his overall design genius that he wears so lightly on his oh-so French sleeves?


How about Jennifer Aaker’s incredible talk that begins with an emotional story about a bone marrow transplant, loops into a campaign to improve the number of registered South Asian bone marrow donors, and ends with her understanding of what happiness is? Or Matt Groening’s video of his father doing basketball throws, backward, while he tells us just why he named Homer Simpson’s character after him?

Just like with TED last year, the Indian speaker contingent is very inspiring. Toy inventor Arvind Gupta is a livewire on stage as he rapidly shows us one toy after the other, made from material like newspapers, old CDs, straws, matchsticks, and pencils. Clay innovator Mansukhbhai Prajapati shows us the clay filters and fridges that he makes for poor consumers in India that need such products but cannot afford their conventional avatars. Commonwealth 4x400 relay gold medallist Ashwini Akkunji recounts how her athletic career started out by running after cattle in her village in Karnataka. Conductor George Mathew talks about how a New York mugging in which he was almost beaten to death became a music lesson after his muggers found his metronome in his pocket.

Anand Kumar, founder of the ‘Super 30’ classes in Bihar that train impoverished rural youth to get into the IITs, gets a standing ovation. It is good to catch up with TED stars from last year like India’s youngest headmaster Babar Ali, who is continuing to scale up his school, or Sunita Krishnan, who has used her Google grant money to build an impressive centre for women survivors of violence.  

However, my best talk is by Simon Lewis, who has produced films like Look Who’s Talking in Hollywood. Simon shares his personal story of a car crash that almost ended his life but set him off on a quest to rebuild both his mind and body, piece by piece, using technology and willpower every step of the way.


He has meticulously captured this journey in his book Rise and Shine, which you should read this year, if you can. I want to leave you with http://www.thevisualmd.com/, which is a website you should visit. INK speaker Alexander Tsiaras has shared his nine visual rules of wellness here. Check it out and see if you want to follow them in 2011. I certainly do.

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