Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Truths about Web revolutions

So, Zuckerberg’s puppy can have its own Facebook page but Chinese dissidents using pseudonyms are out of luck?” A few days ago, this was the Twitter status of writer Evgeny Morozov, who was referring to Facebook’s decision to ban a Chinese activist from opening an account using a pseudonym that has otherwise been used to publish articles in major publications. Belarus-born Morozov, currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University, is the best man to cast aspersions at social networking sites’ claims of being a catalyst for modern-day uprisings. His book, The Net Delusion: How Not To Liberate The World, is a massive takedown of the recent Twitter and Facebook revolutions. Here’s the opening salvo: “Today’s authoritarianism is of the hedonism and consumerism-friendly variety, with Steve Jobs and Ashton Kutcher commanding far more respect than Mao or Che.” Just when you start dismissing it as polemic on crack, Morozov has some chilling facts to back him. Only 0.027 per cent of Iranians were registered on Twitter on the eve of the controversial 2009 elections and Al-Jazeera said at one point there were only 60 active Twitter accounts in Tehran. Even the usually subdued The Economist chose a jingoistic headline when Iran was a simmering cauldron: “Twitter-1 CNN-0”.

To Morozov’s credit, he never goes over the top with his denunciations of “slacktivism”, the tendency to tweet and Facebook about social causes without ever going to the place where it’s happening. Some of the chapter titles take the most delicious stabs at the digital equivalent of burning bras and talking politics in cafes: “Why the KGB wants you to join Facebook”, “Why Kierkegaard hates slacktivism”, “Hugo Chavez would like to welcome you to the spinternet”, and “Orwell’s favourite lolcat”.

Morozov says Twitter and Facebook might give impetus to a fledgling movement but then it soon fizzles out because there is no one to take up the mantle to get people together in the real world. It would be foolhardy to proclaim the recent revolution in Egypt as victory for Twitter. Growing unemployment numbers and a stagnant economy is all it took for the Egyptians to congregate at Tahrir Square in Cairo. Thusly, cometh the hour, cometh the revolution.

The fact that Morozov is so bearish about the Internet is because he can see through its pretensions: “While many praised Twitter’s role in publicising and promoting political demonstrations in Iran, the death of Michael Jackson on June 25, 2009, quickly overtook the protests as the site’s most popular topic.” So, as you can see, this butterfly is yet to emerge from the chrysalis.

If Twitter is supposed to be digital samizdat for the dissidents, it can be used as propaganda by authoritarian regimes too. After opening his Twitter account, Venzuela’s president Hugo Chavez declared the site his “secret weapon” and that Internet can be used for “ideological battle as well”. All tweets by the official ID of North Korean regime are in Korean. And not so long ago, 50 Facebook groups sprang up online to support the presidency bid of Gamal Mubarak, son of Hosni Mubarak (until recently the President of Egypt). Hell, even China and Ajerbaijan quell revolutions in their own ingenuous ways.

Russia adopts a different tack: The Tits Show, the weekly show hosted by, the country’s foray into Internet television supported by Kremlin’s ideologues, shows a “horny and slightly overweight young man travel around Moscow nightclubs in search of perfect breasts…”, the idea being that any generation that is seduced by technology and sleaze will never have time to take part in a protest.

In a chapter titled “Why the KGB wants you to join Facebook”, Morozov lends gold standard to this aphorism: “Never wrestle with a pig. You just get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” Earlier the Big Brother had to literally oversee what everyone is up to but post-Internet, all it takes is to induce software called keylogger into anyone’s computer and the unwitting person is inching towards his proverbial grave with every following keystroke. Morozov makes a grave prognostication in this regard: “As long as most virtual activities are tied to physical infrastructure — keyboards, microphones, screens — no advances in encryption technology could eliminate all the risks and vulnerabilities.”

Morozov is mostly on the money in The Net Delusion but on a few occasions he tends to jump the shark. He proposes a rap on the knuckles of whoever believes that climate change is a hoax; he’s hardly scathing about WikiLeaks for all the irrevocable damage it’s inflicting on diplomacy; resorts to platitudes like “a knife can be used to kill somebody, but it can also be used to carve wood”; an entire chapter is devoted to drawing parallels between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 2009 revolution in Iran, which is a no-brainer judging by the fact that the former has had an indelible impact on history.

The book loses its steam at the end when he blathers on cyber-utopia and “technological fixes”— “make the world’s knowledge available to everyone; take photos of all streets in the world”— without making any headway. Then again, there’s so much to take home from Morozov’s brave and, more important, successful attempt to clean the Augean stables. Despite the Sisyphean task at hand, Morozov ensures that reading the book is a pleasure and never a chore thanks to his writing that throbs like a Led Zeppelin song.

Evgeny Morozov,
Allen Lane,
408 pages; Rs 550

The crash and after

Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that’s wrong.” So said Charles Ferguson accepting the 2010 Oscar for ‘Best Documentary’ for his film Inside Job.

The biggest global financial crisis after 1929 has spawned a number of books, but strangely, it has not inspired too many films. America’s film-makers, it seems, have not taken to it the way they have other momentous events such as Vietnam, 9/11, Iraq and, lately, Afghanistan. Perhaps, it is also because they feel that any analysis of the subject would end up partly blaming the homeowners — in this case, the movie-going audience — for the crisis, and naturally Hollywood studios don’t want to alienate their consumers.

Inside Job is one of the few films on the subject. But this is no gloom and doom story: instead of grainy images of the stock market crash, Ferguson begins with the sylvan locales of Iceland, once hailed as a safe financial bet, and proceeds to strip bare the layers of mystery surrounding the economic recession.

Matt Damon’s stern but sensitive voiceover strings together Ferguson’s interviews with Eliot Spitzer, Nouriel Roubini, financial lobbyists, university professors, journalists, bankers and writers. Most film-makers would have baulked at using too much financial jargon, but not Ferguson. Here credit must go to the graphics that make exotic derivatives such as credit-default swaps and collateralised debt obligations comprehensible to the layman. Ferguson’s research is evident in every frame.

What brought things to such a pass is better explained in Michael Moore’s Capitalism A Love Story (2009). But while Inside Job is a sprawling study of corporate greed, this one is a stab at the very pillar of US corporate culture, epitomised by the famous Gordon Gekko line from Wall Street: “Greed is good”. Moore is, of course, his rabble-rousing self when depicting Wall Street and Washington as cohorts (“Government Goldman”) but he introspects by harking back to Franklin D Roosevelt’s idea of a near financial utopia in 1936. For Moore, Ronald Reagan is the man responsible for Wall Street’s decadence. The documentary’s high point is its conjuring up of a hole in a dam that finally opened the floodgates, as happened in the fall of 2008.

While war movies have a set template, there is no formula for films on the economy. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is perhaps the most definitive Great Depression film and the “run on the bank” was last seen in 1946 in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Ever since, Hollywood has been celebrating the Great American Dream.

Thus, the two recent Hollywood flicks on recession need to seen with greater consideration. Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (2010) is a sequel to the 1989 hit Wall Street and centres around Gordon Gekko, out after 20 years in jail. His handphone is now sleeker compared to the brick he brandished earlier, but that remarkable snarl is intact.

While the first half breezes through with Shia LaBeouf and Douglas talking financial argot on New York streets and Josh Brolin’s spirited performance, the second half gets all gooey with Douglas trying to patch up with his daughter, Carey Mulligan.

The other release, The Company Men (2011), is Hollywood’s somewhat ironic take on Luke’s Gospel: “Blessed are the poor; woe to the rich”. The plot centres around three high profile executives — Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones — going through a career low. It’s tough to empathise with someone like Affleck who has led a hitherto charmed life with a $110,000 salary and now must take up a $10-an-hour job to bring food to the table. Who in his right frame of mind will give a toss about Cooper not having the money to send his daughter backpacking to Italy?

This may seem decadent to most viewers, but the fact remains that Cooper and Affleck represent an aggrieved lot. At the nadir of the recession, only the CEOs could keep their heads above water. Those in the middle level were left in the lurch. Somewhere in the three lives shown in The Company Men lies a parable for those spewing venom at white-collar employees: These people might not be good, but they are not all bad.

Talking heads in print

In this age of the sound bite, the 24x7 news cycle, multitasking and the new media, books are a threatened entity and, therefore, need to be patronised more than ever before. That’s a good enough reason to fete journalist and columnist (including for this paper) Sunil Sethi, who has been hosting the weekly literary show Just Books on NDTV Profit since early 2005. The Big Bookshelf is a compilation of his interviews with 30 famous writers on the show.

The book’s masterstroke is that apart from interviews with writers from the rarefied world of literary fiction (Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Gunter Grass, etc.), there are conversations with unabashed shtick peddlers (Chetan Bhagat, Shobhaa De, Khushwant Singh, Ken Follett, Jeffrey Archer, etc.). So, you have 230-odd pages of rare insight into the minds of authors, who continue to hold the world in thrall with their words and imaginary worlds.

You have Nadeem Aslam speaking about his writing regimen in his struggling days. “For about three months every year I would do two jobs at the same time. Then for the next three months I would not work and live on that money.” Umberto Eco draws parallels between the social tensions of medieval and modern world: “Our whole story was once a struggle between cities and states but, now, we don’t need external enemies because we have so many internal enemies.” Patrick French laments at the seduction of technology as a sign of doom for future biographers: “Once we start the use of cellphones, all the intimate exchange of letters… disappears. When we are texting, again there is a whole area of communication that disappears. It is almost as if communication, though getting technically better, does not let the result survive.”

Paul Theroux can be seen washing V S Naipaul’s dirty linen: “Naipaul is a very odd man. If you have interviewed him, I don’t have to tell you how he will rebuff you, or jump down your throat, or bite your nose off, if you ask him the wrong question”. The Alexander McCall Smith interview is a real cracker where the man talks about Precious Ramotswe, the protagonist of the immensely popular The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Whoever has read the books that are talked about will be pleased as punch. That said, the interviews shine not because of Sethi but despite him thanks to the impressive roster of writers to whom he spoke. I never expected his interviews to rock me from my prefrontal cortex to my toes, something I experience when I read the interviews in Paris Review. Maybe, it’s the tyranny of television that allows Sethi a quarter of an hour at the most (the show’s duration is half-an-hour) to conduct the interview, which is never enough to etch out a writer’s beliefs.

I have been following his show for a few years now and Sethi has always come across as genial and gregarious. I am definitely not holding that against him but Sethi would have been more on the money if the charming facade had a literary dash to it.

One look at the Chetan Bhagat interview and you will know what I mean, “When you see Hrithik Roshan or Shahrukh Khan on screen, you feel, ‘Oh, they’re so great but in no way I can be them.’ But when they see me they think, ‘Oh, well, he kind of looks like me. Maybe one day I could get there if I work as hard’.” A more careful interviewer would have cut short this narcissistic rambling but Sethi allows Bhagat to indulge in his delusions. Bhagat could do with some humility; in comparison to his work, even Khushwant Singh looks like Camus.

Speaking at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, writer Kiran Desai said the world assumes that writers are some sort of diplomats, who are supposed to take a grand stand on every major burning issue across the globe. This is exactly the sort of booby trap Sethi walks into more than once during the interviews. Every foreign writer offers token appreciation to the ever surging Indian economy but in the same breath reminds the reader that the rich-poor disparity is vast and is of the on-your-face kind.

The Big Bookshelf might never be more than the sum of its parts but, hey, the “parts” are often terrific. “Reading, my dear, is the only training for a writer from a young age. You only become a writer by being a compulsive reader,” says Nadine Gordimer on the rite of passage to be a man of letters. Here’s a Paul Theroux tip to aspiring travel writers: “Go away. Yes. Leave home, leave your parents and leave all the comforting things that hold you back… because if you stay… people will always ask you what you are doing, what you are writing, what you are publishing? They ask you questions that you can’t answer.” Sample this William Dalrymple quote: “Books are like children, they lead their own lives after you publish them.” Something like that alone is worth the admission price.

It’s easy to dismiss this book as a boondoggle that hardly adds colour to a writer’s persona. But then, it might be a harbinger for similar anthologies, hopefully more readable ones at that.

Sunil Sethi
Penguin Books
240 pages; Rs 350

Weak end to the crisis sagas

The economic recession that the world stumbled into seems to have caused larger damage to the forests than banks. Add Maria Bartiromo’s The Weekend That Changed Wall Street to the “recession literature” shelf that is already packed to the rafters. Aided by Catherine Whitney, the CNBC anchor recalls the tumultuous weekend of September 12-14, 2008 when Lehman Brothers went under, Merrill Lynch sold itself to Bank of America, the stock market was in the toilet and AIG became a ward of the federal government.

Bartiromo has been reporting from the New York Stock Exchange for 17 years and this book is a testament to the contacts she made over the years. Her face is after all that launched, literally, a thousand shows (Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo) and according To Gordon Gekko of Wall Street 2, she’s a huge hit even among Gekko’s prison inmates.

The Weekend is mostly a blow-by-blow account of “the major-league powwow” between the Wall Street elite (except Lehman) and the then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Federal Reserve Chairman Tim Geithner and their associates, who had their nuts against a cheese grater over Lehman Brothers future. In March 2008, the government provided an emergency loan to Bear Stearns to orchestrate a fire sale to JP Morgan. But bailing out Lehman Brothers would surely have raised the bogey of “moral hazard” and thus a repeat of Bear Stearns was ruled out. This book is an unwitting ode to the master brinkmanship of Bank of America and Barclays, who pulled out of a near-emerging deal at the nth hour. It was a rare moment of selflessness among the other investment banks that were willing to stump up a substantial amount to keep Lehman’s head above water at least for a while. It’s another thing that it never fructified.

The other part of this slim book is dedicated to the ripple effects that were seen in other countries and how the financial world might pan out post-recession. Bartiromo’s reporting is to be seen all over the book and it adds the necessary colour to an event that has been chronicled ad nauseam. Sample her description of Paulson: “Hank Paulson, I had learned from experience, was very good at talking lots and saying little.” Sometimes the same colour turns garish. Maria quotes a Lehman source as telling her, “Look, I’ve got to run. Talk to you later.” I would like to meet any reader who gives a toss about that.

The Weekend is one of those books that are written so that the writer isn’t accused of a dereliction of duty. What is supposed to be a massive takedown of the financial experts instead turns into an exercise of self-aggrandisement. The implicit message throughout this rudderless book is that no one can afford to snub Bartiromo. It must be true that former Lehman CEO Dick Fuld apologised to her for the “chilly reception” he gave to her at a party in 2009 but that fact didn’t contribute to the book’s narrative in any way.

And frankly, I didn’t give a monkey about the glorious mayhem Wall Street kingmaker Steve Scharzman wrought on Bartiromo’s former apartment after buying it. “Gayfryd Steinberg (Bartiromo’s mother-in-law), a woman of impeccable taste, had remodeled the apartment… and her work had been, in my opinion, sheer perfection. Christine (Steve’s wife) gutted the place and spent a year on multimillion-year overhaul.” I empathised with Bartiromo as much as with the bankers who were crying themselves hoarse over lower compensation during the recession: zilch.

A book of this magnitude needs a gripping narrative and to be better than the best Dashiel Hammet or Chandler, “unputdownable”, like Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail and Michael Lewis’s The Big Short. Bartiromo falls flat on that account. Seventeen years of television experience is to be seen in staccato sentences, superfluous exclamations and a semi-cliché in every sentence.

There are some flashes of brilliance in this overwrought book. Like the lesser-known fact that Wachovia’s Achilles heel was a California-based mortgage company called Golden West Financial, which was acquired by the former for $24 billion. The company’s “Pick-a-Pay” programme “allowed borrowers to pay low monthly amounts, delaying what they owed by adding to the loan principal. People ended up owing far more than their properties were actually worth.”

Vikram Pandit, the Citibank chief, displayed rare candour when he was speaking with Bartiromo about the Basel liquidity requirements for banks that called for $3-5 trillion in liquidity. “Where do you think that money will come from?” he asked rhetorically, “The lending pool.”

This good work was undone by what looked like a wishy-washy approach to the book. With the benefit of hindsight, Bartiromo could have delved deeper as to why Lehman was denied a bailout after which troubled banks were given $767 billion in the name of Troubled Asset Relief Programme. Insinuating personal rancour between Fuld and Paulson is a classic case of barking up the wrong tree. She should have built up on this particular Paulson quote: “There is a difference between a capital problem and a liquidity problem.” To think of it, if she wasn’t painting by numbers she might have turned out a more rigorous book.

Maria Bartiromo with Catherine Whitney
Pages 232; Rs 958