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Friday, 18 January 2019 08:41

Digital India versus Real India

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In the run-up to the general election, global tech companies must find ways to live with populism, pandering and paranoia.

As a digital destination, India is red-hot. After all, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his maiden appearance at Davos, had declared that he was replacing red tape with a red carpet; his administration had already embraced Digital India, the brand poised to displace the Incredible India of palaces, camels and yoga retreats. While Digital India is a mix of many public sector initiatives as well as private ones — such as a 4G network blanketing the nation with Internet access at throwaway prices — it needs the digital players from the outside. And these outside players have responded. Amazon was so gung-ho that it pledged $5 billion on cracking India. In response, arch-rival, Walmart, raised the bar by putting down $16 billion to secure its own toehold. Nevertheless, Amazon has dug in for the long haul; after “Prime” and “Alexa”, apparently, “India” is the third-most frequently used term in its recent letters to shareholders. Beyond the retail giants, there are the usual Silicon Valley suspects — Google, Facebook, Netflix, etc. — hoping to be the stewards of a digitally-emergent nation. Even Indian startups have felt the love. Ventures, mostly digital ones, have raked in over $10 billion in funding from overseas for two years in a row.

Modi’s “red carpet” call was issued from the Swiss mountains a year ago — in 2018. But, for now, welcome to 2019, notably, an election year. The digital CEOs jetting in expecting that red carpet must recognise that this is a year when “real” India takes precedence. They must also be able to distinguish between the many faces of real India and frame their strategies appropriately.

First, there is the India of small towns and villages that makes for riveting case studies in business school classrooms. This is the India where the nawabs of the Net go native: Finely calibrated products and processes are re-calibrated to suit the uniquely Indian context. Websites and apps are stripped-down to work with low-end phones. Local shopkeepers, whose businesses will be eviscerated by global e-commerce, are re-deployed to become the distribution agents of those e-commerce giants by taking to bicycles and two-wheelers to navigate the unpaved roads and unmarked addresses that Google Maps cannot locate. This is the India where digital players put aside their allergy to the analogue world and accept cold hard cash. This is the India where the Googles and Amazons must invest in translation to multiple language to ensure they are truly making inroads. Suffice it to say, any digital player serious about the Indian consumer has been working hard to figure out how to crack this facet of Indian reality.

Then, there is a second face of real — mostly urban — India attempting to grapple with the same struggles as their counterparts in the rest of the world: Balancing the conveniences and the sheer thrill of digital connectivity with concerns about violation of privacy and manipulation by nefarious groups. WhatsApp, India’s prime conduit for digital rumour-mongering, has taken several steps, ranging from public service advertisements and appointing a grievance officer (albeit one who is still based in California) and limiting forwarding of messages. It is unclear how effective these measures will be, particularly in advance of an election season. If the recent experience prior to the elections in Brazil — marked by an “unprecedented industrial use of disinformation” (according to the fact-checking organisation, Aos Fatos) — is any indicator, the Indian voters should brace themselves for a whirlwind ahead. The digital players are still fumbling in their attempts to address these concerns and will continue to grope around in the dark looking for a solution.

This brings us to a third face of real India that shows up prior to election season: A reality that is a perfect storm of populism, pandering and paranoia. For populism, one needs to look no further than the world’s digitally most connected politician. Prime Minister Modi continues to brand himself as a champion of the aspirational middle-class and has seized the political narrative using digital tools, such as the NaMo app. This is just fine, except that when the NaMo app comes pre-installed in 40 million Reliance Jio phones, the branding begins to feel a tad Orwellian. When Modi’s image is, in turn, used in advertisements for “Jio Digital Life”, the Orwellian circle is complete.

Then there is the pandering. Apart from the cozy connections with certain large businesses as evidenced above, pandering takes place in the form of protectionism on behalf of local businesses, both large and small. Recent draft government rules suggest a plan to require that Indian users’ data be stored locally. Since international digital players typically store data in servers around the world, this would drive up their storage costs disproportionately. This would, obviously, please local businesses and work in the current administration’s favour in an election. To pile on the munificence to local businesses, the Modi administration recently tightened rules on international e-commerce players, effectively preventing them from selling products from affiliated vendors or selling proprietary products at discounted prices. This, too, builds much-needed goodwill prior to elections. One can only hope that there is no demonetisation 2.0 that is sprung on the country given how well that worked in pandering to the “ordinary man”.

Finally, to see paranoia in action consider the home ministry’s recent authorisation extended to 10 government agencies with rights to access user data “for the purposes of interception, monitoring and decryption of any information generated, transmitted, received, or stored in any computer resource”. All of this, of course, runs counter to the Supreme Court’s determination of citizens having a fundamental right to privacy. Even though government surveillance can, in theory, be carried out on anyone, it is fair to assume that it could have a chilling effect on the administration’s critics and political opponents.

Each of these pre-election moves can be confounding to the uninitiated international CEO and it is unclear if they are in the best interests of the users. I am afraid, even the world’s most sophisticated digital players haven’t figured out how to deal with this face of real India, that is, the politically charged India of the election season where the red tape abruptly returns and replaces the red carpet.

The lesson is clear: Digital India can never out-run the real India; the two must share the same road. Much like on the very real roads of India, digital players must learn how to swerve, speed up and hit the brakes at any time. They must constantly “blow horn” to make a noise and ensure their presence is felt. If it doesn’t figure out how to do the swerve-speed up-brake and blow horn routine, digital India will be on a collision course with real India — and there is little doubt which India will win.

Ever the wordsmith, Prime Minister Modi had remarked in an early trip to Japan: “We used to play with snakes, now we play with the mouse. When we move a mouse, the whole world moves.” My one piece of advice to Amazon, Walmart, Google and all others of their ilk: Don’t get too comfortable with that mouse. We still play with snakes.

Courtesy - Indian Express

The Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) satellite is scheduled to be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on September 15.

NASA is launching a laser-armed satellite next month that will measure — in unprecedented detail — changes in the heights of Earth’s polar ice to understand what is causing ice sheets to melt fast. In recent years, contributions of melt from the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica alone have raised global sea level by more than a millimeter a year, accounting for approximately one-third of observed sea level rise, and the rate is increasing.

Called the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2), the mission is scheduled to be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on September 15, NASA said in a statement late on Thursday. ICESat-2 will measure the average annual elevation change of land ice covering Greenland and Antarctica to within the width of a pencil, capturing 60,000 measurements every second.

“The new observational technologies of ICESat-2 will advance our knowledge of how the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica contribute to sea level rise,” said Michael Freilich, Director of the Earth Science Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

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ICESat-2 will improve upon NASA’s 15-year record of monitoring the change in polar ice heights. It started in 2003 with the first ICESat mission and continued in 2009 with NASA’s Operation IceBridge, an airborne research campaign that kept track of the accelerating rate of change. ICESat-2’s Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) measures height by timing how long it takes individual light photons to travel from the spacecraft to Earth and back.

“ATLAS required us to develop new technologies to get the measurements needed by scientists to advance the research,” said Doug McLennan, ICESat-2 Project Manager. “That meant we had to engineer a satellite instrument that not only will collect incredibly precise data, but also will collect more than 250 times as many height measurements as its predecessor,” he added.

Also Read: NASA chief excited about prospects for exploiting water on Moon

ATLAS will fire 10,000 times each second, sending hundreds of trillions of photons to the ground in six beams of green light. With so many photons returning from multiple beams, ICESat-2 will get a much more detailed view of the ice surface than its predecessor. As it circles Earth from pole to pole, ICESat-2 will measure ice heights along the same path in the polar regions four times a year, providing seasonal and annual monitoring of ice elevation changes. Beyond the poles, ICESat-2 will also measure the height of ocean and land surfaces, including forests.

Courtesy - Indian Express


Contrary to popular claim, e-cigarettes are not safe. According to a study, they may be safer in terms of the cancer risk, but they can damage immunity, disable lung cells and cause inflammation.

Vaping or smoking e-cigarettes has been found to be a harmful practice. According to a study, it can damage immunity, disable cells in the lungs and cause inflammation, a BBC report says. The study was led by professor David Thickett at the University of Birmingham and has been published online in the journal Thorax. Contrary to popular claim, e-cigarettes are not safe.

In order to arrive at the conclusion, researchers devised a mechanical device that mimicked vaping at the laboratory. Lung tissue samples provided by non-smokers were used to carry out the experiment. It was found that the vapour led to inflammation and damaged activity of alveolar macrophages — cells that aid in removing dust particles, allergens and bacteria. It was concluded that further research was needed to get a better understanding of the health impact of vaping as the study was carried out within the confines of the laboratory.

Thickett said, “I don’t believe e-cigarettes are more harmful than ordinary cigarettes. But we should have a cautious scepticism that they are as safe as we are being led to believe. They are safer in terms of cancer risk – but if you vape for 20 or 30 years, it can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” Thickett was quoted saying, according to a report in The Sun.

Public Health England, however, considers vaping safer than traditional cigarettes. It believed that e-cigarettes can help one overcome the habit of smoking and should be allowed on prescription.


Courtesy - Indian Express