Innovation can’t be mandated, you need intelligent discourse and … punk rock
On-going attempts to stifle or manipulate online discourse
DIGITAL News Asia (DNA) readers may have noticed that last week, we started a short series on our favourite stories from last year. It’s about our own stories which we are most proud of, which resonated the most, or which we just loved doing.
DNA founder Karamjit Singh kicked it off with his own favourite five, and now it’s my turn. I was in a bit of a quandary though: As executive editor, my primary role is to make sure DNA has the best content out there, and looking back over the last year, the stories I love most were those from my colleagues.
But since the series is about our own stories, I had to lower the bar somewhat. So these are my favourite stories, in no particular order:
Disrupt: Heartfelt lessons, honesty and founder war stories
The problem with interviewing people when you’re a journalist is that most people tend to put their guard up. It doesn’t matter even if you guarantee that some things will be off-the-record. After all, they’re talking to someone whose profession is delving into and disseminating information.
It also happens when people speak at public events. More so at public speaking events where there are journalists present.
The monthly DNA-TeAM Disrupt panel sessions, organised by DNA and the Technopreneurs Association of Malaysia (TeAM), have in the more than two years since we have started, become quite known for the honesty and openness of their discussions.
But even I was not prepared for this particular session in April, which featured Aaron Gill of GrabTaxi/ MyTeksi; Azrul Rahim, a DNA Digerati50 and founder of Slashes & Dots; and Cheryl Yeoh, who had just assumed her role as chief executive officer of the Malaysian Global Innovation Centre (MaGIC).
The topic was Leadership lessons from startups, but the discussion went into the three panellists’ war stories, and they even shared their personal stories.
It was a discussion, as I wrote then, “that saw more than its usual share of brutal honesty and heartfelt learnings, down to the level where sometimes the panellists actually said, ‘Please don’t tweet this or write this down; I’m only sharing this with you guys’.”
And they did – and certainly not all that they said was reported because we kept to our word. I would like to believe that those who attended this particular session took home more than their usual learnings, especially this one: You had to be there.
Innovation: More punk rock and counterculture needed
One of the things any journalist has to struggle with is maintaining the proper level of cynicism and objectivity when you’re interviewing someone who agrees with some of your deepest-held beliefs.
It’s even harder when that interview is so enjoyable and the interviewee so interesting and informal, that you’d rather be doing it over a pint or two at the nearest pub.
Speaking to Swedish futurologist and author Magnus Lindkvist (pic above) was pretty much like that. It wasn’t just an interesting interview, it was an interesting chat that started with him asking me questions first: Why am I doing what I’m doing, why we started DNA, what challenges have we faced so far, when did I pierce my ears … the works.
But it’s not just that he was an interesting interviewee – the subject of innovation goes to the heart of what DNA has been covering since our inception, and Lindkvist was just as sceptical as I about government-mandated innovation programmes, especially those by repressive governments that discourage frank and open discussions, which I’ve written about before.
Our discussion veered into countercultural movements and, of course, punk rock. Lindkvist believes innovation can only happen “with that kind of punk rock, rebellious, destructive-creative mindset.”
Years ago, when I was working in The Star, Malaysia’s No 1 English daily, I wrote that punk rock in the 1970s “was all about change. At times chaotic and anarchic, but it was about change and transformation and going against established norms.”
At the time, I was referring to sociopolitical change, but the same applies to innovation and the startup ecosystem here in Malaysia, as well as in South-East Asia as a whole.
I still find it hard to believe that entrepreneurs who say that they want to create apps or services that change the world, do not listen to music that is all about changing the world.
50 hues of Big Blue: IBM’s transformation, according to Paul Moung
I started in tech journalism an embarrassingly long time ago – in the late 1980s – when the big stories were usually about the big companies … not because of any favouritism on our part, but because anything that happened with them inevitably had vaster repercussions.
One of the companies I covered quite frequently was IBM, which in those days was facing challenges on the PC front from Asian clones, and on the higher-end front from the Unix-fuelled ‘Open Systems’ movement. (Yes, this was a long time before the ‘Open Source’ movement.)
It was fun because whenever I had a scoop that cast the company in a negative light, apparently IBM Malaysia’s general manager then – the venerable and tough-talking K.B. Low – would be shouting profanities in his office. Then he would shout at his public relations guy, “Call the fella (me) up; let’s go out for a drink!”
Speaking to Paul Moung, IBM Malaysia’s current head, which these days carry the title ‘managing director,’ brought back memories of the kind of executives IBM used to produce: Those who shoot from the hip.
This a new era for IBM, and Moung is certainly more PR-savvy then Low ever was, but still had a bit of that crusty honesty that the latter used to exhibit: Loyal enough to the company, that he wasn’t blind to its flaws.
Internet censorship: You’ve already won, Dr Mahathir
If any activity defined my professional life since we started DNA, it was my flogging a dead horse. Again and again, I found myself raising my voice at yet-another attempt by a hapless administration to rein in freedom of expression on the Internet.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve also written about the need for responsible discourse online.
But the Malaysian Government’s on-going threats to censor the Internet is not about untoward content, although it tries to couch it in such terms, it’s about shutting up voices that express dissatisfaction, dissent, or just plain old disagreement.
Whenever the Government does that, civil and free speech advocates have fallen back on one man’s stand: Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed (pic above, courtesy of The Malay Mail Online), who in rolling out in the late 1990s the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC Malaysia) project and his Vision 2020 for the country to achieve fully-developed status by that year, promised that the Government would never censor the Internet.
So it is telling that, facing a chorus of online voices that are questioning government more and more, Dr Mahathir, still a political king-maker, has changed his mind. But as I wrote then, “the Internet can be a transformative tool. And that’s what scares people with skeletons in their closets ….”
Dr Mahathir’s about-turn is an important milestone because it now excuses and reinforces the hardliners in the ruling coalition.
And this does not bode well for the country at all.
Censorship 2.0: Shadowy forces controlling online conversations
I know I said I wasn’t presenting my Fave 5 stories in any particular order, but I saved this for last because it is my top favourite.
And not because I enjoyed writing it the most, or it had an interesting personality, though there was a bit of all that too. No, it’s because I think it was the most important story I wrote in 2014.
I always enjoy covering the annual Hack In The Box Security Conference (HITBSecConf) organised by Dhillon Andrew Kannabhiran and his HITB crew, even if 90% of what is discussed goes over my head.
Last year, I almost did not make it because of a combination of company and personal matters. I rushed from a meeting to catch the last two presentations, and certainly did not regret it, because one of them was by Haroon Meer and his team from South African-based Thinkst.
Haroon’s talk on Weapons of Mass Distraction: Sock Puppetry for Fun and Profit confirmed what many of us have suspected for some time: That there are unknown forces trying to control and manipulate online discourse – sometimes for mere mischief, sometimes for more malevolent motives.
In Malaysia, we can already see it with the Government’s use of ‘cybertroopers’ – bloggers and social media users who attack opposing views.
However, Haroon’s team produced forensic evidence of such manipulation going on at the global stage.
It is nothing less than chilling.
It’s also my Fave 5 because it tackles a side issue that perhaps would be of interest to media outfits: Despite the on-going debate about how today’s readers don’t have the time or the attention span to read long articles, I felt the issue deserved to be aired in full.
At 4,000+ words, it’s the longest article DNA has ever published … but it’s also one of the top-read stories of 2014.
So take that, naysayers who believe that today’s online readers just want superficial content.
Karamjit: My Fave 5 of 2014
Edwin: My Fave 5 of 2014
Gabey: My Fave 5 of 2014
Thean Eu: My Fave 5 of 2014
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