Disruptive Technologies in Media

When innovators become creative with technology, th­ey decisively disrupt existing paradigms. The entrenched, legacy players look like deer caught in the headlights.CNN was a good early example of a disruptive business model in media. It was fathered by online technologies and midwifed by the first Gulf War. Although, CNN was born earlier, it really took off during the first Gulf War in 1991, when it covered a continuous news broadcast on the war with the assistance of the US government.John Kiesewetter of The Cincinnati Enquirer captured it best when he famously said: “CNN has changed news. Before CNN, events were reported in two cycles, for morning and evening newspapers and newscasts. Now, news knows no cycle. When a plane has crashed, or shots are fired in school, we expect to see it immediately on all news channels. We don’t depend on the Big Three broadcast networks. The turning point came shortly after CNN’s 10th birthday, when Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman provided play-by-play of the 1991 Gulf War from a Baghdad hotel. The Gulf war proved how CNN had changed the world. US military leaders chose their words carefully during televised press briefings, knowing that Saddam Hussein was watching CNN, too. The BBC could not match the coverage at the time and CNN roared past it.

Take the most recent example of Egypt. The uprising started in Tahrir (Liberation) Sq­ua­re in downtown Cairo. Tahrir S­quare has now become a ho­usehold name. An unknown individual of Indian origin Uj­jwal S­ingh, a 38-year-old man, became an unsung cyber hero an­d warrior. He was trying to fi­gu­re out how to use voice tec­hno­logies for broadcast via the internet. An opportunity came d­uring the recent upheaval in Egypt. There was a need to help Egyptians bypass government efforts to muzzle the ma­ssive p­rotests by blocking the internet.

Singh had helped start an online startup service that enables fans to share voice messages. Google acquired the startup on January 25, 2011. Google put together a team to figure out a way around Egypt’s recent internet blackout and asked Singh for help even before he formally joined Google.

Intensive brain-storming produced a simple idea of converging the technologies of Google and Twitter: Voice from Google with “Tweet” from Twitter. Speak2Tweet is exactly that — a service that lets people call a phone number and leave a message and post a link to the message on Twitter.

It allowed Egyptians to broadcast news and events to the rest of the world, even as the regime of President Hosni Mubarak blocked internet and cell phone services for days in a failed attempt to drown pro­tests in the streets of Cairo.

Closer to home, Dr Binayak Sen is incarcerated in a jail in Chhattisgarh on the allegations of having committed sedition against the Republic of India. His supporters have found no­vel methods of protesting and reaching out to the world. Th­ere are numerous Facebook pr­otest sites and “tweets” letting the world know what is happe­ning.

Electronic whistle-blowing is another controversial use of secure, “lockbox” technology to disclose in the public domain “classified information”. It has been described as an “uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking”. It began with posting “classified” military documents on its mirror sites. In April 2010, WikiLeaks posted a video in which Iraqi civilians and journalists were killed by US forces, on a website called Collateral Murder. It also released US state department diplomatic cables destroying the myth of how secure classified documents were, resulting in many red faces.

Although, severely criticised by the US administration, it has won several media awards. It received The Economist’s New Media Award in 2008 and Amnesty International’s Media Award in 2009. In 2010, the New York Daily News listed WikiLeaks as the first among websites “that could totally ch­ange the news”. And finally, Julian Assange, the founder of Wi­kiLeaks (and not Mark Zuckerburg founder of Facebook) was named the Readers’ Choice for Time’s Person of the Year 2010.

Recently, WikiLeaks has said it intends to disclose the names of individuals holding large deposits in banks outside their countries. It has also said that the details of Swiss bank accounts given to WikiLeaks by private banker-turned-whistle­blower, Rudolf Elmer, has quite a few Indian names as well. But India does not “shine” in solitary splendour. According to a report in the Swiss newspaper Der Sonntag, the data covers multinationals, financial firms and wealthy individuals from many countries, including the UK, the US and Germany and covers the period 1990-2009.

In the Corruption Percepti­on Index (CPI) 2010 of Transparency International, Switzerland ranks eighth (“very clean”) out of 178 countries with a sc­ore 8.7, while India ranks 87 wi­th a score of 3.3, bracketed with countries like Liberia. According to the CPI 2010, Ghana, Panama, Rwanda and Tunisia score far better than India. Ironic, is it not or is reality quite different from perception?