A fax about Anna: Dilip D’Souza
Guest post by DILIP D’SOUZA
Of course everyone has their own take on the movement that’s got us all talking. It raises passions, it polarizes, it shakes the powerful, on and on. I have immense admiration for what Anna Hazare has achieved: the outrage against corruption where we had indifference before, the outlet for such outrage, the renewed hope where we had cynicism before, the way his movement has shamed brazen politicians and forced an entire government to listen.
Yet the movement sometimes reminds me, of all things, of fax machines.
In his 1995 book Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte spelled out his distaste for the fax machine. In the progression towards a digital world, he saw it as “a serious blemish on the information landscape, a step backward, whose ramifications will be felt for a long time.” (See this and other quotes here). Writing in Wired at the time, he explained: “If, 25 years ago, we (that is, some of us in the scientific community) could have been overheard predicting the percentage of text that would be computer-readable by the turn of the millennium, the percentages would have been as high as 90 or 95 percent. But then, boom, around 1980 the previous steady growth in computer-readability took a nose-dive because of the fax.”
Negroponte explains in Communication World Magazine: “The fax is a step backward because it is nothing more than a picture of something. It is no more computer-readable than the page you’re reading this on. The same information delivered as an E-mail message takes much less bandwidth to send, plus it can be retrieved, filtered, sorted and edited. You can’t do anything with a fax except read it.” In Wired, he wrote that a given page of text takes four times as many bits to transfer by fax as by email, and ends up computer-unreadable at the other end nevertheless.
Yet the fax became so ubiquitous that “as much as 70 percent of telephone traffic across the Pacific [in the mid '90s was] fax, not voice.”
What’s the analogy to Anna Hazare?
This: we all want to progress towards a corruption-free India. (We may never actually reach there, but the road to that ideal is the point). I worry that this agitation, for all the good it has done, and when the dust settles, will be a blemish on that progress. I realize that’s a pronouncement that will annoy many, so let me explain.
There are criticisms of the Lokpal bill and Hazare’s movement that others have made, some of which I agree with. I don’t intend to repeat those, except to underline my fear of creating another large and powerful bureaucracy. Fear, because how will we find people of integrity and dedication to staff it? What will we do if it turns oppressive? What will we do if it remains mired in inefficiency? However well-intentioned the people behind the Bill and the language in it, our history with too many other institutions necessarily raises those questions.
But there is a far wider concern I have: I cannot believe corruption will end purely because we give ourselves a Lokpal bill.
For who will stop the doctor who asks for his fees in cash? The man who offers part of a payment for services rendered in cash, believing sincerely he is actually doing his payee a favour? The builder who installs wider pipes so as to draw more water for his flats, at the expense of flats in other buildings? The man who connects his electrical leads to his neighbour’s meter? The celebration of a Harshad Mehta as a source of expert tips for making money, even after his crimes were exposed and he was arrested? The tax advisor who suggests inventing an “associate” and offers to help fabricate salary slips for this imaginary associate, all so as to claim higher deductions on a return? The guy who ignores the “No Entry” sign and drives down a one-way street, offering “This is India!” as an excuse when challenged? The taxi drivers who doctor their meters and prey on unsuspecting train travellers coming off a long journey? The doctors and pharmacists in rural MP who claimed not to have any stocks of anti-rabies vaccine because the doctor asking did not offer a bribe, thus condemning her patient, a young boy, to a horrible death?
(I am not making any of this up. I could also go on).
Who will stop people like these? What will end thinking like this that all of us indulge in?
Not the Lokpal bill.
Not, let it be said, that it is the job of the Lokpal bill to address these concerns.
Yet that’s just the point. By focusing all our attention on corruption in our leaders and government structures, by filling us, even unwittingly, with the belief that that’s the fountainhead of corruption and that the bill will shut it off — in doing all this, I think Anna Hazare’s movement has turned our attention away from a deeper, longer-term reality of the war against corruption. (And it is a war).
This reality: that corruption is a pretty much a way of life. And turning that around will be a long and winding road.
As I write this, the impasse has been resolved. That is good. But if we now sit back, satisfied that the real victory against corruption has been won, we’ll find out soon enough that it isn’t.
Looking back from 2011, the fax was indeed no more than a blemish. Fifteen years after Negroponte expressed his disgust with them, the world is more digital than it ever has been, and while some still use faxes, email and texting and BBMing and so on have become by far the preferred ways to communicate.
Think, then, what the world would be like today had we, in 1995, treated the fax machine as the ultimate in digital communication.