The medium is not the message

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Sam Pitroda, Advisor to India’s Prime Minister on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovation, answering Twitter news conference

It is amusing how people, including some professional journalists, confuse the medium with the message. So much so that many of them think that the medium is the message.

As India’s information and communications technology pioneer Sam Pitroda took to Twitter yesterday in what was billed to be the country’s first official news conference on the social media, in certain quarters the denunciation was swift and largely knee-jerk. The detractors’ main grouse can be distilled down to the complaint that Pitroda did not answer “tough” questions.

Merely because someone chooses a particular means of communication, in this instance Twitter, does not in and of itself guarantee candor and openness. I cannot say one way or the other whether Pitroda navigated the questions in order not to deal with the “tough” ones because I chose not to take part in the event. News conferences as a way to obtain information of any sort stopped mattering to me as a journalist in the very first year of my career some 30 years ago. However, knowing Pitroda as well as I do, I can tell you that he is not the one to duck any question on the grounds that it is tough. He may have sidestepped many on the grounds that they were not relevant to the theme he had chosen for the Twitter news conference.

To the point whether Pitroda answered the questions in the spirit they were posed in or even whether he even chose to deal with the challenging ones, it is a matter of personal judgment. My contention is that anyone’s appearance on Twitter or Facebook or Google Hangout does not automatically impact the quality of information that the person may choose to share. Those are just the medium and not the message. The novelty of someone in authority answering questions on the social media could not possibly last more than a few seconds, if even that.

The reasons why such events resonate in the media is because one they are so rare and two because they create a somewhat misleading impression of a government opening itself up to unfiltered scrutiny. In the end it boils down to the individual temperament of the person answering questions. In Pitroda’s case, he has generally been known to answer direct questions without finessing them with officialese. That said, it will serve well everyone concerned to remember that all news conferences are an exercise in spin.

The main reason why many in the media, as well as generally among citizens, think that the government is always holding back or skewing or spinning or simply lying when it comes to sharing information is because so few are available to answer questions. So when someone like Pitroda or even Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi chooses to make themselves available questioners go off on tangents. They are so starved for credible information that every time someone in authority becomes available, they would be inundated with all manners of questions. The result, more often than not, is a sense of disappointment.

For such interactions to become vigorously meaningful they will have to become widespread across the entire government at the federal, state and local levels. Pitroda’s theme was “Democratization of Information”, something he has been steadfastly committed to for a long time. His more immediate task is to put tools, as in widespread and affordable broadband connectivity, and systems, as in the infrastructure on which to share information, available across the country. That is the first significant step towards the laudable goal of democratizing information. The second more important and way more demanding step would be to create among politicians and government officials a sense of candor and transparency as well as the recognition that their entire existence revolves around what people make of them. That is something that will require a fundamental societal transformation. Pitroda personally can only take a small first step.

Can that happen? Your guess is as good as mine. My personal impression that there is pressure building up at the citizens’ level to make that happen. The only thing worth remembering here is that the medium is not the message. The message is the message.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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