[Given the course of events that have unfurled recently, iSPIRT created IGCC to investigate, and strengthen governance. Sharad Sharma, who has previously apologized and accepted responsibility on Twitter, has reflected further on the topic, and written this post. We are putting it out to ensure that this starts the right discussion inside iSPIRT and outside – Sanjay Jain]
“There will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right. It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” – Albus Dumbledore
Over the last week, iSPIRT has asked itself fundamental questions on who we are and how we conduct ourselves. As a pro-bono partner in the development of the India Stack, this team has had the privilege of designing systems that have eventually seen adoption by the state in a quest to solve said hard problems. Our work results in technology platforms that have positively impacted the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians. However, technology is merely a tool whose potential for misuse must be checked. This demands accountability both of the tool and its makers.
No system is perfect. And when one embarks on an endeavor to build a public platform that impacts an entire nation of over a billion people, some imperfections are bound to emerge. These imperfections should rightly attract criticism and concern from civil society. It is at this point that a natural conflict develops. Between the individuals that built the system with a great degree of dedication, application, and indeed love, and the individuals that are wary of how the said system can be used against the very people it was meant to benefit.
This conflict when left to fester without a set of rules of engagement is bound to devolve into an uncivil discourse that attacks and hurts people on each side, without actually achieving the objective that both parties hold very dearly. We are blessed and privileged that we can build for and speak for millions of our countrymen. Our privilege stems from our education, our abilities, our stature, our connections, and our life’s work. And for the most part, it must be acknowledged that individuals on both sides of this divide tirelessly endeavor to leverage this privilege to better the lives of those less fortunate among us. We build and speak, for our people. And so it is our responsibility that we conduct ourselves with dignity, grace, and generosity of spirit, while fiercely battling on the right path to that better future.
And on that count, I as one of the builders have stumbled. I condoned uncivil behavior by some anonymous handles over a period of ten days. I have owned up to this transgression. It was investigated internally by the iSPIRT Governing Council: Sudham as a team stands dissolved, and I will no longer be communicating on behalf of iSPIRT externally for 4 months.
I am clear the end cannot, and should not justify the means. But the larger lesson here is that we must develop systems and processes internally, and a framework and principles within which we will operate.
In the process of building, there is a set of factors that influence policy making. And this pie chart is an indicative representation of these factors.
Facts on the ground: Half of policy making is the policy itself and the data points in reality that led to it. It comprises of everything from the problems the policy endeavours to address, the people who are victims of these problems, previous attempts to solve them, and the data that can back up this approach. It was traditionally a major chunk of all that was needed to make a policy, particularly in a highly centralized society where a chosen few had the privilege and the power to craft and enforce said policies.
Mainstream media was the other major pillar of policy making. By serving as the primary medium of crafting public perception of millions, a chosen few reporters and their editors had the privilege of being the exclusive custodians of the court of public opinion. If you wanted to get the word out and have the people be on your side, these were the people you’d turn to.
The most significant shift in policy making in decades is the rise of social media. The emergence of platforms where individuals could transform into influencers by consistently generating unfiltered content is shifting the balance of power in the perception game. An ever increasing audience of online content consumers now turn to these platforms for their news and information. So much so that it has become a primary source of news for these early adopters.
A simplistic but useful rubric to describe the nature of discourse on social media is to classify into two categories, namely civil and uncivil. Civil discourse is exactly what is sounds like, a respectful engagement, where all parties concerned conduct themselves with a degree of basic human decency. And while the conversation may be informed, or not, backed by facts or utterly fabricated, the debate never descends below a certain level of decorum. In such discourse, there is always room for one to see the reasoning of the other side. It leaves space for empathy. And empathy is the foundation of collaboration. Both parties in such conversations can at times work together once it’s made clear that their objectives are aligned.
On the other hand, there is another side to the conversation on social media. Specifically, the kind that tends to unravel on Twitter. Uncivil discourse is marked by abuse and trolling — where one willfully sows discord and makes inflammatory, extraneous, often untruthful remarks about a topic or an individual with the express purpose of upsetting the target to evoke an emotional response. Such conversations often find themselves unfolding through anonymous handles that can employ such tactics without fear of retribution. Such behavior is malicious and dishonorable, and in the long run saps the soul of the perpetrators themselves, while simultaneously hurting the targets. It is the lowest form of engagement that leaves both parties poorer for it.
Having danced with such tactics myself for ten days in May, I can say with certainty that it is conduct unbecoming of our prior actions and accomplishments. Put it simply, I have learnt my lesson. One that should have been painfully clear to begin with. Such behavior — uncivil comments made while hiding behind anonymity — is loathsome and abhorrent. And I will never engage in or condone such methods ever again.
That brings me to the question, how does one stand up for what one has built, and the cause of inclusion that it aims to serve, while accommodating the concerns of its detractors? To answer this, here is a set of potential principles.
- True North: If one truly believes their work to be the right thing, it must be showcased in both the intent of how one chooses to engage with critics, and in the stories of impact that showcase how what’s built has actually improved the lives of the people it aims to serve. By making the citizen our north star, and having their best interest guide our actions, we can at the very least be assured of having done the right thing. Regardless of what slings and arrows one takes in the process.
- Empathy: To truly believe deeply in our hearts that even our harshest critics come from a place of wanting to protect the citizen and to make an effort to understand why they have framed their criticism in that manner
- Openness: Our policies must be made visible to the community at large through various stages of evolution through discussion papers and roundtables
- Fervor to educate: A gospel that isn’t sung is never heard. We will work hard to showcase the positive impact of our work and spread the message far and wide.
- Commitment to civility: No trolling, no anonymity, no abuse. Ever.
Given the course of events that have unfurled recently, I accept the IGCC decisions, and reaffirm my commitment to the iSPIRT mission and values, and to help it emerge as a better organization. This will be my last public post for some time. I look forward to accomplishing our goals (the End) through Means that we can all be proud of.