IMPERIAL COWARDICE: Remote control killing in Pakistan

by?Rahnuma Ahmed

  • WAR is, said Major General Smedley Butler, twice-recipient of the Medal of Honour (1914, 1915), ?a racket?. He had seen it from close(st) quarters and had turned into an outspoken critic of the US military-industrial complex. Describing what his life?s efforts had been devoted to, he wrote:??I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents? (War is a Racket, 1935).
  •  Piloting a drone requires much less talent or experience than piloting a real plane. It is more like doing well in ?a video game?

    Piloting a drone requires much less talent or experience than piloting a real plane. It is more like doing well in ?a video game?

    If Smedley Butler was living, he?d probably have agreed with Peter Ustinov the playwright, who said recently, ?Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich.?

  • If passions do not rage to transform hostilities into outright war, ?false flag? operations may be staged. The Japanese did not ?sneakily? attack Pearl Harbour. Their encryption codes had been broken and Washington knew what was going to happen. But the US president decided to withhold the information from his commanders at Pearl Harbour. One hundred and sixty-three American soldiers were killed, 396 wounded, 6 tank landing ships sank. Why? Roosevelt, so the story goes, wanted a piece of the war pie.
  • More recently, Iraq?s WMD myth was manufactured, packaged and presented. Aided by the Clinton administration?s deliberate sabotaging of UN weapons inspection in Iraq, it created the predictable western outrage needed to justify George Bush?s invasion of Iraq.The September 11 Twin Tower attacks have been dubbed the ?New? Pearl Harbour by the leader of the 9/11 Truth Movement, David Ray Griffin. The questions raised by the movement which remain unanswered in the government appointed committee report, speak of, at its best, the criminal negligence of the Bush administration; at its worst, complicity.
  • Obama?s expansion of push button execution
    IN HIS recent West Point speech, US president Barack Obama announced his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, to fight al-Qaeda which had attacked the US on September 11th (in the words of Bush, it was a ?faceless? and ?cowardly? act), and is now operating in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Even though al-Qaeda?s members are now, according to James Jones, his national security adviser, as few as 100).
    What Obama did not mention was another decision that was taken to ?parallel? the troop surge in Afghanistan: an expansion in the CIA-led killer drone campaign in Pakistan. An act which will lead to more drone strikes against militants. More US spies in Pakistan. An increased CIA budget for its operations. And thereby, more of what critics term, ?push-button? executions. A state of affairs where the US administration is, Guantanamo-style, judge, jury, executioner ? all in one. These executions, or targeted assassinations, or extrajudicial killings are not executions, or targeted assassinations, or extrajudicial killings. The war on terror has changed all that. Terrorists are no longer criminals. They are combatants. Killing them is part of warfare. And the globe is the battlefield.
    In a recent New Yorker magazine article and in several interviews, Jane Mayer who has extensively researched on Predator drones informs us, there are two drone programmes, one is part of the US military-run programme, the other, is run by the CIA. The former, she says, is carried out transparently. There are after-action reports, there is a chain of command. But the CIA?s drone campaign is a ?secret targeted-killing program?, one that is executed in places where the US is not at war. ?It?s a whole new frontier in the use of force.? We don?t know, she says, who is on the target list? How do you get on the list? Can you get off the list? Who makes the list? And, eerily, Where is the battlefield? Where does the battlefield end?
    President Obama had promised ?change?, and there has been change in the drone attacks. In its first ten months his administration carried out as many drone attacks as did the Bush administration in its last three years. Drone strikes are a new hot favourite in US ruling circles for not ?risking a single American soldier on the ground? (Reuters), and less collateral damage than from an F-16. CIA director Leon E Panetta has called them ?the only game in town.? But reliable information on casualties is difficult to assess since the Zardari government does not allow anyone, neither journalists, nor aid groups into the area. According to a recently released New America study, ?Since 2006, our analysis indicates, 82 U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have killed between 750 and 1,000 people. Among them were about 20 leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied groups, all of whom have been killed since January 2008.? The rest of those killed? Footsoldiers in the militant organisations, or civilians.
    Piloting a drone requires much less talent or experience than piloting a real plane. It is more like doing well in ?a video game?, and is work that has been outsourced by the CIA to civilians, to those who are not even US government employees. While sitting at CIA headquarters in Langley (Virginia), a drone pilot can view and hone in on a target tens of thousands of miles away. Someone like, for instance, Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader in Pakistan, who was killed in a drone assassination on August 5th this year. Live video feed captured by the infrared camera of an undetected Predator drone hovering two miles away had relayed close-up footage of Mehsud reclining on the rooftop of his father-in-law?s house, in Zanghara (South Waziristan), on a hot summer night. The CIA remotely launched two Hellfire missiles from the Predator. ?After the dust cloud dissipated, all that remained of Mehsud was a detached torso. Eleven others died: his wife, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, a lieutenant, and seven bodyguards.?
    But Mehsud ? targeted and assassinated to elicit the Zardari government?s support for these incursions into Pakistan?s sovereignty ? had not been an easy shoot. Mayer tells us, success came only after 16 strikes had been carried out over a period of 14 months, killing a total of 538 persons, of whom 200-300 were bystanders.
    But who cares for native deaths? The less the (American) body bags, the less the (American) blood spilled, the more likely the public acceptance of war. As for the drone pilots, as former congressperson for New York, James Walsh (R) had said ecstatically, it allows them to be ?literally fighting a war in Iraq and at the end of their shift be playing with their kids in Camillus.?
    And, why not? Who says ?gangster capitalism? contradicts with Western family values?
    ?Everything is permitted?

    HONOUR and war are said to be inseparable.
    I think, no longer. Virtual war is cowardly. For, as John Berger reminds us, there has never been a war in which disparity?the inequality of firepower?has been greater. On the one hand, satellite surveillance night and day, B52s, Tomahawk missiles, cluster bombs, shells with depleted uranium, computerised weapons. And increasingly, one sees the American dream materialise, a ?no-contact war?. On the other, sandbags, elderly men brandishing the pistols of their youth, wearing torn shirts and sneakers, armed with a few Kalashnikovs.
    What courage does the American warrior show through pushing his joystick while sitting in Langley? Should not the Medal of Honour be disbanded? Or better still, re-named Medal of Cowardice? For remote-control killings? Killings best-described in George Bush?s words, as ?faceless? acts?
  • And what about those who decide? Those who push the bigger joystick? In Shakespeare?s plays, says Stephen Greenblatt, the ruler serves as a model and a test case. ?If his actions go unpunished, then, to paraphrase Dostoevsky, everything is permitted.?
    Has everything already become permitted? For, as Macbeth had said, ?I am in blood; stepp?d insofar that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as to go o?er.?
    First published in New Age on 7th December 2009

    The Wind In The Wheat

    The 25th March is a significant day in Bangladesh. It was this day, in 1971, when the Pakistani army began its genocide, causing the death of millions, but eventually also leading to the birth of the nation. The Pakistani army had been supported by the United States, who had sent the seventh fleet to the Bay of Bengal in a show of strength, pitting its might against India and its ally of that time, the Soviet Union. The United States also influenced Bangladesh in a very different way. Exactly 57 years earlier to the day, a man born in Iowa was to affect the destiny of Bangladeshis in a profound manner.
    Considering that he was one of only few US citizens to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, he was little known, even in his own nation. Amongst Nobel Prize winners, only? Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel have also won the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Medal. Norman Borlaug, the man who prevented a billion people from starving seems to have been easily forgotten. His death on the 12th September 2009, went largely unnoticed in Bangladesh.
    Interestingly, the man who is said to be the father of the ?Green Revolution? is also blamed by some for having encouraged intensive farming, which some environmentalists feel have led to soil depletion and dependency of farmers. Certainly, a side effect of intensive cultivation is the dependence on both fertilizers and pesticides, effectively a dependence on petrochemical products. While the high yields produced by Borlaug?s techniques are undeniable and revolutionary, the increase in costs of fertilizers and pesticides has resulted in dependence on imports from foreign companies. The rate of increase in rice production in India, for instance, has been far outstripped by the rate of fertilizer intake per ton of rice. Borlaug himself had a simple response to this analysis. There was a need for food, and he provided a way to produce more. He has always said, the real answer was to curb population, but while there were mouths to feed, he made sure there was food to feed them. As a result nations that had been facing a potential famine, Bangladesh, India, Mexico and Pakistan became self sufficient in food. Mexico even became an exporter of wheat. Consequently, Borlaug is credited with having prevented over billion people from starvation.
    India honoured him with the Padma Vibhushan, its second highest civilian honour. In Bangladesh he received the first honorary membership of the Bangladesh Association for the Advancement of Science. His success in Pakistan, might have been halted by the all to familiar bureaucratic systems we regularly encounter.? When seeds destined for Karachi, reached Los Angeles en-route, a Mexican bank refused to honour Pakistan treasury’s payment of US$100,000, because the check contained three misspelled words. But the seeds did eventually arrive, and eventually led to a doubling of wheat production for both India and Pakistan.
    While the new technology has undoubtedly also led to increased profits for corporate agribusiness, Borlaug never patented any of his ?inventions? and neither became wealthy nor famous despite the phenomenal transformation he had engineered. Rather, he encouraged its free use, himself working in the fields, training farmers how to maximize their yields.
    As the initiator of the Nobel Prize had discovered, what technology eventually got used for, depended largely upon who got to use them. Unlike Alfred Nobel, Borlaug, also of Norwegian descent, never accumulated the wealth to find ways to offset the negative effects of his discoveries, but he remained a dreamer till the end.
    ?When wheat is ripening properly, when the wind is blowing across the field, you can hear the beards of the wheat rubbing together. They sound like the pine needles in a forest. It is a sweet, whispering music that once you hear, you never forget.?

    National ID Cards: In the Interest of Surveillance?

    by rahnuma ahmed

    Official: ?You ought to have some papers to show who you are.?
    Protagonist: ?I do not need any papers. I know who I am.?
    Official: ?Maybe so. But others are also interested in who you are.?
    — Kafkaesque journey of American sailor who has lost his identity papers, B. Traven, The Death Ship (tr. 1934)

    A non-fraudulent voter list, `a priceless gift to the nation’

    Praise was due. And it was given.
    Ms Renata Dessallien, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, at a function marking the celebration of the successful completion of voter registration, organised by the Election Commission on July 22, spoke of it in glowing terms. It was “a truly historic achievement,” because never before “have so many people been electronically registered in such a short time” in any other country in the world. What was impressive was the immense scale of the undertaking, the accuracy of the list, the elimination of duplicate and fraudulent entries. “If there were a Nobel Prize for voter lists, Bangladesh would be the clear winner!”
    The Chief Advisor Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed termed it a “milestone,” one that would enable not only the upcoming elections to be “free, fair and credible” but also, future ones, by setting high standards. The Chief Election Commissioner ATM Shamsul Huda, called it a “memorable event in the annals of country’s history.” At an earlier event, “Celebrating the Halfway Mark of Voter Registration” held in early March, the Chief of Army Staff General Moen U Ahmed had voiced hopes that it would “lay the foundation for building a meaningful democracy.”
    A similar nationwide voter registration venture had failed in 1997 because the names and pictures of most people did not match, and many had failed to turn up to register at the appointed time. The nation, as a result, had been Tk 115 crore poorer. A proposed integrated project of Machine Readable Passports (MRP) and National Identity Cards (NID) in 2005 had been budgeted at Tk 1,400 crore. Its completion would take 5 years, the first year would be a “test” period. The 2006 voter list, prepared by the past EEC Justice MA Aziz for the 2007 elections had been faulty, it had registered an excess of 1.2 crore voters, leading to a political impasse that helped usher in the current military-backed Fakhruddin government.
    In comparison to all previous efforts, the current effort has yielded a faultless voter list, one that is computerised, consisting of a data-base of 80 million 500 thousand 723 voters with photographs and fingerprints. It has cost only Tk 424 crore, one-third of the 2005 estimate, and has been successfully completed in a mere 11 months. The Election Commission was the sponsor and the coordinating agency, the Bangladesh army was the operational agency. Together they coordinated the huge logistics in a “very tight time frame”, as Major General Shafiqul Islam, Military Secretary, Bangladesh Army, said in an interview to find Biometrics, `we required 12,000 laptops to be deployed throughout the country, 8,000 printers, paper, toner, train a staff of 18,000 computer and enrollment personnel, in a situation where on an average data was collected on 300,000 to 400,000 people daily.’ The resulting electoral rolls, perhaps one of the largest electronic databases in the world, will definitely be the largest among developing countries.
    A survey of the voter registration process funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) announced it to be of international standard, in the words of one of the consultants, “a list of quality no less than that of America or England.” The UN is said to be considering replicating this model in other developing countries.
    The current voter list, as one of the national English dailies commented in its editorial, is “a priceless gift to the nation.”

    The National ID Card, `an offshoot’

    The EC project was titled the Preparation of Electoral Roll with Photographs and Facilitating the Issuance of National Identity (ID) Card. In the words of Mike DePasquale, Chief Executive Officer of BIO-Key International Inc, a US-based company which is a leader in finger-based biometric identification and wireless public safety, the NID was “an offshoot” of the voter registration project — a “co-operative venture” between BIO-Key in the US, Tiger IT in Bangladesh, and the Bangladesh army.
    Brigadier General (Retired) Shahedul Anam Khan, a defence analyst, thinks the government did well to undertake both projects simultaneously. Up to a stage, “the modalities involved for the preparation of both” like basic data collection and cross checking, are similar. The ID Card was a “spin-off,” which, if it had been put off for later, would have cost more.
    But, for people on the ground, the two were not as separable. M Sakhawat Hussain, one of the Election Commissioners, puts it in words closer to how we, as potential voters, experienced it, “No one will be listed as a voter without the registration of the name on the electoral roll and no one will get the national ID card.”
    Advocates of e-government are also advocates of national ID cards, for instance Farooq Sobhan, M. Shafiullah and others write in a Study of eGovernment in Bangladesh (Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, April 2004), “Bangladesh should take active steps to initiate a project for national ID” because it will provide an important base for the provision of eGovernment services “efficiently and in a personalized way,” to citizens who will have unique ID numbers. I came across several Bangladeshi bloggers who seemed to hold similar views. According to one, it would be “a solution to many problems,” a national database would hold information from voter lists to tax records, it would make easier many tasks from machine-readable passports to criminal investigations. According to another, the digitisation of national-level information would make governance procedures “more scientific.”
    The EC has drafted an ordinance making national ID cards mandatory for citizens, ?for getting any services from the government, its departments and institutions or from any statutory government offices.’ Twenty two services are listed, these include the issuance and renewal of passport, driving licence, trade licence, tax identification number, business identification number and bank account. It also states that nobody will get government subsidy facilities, allowance and relief if they do not have identity cards. Very recently, the council of advisors approved the formation of the National Identity Registration Authority Ordinance 2008. It authorises the home ministry to provide national ID cards. Under the proposed ordinance, the EC will hand over all information that has been collected — data and biometric features of the citizens — to NIRA, a statutory body. The ordinance declares false information, forgery, having more than one ID card a criminal offence, punishable by three months to seven years rigorous imprisonment, along with monetary fines.
    That confusion exists among people in general — the beneficiaries of the national ID card — was revealed during the four city corporation and nine pouroshobha elections held recently. Voters had come to the polling centres with their national ID cards, and were confused over why the serial number of their ID cards did not tally with the voter serial numbers. This resulted in delays in vote casting, and in long queues. Voter identity cards had been given in the 90s, or torn-off slips containing registration numbers, and as a newspaper report states, during the recently-held local-level elections, the common perception had been that the `ID card was to be used for voting purposes.’ Reports say, polling officers had been similarly confused. M Shakhawat Hossain, Election Commissioner, blamed the media for publicising what in effect was a `national ID card’, as a `voter ID card’, even though, according to him, the EC had carried out a huge campaign to clarify the differences between the two.

    The ‘largest biometric database in the world’

    What is less public knowledge is that the four fingerprints of each voter that was captured with BIO-key’s fingerprint ID software, and FBI-certified fingerprint readers, has already generated over 300 Million ISO fingerprint templates. Combined with the 400 million projected to be generated, it will become by far the largest biometric deployment in the world.
    Duplicate registrations are being accurately identified says Ziaur Rahman, Managing Director of Tiger IT BD Ltd. (Tiger IT), a company that is a leader in both prepackaged and customized software solutions and was BIO-Key’s “systems integrator on the ground,” at a speed of “one million matches per second on a single processor.” Tiger IT Bangladesh’s website provides further information on the national ID card (by the way, the domain tigeritbd.com was registered as recently as August 2007). The card includes a standard barcode which is encoded with ISO fingerprint templates, and PKI digital hash. These can be used to quickly verify the identity of the cardholder while ensuring the integrity and authenticity of the ID card. The Cognitec Facial Recognition Software has been used to capture facial images.
    While Renata Dessallien enthuses over how “modern technology” enables the prevention of vote theft, and DePasquale prides on how BIO-Key’s patented technology is “performing better than anything else in the market for finger matching,” I have simple questions to ask: who owns my fingerprints? how will it be used? can NIRA transfer it to government departments within Bangladesh without my knowledge? or, maybe even outside the country’s borders? As the British government did when it passed more than 500 samples of DNA to foreign agencies, but when asked “no one seemed to know” to which countries.
    The European Comission recently proposed the harmonisation of security features on passports across the European Union. The proposal, introduced in October 2007, requires Member States to take measures to introduce biometric features, including fingerprinting, on passports and travel documents. The fingerprints would be stored in a centralised database. The European Union Data Protection Supervisor, Peter Hustinx, who is in charge of safeguarding the personal data and the right to privacy of EU citizens, has expressed his concern since it fails to “adequately safeguard the right to privacy of EU citizens.” He says, the Commission failed to consult with his office prior to submitting the proposal, as required by EU law.
    The current regime’s voter registration list has, in all probability, lessened the likelihood of fraudulent votes. But it also has, in all likelihood, laid the groundwork for installing a new regime of surveillance, one that will be deployed against the citizens of Bangladesh.
    First published in New Age on Monday the 29th September 2009

    Fraud Band

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    Salma, a housewife in Norshingdi, receives a call from her husband, a migrant labourer in Singapore. Rural women in Bangladesh have set up small mobile phone businesses which now allow easier communication in villages.
    Salma, a housewife in Norshingdi, receives a call from her husband, a migrant labourer in Singapore. Rural women in Bangladesh have set up small mobile phone businesses which now allow easier communication in villages. Norshingdi. Bangladesh ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

    She was mildly self conscious when I asked to photograph her, but a smile soon spread over her face. The telephone had connected her to her husband, a worker in Singapore. Salma, a woman in a village near Sonargaon in Bangladesh, had recently learnt to use the village mobile telephone, and it had transformed her life. Had this been where the story ended, it would have been a simple affair with a happy ending. Perhaps for Salma, it wasn’t significant that the technology that allowed her access to her husband, was one of many that allowed people in distant lands to tap her call, to add her to a database, to classify her as yet another consumer of products or a source of cheap labour for electronic sweatshops. For many others however, the wealth of new opportunities provided by globalisation, merely represents a wider net for global exploitation.
    There are now many Salmas, and on the 14th August 2003, Grameen?s subscriber base reached a million. Greater than the total subscriber base of the government land lines. ISPs too pop up in many street corners, and though Internet telephony (VOIP) is illegal here, the service is openly advertised in convenience stores. In between the tangled wires on every street pole in Dhaka is the attractive advert: broadband, 24 hours, only taka 1000 per month. That?s about US $ 17. Not a bad price for broadband, until you realise that the definitions differ. The bandwidth on offer is 1K/sec, and breaks every time a storm, or a competing ISP cuts the cable, or when electricity fails (generally 2-3 times a day) at any of the relay nodes. No wonder many users call it ?fraud band?.
    The VSAT on our rooftop delivers 512K connectivity. A respectable speed, except that we expect to have 200 dialup customers, another 200 leased line clients, and maybe a few smaller ISPs running Voice over IP (VOIP) services and the ?broadband connections? using that bandwidth. That is the only way we can pay for the US $ 3500/month for staying connected. Plus a $ 3,500/64 KB/year license fee. An average user in the west would pay around 20 ? 30 Euro for comparable access.
    Even getting here hasn?t been easy. In 1994, when we setup Bangladesh?s first email service, we were using off-line email. Our server, a 286, and just one telephone line which we used for voice, fax and email, provided email connectivity to the world bank, UNICEF, major universities, and several organisations that are now ISPs. Since then the Net has been both a boon and a bane. It has been our lifeline to the rest of the world, and it has been the area where the government has attacked us the hardest. On the 27th of February 2001, we setup the country?s first human rights portal www.banglarights.net. The government promptly closed down all our telephone lines the next day. It took a lot of protests, to get the local lines back, but even now, we cannot make an international telephone call. Not using the government lines anyway. However, our VSAT on the rooftop, allows us an access that the government will not be able to stop simply by pulling a plug somewhere. Our e-newsletter reaches a carefully targeted 5000 worldwide, and a note saying the government was getting heavy would be immediately followed by a string of protests from fairly
    influential organisations worldwide. So we walk a fine line, and continue to be subversive. On the other hand, the government?s lack of knowledge can be used (and abused) to find ways round the system. The import of the satellite phone by the BBC, which connects through Inmarsat, was allowed by the Bangladesh Telephone and Regulatory Council (BTRC), on condition that it not be used to make calls outside the country!
    For the majority world, education offers the most effective route to take advantage of the globalisation juggernaut. And it is here, that the technological opportunities and the networking that accompanies globalisation, can be best utilized. Interestingly, the role models that seem to have worked best are those developed in the south, and it is only when the asymmetrical flow of information, which flows essentially from north to south, is replaced by south-south movement, that we will begin to turn the tide around. We started using the Net for education fairly early on, but activism and survival have really been the main driving forces behind our relationship with new media. An incidence of rape at a local university was being hushed up, and it was our presence on the Net that forced the establishment to arrange an investigation. The rapists got off with mild punishment, but it was the first time they had been challenged, and it has changed campus dynamics. It was our fragile network that allowed us to contact legal help groups and other activist organizations, when Taslima Nasreen, the feminist writer was under threat. It was the Net that kept us relevant.
    The most interesting shifts have been in the area of media. With mainstream media coming under increasing restrictions, and the cost of publishing soaring, media activists have been taking to the Net to get their ideas across. A whole set of blogs, newsletters, opinion forums and activist sites have sprung up. Apart from providing an alternative space where points of view not palatable to mainstream media can be aired, these Net spaces have also become meeting grounds for the diaspora, who have until now felt excluded from the development process, and numerous archives abound providing alternative information sources.
    The main struggle however remains between activists trying to make full use of a vibrant media, and a skeptical, fossilized and generally corrupt bureaucracy, that is deeply suspicious of what this media might do. It is reminiscent of the first time Bangladesh rejected the fibre optic cable that went along the Bay of Bengal, since the information minister was scared that ?state secrets? would be leaked out. A new rule in Bangladesh prevents CDs from being sent overseas, while the same data sent through the Net can be sent legally.
    Our journalism school is trying to develop on-line learning modules, and we are hoping to start up a regional centre for investigative journalism that will rely heavily on new media for its success. There are interesting political implications too. Our latest plans for setting up a ?public accountability site?, promises to be the most problematic for the establishment. The idea is to setup kiosks in poor neighbourhoods, which will provide information relevant to the locality that they can use to determine how public funds and other resources are being used. The government has promised such transparency, and we want to hold them to it. But when the public begins to sense how their resources are used, the trouble will start, and those who made the ministerial speeches, will be the first to shut us down. That too is a fight that we need to win, and we?ll use new media as our primary tool.
    Presented at the World Summit on Information Society. Geneva. 9th December 2003

    When a Modem Costs More Than a Cow

    Bangladesh?s history is that of colonization, oppression and genocide. It is less than thirty years since several million people were killed and many more became refugees in perhaps one of the greatest atrocities of modern times. There were two basic tools that have engineered and enforced this domination, technology and language. Our war was based on language, and it was technology that provided the military, the muscle.

    With technology and language both being owned by the wealthy, class divides are intrinsically linked to this hegemony. How then do we see the most dominant of modern cultures, the Internet? The ownership of the Net is almost entirely Northern globally, and exclusively urban and elite locally. The hype surrounding the Internet and the top down approach with which it is meant to provide deliverance, hides the politics of corporate ownership, the way in which this media is controlled, and the simple fact that for the majority of the world the Internet doesn?t exist, and for many others in the South, it is barely effective.

    The propaganda surrounding this imperialist tool, fits in well with the stated objectives of our colonial rulers: ‘ Natives must either be kept down by a sense of our power, or they must willingly submit from a conviction that we are more wise, more just, more humane, and more anxious to improve their condition than any other rulers they could possible have.’ ?Minute by J Farish dated August 28, 1838, quoted in B.K.Boman-Behram, Educational Controversies of India, p. 239

    Language forms the biggest barrier to computer literacy in Bangladesh, and when less than 15% of the population has access to electricity, and a far smaller fraction owns computers, it is clear that only the wealthy will have access to this technology. Here, a modem costs more than a cow. Yet this technology and this associated language both exist. We must stare this dual hegemony straight in the face, but we cannot, dare not, let this technology pass us by. To find creative routes to turn this technology to our benefit is our greatest challenge.

    The Internet can be a subversive tool. It remains the only medium which gives scope – relatively inexpensively, and without the support of the gatekeepers ? for a lone voice to be heard. It is this unique characteristic that we have to nurture. The bigger players have the money, the clout, the physical strength and the social control to bludgeon their way through, but they do not have the flexibility, the ability to pop up and disappear at will, the speed of action or the elasticity to slip through the holes, that the well trained individual has. Given the important proviso of access, the Net is fast, cheap, and difficult to stop. It is the Net that we must use, to fight its own dominance.

    Cultures dominate by creating norms that are not questioned by creating ?accepted practices? that become tools of oppression and by defusing the need for critical analysis. Consumer forces convince us of the need for bigger RAM, faster processors and software that gives us greater choice. Wildly disproportionate pay scales, between locals and expatriates and between English speaking and non English speaking co-workers teach us the importance of fluency in English. Indecent consultancy fees that siphon back most of what is provided as aid, make us believe that western values and skills are what one must strive to attain. Dominant cultures define who is primitive and who is civilized. The dissenting voice that questions the goodness of donor efforts, quickly discovers the reach of donor funds. One must not stand in the way of progress, particularly when that progress is backed by individuals whose personal wealth is greater than that of entire nations they are trying to civilise.

    Now we are to behold a literature so full of all qualities of loveliness and purity, such new regions of high thought and feeling? that to the dwellers in past days it should seem rather the production of angels than of men. Madras Christian Instructor and Missionary record (1844) Let us examine these ?productions of angels? in Bangladesh in greater detail. Networking has traditionally been a strength of global organizations, multinationals, international donor agencies and NGOs, and large local NGOs. International telecommunications has been way beyond the means of small local players. Even interconnectivity amongst themselves has often been too difficult to maintain.

    It was to address these specific issues that Drik set up a small Email network in 1994. Our server was a used 286 computer, and the phone line was shared for voice, fax and data. We used Fidonet, and rang Amsterdam (our gateway to the Internet) only twice a day, but even that transformed the way we worked. Our clients included large and small NGOs, government ministers, western embassies, The World Bank, students, corporations, activists. There were frequent power cuts, the telephone lines didn?t always work, a thunderstorm destroyed most of our modems, and we ourselves were only semi-skilled. Still our network grew. And though we were paying our Dutch counterparts 30 cents per kilobyte for transmitting files, we were making the system pay. We setup fax gateways, and an Email club where more experienced users taught the others how to use Email to extract information from the net, how to compress files to save on transmission costs, and how to decode files that looked like garbled messages.

    Our oldest user, photographer and writer Golam Kasem, had just turned 103 and had never seen a computer before. I would cycle over to his house in Indira Road with a printout of a message from his grandson in Canada and next day peddle up to collect his reply. I remember the frail old man, straightening up the computer printout and adjusting his thick glasses as he held the paper by his tungsten lamp. Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen received a death threat from Islamic fundamentalists and was charged with blasphemy by the Government. We needed to move quickly – to create national and international pressure so Taslima could come out of hiding to alert friends overseas, PEN (the international writers support group) and Amnesty International and the campaign took off. Our fragile network was working.

    There were other ways in which the technology was being used. The Daily Star newspaper set up a ?Live from the Internet? column. Readers who had no access to either computers or the Internet would write to the Star, which the newspaper would relay to Internet chat groups. The responses would get printed in the column. These hybrid off-line techniques became an important means for our communication. We setup electronic bulletin boards and a whole set of discussion groups sprang up. Important campaigns were initiated through these virtual conferences, and the network became a seat of resistance.

    When full Internet services became available however, networks such as ours were quickly ditched. The government ignored us and gave permission only to large corporations and major NGOs. Interestingly, Grameen Bank, BRAC and Proshikha, three giant NGOs who used to get connectivity from us, set up their own ISPs. In Bangladesh, they owned the Internet. The conferences disappeared, and local networks that we had painstakingly setup rapidly vanished. We were being squeezed out of the market. Unable to compete at an economic level we found alternative means for providing support to our users.

    The ISPs were not interested in servicing non-urban users. We maintained our off-line service, which could still service people with DOS based machines, with analog lines, living in remote areas. We leased lines from these NGOs and used them to transfer data to the Net, reducing our transmission costs. We began setting up new discussion groups and mailing lists. Most importantly, we set up our own web site, which we used to support our campaigns. We moved from providing connectivity which we could no longer provide reliably, to providing content.

    Recently, when women students at a nearby university began a campaign against campus rape, our web site became a principal tool for advocacy. Pressure that was exerted internationally and nationwide added to the massive physical protests by the students forcing the establishment to conduct an enquiry. Five students of the ruling party were indicted. At it?s peak, our site was getting over 5000 hits per day. Articles were sent to the newspapers, and we began publishing things they had censored out. We were learning to wield our new weapon. We had been concerned by absence of working class and rural representation in mainstream media.

    At about the time we set up our Fidonet network, we began providing photojournalism training to working class children. The going was never smooth and we made many mistakes, but these children progressed remarkably.

    Excited by what the children had achieved, we tried setting up a distance education programme for rural Bangladeshi children. We set up a server in a town called Sylhet in the North East of Bangladesh. Using microwave links we then connected schools in nearby villages (using computers bought collectively by students and by us) to the server, A dial up link to Dhaka provided Internet mail. Sylhet has a lot of migrant workers who have gone overseas, and Email reunited these families. We are now helping develop multimedia training modules for teaching vocational skills. We tried linking the education programme with an afforestation scheme and even tried setting up a commercial service that would help subsidise the project. Things didn?t work as well as we had planned, but enough progress was made to interest other players in the project.

    The focus however already seems to be shifting from the basic grass roots work that we had set out to do. Now that the big boys are interested, the transformation they may bring, might have the same effect as the changes they introduced to the Internet scene. A major cause of the high connectivity costs in our region is the monopoly of the telecom sectors in all our countries. This is not merely a national issue, but is linked to the unequal trade terms between nations of the South and the North. Alliances between global telecom players and local governments have resulted in local consumers getting shortchanged.

    Vested interests have often required entire nations to follow technological solutions totally unsuited to local requirements. We began using the Net to pool together a team of regional IT professionals. We pleasantly discovered that our collective knowledge base could easily cut through the hogwash that the governments and corporations used.

    The other useful collective decisions we were able to make related to developing local language tools, from standard UNICODE formats to OCR for local languages. Since many of our languages have common roots we found that work being done by several people across local borders could provide a lot of synergy. An area that has to be addressed, particularly where the international donor community is involved relates to the mind set that ?appropriate technology? is necessarily ?low technology?. It is fashionable to design ergonometric rickshaws, and better spinning wheels. When we talk of Internet or IT there is the feeling that it is inappropriate for poor people and cannot have a role in ?poverty alleviation?.

    It is important to recognize that poverty cannot be addressed unless one addresses exploitation and distribution modes within society. This applies not only to regional power relationships but also to global imbalances. Politicians rarely feel accountable to voters and hide behind the lack of transparency of the government sector. Major decisions that affect community life are taken behind closed doors, where the people most affected have no access. Though the constitution grants equal rights to all citizens, legal, medical and educational rights are only realized for the minority in power, with women and children of poor communities, pegged at the other end of the spectrum, rarely aware of these rights, let alone being in a position to extract them from society.

    Where information is power, denying information to marginalized communities, actively prevents the rural poor from overcoming the unequal power structures that they are trapped within. While it is in the interest of the powerful in society to restrict such access, it is also in the interest of the powerful nations to deny access and maintain domination. The unrestricted flow of general information is an essential pre-requisite for an egalitarian society

    Shahidul Alam

    Dhaka, 30th April,1999

    First published in bytes for all

    When A Pixel Paints A Thousand Words

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    When A Pixel Paints A Thousand WordsI remember my fascination with Charles Babbage's machine, and my inward fear when first given the chance to use a computer. Logging in to the VAX was a great thrill, but that was the day of punch cards, and writing programs for everything. Learning was a slow process. A young kid told me of a program he had written. It was a simple program in basic that merely printed on the screen "This is my first program," but I was impressed. Boolean numbers were the next marvel. Soon I was changing things, making things happen. I worked with computer models. Intermediate structures of molecules I was synthesising in a chemical laboratory. A Tektronix monitor allowed me to see the shapes of the nucleotide rings that I worked with. I stretched bonds, distorted angles, looked for conformations of low and high stress. Almost listening to my molecules scream as I bent them into painful configurations. Watching them relax as I discovered the lowest energy states.
    The printout churned out numbers, hundreds of them. These were what I needed for my quantification. Figures that I could translate into bond energies for transition states, numbers my examiners would understand. What fascinated me was that by changing numbers I could look at my molecules differently. I would change the window size, the azimuth angles, rotate them, look at them from above and below. I was like a little child with a giant model hovering above me that I could twist and turn at the press of a button. The computer and I had made friends.
    I remember the excitement my father had when I bought my first computer. He had been a scientist all his life, but had to adopt an administrative role to achieve much of what he had done. He was an artisan who had wanted to work with his hands and his mind and sad that much of modern technology was passing him by. He was like a child in front of the machine. We watched together in amazement as the printer rattled out text noisily. I remember coaxing my partner Rahnuma into trying out the computer. She was convinced "the computer would bite." I remember sharing her deep sorrow when all her work got accidentally deleted. I remember the joy of adventure as the technician searched the disc for disjointed bits of information, trying to make a patchwork file out of her lost data. I remember feeling sad when my first motherboard died.
    I got my video digitiser as compensation from someone who had lost one of my books. My friends and I couldn't get it to work, but the thought of animated images being created and manipulated in the computer and then transferred to video, got our imagination soaring. The next major event was my friend buying a hand held scanner. Soon I had bought one, and the next few weeks were merrily spent dithering, sharpening, solarising. I tried, without too much success, repeating some of the things I had done in the darkroom. My excitement had been blunted. Though there was the joy in discovery, I was expecting too much. The first darkroom I had worked in was cold, Spartan, and very large. I remember dancing in the room when the first black and white print emerged. I still feel that tingling joy when the first shadow details begin to emerge on the wet paper glistening in the red muted safelight. The computer image forms section by section, each bit complete and unchanging as the whole forms. I miss seeing it happen, breathing on the developer, rubbing furiously to darken a hot spot, willing the print on when the blacks aren't rich enough. Perhaps there is something about that slow process of making masks, the uncertainty of the outcome, the sheer joy of seeing a full range of shimmering tones that will never be replaced. But curiously, with so many tools at ones disposal on the desktop, it is as if my imagination and not my tools which is the limiting factor.
    When I teach about colour, I tell people to close their eyes and think of a colour they have never seen. Neither I nor they have ever succeeded. We are so limited by our experiences. I believe that is what we should try and overcome. All these tools are darkroom based. Things people have done mechanically in some form or other.
    What I would like to do is to be able to visualise what I have never experienced. Not some darkroom trick made easy, not yet another combination from a million and a half palettes. I would like to see the world as I might after I was dead. Or perhaps through the eyes of a giant caterpillar, with its UV vision and its huge towering compound eyes. I would like to see as a lover sees through joyous and tear streamed filters.
    Digitising things is in a way like breaking things that we know and perceive — elephants, numbers, colours, sounds, loved ones — into elemental particles that are within the group identical, sexless, classes, and nondescript, surviving almost as conceptual entities. Our universe defined as electrons, mesons, pions. These characterless wave particles, by virtue of their collective structure, make up blades of grass, Einstein's and Mohammed's, shafts of lightning, our thought processes. In digitising words, numbers, graphic, sounds, colours, we convert all these objects of our perception to strings of 0s and 1s. The ultimate deconstruction. A scream, an iridescent hue, an irrational number, all translate to 0s and 1s.
    Is that the goal of technology? The search for the ultimate truth? The oneness we so long to find? Is that what our genes perpetuate — 0's and 1's? What a let down for our romantic dreams. What a wonderful discovery. What staggering simplicity. Just two building blocks, a zero and a one.
    Sitting at my terminal I feel the cool breeze of the monsoon afternoon, heavy with the sweet scent of ripe mangoes. A crow calls from the coconut tree, the call fighting for recognition amidst the ever rising clamour of the construction workers building yet another sky scraper. The soft cold light from the textureless grey sky bounces gently from the green leaves. The keyboard makes a quiet clatter as my cursor moves across the screen. WYSIWYG. Is this reality? Or has David Hume's immateriality found a new meaning. There is no you or I, or the universe or God, just 0s and 1s.
    I print my pictures full frame. In a way exercising a certain discipline upon myself to be rigorous about what I include, and exclude. In a way to accept the accidents that take place, the elbow in the corner, the dismembered torso, the blur of a passing stranger, the obstruction of a carelessly outstretched limb, the bit we didn't really want to show. The certain grace of serendipity that is difficult to replicate. I shoot on roll film, and therefore do not have the preconceived notions of zones, that my fine art colleagues espouse, I do not give N- 1 development and N+ 2 exposure, unless it is for the whole shebang.
    I am easily seduced by the dark rich tones of a juicy print. I like my catch lights clean and sparkling highlights with a hint of texture. I like subtle detail in my shadows. I try to capture what is and create what isn't. In no way do I attempt to simulate "what there was." The myth of objective perception never moved me.
    My print is at least as much a product of my values, my desires, my moods, my ability , as it is of the physical entity that gave rise to it, and I have never been ashamed of it.
    So what is this representation of reality, this myth that a photograph never lies? A photograph is a tool like any other, used in whatever way its user intends, to achieve whatever end by whatever means. The faded portrait in a dying soldier's wallet is part of the reality created by him and him and us who have sent him to war. So what if the person no longer loves him, so what if he is scorned for what he does? That reality gives him courage, strength, endurance. Helps him kill others with equally faded photographs.
    Wide angle b/w shots, grainy, high contrast, huge billboards with a dying malnourished child in a corner with outstretched arms. A clear message in polished bold font in the top left corner cleverly left blank. The message reads "We shall always be there." A reality constructed for and by those who want us to forget the implications. That " you shall always be there". In that role, a passive existence necessary to maintain, to nurture, the act of giving, forever and ever. A reality perpetuated and propagated, till it becomes history. Till it becomes truth. Amen.
    What of the other reality? The one about how she became the way she is? The one about the outstretched arm that takes back much more than it gives? It is a reality denied.
    Advertising campaigns and fund raising events forget to tell you that when you sponsor a child, you largely sponsor the players in one of the best run businesses, one called development.
    Perhaps the child wasn't sad enough. The tear large enough, the halo on the giver bright enough. We now have the power. They were almost catching you with the old technology. Even though we designed things that had to be used and stored in cool dry conditions. Even though cameras cost the same as a hundred bags of rice, they were catching up. They were making statements, asking questions, interfering with reality. They will need a million bags of rice for CD ROMS and high end scanners. Our new reality is safe.
    Perhaps it is all for the better. In time we will accept that pictures are the product of those who produce them and do tell lies, as do people generally. Perhaps in a more mature world wars will not be won or lost, by the media. Perhaps we will be perceptive enough not to be led into a war that has always been present. Perhaps like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, we will really learn to fly. Like Maxwell's Demon we will tame the pixels and teach them to dance.
    But for any of this to happen, this digital revolution must reach out to those who have always been denied. We must dance in unison.
    While we unleash this flood of energy, this joy of numbers that can let our imagination wantonly soar, it must not be inaccessible to those whose reality we have always suppressed. Our gigabits and superchips must not widen the chasm that a monopolised technology already maintains. But if this was to be the way in which a little child in a village school was only a modem away. An affordable modem, like chalk and slate (still unaffordable to many). If we could paint together in a universal bulletin board. If the digital chorus included the boatman's song. If the dance of pixels syncopated with distant drumbeats. Then, surely, in a world where numbers obeyed no borders and vision was the only barrier to creativity. The new reality world belongs not only to the owners of silicon valley but to the child on the billboard.
    I choose my format, use my favourite film, decide carefully on the texture of paper, without once realising that my "freedom" has always been defined by the multinationals who treat me as yet another number. Maybe I am not included in their numbers game. They publish literature that goes from 18° C to 24° C. My room temperature never goes down to 26°, but I am a buyer, and therefore I belong.
    Today there is a new found freedom. I can create my own film, use Kodachrome or Fuji chrome, or the now extinct GAF 500, even my own customised brand, with a colour bias peculiar to my own taste. By changing the dot size, I simulate large format or 110 (I am already having troubled thinking outside the known formats).
    Fancy software can change my perspective or magnification at will. I have Nikon's latest super lens in my armoury and even ones they haven't made.
    From anamorphic lenses to ones with controlled barrel distortion, everything is in my reach. I can make pictures fuzzy, sharpen fuzzy ones. Mama take my microchip away.
    It is no longer difficult to make intense highlights coexist with subtle shadow detail with ever expanding grey scales. But wasn't it the lack of grey that made Newman's portrait of Stravinsky, or Brassai's "Big Albert's Gang?" Photography's inability to retain an extreme range of tones used majestically to carve out sculptures of light in space. Surely this new technology will not tame a Newman or a Brassai. It will create new ones. The new magi, who will probe and tease, taking it to new visual heights, will ride the mighty pixel. Jerry Ullsmann's hypnotic seamless images will no longer need a master craftsman, just an Ullsmann's vision. What a test of visual puberty!
    No longer will I hide my hand. My style, my approach, my visual signature will be for me to create, unfettered by manufacturers whims or market decree. What about the fight we had almost won? The one about ownership of negatives, of editorial control. Perhaps it is time to shun the obvious, the mad rush for greater circulation, the megabucks. Perhaps it is time for photographers to be their own editors.
    With desktop publishing and laser printers, or even downloading page made material to high street up-market scanners, to obtain total editorial control.
    A co-operative that could work as it had originally been intended, where photographs were made collectively. As for accuracy, it was always a misnomer, one's observation is always culture and context sensitive, and the photographer is no exception.
    What of the photograph made out of nothing? What about painting with light? Is it photography? Surely if we can paint with light we can paint with dreams, create the morning mist or the afternoon glow. Is it a fake? Hardly. Whatever else may be false in this tenuous existence of ours, imagination is not. All that we value, that we strive to uphold, all that gives us strength, has been made of dreams, and we must dream on. If pixels be the vehicle that realises our dreams, be it so.
    Perhaps the digital image will democratise photography. So many bytes per pound of flesh. Perhaps there will come a time when CD ROM costs a dollar a piece, and palm tops have gigabits of RAM. Perhaps with e-mail and electronic bulletin boards, points of view that could never before be heard will whisper in many ears, ever louder. Maybe, on the other hand, the digital revolution will create rifts within the third world itself, and limited access to an exclusive technology will widen gaps within poorer countries.
    Perhaps wealth will have a greater bearing on a photographer's output than ever before.
    It will no longer be the best camera and the fastest lens, but the biggest RAM and the finest peripherals which will decide. The poor will get poorer.

    Perhaps that is the end result of democracy, an equality of opportunity that creates the opportunity of greater rifts. Will that rift in art, despite the natural processes of osmosis, lead to greater imbalance in society at large? Art does not have a conscience. Achievement is an end in itself that pushes it to ever extending limits. But this heightened sense of power, this endless opportunity, will need to grow a separate consciousness that will question the validity of our actions. And there is no going back. Like those Brazilian kids on the speeding trains, we must just hang on the roof, dodging the wires as best as we can, hurtling ever forward till the train stops, and just hope we are in the right station.