Journeys of a digital immigrant

By Nalaka Gunawardene

14 April 2017

A personal account of how technology is changing the life and work of a journalist, and of the Lankan media.
A self-portrait of Dhara Gunawardene, digital native, taken when aged 15

A self-portrait of Dhara Gunawardene, digital native, taken when aged 15

(This is an analysis from our July 2013 print quarterly, ‘Online-itan’. See more from the issue here.)

I was born in a country that didn’t have a single computer.

Yes, that dates me a bit, but chronology is important for this story of my journeys as a digital immigrant – one who didn’t grow up with digital technologies, and encountered them later on in life.

Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) did import its first computer within a year of my arrival. The state engineering corporation installed a mainframe computer in 1967. A few more state entities also acquired theirs before the decade ended. One of them, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka – financial regulator and keeper of economic statistics – was where I first saw a working computer. My schoolteacher father had one of his students joining the Central Bank’s new data processing division. This techie arranged for us, sometime in the early 1970s, a guided tour of the facility.

I remember how the machine filled a large room, used strange-looking punch cards, and was quite noisy when in operation. It required a heavily air-conditioned and dust-free environment. We entered its ‘presence’ after removing our footwear. Having cost the taxpayers a lot of precious foreign exchange, it had to be well protected.

I didn’t see a computer again for over a dozen years. I went through primary, secondary and high school without encountering anything more complicated than a calculator. That too was considered a privilege at the time (and is still banned from all public examinations in Sri Lanka).

The personal computer revolution, which started in the early 1980s, took a while to arrive in Sri Lanka. It was at a science exhibition at the University of Colombo, in 1986, that I first played with what must have been an early model, probably an RM Nimbus PC-186. Several computer generations passed between my first and second encounters. In that time, processing power had grown exponentially while units had become far more compact and user-friendly. But personal computers still had limited capabilities: top geeks like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were working on it.

Shortly after my high school graduation, while debating career choices, I spent three months learning professional typing on the English keyboard. In hindsight, it is probably the most useful skill I ever picked up. My parents bought me an Olivetti manual typewriter on which I honed my typing skills. The whole neighbourhood knew when I was writing something.

The first couple of years of my work as a young journalist were spent churning out somewhat messy copy on that little machine. Most of my colleagues wrote by hand. I never graduated on to an electronic typewriter. Circa 1989, I moved straight to word processing, using a second-hand Kaypro 2000 laptop, loaned to me by Arthur C Clarke.

By then, I’d started working part-time as a research assistant to the British-born, Sri Lanka-domiciled science writer and futurist. As early as 1970, Clarke had become the first private individual to own a computing device in Ceylon, an early Hewlett Packard 9001 unit he later described as “the direct ancestor of the palmtop”. For some strange reason, he nicknamed it HAL, Jr.

Being gadget-happy, Clarke moved on to newer computers on a regular basis; every time, he gave away his earlier machines to friends or associates. (In contrast, we Southasians are too attached to our gadgets: we never seem to discard old mobile phones or computers, instead relegating them to personal junk piles.)

The Kaypro 2000 was a transitory product between the desktop and the laptop. It was clunky and slow, and at 5.5 kg, carrying it around was an involuntary act of weightlifting. But I was immensely proud of my new ‘toy’. For the first time, it allowed me to endlessly revise drafts. None of my writing since has ever been quite finished – it is simply abandoned at various stages of imperfection.

My parents bought me an Olivetti manual typewriter on which I honed my typing skills. The whole neighbourhood knew when I was writing something

Of course, journalism is much more than word processing. Refined writing is admirable, but good media products must offer authentic information, sound analysis and balanced opinions. All this on a fast track, too. Some old timers argue that gadgets can never trump ethics, craftsmanship and quality. They are quite right. The real ‘story’ goes beyond laptops, tablets and smartphones. At best, tech tools are only the most visible ‘foam’ on a much deeper digital tsunami wave.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the digital revolution started changing every aspect of print and broadcast media – from how content is sourced and processed to how it is disseminated and consumed. This has been a systemic change, and the transformation is far from over.

Sri Lanka’s media organisations were slow to adopt digital technologies: editorial operations often lagged behind production departments that jumped on to the modernisation bandwagon sooner. For a long while, computers were considered a specialised tool for the ‘production boys’. For example, when maverick Lankan billionaire Upali Wijewardene launched his national newspapers in 1981, he invested in high-tech facilities (by the standards of the day) for layout, design and printing. Yet the editorial staff remained stuck with typewriters for at least another decade.

At the time I worked as a regular freelancer for Upali’s newspapers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was one of few to use a laptop. Qadri Ismail, now a professor of English at the University of Minnesota, was a fellow Kaypro user. As early adopters, we faced various hurdles – not all of them technical. There was a time, well into the 1990s, when carrying a laptop across borders in much of Southasia required customs checks and passport endorsements. That changed rapidly with India’s IT boom.

Our struggles in the early days of narrowband internet now sound rather surreal. At data transmission rates of 32 kbps (or less), images took minutes to come in, while online audio and video were beyond reach. We joked sulkily about the ‘World Wide Wait’.

Lankan newspapers went online within months of commercial internet connectivity starting in the country in April 1995. Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Lake House) became the first media house to introduce web editions of their flagship English newspapers. Daily News published its first web edition on 4 September 1995, and the Sunday Observer followed on 10 September 1995. Lake House’s main rival, Wijeya Newspapers Limited, launched a web edition of the Sunday Times in April 1996. One year later, they took Sinhala language newspapers online with the web edition of Lankadeepa.

Radio and TV broadcasters were slower to take to the web, due to bandwidth limitations. This changed as access, coverage and speeds improved around the turn of the century. Today, most stations have their own websites, and some offer live audio or video streaming. A few radio channels are entirely web-based. Following such media in realtime is now possible with broadband services, even though speed and quality are still uneven and unpredictable.

Broadband, but narrow minds

Yet, most Lankan media organisations seem to be trapped in a ‘time warp’. Their websites are still based on the web 1.0 thinking that prevailed a decade ago. True, some have added a few new features such as moderated reader comments, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, while some overcrowd their homepages with a surfeit of multimedia content and banner advertisements.

In the absence of a clear and coherent new media strategy, however, these trappings merely increase clutter, noise and confusion. Instead of harnessing the web’s potential to deliver news, information and entertainment quickly and round the clock, some media websites have become a navigational nightmare.

Neglected or lost in this razzmatazz are critical functions like easy content searchability and good archiving. Thus, while many of our national newspapers have been online for a decade or longer, there is limited or no facility to go back in time to look up their coverage of landmark events such as the devastating tsunami of December 2004, or the end of the civil war in May 2009. This might seem a minor inconvenience, but it has wider implications. At stake is the nation’s digital memory. In cyber terms, we are perilously close to collective (and voluntary) amnesia.

These failures are not due to any lack of technical skill or financing per se. The industry’s leaders have deep pockets, but despite their ad hoc investment in geeks, gadgets and software, they have yet to switch paradigms. A 20th century media mentality – at both editorial and managerial levels – is trying to cover 21st century events in an increasingly complex, middle-income economy.

Does it work? Part of the time, yes, with a mix of luck and opportunism. In the absence of independently audited circulation data, web analytics and disaggregated revenue figures, we can only speculate on the actual efficacy of the media’s current web strategies. We do know, however, that newspaper paywalls are in their infancy, and web advertising is patchy at best.

During its 180-year history, Sri Lanka’s print media has coped with various economic turbulences and technological changes. Along the way, it has added photographs and colour, introduced offset printing and, more recently, thrown computers and websites into the mix. So, the media mandarins seem to ask: what is there to worry about?

Even a cursory glance beyond the island’s shores should show the Lankan media that bigger players elsewhere are struggling to adapt to the transformed media landscape. Print journalism’s business models are crumbling in many parts of the world. Faced with declining sales and advertising, established newspapers and magazines have closed down or become digital-only publications.

Asia has been spared this crisis – so far. Industry analysts agree that our region is currently enjoying what will probably be history’s last newspaper boom. This gives us a helpful ‘grace period’ in which to change from doing business as usual. With luck, we’ll have a few years before the storm hits home.

In my lifetime, I have seen two formidable Lankan media houses decline and die: the Times of Ceylon group, and Independent Newspapers Limited. The reasons for their demise were complex, but losing credibility and societal relevance was among them.

Therein lies a lesson for all media, old and new: engage your audiences and grow, or stray into obsolescence. Being large, loud and arrogant is no insurance (remember the dinosaurs). Being kept on life support – on public or private money – also has its limits. As I wrote last year in an essay to mark 180 years of newspaper publishing in Sri Lanka:

In the coming years, waves of technology, economics and demographics can sweep away some venerable old media along with much of the deadwood that deserves extinction. Adaptive and nimble players who win audience trust will be the ones left to write tomorrow’s first drafts of history.

Thus, what now confronts our print media is a three-fold challenge. Technology is an important consideration, but only one plank. The trick is to balance new technologies with the right kind of economics – ie. innovative business models – that respond to changing demographics to win over discerning audiences – readers, listeners, viewers or web visitors.

Arise, digital natives!

Lankan mainstream media’s discomfiture in the digital realm is partly due to a digital divide. The better known use of that phrase describes the disparity between those who can access the digital media and those who cannot. But as connectivity difficulties gradually ease off, other divides have emerged. One is between digital immigrants and digital natives.

Marc Prensky, an American author, education reformer and learning-game designer, coined the term ‘digital native’ in 2001 to describe people for whom digital technologies already existed when they were born, and who have therefore grown up ‘being digital’. The term draws an analogy to a country’s natives, for whom the local culture, language and folkways are natural and indigenous.

In contrast, digital immigrants are those born and raised elsewhere (in this case, during the analog era), and who arrived in digital-land later on in life. Prensky identified common traits among digital immigrants, such as printing documents rather than reading and commenting on screen, and printing emails for filing. Digital immigrants are said to have a ‘thick accent’ when operating in the digital world in distinctly pre-digital ways. For instance, they might phone someone to ask if an email was received.

I have a perfect example of a digital native in my own household. My daughter Dhara, 17, finds it incredible that I was already 20 when I first used a personal computer, 29 when I bought my first mobile phone, and 30 when I finally ‘got wired’. In fact, my first home internet connection and my daughter arrived just a few weeks apart in middle of 1996. I have never been able to decide which was more disruptive.

There was a time, well into the 1990s, when carrying a laptop across borders in much of Southasia required customs checks and passport endorsements. That changed rapidly with India’s IT boom

Dhara has grown up taking completely for granted the digital media and tools of our time. I gifted her a basic digital camera when she turned 13, followed by an iPod and a mobile phone for her next two birthdays. She mastered these with remarkable dexterity and speed. It amazes me how she keeps up with her Facebook, chats with friends overseas on Skype, and maintains various online accounts for images, designs and interactive games. And despite growing up surrounded by piles of magazines and newspapers, she hasn’t developed a fondness for print media (she does read books, thanks to Enid Blyton and J K Rowling). Whenever she wants to look up information, she just asks ‘Auntie Google’.

I won’t become a digital native, as Dhara and her friends so effortlessly are. No matter how well I mimic the native ‘accent’, or how much I try fitting into this beguiling new world, I shall forever be a digital immigrant.

The numbers keep steadily rising on Dhara’s side of this digital divide. It is this demographic group – call them Generation Y or the Millennials – that will shape the future of media (and, indeed, everything else). Engaging these always chattering, easily distracted yet highly info-dextrous Digital Natives is the biggest survival challenge for all media.

Going digital, on its own, is no guarantee of survival. Sprinkling digital ‘pixie dust’ on lousy journalism cannot work any wonders. However, good journalism can be made richer, more accessible and more engaging with the right use of digital tools. This applies to text, images, graphics, audio, video as well as various hybrid forms of content.

The next step is to relate to audiences with respect and humility. In a world full of choice, the only way to win audience loyalty is to offer them trusted content and build lasting relationships. For too long, journalists and broadcasters took their audiences for granted. As a whole, they behaved with an arrogance stemming from having privileged access to news events and newsmakers, and the exclusive ability to bear witness.

That historical advantage is fast disappearing as information society consolidates. Audiences are no longer passive consumers of media content. The confluence of mobile phones and broadband internet is a game changer, with its full impact only beginning to be seen. Today, anyone armed with such a smartphone can, in theory, become an instant reporter or commentator on events unfolding around her. The steady rise of citizen journalists to parallel journalists working for institutionalised media is the defining characteristic of this new age. It has forced full-time, salaried journalists to reposition themselves in the media ecosystem.

Sri Lanka’s mainstream media’s response to this ‘competition’ has evolved from dismissal and ridicule to grudging acknowledgement. For the most part, the former news monopolists remain uncertain or even suspicious of citizen journalists, looking for the latter’s political motives or hidden agendas. Yet some newspapers blatantly reproduce blog posts without permission or attribution.

Citizen journalists in Sri Lanka are a diverse group with their own biases, clans and rivalries. They come from all walks of life – students, professionals, housewives and retirees among them – and from across the island. Some of the most popular blogs are written by those living away from the capital or other cities.

They regularly speak their minds – in English, Sinhala, Tamil or some hybrid lingo – discussing all sorts of issues both profound and mundane. What they lack in finances and industrial muscle they more than make up for in passion, creativity and networking ability. Some of the most interesting and intense social, political and cultural debates now unfold online, variously as blog posts, tweets, Facebook memes or YouTube videos.

This has now grown beyond a hobby or peripheral activity. As an estimated 2.5 million Lankans as of December 2011 (out of a total of 20.2 million, as of March 2012) regularly use the internet, the phenomenon can no longer be ignored. With over 1.5 million Facebook accounts and an estimated 14,000 Twitter accounts (as of June 2013), social media now occupies a significant part of our public and private discourse. Get used to it.

Citizen Kane meets Citizen Journalist

Citizen journalists can fill some gaps and make the myriad conversations more inclusive, nuanced and richer. But they cannot completely fill the ‘journalism deficit’ created by the mainstream becoming too submissive to authority or corporate interests.

To be fair, journalists and media organisations operate in a difficult socio-political environment. During the past few years, Sri Lanka has witnessed many acts of harassment, intimidation and violence against independent media, public intellectuals and dissenting voices. The global advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has ranked Sri Lanka 162nd out of a total of 179 countries on its World Press Freedom Index 2013. This places the country lowest among the eight SAARC members; even Burma is higher.

The recent proliferation of new communication technologies and the lowering of access barriers have not been accompanied by adequate policy preparedness or societal acceptance. Sri Lanka’s current legal and regulatory environment does not nurture a culture of openness or critical examination of society, polity or governance. This has led to distrust, tension and a heavy polarisation of opinions on internet freedoms. Resolving these post-connectivity challenges is crucial to harnessing the full potential of new media for socio-economic development, national integration and democratic pluralism.

The limits of mainstream media show up especially in times of crisis. Take, for example, coverage of disasters like floods and cyclones that are increasingly common. Most Colombo-based media houses rely on local correspondents to feed them information and images, but these sources can get cut off temporarily during disasters. Citizen journalists, on the other hand, are more robust due to their multiple numbers, locations and technological tools. We would expect newspapers and broadcast houses to collaborate with citizen journalists for better disaster reporting. In reality, most try to go it alone – with disappointing results.

In a Twitter Q&A, Sri Lanka’s top civil servant carefully avoided answering questions on contentious topics such as Islamphobia, Buddhist extremism, hate speech, militarisation and human rights

Take another example. A recent Twitter Q&A session with Lalith Weeratunga, secretary to the President of Sri Lanka, saw dozens of citizen journalists and activists posing many questions. The session, the first of its kind for Sri Lanka, was held on 23 June 2013 and was organised around the hashtag #askLW. Weeratunga answered using the President’s own Twitter account, @PresRajapaksa.

The country’s top civil servant carefully avoided answering questions on contentious topics such as Islamphobia, Buddhist extremism, hate speech, militarisation, human rights and other topics of public interest. It was remarkable that hard questions were posed on a public platform, even though most went unanswered. From all accounts, no critical questions are raised during the monthly informal breakfast meetings that the President holds with newspaper editors.

So what more can be done? The answer to the many excesses and lapses of corporate media is not simply to aspire exclusively for citizen media (as some activists advocate). We need both kinds. In today’s radically altered information ecosystem, there still are plenty of niches that more institutionalised media are well suited for – such as curating the news, professionally archiving content, and producing long-form and investigative journalism. These vital functions are currently beyond most citizen journalists who, after all, are unpaid and engaged part-time in this pursuit.

Our challenge, therefore, is to improve the professional and ethical standards of all media – whether public, corporate, community or citizen owned. ‘Media’ is a plural term. Citizen Kane and Citizen Journalist can and must complement each other.

My journey as a digital immigrant continues against this backdrop. Mine will be the last generation to be born entirely analog and die (almost) digital. This gives us a unique perspective, making us useful negotiators between the two worlds that are colliding before the old yields to the new.

But unless we are careful, we can easily get lost between worlds. I sometimes feel like a character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s exquisitely woven stories of immigrants from India now transplanted to the USA: “exiles who straddle two countries, two cultures, and belong to neither”. While I have found some comfort in the digital land that I moved to in my 20s, I will always remain what I call an “ana-digi hybrid”.

I started blogging at 41, frustrated by obdurate mainstream editors who I felt mistreated my writing. Having done nearly 1,000 blog posts, I am still at it, and remain the master of all I survey. In recent months, however, my tweeting has grown at the expense of my blogging. At first, I wasn’t sure how one could be coherent and interesting in just 140 characters. Some 7,100 tweets later, I am having great fun.

Oh, I do fumble every now and then. My flirtations with LinkedIn and Tumblr haven’t gone far, and I just can’t reconcile with so much noise on Facebook. I use these social media platforms mostly as listening posts.

Probably the biggest marker of my digital immigrant status is my high dependence on the mouse – a device born in the 1960s, just like myself. Although I traded desktops for laptops 20 years ago, I never warmed up to tactile sensors like touchpads.Touchscreens are the next big thing, I know, but I still cling on to my little companion.

During a recent spell of extensive travels, I was catching up on some magazine reading on a long flight. Having drifted off a bit, I found myself fingering a printed photograph, as if to enlarge its display.

In that dreamy moment suspended between worlds, I knew there was hope for me yet.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer, a columnist for two Sunday newspapers in Sri Lanka, as well as an active blogger and tweep. He is at and @NalakaG.

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