Tribolum.com Making Light of Things

The Golden Age of the Internet

The internet is always changing, its complexion the nexus of technological leaps and cultural fickleness, each affecting each other in an endless spiral. Arguments could be made about whether the spiral has generally led upward or downward.

It’s been twenty-something years since I first connected my external USR 28.8 to my computer’s LPT port and scoured for numbers of neighbourhood bulletin boards. The internet of today is such a different place, and I can’t help but reflect nostalgically on the past, what was beautiful about those times, and perhaps how we can recreate that magic for this new generation of digital natives.

The late 1990’s to early 2000’s was perhaps my favourite era of the internet. In terms of tech markers, we saw the arrival of the 33.6 and subsequently 56k modems; IRC was at its height; and Napster was the staple of all college networks.

Culturally, it was a vastly different place from the internet of today. For starters, it was a much smaller place. Large IRC networks like DalNet and EfNet brought together tens of thousands of users on really busy days, but smaller networks we frequented like GalaxyNet numbered in the thousands. You mostly stuck to the same few channels, much like how the characters in Friends would gather at Central Perk all the time.

The bandwidth speeds at that time were conducive to text-only interfaces and afforded the occasional image file. This meant people went by their chosen internet nicknames and not graphical avatars. Everyone started out anonymous, and it was only after many deep conversations where you’d learn the other person’s name, where they were from, or even their gender. I can’t even begin to tell you how liberating that was for a scrawny dark-skinned introvert like me.

The more I think about it, the more I am led to believe that what was special about that era of the internet was that it was populated by introverts. We invented blogging because we wanted a way to speak to the world without having to make eye contact with others. We had so much pent up inside of ourselves, and the ecstasy of finding others who underwent the same journey we did and understood was indescribable.

We understood how fragile all this was; how quickly it could be lost. Even when we organised the next inevitable step of actually meeting up with each other we did it so cautiously. We pondered over and over whether meeting face to face would change the relationships we had. If others would judge us by our outward appearance or social standing, or if our views would be discounted because they found out how young we really were.

Enter the internet of today, a confluence of broadband speeds, ubiquitous high-quality video cameras, and the possibility of fame made sustainable by online advertising. Enter the extroverts. Enter selfies - a million of them a day. Enter personal video channels where everybody can be their own talkshow host. Enter heavily photoshopped avatars.

We all love what continuous innovation in technology brings us. That Mandy Harvey could overcome her hearing disability to put on a stirring audition at America’s Got Talent is the tip of the iceberg of new possibilities we have today that weren’t there yesterday. We celebrate when anyone overcomes personal disabilities and gains acceptance.

The internet of today is a vastly more crowded space, and it often seems only those who are savvy self-promoters stand a chance of being found and appreciated. The bright lights and glitzy glamour is attractive to many, but the introverts have all but slinked away. In all the noise, we wonder if it’s worth speaking up to be heard. It has become that much harder to find each other.

I am thankful for the people I’ve met in my early years, and if you’ve been here reading I hope you know how much you mean to me. But I’m constantly thinking of how we can make this internet a more inclusive place with halls filled with bright lights, and also more intimate spaces where whispers can be heard. I’d like us to regain that sense of reverence and awe, to relearn how fragile great communities really are: how beautiful and precious each individual, and how we cannot go about our blustering ways expecting everyone to grow thicker skin.

I miss you and the times we could share the real things that matter. I miss the times we sat down and thought carefully about how we could make everything better for everyone.

Family at Work

It wasn’t without trepidation as I looked again at the email asking if I could host a small group of techies at Google. It was a good mutually beneficial arrangement: I’d be able to reach and preach to these tech professionals on pragmatic tips to keep themselves safe from the latest (and evergreen) online scams; and they’d get to have their meeting at our pretty nifty office.

The trepidation came from the fact that the only date that seemed to fit everyone elses’ schedule was on Faith’s birthday. A quick passing consult seemed to me like she was ok with me having to work an event on her birthday, but my spider-sense couldn’t help tingling.

On the day of the event itself, I felt terrible about spending the evening of my wife’s birthday at work. It’s not that she made a big deal about it or anything - it just felt like a misstep on my part.

As I rushed about to ensure that the logistics were all in order, I told the facilities folks who were helping me out that it was my wife’s birthday and how it nagged me a little that I had an event to take care of.

It didn’t take more than 20 seconds for them to pull together a small bunch of beautiful purple roses. They were meant for an earlier welfare initiative of theirs but they were so quick to come to my rescue. I gratefully accepted this lifeline.

When the event was over and I got home late in the night, I brought the bunch of roses into the room. Lit only by the light of her mobile phone, I saw Faith smile as she saw the flowers in my hand.

There was a nanosecond of a dilemma, but soon as she pulled the earphones out I told her how the Google gang pulled this together. There was an initial puzzled look on her face. I can only imagine the conflict of emotions, but my wife accepted my apology, and then said that it was nice that the fabled hospitality of the Google facilities team extended even to her on her birthday.

I’m thankful to have married a wife who forgives my mistakes, and on this occasion, very grateful to the team at work for caring far above and beyond the demands of their job.

This is what it feels like to be part of the Google family. Really, really awesome.

You Don't Demand Heart

I am no longer a public servant and it has been more than two years since I left the service, but I have always considered building the nation a duty I carry whether or not I am on payroll. I hope you’ll pardon me when I lapse between identifying myself as part of the service, and also part of the people whom they serve.

When I read that several Members of Parliament lamented that the Public Service has “lost its heart” and called for the service to show greater empathy when dealing with the needy, I felt the sting of those words like a slap across the face.

Not many people know what it is actually like to be on the frontlines of the public service. I am proud of the tradition we have: that we do not tolerate corruption and work hard to maintain the highest standards of integrity. We are by no measure infallible, but every breach is met with a burning fury and steely determination not to let mistakes repeat themselves.

We fall short of perfection, but it is a standard to which we believe the Singapore people deserve. It has also become the standard the Singapore people demand.

Every year the Auditor-General combs through how Ministries and Statutory Boards conduct their business and publishes a list of what it believes are infringements. This is a healthy process that keeps our public agencies accountable to the people, and provides a level of transparency rarely seen in governments around the world. Public servants put their feet to the fire, and are called to answer these lapses in processes. The alternative media has made it an annual event to jump into the fray to stoke the flames.

We’re fine with that. We’ve worked on making our processes more iron-clad. Nowhere in Singapore will you find it harder to host a lunch for stakeholders or even buy a pencil. Any public servant will tell you that we’ve had to spend our own money at work because the by-the-book processes would have taken too long and cost too much pain.

I cannot even imagine how much these stringent measures cost the nation; the most expensive of which are the many public servants who have left the service because it was getting too difficult to serve.

You cannot demand pinpoint precision from the public service and not expect the creation of automatons. Mr Louis Ng brings out the example of how the computer-generated letter was heartless - and he is correct - but would he support a judgement call made by a junior officer if and when it is scrutinised by the armchair critics? Would our MPs be there for the public servant who exercised their knowledge to say, buy good quality bicycles at a reasonable price, when there is public outcry from the non-cycling community about those decisions?

I do not disagree that our public service needs more heart and more empathy, but I’m calling it out that we all do. It’s easy to stand in a hall and berate the service, and constantly demand excellence like it were a naturally-occuring state of things, but we need a different approach.

We need to empower the public service, and it sometimes means not sweating the small stuff. If we want officers to show heart and empathy it means giving them the power to make judgement calls, and not kill every mistake, especially those that have no ill-intent. We need to stand up for them and defend them in public and in private, and acknowledge that the quality of public services we enjoy in Singapore is commendable.

The relationship between the public service and the people needs to change from a master-slave relationship for us to progress beyond precision in process. For any relationship to flourish, finger-pointing needs to stop.

Keeping Gambling Out of Our Homes

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The building of two integrated resorts in Singapore was a major turning point in our nation’s history. It was the decision made after a long and hard debate that divided many in Parliament, and even drew agonised tears from some members when it was announced that we would go ahead with it. It was a direction that was very reluctantly chosen, and under great pressure given the economic situation at that time.

Yesterday, the Government exempted two organisations from the online gambling ban. There was no significant debate, no tears, and from my layman’s point of view, little reluctance.

One of the questions I get quite often when I run workshops for educators on keeping students safe online is: “What is the greatest threat to our kids?”. There isn’t one single “threat”, I’d explain, but the massive shift from desktop to mobiles has changed the game entirely.

Where once parents would place the family desktop in the living room so that all surfing could be supervised, children now grab mobile devices and take off to their own private corners. It has made supervision that much harder.

That is what happened today with gambling. Yes there are Singapore Pools’ stalls that dot every neighbourhood street corner, but the effort of actually walking there and queuing up was a natural barrier for the less habitual gambler. Now that these barriers are taken away, these stalls have made their way into our homes and our bedrooms.

You won’t find Singaporeans proud of our perpetually long lines for Toto tickets. In fact, many of us sigh under our breaths when our loved ones make the trip to donate the little they have towards this senseless pastime. It is a real battle in many households. So real that the government set up the National Council for Problem Gambling. I’m disappointed to not have heard from the council.

I wrote some years back about the search for Singapore’s semangat. Some principles we hold make us who we are in the world. A staunch stand against vice has historically been Singapore’s calling card. We’ve always acknowledged our frailties and worked hard to keep ourselves free from them. These exemptions, when passed with little or weak justifications, make a mockery of our principles and damage our identity.

So far, the only reasons for the online gambling exemptions that I’ve managed to glean from the news are

  1. it is hard to completely eradicate remote gambling
  2. Banning it drives users underground, making us a target for crime syndicates

We need to weigh those reasons against the social cost. Right now we are emotionally drawn to the social cost because it is borne by families, perhaps our own or belonging to people we know and love. We need more information on how much damage these crime syndicates do to us. 120 people arrested in the past year and a half doesn’t quite tip the scales.

This is also posted on Medium.

Count on Me, Singapore

National Day Rally 2016

We all held our collective breaths when we heard that PM Lee had fainted delivering the National Day Rally speech. There was this odd mix of silence as the future suddenly became so much more uncertain, amidst the cacophony of social media gone crazy as everyone scoured every avenue to find out what happened, and whether he was ok.

We never got to see whether PM Lee fainted, but the video of the moments just before circulated minutes after we received news. The image of PM Lee holding tight to the rostrum - shaking - and then leaning to one side drove Faith and me to tears. How heavy the burden this one man bore.

If Singapore were a family, and former PM Lee Kuan Yew our founding father, PM Lee finds his place as our eldest brother. He was always known to be a little stiff, but in recent years he revealed a much more human side through his photography on Instagram, always signed off “Photo by me”.

That his body fell short of the mammoth task of delivering the National Day Rally speech — essentially the summary of the past year and the vision for the country’s future, with segments in 3 languages no less — felt like an emotional blow we really were’t ready for. We had only just lost Lee Kuan Yew. I wasn’t sure we built up the emotional reserves for another.

What happened last night was a necessary reminder for us to remember our individual mortality. Nation-building is a responsibility of every citizen. The song “Count on me, Singapore” takes on new meaning. You and I are Singapore, and we need to be committed to build each other up even if we come from different races, different religions, or hold different political views. We build each other up that we may prosper as a nation to leave a legacy for future generations.