The Chief Digital Officer of New York City, Sreenath ('Sree') Sreenivasan talks about digital trends in India and abroad, while on a recent visit to Kochi
Photo of Sreenath Sreenivasan by Ratheesh Sundaram
By Shevlin Sebastian
On Wall Street, New York, there is a game that people play. As a group, they go for dinner and put their phones in the middle of the table. Then the group orders expensive dishes.
“Meanwhile, the rule is that whoever touches the phone first has to pay for the entire group,” says tech guru Sreenath ('Sree') Sreenivasan, with a smile. “So we wait patiently. It is inevitable that somebody will lose patience and reach for the phone.”
Technology is ubiquitous all over the world. “But you have to keep tabs on it,” says Sree, the son of former diplomat TP Sreenivasan. “Left alone, the people who determine what happens with the technology will always make bad decisions. For example, it's great to connect with the world through Facebook, or Whatsapp. But what about the issues of security, the surreptitious collection of data and loss of privacy?”
You can end up in prison because of the lack of privacy. “During the Arab Spring, technology and Facebook played a great role,” says Sree. “But, at the same time, the government used the same technology to identify the protestors and imprison them. As people in a democracy, we have to be ever-watchful.”
Incidentally, the New-York based Sree had come to Kochi, after a gap of 30 years, to give a few talks on the role of the digital media in the present-day world.
Asked the future of the print media in India, he says, “When I look at the digital properties of Indian newspapers, they look like they were made in 2005. When I watch TV and the shouting festivals they have, my blood pressure goes up. There is a breaking news all the time. It is like trying to break your attention all the time. On Malayalam channels, the news is read in a fast, emotional and exaggerated manner. As a result, it is not natural at all.”
He suggests a different kind of journalism. “One of the things we could do better is to give people information that is helpful, and will make their lives better,” says Sree. “Newspapers should provide context, analysis, and background. We need explainers. If you had listened to [former US President] Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention, at Philadephia, he came across as an explainer-in-chief. People need explanations because there is too much going on too fast.”
And this is also changing the way the brain works. “We are in the biggest experiment in human history,” says Sree. “There is a great book which has analysed these changes.” This is 'The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains' by Nicholas Carr.
Incidentally, Sree has just finished a three-year stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at New York, one of the largest in the world, as the chief digital officer.
“My job was to help tell stories to our visitors [6 million annually] and make it more digital within the institution,” he says. “One of my colleagues coined a great term, 'tradigital' - traditional with the digital. I love the word because it gives people an idea of what we need: to be successful, you need to be traditional as well as have a digital overlay in everything you do.”
And Sree will be following this concept in his new job: he has just become the Chief Digital Officer of New York City. “I will be working with 3 lakh government employees and 8.5 million citizens to use digital and tech in smarter ways,” he says.
A Stellar Career
Chief Digital Officer of New York City
A former Chief Digital Officer of Columbia University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art
5-time TEDx speaker
Professor of digital media at Columbia Journalism School for 20 years
Founder of global learning opportunities such as Social Media Master Class, Social Media Day, Social Media One-Night Stand, and Social Media Weekend
Co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association, a group of 1,000+ journalists, of South-Asian origin, in the US and Canada
Founding administrator of the Online Journalism Awards, the world's largest digital journalism contest
(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)