Features

My media habits: Prashant Kumar, Entropia founder

The founder of the Malaysia-headquartered agency Entropia, Prashant Kumar, holds forth on his occasionally 'quaint' media habits – as well as mapping out exactly what he thinks about the role of social networks and artificial intelligence in the media realm

What are your must-read news sources you can’t live without on a daily basis, and why are those particular media titles so important to you?

“Facebook newsfeed forms the core of my daily news consumption. The news is auto-curated by my network as per its own composition: Indians, Malaysians and global (others), which is roughly the spread of news I seek.

“Also, consuming news on FB is a rich experience, as you get to check out comments, react and share. Of course, I have to frequently unfollow people who post highly reactive and extremist stuff, while ensuring I don’t work myself into an opinion bubble of my own making.

Facebook: a major source of global, Malaysian and Indian news

“The news sources on FB that I follow (apart from those shared by others) are: The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist and Fast Company. I also follow ‘Big Think’ and the weird but fascinating Dazed and Confused magazine and sundry blogs as well as Indian commentators such as Mohan Guruswamy, Peri Maheshwar and a few others. LinkedIn is an important daily source of corporate zeitgeist. In my email inbox, I get all the industry news.

“I also access The Times of India app every day for a more thorough view of headlines in India. A quick look at ‘The Star’ to keep myself abreast of happenings in Malaysia (and the comic strip) is my morning tea ritual.

“So, a rather complicated mishmash of traditional paper, traditional news delivered via apps, and socially curated news some from traditional sources, and others direct from columnists, commentators and new age websites and blogs.

“Maybe it’s because I am from the cusp generation — grew up reading the physical newspaper, but embraced the online world in the university.”

In terms of news consumption – do you prefer, print, television, radio, websites, newsletters, social networks, blogs, apps or something else entirely?

“Television is definitely out – I have not watched TV for years now – scheduling, recording etc. are too complicated, plus I frequently find it lacking in depth. The 24-7 news culture means they are frequently making much ado about nothing.

“Radio is out too, I prefer to hear interviews and music on morning BFM instead. So as for the news, it’s mostly online sources (including online video), with a bit of print thrown in – as I get to choose, and can ponder.”

Do you prefer long-form or short-form content?

“I have tremendous appetite for long-form news, if the content is worth it. Often, that’s not the case. Short-form is often the gateway to long form. The finger is a powerful editor, and many a long form drivel can be cut short with one touch.

“Then again, it depends on the mood and moment. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes you want to take a deep dive. At Entropia we talk about hook, dwell, dive to respond to different attention states.”

Can you name your favourite journalist and set out what makes them great?

NDTV’s Ravish Kumar

“Ravish Kumar is my favourite TV journalist/editor in the Indian media. He seems to keep his head above the noise, and has a sense of balance. He rarely loses sight of what truly matters. In the global media, I can’t recall a clear favourite.

“In Indian media, Arnab Goswami would be the most top-of-mind though – he has invented a news genre of his own – where he as anchor, is an angry near-violent hero. He decides who is wrong and who is right on a given issue even before the news debate.

“He invites a few potential accomplices as side acts and then leads the charge in word-blasting the guest villains to smithereens by frantically yelling and not letting them speak. You worry he might slap someone.

Republic’s Arnab Goswami

“As a new viewer, you first try to understand him, then get confused as to what he is up to, and then settle down to enjoy the comedy. He gets consistently top ratings. Watching his show is cathartic after everyday frustrations that the middle class Indians go through. It’s not really news – we could call it ‘news drama’.”

What piece of journalism has changed the game in recent times, in your view?

“The Sarawak Report and Clare Rewcastle-Brown’s heroic role in bringing out the 1MDB story to the people (mirrored locally by Ho Kay Tat and in the United States by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope) is a story for the pages of South East Asian history. It brought a 93-year-old man back into power – after defeating a party that had been in power for 61 years – to change the course for Malaysia.”

Are there any titles you have paid subscriptions to?

“I pay for the New York Times and often buy The Economist print version. I just love the typography and the feeling of reading it on a lazy weekend morning. But then, I can be a bit quaint. I also pay for The Star English daily.”

In terms of films and shows, is your preference for terrestrial television or streaming platforms like Netflix?

“As I mentioned, I do not watch TV at all unless it’s the FIFA World Cup or something. I love to watch movies in the cinema. I may choose IMAX, Beanies or 4D one of those other new experiences. I think cinema has changed, and I love it.

“But if I am looking to watch something older or a drama then of course Netflix is it. Having said that, my sense is even the best Netflix dramas get boring after season four. Sometimes sooner. And several can be highly formulaic: Horny-Gory-Horny-Gory – every alternate episode. It’s something they learned from Game of Thrones.”

What was the best film you saw of late – and can you describe why it made an impression on you?

Coco: High context and yet a universally appealing film

“I watched Coco a few months back; it was beautiful. The story was highly original and the quality of craft breathtaking. The script was high in context yet had a universal appeal. Given Hollywood output feels so lazy nowadays with sequel after sequel, I thought here was something that needed more attention.”

And what shows do you consider to be event TV, those programmes you just have to watch and can’t contemplate missing?

“The FIFA World Cup finals and Cricket World Cup matches. Not much else really. I rarely have time for primetime TV. I would rather spend it with my boys before they sleep. TV in our household is more of a big screen than television, as we knew it. Netflix, YouTube, Minecraft and the Xbox One dominate consumption.”

In terms of devices, how do you access content most often – on mobile, desktop, tablet, laptop or television?

“Mobile pretty much 100%. I am counting in mobile streaming on TV via Chromecast. I do not use tablets – that’s one screen down in my life – though everyone else in the family is on iPads. I don’t own a desktop.”

How damaging is piracy and illegal downloads when it comes to the media and entertainment space?

“Quite damaging. And it’s a bit unfair to broadcasters. Part of the problem is people have moved to streaming, but it’s not always easy to find the latest content. It doesn’t justify illegal streaming, but clearly the industry needs to take away any excuse people may have for piracy.”

And moving on, what’s been your favourite book in recent times?

“I won’t call it my favourite, but I just finished reading Billion Dollar Whale. It’s a useful tome to understand how the ultra-rich steal money and hide around the global financial system. It also lays out quite clearly how otherwise bonafide global financial players are complicit in this.”

Kindle or hard copy?

“Hard copy. I have a love affair with books savour owning them physically. Somehow the story feels more real, more timeless, more organic, when they speak from pieces of paper. I told you I can be quaint.”

And now to music. How do you buy and consume music?

“Radio is the main medium followed by Spotify and Saavn (for Bollywood). Sometimes even YouTube for music videos, when browsing along with my boys, who seem to love Coldplay for now.”

Which musical artists appeal to your tastes right now?

“Ed Sheeran for western and Arijit Singh for Bollywood. Though my repertoire is typically diverse. It depends on the mood.”

Social networks: Hero or villain when it comes to giving you access to content?

“Flawed heroes, though not all the blame is theirs. They may be just doing what they do the best. Civil society and regulators are the ones who haven’t been able to catch up.

“The fact that some of them don’t like paying fair taxes is symptomatic of a somewhat broken global taxation system and misguided ethics. But then, that’s another matter.”

And are social networks like Facebook and Twitter actually media companies these days in your view?

“They definitely are. Media companies served three functions – origination, aggregation and curation. They do the latter two.

“I would like to believe that the only reason the US is not forcing these platforms to change their algorithms, is because it may open floodgates of country-specific regulations around these platforms, constraining what actually can be a lever of global power for Americans. But now it’s become a Frankenstein’s monster.”

In the digital world, algorithms rather than humans are the media gatekeepers. Do you miss the old days when the likes of journalists, critics and broadcasters played that qualitative role, or have we simply evolved to a better quantitative system?

“For thousands of years, news and views flowed from people to people, via fireplace chats, town square buzz and bonfires at highway inns. The process naturally allowed for a degree of curation and if you trusted the source, it would minimise distortion. People would hear the word from the crowds, refer to credible opinion makers in their community and form opinions.

“Something of the sort is happening on social media. But given that the platforms are still less than two decades old and its makers have been complacent, there are many loopholes that can be exploited.

“Since extreme memes get more response, the views go up exponentially in real time and achieve global scale. Since these platforms do not take accountability for truth of the content, it is a dangerous combination.

“An exception can seem like mainstream reality making the issue much bigger than it is. Since anyone can post stuff, the content can frequently be reactive. Truth doesn’t matter, emotions do, and there are no editors to put things into perspective. It needs fixing.

“But clearly, there is no going back. There were severe flaws in the old model too — the polarisation of American media and the prevalence of paid news world over are good examples of that decadence. It can be argued that 24-7 TV news channels debased the quality of editorial thinking and filtering to such an extent, that people on the whole don’t mind news curated by their friends and family.

“Although I am no Trump supporter, it can also be argued that the co-option of institutional media by top 1% who prioritised textbook globalisation, turning a complete blind eye towards American middle-class interests and anti-trust regulations, is one of the greatest failures of traditional media.

“So to me, the ultimate model is a hybrid one. We do need judicious regulation. We do need human mediation at some level. But editors need to be able to hold their own against the proprietor’s interests, as well as take their professional ethics seriously.”

Finally, what does the future hold for the media space in your view – will artificial intelligence and virtual personal assistants take over to the point where we just trust the machines to tell us what we want to consume, in terms of news and entertainment?

“Not really. AI is to make the mundane easy. We are living more life per life, stuffing in far more experiences, joys, stresses and achievements. AI should be there to discover the patterns – implicit and explicit – like a good assistant, and make curating news and entertainment easy.

“However this curation layer must work on top of a human or network curation. It must also allow a degree of surprise. Like nature itself, you need a mutant gene every once in a while, to evolve.

“A life controlled – rather than enabled by AI – will be vegetative. People will get suicidal. Silicon Valley has made our lives much better but human spirit and the business of living – news and entertainment being core to it – is way more complicated than binary thinking. Doctors understand that. Coders need to as well.

“People are scared of AI. They shouldn’t be. Language recognition alone can enable seven billion people to talk to each other in a seamless way. And that is just one example. How it will revolutionise our world is too grand to imagine.”

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