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Policy Talk | I am Generous with My Money, Stingy with My Time, Says Nandan Nilekani

By: K Yatish Rajawat

Last Updated: April 08, 2022, 18:33 IST

We feel we need to be on top of information all the time. Great leaders are on the top of the moment, says Tanuj Bhojwani, co-author of The Art of Bitfulness. Photo for representation: Shutterstock

We feel we need to be on top of information all the time. Great leaders are on the top of the moment, says Tanuj Bhojwani, co-author of The Art of Bitfulness. Photo for representation: Shutterstock

When I go to meet Mr Modi, he gives you his undivided attention for whatever time he has allotted, says Nandan Nilekani on ‘the art of bitfulness’ and managing distractions

Policy Talk is a conversation with thought leaders, writers and policy practitioners. The objective is to have a discussion on current and future policies that will have an impact on us.

Distraction is all around us, including devices like smartphones, laptops and computers. Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and chairman of Infosys Technologies, creator of Aadhaar and several other public initiatives, and Tanuj Bhojwani, fellow at iSPIRT and frequent writer on technology issues, spoke to K. Yatish Rajawat on their new book The Art of Bitfulness: Keeping Calm in the Digital World. The book talks about how to manage digital distraction, and how should policy makers look at digital organisations that are affecting the society.

Yatish Rajawat: I wanted to ask both of you what is the primary message that you want to give through this book?

Nandan Nilekani: Well I think let me start by saying that we believe that technology is enormously empowering, enormously useful to society and both of us in different ways have been technology evangelist for a long time. However, I think the way we use technology especially consumer technology is: we get the benefit out of it rather than doing things other people would like us to do. And therefore, being on top of technology and getting best value for it is what this book is all about. And, of course, the larger issue is how do we build ecosystem of less distraction around us.

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Tanuj Bhojwani: That’s it. I think the subtitle captures it, keeping calm in digital world. If you keep calm I think you will be able to, like Nandan is saying, get on top of your life, live your best life, as well as build a society we all would like to live in.

Yatish Rajawat: Keeping calm in an information-soaked world, you quote Herbert Simon on losing attention. Do you think that most behaving lot habit gurus have this formula that if you want to change behaviour, if you want to change a habit, you need to stop it altogether? Like smoking, you can’t half quit or you can’t smoke less, you have to give up smoking entirely. Can we do partial detoxification and then pretend that we are now calm?

Tanuj Bhojwani: Basically you put your finger on the message, simple rules are more effective. I will not smoke is more effective than I will not smoke 98 per cent of the time. I will not eat sugar is more effective than I will try to restrict calories to X number; it looks like complicated maths. Similarly, when it comes to digital, we are saying that it is impossible to work right now without digital, so for us to have a blanket ban is simple but ineffective.

It is going to be difficult to give digital up, what we give is a simple set of rules that you can follow that lets you keep your sanity, keep your peace. We talk about how you can create simple boundaries and through those simple boundaries you have a choice at every moment. I am doing deep work, I am writing, how do I be in right zone for that work?

Nandan Nilekani: Yes, absolutely. Unlike cigarettes where you know not smoking is good for your health, I don’t think it is practical or feasible or even right to give up on digital devices because they are a source of enormous value, productivity, entertainment, information, communication. So it is not about giving it up or leading some kind of a monastic existence. It is about using it in a more effective way to get full value and remain calm in a chaotic world.

I don’t think it is practical or feasible or even right to give up on digital devices because they are a source of enormous value, productivity, entertainment, information, communication. It is about using it in a more effective way to get full value and remain calm in a chaotic world.

Yatish Rajawat: You say a very interesting thing, ‘We know we need to do what but we don’t do it’. Classic procrastination problem. And, you say this is because we are phenomenologically aversive. Does this aversive-ness only apply to individuals or is it applicable to institutions too?

Nandan Nilekani: Institutions face the same challenges also because people have finite roles in institutions, their tenure is fixed. They rather push the football to the next party because they don’t want to take the pain of change and partly because the benefit of the change will not accrue to them.

Yatish Rajawat: You walk into a CXO’s office, or a minister, senior bureaucrat’s office, they have a laptop open, a desktop computer blinking, a mobile phone and a TV blaring news in the background. At the highest level, we see the highest level of distraction. How does this affect decision-making and policymaking?

Nandan Nilekani: I think that’s extremely distracting and you end up with so many demands on you time. A cricket match is going on the TV and somebody’s coming in and saying I want a transfer, somebody says they need budget approval. I’ve seen this personally by the way. And it’s impossible to have a communication but let me also tell you that I have worked with some of the top leaders in the country and they are not like that. When I go to meet Mr Modi, he gives you his undivided attention for whatever time he has allotted. He does not have a single device there, does not have a piece of paper there and he gives you complete attention. And listens to you and talks to you. Many others do that. I have seen that across the board but top leaders are extremely focused. But there are some people who are distracted all the time. And that’s what we talk about. In fact, it’s a good idea not to take your device into a meeting because then you know you get distracted.

When I go to meet Mr Modi, he gives you his undivided attention for whatever time he has allotted. He does not have a single device there, does not have a piece of paper there and he gives you complete attention. And listens to you and talks to you. Top leaders are extremely focused.

Tanuj Bhojwani: We feel we need to be on top of information all the time. Great leaders are on top of the moment. Not on top of everything in the world. If you are present in that moment and giving it your best, you are more productive and effective than anybody else can be. So I think it’s very counter-intuitive to the natural tendency and feeling that you think you want all these information sources and you want to be reactive. But the best, what Nandan is saying, are focused and proactive.

Yatish Rajawat: What would you say about people who keep switching context that has enormous cognitive cost and that also affects the quality of decision. What would you say to them about meetings with laptops, mobile phones and television sets?

Nandan Nilekani: I won’t do a meeting with a television blaring at the background. I would not keep my devices close by because I do believe that if you have to meet somebody you need to give them complete and undivided attention, that you need to converse with them, you need to listen to them. Otherwise what’s the point of the meeting. I may be old school in that way but I do believe you should give your meeting undivided attention.

Nandan Nilekani: I am generous with my money and stingy with my time. Because for me, time is the only resource which is finite and the older I get the less time I have, and therefore I am very very conscious about how I spend my time. I convert request for meetings into phone calls and messages or emails. I am very, very particular and once I give time for a meeting I give my undivided attention.

Yatish Rajawat: Your book says, due to business model of the internet we are facing an existential crisis. A business model dependent on grabbing attention and advertising revenue. You talk about a better model, a micro-payment-based one. How will this happen? Is there a role for policy here? Is there a role for government Where will the trigger come from?

Nandan Nilekani: I think India has come a long way in building a transactional internet. As we say in the book, when the original internet was designed, it was commercialised prematurely and internet giants emerged. What we have today in India, for example, because of UPI is a very high volume, zero-cost micro-payment infrastructure where you can make a Rs 5 and Rs 10 payment very efficiently from a phone, a phone to another phone, and a phone to desktop. And I believe India’s internet economy will be transactional-led, it will not be advertising-led. India doesn’t have a large advertising market like the West. In this era, digital-first payment is UPI. We actually have the infrastructure for micro-payment-based internet.

Advertising, search and social media are dominated by global players, so it’s a bit difficult for an Indian company to make a place there. If there are existing apps that are advertising-based and they dominate the market, you can’t do much.

Nandan Nilekani: In fact, Yatish, just take your own sector — media. One of the biggest trends in media is subscription, you know publications, both in India and abroad, are increasingly going for subscription models or paper view models. And lot of people are going to them because they are willing to pay for subscription as long as they get high value content. So you are seeing that happening in media, and you are seeing the rise of many subscription-based media because people also want real, curated news from quality journalists.

Yatish Rajawat: What about social media and the OTT model. It is now emerging as the most powerful attention grabber? Is there a place for policy play here?

Nandan Nilekani: The West is looking at regulations and monopoly laws to control this. But you also need to use technology. First, do not allow them to create a walled garden. Which means you need inter-operability and portability across platforms. If on one social media platform you have a bunch of followers, you should be able to take them to another social media platform. You should be able to take your followers, user groups, contact list if a new product comes along. You can do some of this with regulation. Email, for example, is inter-operable, you can communicate from Gmail to Yahoo to Hotmail. Insist on inter-operable systems.

If on one social media platform you have a bunch of followers, you should be able to take them to another social media platform. You should be able to take your followers, user groups, contact list if a new product comes along.

Yatish Rajawat: You are talking about data portability and identity portability and inter-operability across platforms for individuals. How will this happen?

Nandan Nilekani: It’s a techno-legal thing. You create a legal infrastructure that demands portability. And then you create inter-operable protocols that you mandate everyone uses. Email is a very good example, it uses the SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer) protocol.

Yatish Rajawat: Will internet companies allow this? They will resist opening up their protocol or transfers from one platform to another? What is the argument for allowing inter-operability?

Tanuj Bhojwani: If the platforms are good for the consumers, I don’t think people will switch out. Consumers will stick to that, nobody’s taking away that. The idea is that today it’s a virtuous cycle if you have a network. You tend to get bigger and bigger because of the network effect. A new buyer or a new seller will go to a big platform where there are more buyers. This is a virtuous cycle. To give a fair chance to a new competitor, you need the network.

First, you need to create a protocol, let the market come in to create new competing products on top of the network. Something new will create opportunities, other VCs will put in money, user will see the benefits and you might start seeing the shift without the need for state intervention. If this does not happen, then state intervention in proportional quantities, in proportional measures. Let private invention do its job, it’s not just a state problem.

Yatish Rajawat: The Account Aggregator falls into this perfectly.

Nandan Nilekani: Totally, it’s an ecosystem of multiple players. And, people are empowered with their own data so small business can get their bank statements and tax details and give it to a lender and lender can decide to give you loan but you control the data and you use a third party impartial consent manager to navigate all this.

Yatish Rajawat: How will this happen in e-commerce?

Nandan Nilekani: It is the whole initiative – ONDC or Open Network for Digital Commerce. ONDC has been set up, many people want to be shareholders, they have appointed management teams. That is essentially disaggregating the pieces of commerce suppliers, delivery, and the technology between consumers and allowing more and more people to plug into an uninterruptable network using the ONDC protocol. So, ONDC protocol is a good example of open protocol for e-commerce.

Yatish Rajawat: Who does the logistics in the ONDC and who owns the platform?

Nandan Nilekani: There can be multiple lines out; we are seeing great companies come in which are dedicated to delivery alone like Delhivery or Shadowfax. ElasticRun and many such companies only do logistics for a living. They will act as third party arm for this. Amazon does that. Amazon offers fulfillment and all that, where they use their own fulfillment network for other merchants. Once you unbundle this, then how the market will organise this will depend on situation to situation.

Yatish Rajawat: Who will onboard the customers on this platform?

Nandan Nilekani: There could be multiple platforms. I may be a Paytm customer buying from Mensa brand and getting it delivered by Delhivery. I could be a PhonePe customer buying from Nykaa and having it delivered by Shadowfax. There are many ways to do this.

Yatish Rajawat: It means you are saying that if a payment company is looking at entering e-commerce it could use the ONDC network. They don’t need to build their own platform, they can plug in and play?

Nandan Nilekani: They don’t have to build end-to-end e-commerce platform. They can connect to a large number of suppliers and they can connect to multiple delivery platforms and offer the consumers e-commerce service.

Yatish Rajawat: So who will own ONDC at the end of the day?

Nandan Nilekani: ONDC is a non-profit company being set up with multiple shareholders including the government. It will be like the NPCI (National Payments Corporation of India) for e-commerce. It creates a public commons of e-commerce platform that is inter-operable and decentralised. The idea is core infrastructure will become fair to market competition.

Yatish Rajawat: Tell us about the three modes: create, curate and communicate, and how do both of you manage these three modes on your personal devices and what are your learnings?

Nandan Nilekani: My method is purely using physical devices. So I do all my ‘create’, which is writing articles or whatever is required, on my laptop, which is kept in a particular place. And when I go to my laptop I know that I am going to work and I keep my devices far away.

When I want to read and browse or watch something on my iPad, that’s my ‘curate’ mode. I do all my ‘communication’ through my phone. I only do it through SMS and phone calls. I don’t use any social media products. I do use Twitter but mainly to disseminate my articles or ideas. So, my create mode is my laptop, my curate mode is an iPad and my communicate mode is a phone. Therefore, I use physical devices and when I pick up those devices, I always know in my mind that I am switching into that mode.

Yatish Rajawat: Do you monitor the time that you spend on each on these devices in each of these modes?

Nandan Nilekani: Not really, I mean, my work mode is very simple. I have a zero email policy. I do my email first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I make sure that I end the day with zero inbox so that next morning is a new day. And I don’t take phone calls from numbers I don’t know. I encourage people to message me or email me.

Tanuj Bhojwani: I try to minimise my usage of phone altogether. It is something that I pull out if I am on the go, or I have to book a cab or jot down a note etc. The only thing I leave on my phone is WhatsApp, it’s the primary communication method for me with a lot of people. I am on Instagram now because I have to be there and respond to people.

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first published:April 08, 2022, 18:08 IST
last updated:April 08, 2022, 18:33 IST