Aurora Magazine

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Wrestling With the Digital Revolution in Pakistan

Published in Mar-Apr 2021

Recalling fond memories of PAS and Pakistan causes Julian Saunders to ponder on how the digital revolution is turning out.
Caption: Julian Saunders meets his match in Peshawar.
Caption: Julian Saunders meets his match in Peshawar.

I was not exactly fresh on landing in Karachi in 2009. Etihad had provided a spanking new plane for the London-Abu Dhabi leg, but the plane for the onward leg was due for a well-earned retirement. I was sat next to a gentleman from Punjab who clearly enjoyed his dinners. He occupied one and a half seats and I was crammed into half a seat. He was charming and we spoke about our mutual love of slow-cooked lamb curry. But I had a bad back when we landed. 

Twelve years later I was in Lahore with PAS, and sampling the lamb curry in a restaurant high up in the old quarter overlooking the Badshahi Mosque. This is surely one of the best restaurant outlooks in the world. We over-ordered, of course. “Eyes bigger than belly” as my grandma used to say. We bagged up the leftovers and sauntered out into the old town to see who might like the spare food. I had started to understand the gentleman from Punjab’s food passion and I was much thicker around the girth when I returned to London. 

Incidentally, I strongly recommend the Railway Mutton Curry from Summers under the Tamarind Tree by Sumayya Usmani. The book was a spontaneous gift from PAS when I mentioned in passing that I liked to cook spicy food. This, I should note, is unusual: clients don’t normally give their suppliers gifts, except (I have learnt) in Pakistan. 

Anyway, why was I on a plane in 2009? PAS was holding their big annual conference and I was a speaker. I was not the first choice. Several American speakers had cancelled due to unrest in Karachi and so substitutes were needed. I reckoned that I would be safer in a five-star high-security hotel in Karachi than wandering the streets of London (I still think this).

I was no stranger to the conference circuit. In 2004 I had published a book, The Communications Challenge, which aimed to make sense of the digital revolution for advertisers. I learnt several things from this. Luck plays a big part in any career. My book was why the invitation came from PAS. Later, I would work for Google, helping set up an innovation division. This too was one of the fruits of going into print. 

Publish about the future and preferably about a hot topic: everyone wants to know what will be exciting and new. Fewer things have been more consequential in our lives than the digital revolution. Also, you can’t be wrong because the future has not happened yet. It means you can write on the theme of “what did I get right or wrong?”. I confess I have done this several times.

In 2009 I met Qamas Abbas, Executive Director of PAS, for the first time. No sooner did we shake hands, he had to rush off as his wife was having a baby. But that was all anticipated, so a friend was drafted in to make sure I was not alone. A few hours later Qamar’s friend and I were bobbing around in a boat in the harbour fishing for crabs. 

A year later I was back in Karachi and Qamar invited me to his son’s first birthday party. It was everything you would hope for. Parents compared notes about when ‘first steps’ were taken and what ‘first words’ were uttered by their precious offspring. Tables were groaning with food and the older children needed to have their greed curbed, lest it led to unfortunate and messy repercussions. Proud grandmas were in abundance, looking pleased as punch. 

At the level of our common humanity, we self-evidently have more in common than divides us. Yet, cultures can be different in remarkable and interesting ways. I have always found Pakistan’s culture of hospitality distinctive and heart-warming. (It is also the basis of enduring relationships, rather than simple financial arrangements and it explains why I am always keen to return.)

I realise these last remarks look a bit like a homespun philosophy rather than anything particularly profound. They are, however, useful in explaining how the digital revolution has turned out, which has been my theme in seminars for PAS and articles for Aurora over the last decade. 

At first, we had high hopes. When I was researching my book (2002/2003) I met many digital evangelists who prophesied a new dawn of human freedom, creativity and cross-cultural connection. Politics were going to be transformed and improved by better access to reliable information. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” Wordsworth was writing about the unbounded youthful optimism triggered by the French Revolution. “Disappointed hopes” sums up what happened next (as it does for the plot of most 19th century French novels in my view). 

Revolutions always turn sour, as ruthless people use social tumult and rapid change as opportunities to grab power and money. Californian libertarian laissez-faire has morphed into surveillance capitalism and spawned the richest companies the world has seen. Much digital advertising, now dominated by a few firms, is a form of online pollution as we are chased across the internet, cookies attached to our devices. 

Freedom, as Karl Popper explained, is paradoxical. Extreme libertarianism is also the opportunity for one person or group to oppress another. We might hide our identities to be free to express any opinion, which gives ordinary people the power to oppose authoritarian regimes. But that freedom can also be a mask behind which the malevolent can indulge in all manner of feral trolling and doxing.  

Yet, that early idealism has also borne fruit. We forget that old-style advertising – TV, posters, radio and press – was a very expensive game for only well-funded companies. Digital advertising is now affordable to organisations of all sizes and budgets. New ways to advertise are possible through videos, podcasts, appealing websites and much more. Entrepreneurs anywhere can reach markets they could never reach before. As I write, my wife is obsessively scanning a deliciously appealing ‘aggregator’ website called Etsy; she is considering buying a Suzani from a workshop in Uzbekistan. I have not seen my son for two years (he works in Hong Kong) yet we can zoom most days.  

At first, the internet was a Californian thing (its big tech companies still dominate) but as the digital revolution has become universal, it has interacted with different cultures and produced interesting fruits. The Chinese government is busy designing a surveillance state to maintain the power of the CCP. Frugality has also been the mother of invention; mobile banking first took off in Kenya because there were neither internet cables nor bank branches. On my first visit to Pakistan, I learnt about a service enabling literacy delivered through free text messages. Access is increasingly cheap and liberating.

Cheap digital services are one of the reasons why the pandemic has not been a complete disaster. Yet, I predict a big bounce back to meeting face to face. You can’t beat it. On my final day in Pakistan in 2017, I chanced upon a wrestling match in a muddy field on the outskirts of Lahore. I explained that I was from London. Two spectators beside me (both welders) would not accept this. They countered that I was surely from Peshawar (middle-aged men bantering – it’s the same the world over). I was bemused until the wrestler from Peshawar turned up. “Separated at birth” they shouted as I was instructed to stand beside him to make the comparison. Well, you decide. That sort of thing does not happen on Zoom. 

Julian Saunders is a strategist, writer and teacher. He was CEO of a creative agency (WPP’s Red Cell) and has worked for the UK government and Google.