Curry, Skype and a camera: one man's digital dinner diplomacy

Fri Oct 10, 2014 8:42am EDT
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By Ashutosh Pandey

BANGALORE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It's India-Pakistan diplomacy with a difference: two groups of students - one in Bangalore, one in Islamabad - talking fashion, film and politics over homemade curry and steaks.

By dining together on Skype calls, the students might knock down the cultural and political barriers that divide them. That's the dream of Eric Maddox, founder of the Virtual Dinner Guest initiative.

"It is harder to ignore, vilify or harm those with whom we have broken bread," said the 36-year-old American, who has spent the last three months in the Indian tech hub of Bangalore.

Maddox is filing for non-profit status for Virtual Dinner Guest, an idea conceived during field research in the West Bank as part of his degree in international conflict resolution. The project is funded by private donations and a grant from Skype.

The ultimate aim is to create a database of conversations and street interviews that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world - a platform, says Maddox, for a "natural culture of solidarity".

In Kashmir, the worst fighting between India and Pakistan in more than a decade is heightening tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors. The virtual dinner guests, however, spent more time talking about the movies of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan.

Maddox has connected diverse groups in 16 countries so far, using local volunteers to find participants. The groups share a 60 to 90-minute dinner and ask questions inspired by newspaper articles selected as source material.

Then, guests hit the streets of their city with a handheld camera to interview residents about a topic of their dining partners' choice. The results are screened at a second dinner.   Continued...