The major distractions of humans today

Hindu theology speaks of Shada Ripu or the six vices. These are:

1) Kama: lust; 2) Krodha: anger 3) Lobha: greed; 4) Moha: delusion/attachment; 5) Mada: arrogance; 6) Matsarya: jealousy.

I will illustrate these enemies of humankind in a subsequent blog and explain how we can try to curb them. Today, I intend to highlight how these emotions are fuelled by the major present-day distractions that put paid to one’s peace of mind.

Media (print/electronic)

I often wonder about our great-grandmothers/grandfathers and their ancestors who never had to wake up to the morning newspaper. My great-grandfather was an agriculturist who woke up by 4.30 AM to visit his fields early in the morning. He never had the irresistible desire many of us have to rush for the newspaper first thing in the morning, sometimes without even completing our morning ablutions. And what do we get as our morning dose? A murder here, an abduction there and a diatribe against some action or inaction of the government of the day. A maelstrom of emotions is generated in the next thirty to forty minutes, composed generally of a mix of anger and greed.

The early morning practice in my childhood years was to tune in to All India Radio (AIR) at 6 AM (those overcome by nostalgia can listen to the AIR signature tune here). Devotional music on AIR was followed by half an hour of old Hindi film songs on Radio Ceylon. The Hindi news read out to us by Devaki Nandan Pandey or Indu Wahi at 8 AM was dry and factual, without any sensational tidbits. Listening to the radio is now passé: the Indian TV scene underwent a sea change after the 1982 Asian Games. Doordarshan dominated the early years, till the advent of NDTV and a host of private channels from the 1990s onwards. What we get on TV today 24 by 7 is the same mishmash of nonsense parading as information, aimed at titillating our senses and exciting lust, anger, greed and envy. As the day progresses, every absurd event is brought to us by breathless reporters, many of whom have had no grounding in the basics of economics and politics, leave alone news coverage. And then there are the interminable soap operas to keep viewers in a state of perpetual stupefaction.

Time wasted: two to four hours a day.

Internet/email

This phenomenon came alive only in the mid-1990s in a significant way. Over time, search engines of Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have given humans access to a huge load of information. While much of this material is useful, we also suffer from an overload of data, more marked at times like the current COVID crisis. People tend to explore, for example, for reasons for symptoms they seem to be experiencing and possible remedies for the same. They are then exposed to a variety of cures, many propagated by charlatans and fake healers. Ditto for those who fall for tips on stock market winners from motley investment gurus. The urge to keep checking for emails is itself an addictive pastime, as is the habit of aimless browsing of pornography and game sites.

Time wasted: anywhere from one to five hours a day.

Facebook/Instagram/YouTube

It is, however, the offspring of the internet, the applications designed to involve people as participants, which have truly revolutionised and trivialised internet usage. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are social networking sites that provide space for the narcissist and the voyeur. The aim is to expand one’s ability to reach out to a wide audience, many of whom have no direct or proximate link with the entity they follow; in fact, the follower and followed may well be located in different continents. Facebook and Instagram allow users to share stories of their last holiday in Corfu or Nice or their latest revelry in an upmarket restaurant in New York or Paris. The old Onida ad heading of “neighbours’ envy, owners’ pride” was never truer than today. A prime cause of the feeling of worthlessness in people can be traced to this ready mechanism of comparison. YouTube started off well with access to plenty of audio-visual content, especially music from the past, and useful hacks to deal with the variety of confusing modern equipment we seem to have surrounded ourselves with. However, it has also fallen prey to the consumerist ethic. Of late, India has developed its models of Kim Kardashians, who flaunt their daily life on channels developed by them, which yield the presenters a handsome return based on the number of subscriptions they are able to secure. While some of these channels restrict themselves to domestic matters like the daily life in an urban flat, they also provide the opportunity to flaunt the ability to purchase items that are just a dream for the majority of viewers. A number of these channel managers have, in a short space of time, developed cult followings, enabling them to peddle a variety of goods and services online and even to dabble in promoting superstitious trends: Lobha, Moha, Mada and Matsarya are in full view on these YouTube channels.

Time wasted: Two to four hours a day

Twitter

            This application arrived somewhat later in the internet world, but has caught on like wildfire. This is probably because of the limited content of 280 characters that can be put out on a single tweet. Even persons not too confident of their writing skills can comfortably type out the twenty five or fewer words needed in a message. What this has led to is an explosion in the number of Twitter accounts over the years. In particular, Twitter (and Facebook) have become the social media tools favoured by political parties/movements and politicians, because of their extensive reach out to huge populations. Some recent developments on Twitter have set the political classes in different countries atwitter. A trend that is particularly noticeable in recent years with the advent of populist politicians in a number of countries has been the emergence of trolls, bots and fake accounts. IT cells of populist parties rely on these mechanisms to unleash a barrage of criticism, often bordering on or openly abusive, to dampen potential dissenters. Even otherwise, the advent of Twitter has seen a coarsening of language and an end to meaningful dialogue. The result is a stream of hatred, born of anger and delusion. Positions have hardened on all sides of the political and social spectrum, as the boundaries of civility and decent language have crumbled under this onslaught. Twitter is also a facile time-waster: it takes little effort to keep scrolling on one’s Twitter handle to keep abreast of the latest tweet.

Time wasted: Anywhere from two to eight hours at all hours of the day and night

WhatsApp (WA)

WA, which was meant to be an improvement on the short message service (SMS) in vogue since the 1980s, has acquired a life and momentum of its own. Its features include sending of audio-visual messages, a task which was cumbersome or not feasible earlier. But WA has also amplified the human characteristic to spread gossip like wildfire and has contributed, through paranoid reactions in recipient populations, to appalling actions like lynchings and other acts of violence. Its group features have also enabled groupings with similar worldviews to come together on a single platform, secure in the knowledge that they share a common ideology with their fellow beings. Ironically, this has also helped contribute to the systematic brainwashing of significant sections of the so-called “thinking” classes on issues relating to religion, race and perceived economic and social grievances. In the absence of responsible forwarding of information, which they have verified to be true, by members of WA groups, the basest instincts of group members have been activated, linked to their fears and insecurities. WA, because of its easy access on mobile phones, is seen at all times of day and night by its users.

Time wasted: Two to ten hours, depending on the reasons for usage

            The human race, with a finite period of existence between its first and last breath, thus spends a large part of its waking hours engaged in one or more of the distractions mentioned above. Marshall McLuhan referred to the medium being the message (or massage). The medium today is almost entirely the mobile phone, with the me(a)ssage catering to the different aspirations, fears and anxieties of increasingly rootless earthlings. Have we not seen the face of the student/office goer on her/his way to study/work, immersed in a mobile phone? Reading has now become a luxury, with the inundation of the mind, through the eyes and ears, by a continuous stream of audio-visual material. This has implications, not necessarily pleasant to visualise, for citizens of liberal democracies across the globe who are being subjected to a relentless barrage of “alternative truths”, which they have no inclination to question or critically examine.

            At an individual level, what can we do about this insane movement towards uniformity of thoughts and attitudes? At a personal level, I have eschewed the reading of newspapers (two years now) and accessing TV, especially news, channels (three years now). Although still maintaining a Facebook account, I almost never open it. YouTube is limited to listening to old Hindi film songs and viewing some classic movies of yesteryears. I have severely restricted surfing on the internet, except to download articles of interest or for research purposes. I try to resist, not always successfully, the temptation to go through my incoming emails, though I plan to confine this activity to just half an hour every afternoon, with a break on the tw0-day weekend. I plan to limit WA use to downloading links for Zoom meetings (where these are not sent on email) and am trying to take a break for days at a time from Twitter. In any case, I plan not to respond (react?) to others’ tweets. Will these actions help me control the six emotions I mentioned at the start of this blog? I certainly hope so and I hope you find me an easier human being to deal with the next time we interact. 

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by ashwinimehra on February 15, 2021 at 3:13 pm

    Very well put. That is one of the reasons I am resisting a shift to Signal or Telegram or KOKO. Whatsap is such a waste of time but for about half the time I spend on it, it is useful in helping discharge my official chores (double -edged sword). One bad effect of the social media is the shortening time span of focus and attention; I am a victim too and I dont like it. Thanks, Ramani.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Ravi Budhiraja on February 15, 2021 at 5:21 pm

    Lovely reading

    Reply

  3. Many, many thanks for a most sensible post. I have – since Covid started – tried to follow some of your prescriptions. Sadly I have relapsed. Sampath in the Sunday Magazine of the Hindu (I tried and failed to get my newspaper supplier to only give me the Sunday edition) is someone I don’t wish to forego. Luckily never ventured into Twitter. WA is still a problem though I have largely opted out of exchanges in my batch group. But otherwise I find it very efficient for quick communications. I have tried to keep the cell phone out of reach – I have got out of the habit of checking the phone first thing in the morning. I have a meditation, pranayama and prayer routine starting around 5 am and I try to head out for a walk around 7:30. That is when I look at the phone. Next step is to eliminate that – though my wife insists I carry it as my walking route is not frequented by people. Thanks again!

    Reply

    • Thanks, Bala. I think that is why so much of Hindu thought focuses on withdrawal into the self, especially restraining the sense organs. Subject of a future blog.

      Reply

  4. Posted by bch1950 on February 16, 2021 at 3:40 am

    Dear Ramani,

    I enjoyed this post very much. Using ancient theology to introduce observations on a post-post-modern scourge is clever. I had a Facebook account but never used it and finally worked out how to exterminate it; have never Twittered or used Instagram and employ Signal instead of WA for confidential communications where that is important. WA I have found to be a very convenient way of sharing my travels with friends and family. The Twittersphere has been less polluted now that the Fake President has been booted from office. Let’s hope he disappears in the Florida Everglades but I doubt that the alligators could stomach him.

    I hope you are keeping safe and are well.

    Cheerio,

    Bun

    PS How is Desai these days? Do you stay in touch with him?

    Reply

    • Dear Bun, Great to hear from you. Much of what appears on media (social and otherwise) agitates me. Hence my attempts at withdrawal. I can’t believe the amount of hate and bigotry being peddled on media in my own country. Saddens me. Anyway, keep trying to retain my balance. We are fine, thanks: trust you and family are safe and well. Desai is leading a quiet life in Baroda. We are in touch through…social media!!

      Reply

  5. Posted by smita bhide on February 16, 2021 at 9:31 pm

    Thanks Ramani.As usual,you put it together so succinctly.One of the positive points of the internet is quick and easy access to the writings of people such as yourself. Here’s looking forward to the next blog.

    On Mon, Feb 15, 2021 at 12:54 AM V. Ramani’s web wrote:

    > vramani posted: “Hindu theology speaks of Shada Ripu or the six vices. > These are: 1) Kama: lust; 2) Krodha: anger 3) Lobha: greed; 4) Moha: > delusion/attachment; 5) Mada: arrogance; 6) Matsarya: jealousy. I will > illustrate these enemies of humankind in a subsequent blog ” >

    Reply

    • There are positive points to the internet, the problem is in overuse. The applications are another matter altogether. Thanks for reading and for the encouragement.

      Reply

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