Posts Tagged ‘media’

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. 

When the President of India speaks

(March 21, 2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of the lifting of the Emergency in India)

We normally get to hear the President of India speak on three formal occasions: on the eve of Republic Day and Independence Day and at the joint session of both Houses of Parliament marking the start of the Budget session. Of course, the President of India also makes speeches on various other platforms over his/her tenure. But what marks all these speeches is their standardised nature – they are either listing the priorities and achievements of the government of the day or are exhortations to select audiences on specific subjects. Which is why the publication of the first of his three volume memoirs by President Pranab Mukherjee was interesting: it was the first by a President while still in office. More intriguingly, it dealt with his first fifteen years in Lutyens Delhi during the Indira Gandhi era.

Of particular interest to my generation, which received its political education from the Emergency years, is his analysis and understanding of the Emergency – the events that led to it, the rationale for the Emergency and the happenings during that period and the political resurrection of Indira Gandhi in the post-Emergency years. Even today, forty years on, I remember my feelings on the morning of 21 March 1977 – “Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”- when a captive All-India Radio and Doordarshan had to admit that Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party had been decisively routed in the polls. At a juncture now in the country’s and world’s history when strong personalities bestride the political scene and when the tenets of liberal democracy are being seriously questioned by the inhabitants of such democracies, there is need to try and understand the social forces at work in a country like India and what these imply for a country which has defied its critics and sceptics by doggedly persisting with a democratic form of government, despite all its flaws and aberrations. A comparison of 1975/77 India and her offspring of 2017 bring out the bright and dark sides of present-day India and enable possible prognostications of what the future holds for us Indians.

  • The educated middle class expansion and its implications: Post-1991, the middle class population in India has grown significantly in numbers apart from being engaged in a variety of occupations. The 1975 Indian middle class was largely employed in government service and beholden to the rulers of the day. The present day middle class Indian could be an entrepreneur, one who works in the organised private sector or is self-employed, very often one with international footprints. She has had access to improved education opportunities, is far more aware of thought currents across the globe and has many more avenues to express herself openly. And yet, the educated middle class is today far more susceptible to the allurements of narrow nationalism, jingoistic pride and intolerance of the views of others, as evidenced by the vicious attacks on social media. The ideals which guided the framers of the Indian Constitution find little resonance with the millennial generation. The technocratic worldview has little patience for liberal, humanistic values. It is little wonder then that liberal democracy is facing an existential crisis today.
  • The explosion in mass media: Freedom of expression has been facilitated by the internet revolution and the humongous growth in electronic and social media. Those of us who had just All India Radio and Doordarshan for meeting our information needs during the Emergency find the current Babel Tower of the electronic media refreshing, even if somewhat irritating at times. Twitter trolls notwithstanding, there is opportunity for every Indian with digital access to put forth her views. And yet, the flip side can be disquieting. While print media in the past was privately owned, big business has now come to dominate both print and electronic media. Editors and news managers are under increasing pressure to conform to the business interests of their owners, unlike in the past. The dissemination of news is also coming to resemble a cricket Twenty-Twenty match, with inexperienced reporters (having little understanding of ground realities) excitedly putting forth garbled versions of the true picture. Even more dismaying is the tendency of news anchors (puffed up with self-importance) functioning as judge, jury and executioner, silencing all inconvenient voices and sending to the gallows those they consider lacking in patriotism and national pride.
  • The Big Brother syndrome – I am the State: We are now in the era of the strong man, whether in India, Russia, the USA, Turkey or the Philippines. Indira Gandhi in 1975 was strong in her own right but she did not have the wide, rapturous acceptance of her predominant position that a Narendra Modi enjoys today. The problem is that the person, party, state and nation are today all seen through the same prism. Criticism of any one of these is seen as opposition to the nation-state. An aura of invincibility is sought to be created around the superman, using the media and capitalising on an ineffectual political opposition. It is true that unlike 1975, when Tamil Nadu was probably the only prominent non-Congress state, today’s political scene is marked by a multiplicity of parties, especially regional formations, ruling in different states. Many of them are often hostile to the ruling party at the centre and lose no opportunity to oppose it on a variety of issues. However, with power and money rather than principles and convictions being the bases for political conduct, there is no certainty about the opposition either, as the recent events of manufacture of governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Manipur show.
  • Diversity – of language, customs and religion: Running a subcontinent of India’s size and heterogeneity is no easy business, more so for a centralised, authoritarian government, as Indira Gandhi found to her cost in 1977. The multiplicity of tongues, religious beliefs and customs, cultural and dietary patterns render the enforcement of a uniform, majoritarian worldview well-nigh impossible. But, in recent times, efforts are being made to impose straitjacketed versions of history, culture and ideas that are drawn from the Gangetic plains. Conformity with the majoritarian mindset is sought to be ensured through indoctrination, legislation and government action and, where these prove inadequate, through resort to vigilante action, whether to dictate what women can wear and do or what people can eat, see and talk.
  • Institutional capture: The first attempts by the government of the day to bend institutions of democracy to its whims and fancies started in 1975 with the supersession of judges of the Supreme Court and the enunciation of the concept of a committed bureaucracy, apart from very crude efforts to muzzle the media. History seems to be coming full circle once again, with steps being taken to exert the influence of the political executive on appointments to the higher judiciary and with no clear system being adopted for appointments to the elite bureaucracy at the level of the Government of India (the media has already been tamed to a great extent, as mentioned earlier). Institutions of higher learning and statutory bodies are being packed with appointees beholden to the reigning political order.

It is impossible (and highly risky) to hazard any definite conclusions about the likely direction of politics in India in the coming decades. Inferences can at best be drawn from the straws in the wind as revealed by the actions of the government and the averments of its spokespersons. In totting up the balance sheet for India’s political system, what gives cause for some comfort is the resilience of the Indian people and their refusal to tolerate incompetent, corrupt and authoritarian behaviour on the part of those elected to represent them. In the first volume of his memoirs, Pranab Mukherjee has glossed over the rationale behind the Emergency, apart from sticking to the usual Congress line of opposition indiscipline, unrest and the call for the resignation of the Prime Minister: having been a loyal Congressman for most of his life, it would be too much to expect him to frankly analyse the inner motivations of the primary actor in first imposing the Emergency and then calling for the elections that led to its end. What is important is whether, forty years hence, we as a people understand the significance of a functioning democracy and the rules and conventions by which it should operate. Sadly, we, the so called “thinking classes”, are ready to hand over our powers (and even our freedoms) in our quest for security and certainty, forgetting that democracy is eternally a story that is in the making. It is we, the citizens of India, who have to write that story, learning from past mistakes. Else, there will be need to revert to a perennially favourite quote of mine “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”