The circle of unreason

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The moral and ethical imperatives that govern our lives still matter when we log on

The US is out of the Paris climate accord, allying itself with Syria and Nicaragua. Taking up leadership roles on behalf of the beleaguered planet are those noted eco-warriors, my two countries. It would seem that we’re through the looking glass, up is down, and peacocks exist through lachrymal propagation.

Most days, while watching the news, reading it, or scrolling through, I wonder: Should I laugh, cry, or shoot myself in the head?

Much like my other media choices — Will Ferrell comedies; mildly scary TV shows; Arsenal! — my news consumption follows a pattern. I no longer watch it, as in audit it for information, over a period of time. Instead, it’s a feed from various sources, dripping — sometimes cascading — bits of entertainment into my consciousness, sometimes edifying, but mostly just horrifying me.

It would seem it is time to give up being connected. Or resign myself to a world of noise. Opinionated dumbassery, half-cocked commentary, barely-veiled agendas — and that’s just the news.

Have we really become this imbecilic? Or is it the nature of the constant drabble of information — bite-sized, mostly unedited, utterly devoid of context — that makes us seem more stupid than we actually are?

It isn’t as easy as turning off your router. If you don’t have access to information, then you can’t form an intelligent opinion. (Call me old-fashioned, but “informed” and “intelligent” still precede opinion. IMHO.) Especially where I live, with a strict rationing of English language outlets, information itself is a drug. But as any drinker in a dry State will tell you, in a situation where what you want is illicit, you make do with what you get.

In other places, it’s not even about firewalls, but about who is marketing themselves the best. In a media environment where search engines serve up pre-bought hits to any query, how do you guard against young minds being taken straight to the fringes?

Forget the young. The Orange-utan retweets demonstrably false rubbish from dodgy websites, which is picked up by his legions of acolytes. Mainstream European elections are being contested by people running overtly racist and xenophobic campaigns. In Hindustan, the land of unity in diversity, a cow’s life is apparently more valuable than a human’s, and the movements of vans carrying cattle are tracked live. These phenomena are linked, because they are made possible by the new media, ironically by what made it attractive in the first place — its very democracy, that it is cheap and open to everyone with a device and access to a network. How do you guard this new information-enabled world against the terminal idiocy of apparently most of its inhabitants?

Driving licences are given after tests, in most jurisdictions. The reasoning is that you need a modicum of training before you’re set loose on the road. Drinking and voting are subject to age and other restrictions, because, again, your actions while doing either are seen to have consequences.

Yet nobody needs to take a test, or even sign a disclaimer, before they’re let loose on the wired world. You can say practically anything online and have it instantly propagated elsewhere. (No, ‘terms of use’ and other sets of guidelines are pointless. By the time they come into effect, the damage is already done and the poison is out there.) Indeed, for many, perhaps most people, that’s the point. You can blithely disregard the bleatings of your superego, take on another persona, say all those things that society won’t let you anywhere else. (The Tangerine Nightmare’s victory was smugly attributed in part to blowback against “political correctness”, and people’s heartfelt need to be “honest”.)

I’ve got forwards that appalled me, from people who should know better. And groups? Who cares who else is on one with you, when you can send misogyny disguised as humour. Things you would never say to a Muslim or Dalit or indeed to any other batchmate’s face can be expressed boldly in a class chat. Perhaps because it’s so easy; perhaps because the person you know you’re hurting isn’t sitting there with you; perhaps, and this is the thing, because of the nature of the medium, you don’t even realise you’re causing hurt.

We are human and thus we are social. But “social” media is anything but social. It’s just you, at the end of your device, projecting yourself upon a perceived blankness, but which, in reality, is the ecosystem of everyone and everything you know.

If anything, because what you leave out there could live forever, you should be more careful. But you’re not, are you?

I don’t know what the answer is. This was supposed to be the golden age of freedom, where the democracy of easily available information would help the world shake off the fetters of the old elitisms.

Well, we’re certainly more free. If a man isn’t free to be an utter moron in the company of others just as challenged as he, then what is he free to be?

Clearly more regulation isn’t the answer. Aside from the ethics of it, it won’t work operationally. The genie’s out; the horse has bolted; it’s all gone a bit viral. You can’t police this new world.

It has to come from within you. That’s something we all have to deal with. We’re in this new world together, and nobody’s disconnecting it soon. We have to make it reflect the best parts of us and not the worst.

Or we can sit around and watch while it changes all of us.

Avtar Singh was formerly managing editor of The Indian Quarterly and editor of Time Out Delhi, and is the author of Necropolis

Published on June 09, 2017

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