Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Drowning in the trivial - I

In You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, Nick Cohen mentions something that I have been mulling over for a while - the explosion and encouragement of triviality. I have written about it earlier. The Net gives writers new tools but they may find that the public that they are trying to influence may be diverted by other attractions. In George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four, the Party controlled the masses with prolefeed - the rubbishy entertainment and spurious news which the Party handed out to the masses.

The Web has simultaneously made it easy to write and easy for their efforts to be ignored. They can produce serious content but find that their target audience is seduced by cheap entertainment. The Web and TV have the risk of making people blind to the vital issues of the day.A character in Nineteen Eighty-four who is involved in editing the Dictionary of Newspeak says, 'The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking -- not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.'  Cohen writes:
Evgeny Morozov, the most bracing critic of modern optimism, emphasises the anaesthetising effects of perpetual amusement.  People use new means of communication not to engage in political activism, but to find entertainment. The Net is no exception, and has increased the opportunities for the masses to find pleasing diversions to a level that no one had previously imagined possible.  In Russia, China, Vietnam and the other formerly puritan communist countries, the decision by the new market-oriented regimes to allow Western-style media to provide high-quality escapism, sport, dating and gossip sites was a smart move that made their control of the masses more effective.
Cohen says that in Belarus, Morozov discovered that some sites offered free downloads of pirated movies and music. The authoritarian government could have easily stopped this but he feels that they prefer to ignore and may even be encouraging them. The free market in India also encourages fluff. If you ask network executives, they will say, 'That is what people want.' Apparently, many newspapers have only one rural correspondent but 50 correspondents will cover a fashion show.

The  morning news bulletin of NDTV 24*7 often has 15 minutes of national and international news and 15 minutes of entertainment news - movies, music videos, affairs of celebrities, the fashion show that 'everyone is talking about', etc. A nauseating Shah Rukh Khan ad about NDTV Prime that keeps being aired tells you the recipe for creating a zombie - 'work hard, play hard'. In other words, slog in office during the day and flop in front of the TV till you sleep.

Channels keep flashing 'Just in', 'Breaking news', 'Flash news', etc. which will generally be about irrelevant news eg. 'PM arrives at CII meet venue' or 'Voting begins in Maharashtra'. They will ask viewers to vote on some issue and say '75% of the people support...'. People watching an  English language channel in India (or any particular language) cannot be said to represent the whole of India. (And for all you know, 10 people may have voted.)

In TV debates like 'We the People' (Rammachandra Guha called it 'We the People of South Delhi), or Big Fight, the moderator keeps butting in and not allowing the speakers to speak. In these days of soundbite TV, only short, staccato sentences are acceptable. In sporting events, there will be a 'Twitter battle' where the most inane questions will be asked eg., 'Will KKR score more than 50 runs in power play?' How does it matter if you declare that 'CSK is winning the Twitter battle'?

Book are not looked at as another source of entertainment. They are rather viewed as part of studies and therefore avoided, a view that is largely due to the method of teaching that is prevalent here. I grew up before  satellite TV, Internet  and mobile phones came on the scene (I assure you there was such a time) so books were always a major pass time for me. I will often be asked, '"What were you 'studying' today"? Book reading is not a preferred activity elsewhere too as shown by Michael Sandel in What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets:
A number of online companies now buy gift cards for cash (at a price lower than their face value) and resell them.  So, for example, a company called Plastic Jungle will buy your $100 Home Depot gift card for $80 and then resell it for $93. The discount rate varies according to the popularity of the store.  For a $100 gift card from Walmart or Target, Plastic Jungle will pay $91. A $100 card from Barnes & Noble, sadly, yields only $77, slightly less than Burger King ($79).
Regarding medical matters, people believe anything they read on the Web, hear on TV or what anybody tells them.  Not being connected to the medical profession in any way doesn't disqualify you from being an expert on medical matters.  Reliance on myths and quacks has real world consequences - people delay treatments or they don't try to find more effective treatments, I don't think it is a coincidence that India has a huge number of people with various diseases and disabilities while there are also large numbers of people who can cure anything.

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