Friday, February 8, 2019

Is the psychological distance between people shrinking or growing? - III

A great mystery of our hyper-connected digital age is that we seem to be drifting apart. Things like mobile phones and social media as also the unending working hours and traffic jams have accelerated the atomisation of the individual. Deep friendships have been replaced by screens, gadgets, and bleary-eyed couch-potato stupor. People seem more self-absorbed, more individualistic, less empathetic. They communicate more, but there’s less communication with the people they’re actually around. They’re ignorant, because many of them don’t feel the need to educate themselves outside their little world.

When visitors come, I see that when adults are in conversation, the children are often in their own worlds keeping on playing with their mobiles. (They are afflicted by the modern disease FOLO: Fear Of Losing Out.) It is no wonder that they don't know many of their relatives. A family friend said that once she saw her daughter chatting with a friend on Facebook. On checking who it was, she found that the friend was a neighbour who lived next-door. Even when told that it would be better to hop across and chat with her friend in person, she continued to use Facebook.

The widespread hypnotisation of TV, laptops and mobile phones has reduced social interactions. When I was growing up in Jamshedpur, I recall a lot more interaction among acquaintances. Almost every weekend, I used to visit some friends or relatives with my family or they used to come over to visit us. Now  I don't even know some people in the apartments block where I live. A relative who stays in the Gulf and visits India frequently, visits his relatives every time. He was telling us that some relatives told him that he comes from the Gulf on a short trip and meets them but they are rarely able to meet some of their neighbours. George Orwell writes in his essay Pleasure Spots:
Much of what goes by the name of pleasure is simply an effort to destroy consciousness. If one started by asking, what is man? what are his needs? how can he best express himself? one would discover that merely having the power to avoid work and live one's life from birth to death in electric light and to the tune of tinned music is not a reason for doing so. Man needs warmth, society, leisure, comfort and security: he also needs solitude, creative work and the sense of wonder. If he recognised this he could use the products of science and industrialism eclectically, applying always the same test: does this make me more human or less human? 
He would then learn that the highest happiness does not lie in relaxing, resting, playing poker, drinking and making love simultaneously. And the instinctive horror which all sensitive people feel at the progressive mechanisation of life would be seen not to be a mere sentimental archaism, but to be fully justified. For man only stays human by preserving large patches of simplicity in his life, while the tendency of many modern inventions - in particular the film, the radio and the aeroplane - is to weaken his consciousness, dull his curiosity, and, in general, drive him nearer to the animals.
Tech enthusiasts looked to search engines as an extraordinary democratization of the Internet. But that is only half the story. The online world also spawns murketing, unfair competition, and distortions of reality that may be having the opposite effect. Whenever you hear the word ‘secret’, your antennas should be up. In a moment of of weakness, the government conceded the Right to Information Act. Since then, it has been trying to correct its error.

Bankers will hide their risk behind complex securities. There will be various accounting tricks for short term gains. Obligations would remain on balance sheets for some purposes, and off them for others. In the article Why is finance so complex?, Steve Randy Waldman says, ‘Finance has always been complex. More precisely it has always been opaque, and complexity is a means of rationalizing opacity in societies that pretend to transparency.’

In many countries, computerized exchanges made it possible to gain or lose fortunes within seconds, Thus even the length of  the wire connecting your computer to the server of the stock exchange is vital for maintaining one's competitive edge, as Michael Lewis explains in Flashboys. Such information advantage can only be obtained by the wealthy who will also be able to employ economists to give sophisticated reasons for why such fixing of markets will benefit you. After all, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Existing power structures are strengthened by obfuscation. Powerful, wealthy companies will hide information by providing too much of it. If a firm is asked for some information, it could inundate you with tens of thousands of pages of data. Investigators are in effect trying to find a needle in a haystack and waste a lot of time and effort in the process. Meanwhile the institutions will self righteously quote Louis Brandeis’s comment that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”.

When large, wealthy companies can do nothing to refute the mountain of evidence against their products and practises, they will employ ‘experts’ to create confusion, uncertainty, and doubt in the minds of the public. In 1969, an internal memo within the Brown and Williamson Tobacco company stated that “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also a means of establishing controversy.” Uncertainty and doubt always tend to maintain the status quo and give people an excuse to continue doing what they really want to do.

The same strategy has also been used to make it appear that no one really knows whether climate change is real or what might be causing it.  Many people read about the results of the study, but never probe into how the study was actually done.  People could then say, “If nobody knows, I might as well continue to drive my SUV, eat my burgers and live just as I always have.” More investigation may reveal that studies of this sort typically have strong financial ties to the industry that is selling the product although the concerned firm will always deny that they influenced the report. As Humphrey says in one episode of Yes Minister, 'He that would keep a secret must keep it secret that he hath a secret to keep.' In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari says:
In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information. We just don't know what to pay attention to and often spend our time investigating and debating side issues. In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore. 

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