Friday, August 28, 2020

Control Through Triviality - I

To consider freedom as directly dependent on the number of man's requirements and the extent of their immediate satisfaction shows a twisted understanding of human nature, for such an interpretation only breeds in men a multitude of senseless, stupid desires and habits and endless preposterous it is not surprising that, instead of freedom, they lapse into slavery, that, instead of promoting unity and brotherhood, they encourage division and isolation...”  -  Fyodor Dostoevsky 

In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the panopticon, an idea proposed by the utilitarian philosopher Bentham. The basic setup of Bentham’s panopticon is this: there is a central tower surrounded by cells. In the central tower is the watchman. In the cells are prisoners – or workers, or children, depending on the use of the building. The tower shines bright light so that the watchman is able to see everyone in the cells. The people in the cells, however, aren’t able to see the watchman, and therefore have to assume that they are always under observation. 

Foucault used the panopticon as a way to illustrate the tendency of disciplinary societies to subjugate its citizens. The inmate polices himself for fear of punishment. The prisoners who are not sure they are being watced became more compliant than prisoners who know they were being watched. The uncertainty is what kept them in check. In many ways, the watchtower at the heart of the panopticon is a precursor to the cameras fastened to our buildings – purposely visible machines with human eyes hidden from view. But every coin has two sides, and in the age of technology not only do the few watch the many, as in the panopticon, but now, the many watch the few. Introducing the age of The Synopticon.

In his essay on the politics of obedience, Etienne La Boétie (1530-1563) asks a fundamental question: How come that the majority of a people let itself be ruled by a minority? How is it possible that people permit a small group of men to torture, exploit, and abuse the majority? Would it not be natural to be nobody’s servant and not the slave of someone else? La Boétie’s answer to this question is that the cause of human servitude cannot be coercion only. No tyrant has so many eyes that he could monitor a whole nation. The answer is obedience. Tyranny is caused not by coercion but by  “voluntary servitude” i.e. voluntary submission by the people. 

One reason for servitude is resignation and diversion. When concerns other than freedom occupy the mind, it makes people tranquil in their resignation. The rulers know that and provide the diversions of bread and circus, of gluttony and playfulness. The happy exhaustion that comes with the diversions that the mass culture delivers makes people accept their servitude quietly. Herein comes the idea of the Synopticon which is operational today, a process that is opposite to that of the Panopticon.

The mass media, especially television and the internet, which today bring the many — literally hundreds of millions of people at the same time — to see and admire the few. In contrast to Foucault's panoptical process, the latter process is referred to as synoptical. In a highly visual society, not only do the few see the many (Panopticon), but also, the many see the few (Synopticon). In this way, the Synopticon contributes to the internalisation of dominant discourses and the lack of critical reflection, directing, controlling and disciplining our consciousness

Through social media, we are able to watch others and share personal data online in a way, which was not possible before. We follow the twitter feeds, Facebook pages and TV appearances of a few politicians and celebrities and copy their outlooks and styles. I saw an ad which stated that the most important reason for having a successful career is good looks! With such valus being promoted, it is not a surprise that the level of narcissism keeps increasing. There are many people who don't wear helmets when driving a two-wheeler because it will spoil their hairstyle! I saw an ad in which a model sees a pimple on her cheek and cries  out, 'My life will be ruined!' 

Politicians and marketers keep saying that people are getting 'more aspirational'. It increasingly seems to mean that people are becoming shallower. They seem to think that the raison d'être of life is to buy the next fancy gadget available in the market. People are never satisfied with the number of dresses they have, weddings become more garish, the bride keeps staggering under increasing amounts of jewellery... I saw a clip in which Shah Rukh Khan said, 'I love the commercialization of life. I am willing to sell my soul.'

It is standard to use the sporting success of a few as a narrative around which to provide individuals with information and role models on how to live their lives. A sporting event provides a synoptic enclosure in which millions of people are, at the same time, compelled to view specified events, people, and spaces in complex modern societies. In one program, a senior executive of IPL was asked whether there was too much cricket. He replied, 'There is never too much of cricket.' As Upton Sinclair said, 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.'

And now that many sports have IPL-style matches, it will keep everyone busy all year with the menfolk watching sport and the women watching serials. 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?' A humorous old man told me that he had stopped going to people's houses after 6 p.m. because they will be glued to the idiot box. He said that beneath their welcoming smiles they may be thinking, 'What a time for this old man to come and pester us!' 

Another example of a synoptical process is Bigg Boss, an Indian reality television game show. The contestants called "housemates" live together in a specially constructed house that is isolated from the outside world. During their stay in the house, contestants are continuously monitored by live television cameras as well as personal audio microphones. The program relies on techniques such as evictions, weekly tasks and competitions and the "Confession Room" where housemates convey their private thoughts to the camera. The last person remaining is declared the winner. Millions of people love watching the habits, thoughts and antics of these contestants, mostly celebrities.

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. Unfortunately fluff and glitz will generally win because they require less bandwidth for human beings to appreciate them.  Books are not looked at as another source of enjoyment. They are rather viewed as part of studies and therefore avoided. 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"? 

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