Saturday, April 22, 2017

We don't live in a Post-Truth World

I still have to write this month's column. The deadline was 20th. I don't know what I can write about because it has to be both honest and new. It's funny how little of the real 'you' is in you. Most of what we say and think is the fresh 20% layer at the top of your head based on your most recent experiences. Which is probably why, like they say, a writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for others because he's trying to go past the top layers that he picked off from others. To understand what it is really that makes you you, it is imperative that we break the illusion of self-knowledge and question each of our assumptions and opinions.

How do some people have so much willpower? Is it really something you can and should learn to live a good, fulfilling life? If God made us a certain way, should we try to be someone else based on the incomplete knowledge about their life? The fact that we're alive and there's something instead of nothing is so bizarre that it might take a lifetime for me to wrap my head around it.


Objective Reality

Today morning I equipped myself with a screwdriver and spent twenty minutes dismantling my grandma’s faulty pedestal fan. I unscrewed the nuts and bolts, pried open small parts, messed around the circuit and eventually pulled out the motor. After trying for another thirty minutes trying to figure out why it wouldn’t work, I was surrounded by parts and screws, my hands greasy, not only unable to repair but also to reassemble the damn thing. For all my belief in my abilities and the fancy ways in which I could repair the fan in my head, the reality was that I had totally gutted it and had to carry the autopsied body to the electrician. The truth (the capital T variety) was staring me in the eye.

For the past few months we’ve been extensively told about how ‘post-truth’, which also happens to be Oxford dictionary’s Word of the Year, is the new reality. And it is partly true. We exceedingly live in a world that drowns us with contradictory information and opinion, analysis and fact. Not only is it impossible to discover the truth amidst all this noise but it’s getting harder to stay abreast of all the information we need to know. Both Mainstream and Social Media, which we’re helplessly connected to, are pushing so many agendas at us that we seem to have lost all grip on ‘reality’. And Big Data, with all its quantitative hullabaloo confuses us even more by manipulating with cold numbers.

“If you torture data enough, it will confess to anything” -Ronald Coase

The only way to combat this flood and reduce the insecure feeling is to totally disconnect. But we can’t possibly live like ignorant fools, can we? (But like the saying goes, isn’t half knowledge worse than ignorance?) This is the world we live in and we want to know what’s happening with it and try to make it a little better place. So it’s imperative we know so that we can act. Now, stop and reconsider that statement- We need information so that we can gain knowledge from it, take rational decisions and act on them. Are we doing that?

All the information we get from media paralyses us, prevents us from taking action by creating confusion, apathy or hopelessness. Or it turns us into consumers and encourages us to buy shit to alleviate our anxiety. Instead of providing information that can turn us into rational contributors and citizens, we are being pushed into smaller and smaller ghettos of unrelenting, censored filter bubbles where we are forced to consume Events and Trivia masquerading as News (I highly recommend Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death for a more critical, expansive thesis on the subject). It’s not always the system shoving crap down our throats. We choose to consume junk by obsessively following Facebook events, Twitterati faux-debates, commodify ourselves by incessantly posting on Instagram and Snapchat. No wonder we’re stressed out of our minds. We do not know how to function in this shape-shifting, fear-inducting, relentlessly loud world.

“The daily newspapers talk of everything except the daily. The papers annoy me , they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask.” -Georges Perec

I am going to share a few hacks I’ve been experimenting with to find some peace of mind. For one, I’ve started treating information like food. I like to try new sources once-in-a-while but otherwise, I have a few trustworthy news hubs which I approach for my daily quota. Even with that, I try to avoid reaction pieces- reader write-ins, concise digests, opinion pieces, reactions on social media etc. I have also stopped reading/ watching short, attention-grabbing, decontextualized news that entices me with the illusion of knowledge but instead leaves me with a couple of fancy words that I can only use later for name-dropping. If I’m interested in something, I’d be better off researching it in a more formal, critical, less reactionary manner.

Decentralization is going to be big and not just in Computing. We are currently at the apotheosis of Centralized information flow. In Politics, Business, Sport and Culture, the global/ national is dominating the local. So much so that BJP won a record-breaking majority in Uttar Pradesh without even announcing the Chief Ministerial candidate. That’s one example but look around and you’ll see monopolies of money, attention, discourse. Based on what I’ve been reading, I have a hunch this is going to change. Local bodies will start becoming more important and people will gravitate towards a culture where hegemonies will be dismantled. So I’ve decided to participate more in small local groups, learn and lead through action instead of dreaming about world-changing ideas. So next time I have to vote, I’ll read and hear what the local legislator has to say instead of voting for a central figurehead. I’m sure the more politically intelligent among you will can give excellent reasons why that approach is wrong and I’d love to listen, learn, think and adapt. Till then, I’m willing to argue on behalf of my decisions. Which brings me to another choice I’ve made- To learn to be politically incorrect.

Not everyone is correct in their ‘own way’. Not all kids have a ‘natural talent’, a ‘unique voice’. Not every opinion has to be accepted for being based on ‘prior experience’. This assumption of multiple truths is the primary reason for the wreckage of our public discourse. Agreeing to disagree means we should listen to all opinions, right or wrong. It does not mean all opinions are equally right.

“The body says what words cannot” -Martha Graham

I’m also learning to trust my body more, emphasising on the physicality of objects, the tactile sensation, the use of as many sensory organs as possible. Reality exists- Tell yourself mind has control over matter when you can’t do that one last push-up. Fucked up advertisements have conditioned us into believing we can will ourselves into doing anything and becoming anyone we want (of course, if we buy their product). Not only we cannot but it’s also insulting to those people who achieve grand things.

We are all trying to be better people and the walk on that path is a very conscious process. Sure there are bad days when all seems pointless or days when some of your actions could totally mess up. I’m not denying that but I think we need to emphasise more on the action than the thought. Action without thought is stupid or dangerous. Thought without action is worse. With nothing to apply to and learn from, by being divorced from reality, by being trapped in the familiar confines of the head, we are going nowhere. It is like being drugged where everything is beautiful and nothing is real. It’s a bizarre, asphyxiating feeling. Objective reality exists and we need to accept it. If you still are unconvinced, go and break the windshield of your neighbour’s car. Good luck.

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