Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Obituary: Pulp and ink.

One of my most prominent childhood memories is the image of my dad on a Sunday, with his favorite newspapers around him. Baba would have Sakal delivered to him every day but on Sundays, he would walk to the nearest newspaper stall and bring home about half a dozen other newspapers too. His collection usually included Maharashtra Times, The Economic Times, The Times of India, Indian Express and The Hindu (on the rare occasions that it was available in Pune). His fascination with newspapers was a weekly cause of my mom's eye-rolling. Growing up in a city that did not hesitate to judge people by the newspapers they read, coupled with my dad's lack of loyalty to any one newspaper left me entirely undecided about what I liked - something I still struggle with when I read everything that is available to me.
The 'newspaper experience' in a middle class Marathi household was not just about what it conveyed in terms of information and knowledge, but also about the not-so-obvious feeling of pride that a young, hardworking man had for being able to have an opinion on the world.
Newspapers were the much needed cellulosic fodder for my dad and his friends' Saturday ruminations over endless cups of coffee and cigarettes. This metaphorical information grazing has since then stuck in my head, and I find myself turning into a cow in the virtual world every Sunday, visiting my favorite newspaper website pastures. So when I read this New Yorker article,
a little sigh escaped my lips.

It got me thinking about my own transition from the little girl fascinated by how 'her dad knows everything' to a young woman who knows a lot of unnecessary things. I have always been decidedly undecided about my take on mind clutter. I definitely tend towards hating a cluttered mind but sometimes, when a form or a face starts emerging out of chaos, I question my hatred. The death of the printed newspaper, I believe is going to be the metaphorical beginning of the new generation's chaotic storage and assimilation of information.

While I was going through these thoughts, I came across this incisive piece, in the New Yorker again, by Adam Gopnik. He characterizes people in three groups when it comes to the perspectives on the age of Internet - the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers and the Ever-wasers.

"The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment".

On one side he argues that all the big revolutions in the past, such as the revolution brought about by the age of printing, have been welcomed by both skepticism and euphoria. In the eighties, television was scrutinized, in the nineties computer faced a similar judgment. On the other hand, he genuinely questions our enslavement to our computers, going as far as calling Google the world's "Thurber wife". But somewhere hidden inside this mass paranoia over technology numbing the human mind, is a little hint of awareness that it is we who control the technology. I remember watching an interview of Rajiv Gandhi on the national television (Doordarshan) in India once. Actually, I remember it because of my dad's recollection of it on many accounts. In those days (early nineties), India was giving its information and T.V. broadcasting a new revamp. Someone asked Rajiv Gandhi what this exposure to television is going to do to India's kids. He simply replied, "there is a switch that turns the T.V. off". Today, almost twenty years later, you can see that television programs all over the world have standardized themselves to a common baseline - of empty melodramatic reality TV. Although TV has revolutionized human life in many happy ways, it has also left us with a lot to deal with.
As Gopnik rightly puts it later in the article,

"Our trouble is not the over-all absence of smartness but the intractable power of pure stupidity, and no machine, or mind, seems extended enough to cure that."

Just then, as if it was all God sent, I came across this in NY Times, which talks about an iPhone application (app) to make confessions. It is not hilarious to me because it is Catholic. I have seen similar Internet versions of 'yantras' on Hindu astrology websites. It makes me wonder how the same medium that Julian Assange uses to deconstruct a society based on an unjust power (im)balance, is used to appeal to the traditional human mind by sending the ten commandments into an iPhone!

In a country like India, however, I think printed newspapers have a significant way to go before they become extinct. Newspapers and television are still the only dominant media of relaying information in the rural parts of India. It is also heartening to see the
riskshawalahs in Pune blissfully immersed in a copy of Sandhyanand, ignoring your pleas to go to a part of the city they are not interested in.
We still perhaps have a majority that is not glued to their computers or iPhone. But even then, in the online edition of TOI, tweets are taken seriously. 'What-people-think', is now only a click of a mouse away. Common man/woman using the internet to express his/her views has become an important element in reporting news and analysis. This means that no matter where you live, in the U.S., Australia or Mumbai, your take on what is happening in India could be taken seriously (if you are good enough or attract enough attention). If you come to think of it, this is a position of great responsibility. We should all be aware of that!

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