While in the life and times of internet democracy

30 04 2013

The culture shock

April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire,stirring
dull roots with spring rain.

  • T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

April is the cruelest month even in the romanticised narratives surrounding a university campus in India. The scorching sun, the sweat and the pangs of the imminent separation, gels well even in a dry technical institution like mine. As some nostalgia mongers would cry, gone is the age when writing autographs with the ink of blood and tears, or long silent walks, and confessions used to be fashionable. There is more expression of passion than before. The scenes of couples kissing and spending long hours in the open benches during the late hours of the night has predictably not gone well with the conservative majority who calls the shot, and various theories of western cultural invasion are in the air. After all, isn’t public display of affection, a vulgar thing? Isn’t young people making choices about their lives the most horrendous crime? The great Indian values!!…. The list of complaints are endless, predictable and utterly boring! More often, I get into the dilemma as to whether pacify the outpourings with the Zen guru’s story or engage in a frontal attack, both of which on reflection are ineffective in making people view issue from a historical perspective.

While it has to be acknowledged that the liberal values that dominate the western social life has profoundly influenced our youth who had been brought up in an insular world, it is no more than the cultural renaissance of the 50’s and 60’s that challenged the then caste and ritualism dominated social life to a certain extend. What is happening has to be seen as Indian middle class’  new tryst with the modernity, in the backdrop of an information age. Most people won’t appreciate me in saying this. But I’m calling a spade what it is- it is democracy, the same word that we love to pay eulogy to, hardly realising its implication or appreciating the progress it brings.

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting

  • Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The oddest thing about human existence is that even while living inside a glass house of ideas, each bit transparent down to the core and with clear contours revealing the aesthetics, we love to live oblivious of the obviousness of those cores and contours. Democracy has become the most well established idea of governance by the end of the last century and it has progressed beyond being just the name of a system. Its structure, form and dynamics evolved to a great deal of sophistication, as to reject every notion of pure majoritarianism. The ideas pertaining to maximisation of liberty within a broad democratic frame work underwent several evolutionary twists and turns, much to the same extend the idea of liberty changed through John Locke to John Stuart Mill. Yet, the modern idea of democracy is also strange in the sense that it has also become a whipping boy. It is that monster our rulers, the old guards- the nexus of religion, cultural conservatives and power brokers, the privileged and many economists remind day in and out, to be a very dangerous one (to be taken with great caution and dilution), all the while when it has become an individual’s best safeguard against oppression in a world where nation states, religion and capital have imposed their hegemony.

The fourth wave

The 21st century began with the outbreak of a phenomena that triggered the largest and the fastest process of democratisation in the history of the world. The internet. Unlike the previous waves which more often were local, this phenomena presented a unique opportunity- to get exposed to vast quantities of information, ideas, perspectives, narratives and a possibility of engaging in dialogue; things which were hitherto unknown to people in the scale it presented. And on the proverbial flip side, it has the ability to arouse the passions over controversial issues, pump in large quantities of misinformation and even wrongfully target individuals or groups with propaganda machines. We stand at an important juncture in history, where the turn we take on dealing with this phenomena will decide our future course in a very substantial way. Yet, the whole current debate is unfortunately centred around a peripheral, though admittedly important, question of the control of internet and information. Once again the paradigm shift in the dynamics of power has worried the ones who ought to be worried, and therefore the expected “dangerous internet” memes have spread out fast and wide.

Internet has brought changes in the cultural sensibilities of people at large, and has even created a certain level playing ground in the world of ideas. But instead of creatively engaging with it, the old guard has chosen to repress and censor it under various guises. Let me just mention a few recent instances.

A recent news piece reported by Media one, aroused my curiosity. The title says ‘Will the social media be captured by terrorists/fundamentalists?’. The article brings into light the ridiculous bans that a group called Free Thinkers(സ്വതന്ത്ര ചിന്തകര്‍)(40000+ member group, from Kerala) faced due to the planned effort by a chunk of people, presumably fundamentalists. Then it asks whether we will have to ban twitter and facebook, like porn sites. I appreciate Media one for bringing this news, albeit not mentioning that most (though not all) of the heated debates inside the group were surrounding Quran with superiority claims brought forward mostly by Islamic evangelists as the starting point, and staunchly argued against by the non-religious and secular people within the group. Let us leave that part for now and concentrate on the interesting perspective it presents. It has all the hallmarks of the old guard paternalism. Then we have the worried Indian citizens complaining to the court to disallow children under 18 (!) to access face book and twitter. Some moralists are so bothered about pornography that they want to make watching it illegal and a non bailable offence (pray tell me how are you going to establish something is porn without watching and therefore committing the same crime). It is shocking that ban is showcased as a reasonable consensus, whether the question is that of pornography or people having fake ids (as if all people are stupid enough to take every social media message at face value). It also makes one wonder whether all that has happened in this era is proliferation of pornography and frauds!

Both the old guards and Govt. want the same thing- regulate and control internet. What they do not want to admit is that, they are more bothered about ideas it generate, and the democratisation it is unleashing. We hardly see mainstream media or Government giving credit to internet for the faster spread and penetration of news. Rarely do we see appreciation, or at least acknowledgement, in so far as bringing more discussions on subaltern perspectives or the gender issues, which were confined to a hallowed circle of periodicals controlled by intellectuals with definite ideologies. The unprecedented growth and diversity in film appreciation, short film production, photography and various creative arenas of self expression, are invisible or irrelevant to them. The mainstream media domination in providing news and perspectives are no longer stable. The fact that slowly, but steadily, a significant percentage of youth, mostly from the middle class, is also criticising the old cultural ethos, is unsettling them. The power hierarchies are challenged at some level.

The need for a paradigm shift

I’m going to tell you a number of things about being a reporter, but of all the things I’m going to tell you, remember two words. Governments lie. It’s a good starting point.

  • I. F. Stone, narrated by Howard Zinn.

The Governments and, in most cases their dependable compatriots, the old guards, want “irresponsible” speech and expression, regulated. And we all know what responsible means, don’t we? Of course, responsibility has to be what they define it as!

They have draconian provisions like 66(A) of the Indian IT act, up on which no proper discussion is conducted in the mostly sold out mainstream media. But why are they so much worried? In fact, the reason is that they know that Anna Hazzares are entertainment variety with no real fangs, but with the penetration of social media and more people becoming computer literate, information cannot be controlled. This fact is not too much to the advantage of terrorists as it is to the disadvantage of Governments and the old guards. But more often we are warned about “terrorist” threat to justify the need for Government censorship of information, and the sleazy we are all for “freedom of expression, but” talk by the people who are too scared about it. Any person with half a brain can make out the double talk here. We have an unbelievable number of RTI activists murdered over the years and the Government as usual payslip service with “we strongly condemn this, but sorry we do not have adequate police force”. Let us not be delusional in thinking that Governments want transparency– actually it is what most of them do not want. But citizens want that, and the best way is to have no blocks on information or expression.

Sir Humphrey Appleby : It is only totalitarian governments that suppress facts. In this country we simply take a democratic decision not to publish them

  • Jonathan Lynn, Yes Minister.

What kind of a world we want to live in depends up on what discussions holds sway now. If we let go the baggage of the nauseating paternalistic culture, and allow democritisation a chance, we might still have many problems to be dealt in future, but we can be sure that people will have some ideas to solve them. The other option of maintaining the status quo with the culture, the religions and the interests of powers that be, and they having control over individual life, is at best an Ostrich solution. The choice is ours.

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