Saturday, 4 May 2013

Thought Provenance

Three or four years ago, I adjudicated my first Parliamentary Debate, sitting on the Senate Steps of IIT Roorkee. The teams, comprising mainly of freshers and sophomores, battled each other on some topic which we thought was important back in those days. It wasn't the greatest of debates of course, but it was the first time I had tangible proof about how fickle the mind is.

First the Prime Minister, then the Leader of the Opposition, then the DPM... Each time a speaker left the floor, I found myself agreeing with him / her. It may sound stupid, but it wasn't until I looked at my notes later on that I realized I wasn't allowed to agree with both sides as they were logical converses of one another. So I began crossing out points and assigning them points until I knew where I stood on the issue. And then I decided who won. A few years hence, I'm probably only slightly better as an adjudicator, but I'm thoroughly aware of how easily influenced we all are. 

In the past, politicians used methods of mass propaganda to get into your head - to help you decide what you wanted. But in today's complicated world, things are worse. We no longer know what propaganda is and what isn't. Especially with the advent of social media, you are no longer entitled to an opinion of your own!
"Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought" - John F Kennedy
There are laugh-tracks in Sitcoms which tell me when to laugh, extensive pre-match and post-match analyses of all kinds of games to tell me who plays well and who doesn't, and a few thousand websites which tell me who is the most important member of each band. In fact, I am entirely certain that several people who rave about Page and Plant cannot differentiate between bass and drums.

When it comes to reading, Goodreads ensures that I open every book with prejudice. I already know what I need to think about a book, and I read only to confirm this predisposition. When it comes to movies, it is difficult to say that one doesn't think much of Inglourious Basterds. It is important to like whatever Tarantino makes. And it is wrong to say Sachin must retire. In short, Social Media has implemented perfect thought control: Self-regulated thought control!

When I see a status message with 200 likes, I'm tempted to 'like' it myself without even reading. Answers of Quora with a certain number of up-votes will fare well independent of their quality. People who are famous can say just about anything and get away with it.
"I actually worry a lot that as I get "popular", I'll be able to get away with saying stupider stuff that I would have dared say before. This sort of thing happens to a lot of people, and I would really like to avoid it" - Paul Graham
The other day Amitabh Bachchan said something like "laughter is the best medicine" on Twitter and it got re-tweeted fifty thousand times. The more number of re-tweets, the more the temptation becomes to re-tweet. Opinions get further reinforced. This ensures that whatever little originality you once had is ably quashed. And you ensure this happens to others, until the world cannot think any more.

This is all certainly not a new phenomenon, but the process has definitely been expedited in this shrinking world. I think I need to get away from all this for a while. I need solitude.
"Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation" - Oscar Wilde