By Saurabh Bhattacharya
Swept off its feet by television and the Internet, humanity today is on the brink of an evolutionary leap. Now is the time to apply brakes and confront the true implications of hi-tech
I am a self-confessed TV addict rapidly moving towards Net addiction. I am not alone. My 60 plus dentist admits tuning in to spiritual discourses on the telly every morning. My 30-plus journalist buddy is so caught up in the Net that he intends to retire to a hill-station from where he swears to exist solely as an e-mail alias. My colleague’s family (15-plus to 50-plus) has three TV sets for an equal number of members. The last time they met as a family was at the dinner table, back in the 1980s.
Nobody’s complaining. Life has never been smoother in my colleague’s family—everybody has his/her private space. My journalist buddy is ecstatic at the idea of ‘being there’ without the hassle of socializing. My dentist is enjoying every minute of his televised spiritual guide. And I am writing this article.
Television and the Internet: not since the wheel has any human invention shown such a phenomenal potential of changing the course of evolution. From the mundane to the mystical, every aspect of modern life is being transmuted every second on billions of computer and TV screens. More often than not, techno-manic humanity is accepting images at face value. This is the era of TV.com, an era that promises to transform you into the Millennial Human.
But is humanity aware of what such a transformation implies? Do we know our responsibility vis-à-vis the responsibility of cutting-edge technology?
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO YOUR TV
In his cult sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? later made into the movie Blade Runner, author Philip K. Dick envisions a future where large-scale nuclear warfare has almost decimated humanity. The sole source of interaction for the few who remain is the ‘empathy box’. A gadget closely modeled on today’s television, the empathy box shows only one program—the torturous climb of Mercer, a prophet-like figure, up a mountain. Whenever Mercer climbs a bit higher, he is assaulted by stones and rocks. By gripping a handlebar attached to the box, the viewer feels the agony of Mercer’s martyrdom as his own. This pain unites the viewer with humanity at large, blissfully ignorant of the fact that the ‘prophet’ is just a two-bit drunkard actor and the ‘mountain’ a tacky studio set.
It is comfortable to write off the empathy box as a figment from a fantastic future. We all know it for a fact today that the images on our tame telly are artificially generated. We can’t possibly be affected by play-acting! After all, television is just a machine—a remarkable one, true, but definitely controllable. During TV’s heyday, maverick Canadian social scientist Marshall McLuhan, one of the earliest champions of TV culture, had contended that television, being a technological extension of the human eye, was revolutionary in its own stead. In other, more popular, words: ‘the medium is the message’.
Times have changed. The medium’s technology has more or less lost its novel sheen. What remains attractive, however, is the content, primarily because it gives you a slice of life. The operative word here is ‘slice’—a fragment, dressed to look like life itself. ‘Television virtually shows life onscreen,’ says Bhaskar Ghosh, former director-general of the Indian national television channel Doordarshan. ‘You participate in your favorite character’s life, watch events unfold, without getting involved directly. It gives you the opportunity to experience life vicariously.’
The fact that television images can—and often do—manipulate reality to give an exaggerated version of life has been a potent argument against the medium. Although cinema has been doing the same thing with impunity all these years, what makes television arguably more effective is its easy accessibility—and its professed intent to show things ‘true to life’.
‘Television,’ says Pavan Varma, Indian bureaucrat and author of The Great Indian Middle Class, ‘is not a neutral gadget. Those who control it, control your thought. It is not an extension of your eye; it is an extension of somebody else’s eye through which you are forced to view the world, even if that demands a drastic adjustment of your sight.’
In its April 1975 issue, The American Psychology Today magazine reported a study done by Drs George Gerbner and Larry Gross, University of Pennsylvania, on the effects of television content. They discovered that ‘although critics complain about the stereotyped characters and plots of TV dramas, many viewers look on them as representatives of the real world’. The researchers also found distortions of reality in at least three areas:
1. Heavy viewers of television were more likely to overestimate the percentage of world population that lives in America;
2. They seriously overestimated the percentage of people professionally employed;
3. They drastically overestimated the number of police in the USA and the amount of violence.
In his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, media commentator Jerry Mander takes this argument to a disturbing conclusion: ‘You see the Waltons (American TV characters) solve a family problem. You find yourself in a family situation that is not dissimilar. The image flashes past. If that’s the only imagined instance you have available to call upon, you are more likely to be influenced by it. You don’t interrupt your behavior to say: ‘Wait a minute; I’ve got to keep straight my bank of television imagery from my bank of real-world imagery.’ The mind doesn’t work that way.’
The neutrality of any technology, however, finally depends upon the user. Says P.N. Vasanti, project coordinator at the New Delhi-based Center for Media Studies: ‘The introduction of any new technology always brings in its wake a morality panic. But what critics seem to forget is that the technology has entered your life because you were somehow prepared for it.’
57 CHANNELS AND NOTHING ON?
The average television set today is capable of showing 99 channels and is actually showing nothing less than 30. At least two new channels enter the fray every six months or so, resulting in an incessant shower of infotainment—a term coined by TV professionals of the ’80s to describe their blend of information and entertainment. There is no doubting the benefits of choice. Sitting in the comfort of your sofa, you can savor the nuances of Italian opera, admire the texture of French haute couture, have a face-to-screen darshan of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or Sathya Sai Baba or even the Pope—all in 30 minutes flat. The only physical exertion is the movement of your thumb over the remote.
The power to choose also fine-tunes the senses. Every individual in a household has a separate taste. Ergo, every individual in a household gets his/her separate TV set. On the face of it, this might look like a further breakup of an already nuclear family, but that may not be the case. ‘Today, I have four TV sets in my house-one for my mother, one for my son, one for my daughter and one for myself,’ says Varma. ‘This should have put a strain on family ties. But it has not and it probably never will. Families retain unity if everyone has maximization of private space.’ Varma points out that one of the greatest benefits of television is more autonomy for the individual. ‘At the extreme end of this,’ he concedes, ‘is a certain severance from reality and a breakdown of normal interpersonal relationships. But largely, the range of autonomy gives you immense flexibility and convenience.’ Describing the effects of an exploding ‘information bomb’ in his 1980 best-selling book The Third Wave, futurist Alvin Toffler wrote: ‘New information reaches us and we are forced to revise our image-file continuously at a faster rate. Older images based on past reality must be replaced, for, unless we update them, our actions become divorced from reality and we become progressively less competent. This speedup of image processing means that images grow more temporary… Ideas, beliefs and attitudes skyrocket into consciousness, are challenged, defied, and suddenly fade into nowhere-ness.’
Focused viewership is a rarity nowadays: even a minute of boredom is unacceptable. So, you surf channels. In a mad rush to keep viewers from switching, every producer tries to give something striking, something ‘different’. But the minute one producer succeeds with a bizarre formula, others follow suit. Tedium returns and surfing begins anew.
According to Jerry Mander, the basic technology of television cannot display anything but the grossest of emotions, the most superficial of information. ‘Compare the image of your television screen with any other image in your room,’ he says. ‘Obviously, the actual object is vivid in comparison with the television image.’ Mander argues that this difference is due to the fact that images on television must stand out significantly from their background to create any impact. To make this happen, producers tend to concentrate more on images that offer more scope for ‘playing up’. Hence the emphasis on high-strung melodrama, violence and, of course, sex. Hence the greater viewer interest in these programs. TV, says Mander, can only stimulate.
That may be too extreme a stance to take. For, as Toffler pointed out, the generation brought up on info-glut may employ a completely different form of learning-through short, modular ‘blips’ of information than long, related ‘strings’ of ideas. Nowhere is this form of learning more apparent than on the Internet.
ENTER THE NET
If television tolled the death knell for radio, the Internet could soon do the same for television. The reasons are not difficult to find. For one, while television demands a passive audience, the Net is interactive. Secondly, the choices provided by television are limited to visuals. The Internet, on the other hand, has a multimedia approach—you can read about the subject, listen to talks about it, watch a movie on it, and even discuss it on-line with people around the world. In other words, if television was an extension of the human eye, the Net is an extension of the human brain.
The Internet system rose in 1969 from the Pentagon’s efforts to store and transmit data across great distances and among different computers. The Net of today came into existence just nine years ago, in 1990, when it was thrown open to commercial use. Unlike television, humanity is still dazzled by the sheer magnificence of this new technology-in line with McLuhan’s ‘medium is the message’ theory.
However, as the novelty wears off, lesser-known effects of the Net are surfacing. ‘I do visualize a future where the family will give way to a man-machine unit,’ says Vasanti, ‘but I don’t fear this as much as I fear the loss of debate. When I am interacting with the Net, I will choose whatever endorses my view. Effectively, I will never get to see the other side of the coin.’
For Varma, however, the threat is more of the Net redefining the concept of wisdom, thanks to an info-garbage overload. ‘The greatest danger of information glut is the urge of the Netizen to substitute and interchange information with wisdom,’ he says. Die-hard Net junkies, however, do not find anything adverse in excessive information. After all, why cram your head with trivial detail when you can access all that on-screen?
Another touchy issue is that of obscenity online. Guesstimates put the figure of pornography sites at approximately 10,000, increasing by the minute. About 80 per cent of all business revenue on the Net is generated at adult sites.
Does this mean that the Net should be open to censorship? Most Netizens, vote for self-censorship rather than Net censorship, which has anyway been ineffective till now. As Arun Katiyar, chief operating officer of the Indian news portal India Today Online, points out: ‘Your truth and my truth are different: let’s give people a bigger option to examine truths via the Net. The Net is not an assault on reality. It is part of a separate reality.’
Far deeper and more widespread than the fear of information overload is the apprehension that excessive Net surfing can lead to a complete dissociation from all that is, and an obsession with all that is—virtually. In a recent article on excessive Internet surfing, journalist Susan Grigg writes: ‘For some people, the virtual world rivals their real world. They choose to commune with a computer, rather than their spouses and children.’ According to Grigg, one of the driving forces behind this insulation to reality is the lure of anonymity on the Net. ‘Many individuals go on-line and gain a sense of acceptance from people they don’t even know,’ she writes. ‘It’s a coming-home feeling that can entice people to the detriment of family, home, career and health.’ But Netizens such as Sanjay Trehan, an Indian Net consultant, strongly defend this virtual bonding—and not merely for the thrill of anonymity. ‘The Net offers an alternative lifestyle to seekers,’ he says, ‘and virtual relationships can be an altogether new and enthralling experience. The Net fills up your solitude, both internal and external, and enables you to transcend the limitations of time and space.’
Agrees sociologist Howard Rheingold, author of the book The Virtual Community. ‘Nowadays,’ he notes, ‘hundreds of thousands of people rely on their virtual communities as a real lifeline.’
Makarand Paranjape, Indian author and poet, differs from this altruistic vision of Net relationships. ‘By their very nature,’ he says. ‘Internet relationships are transient, fragile and unreliable. Transparency and honesty are the two main prerequisites in any relationship that the Net, with its lure of anonymity, can never provide.’
The phenomenal growth of the Net in the past few years has given it the status of the technology of the millennium. And such a sophisticated technology is bound to change the rules of the social game. Going by Net watchers, the process has already started. Cultural mores are being turned turtle. The popularity of chats and cyber-dating are standing testimony. This may ultimately lead to a ‘clash’ between virtual untruths and real truths.
But although eventually a value-shift may be forced on a reluctant society by the Networld, most Netizens also affirm that the Net can never substitute mankind. ‘It’s fashionable to say that the Net adversely affects ‘interpersonal’ relationships,’ says Indian Net journalist Kajal Basu, ‘but I’m not so sure. For today’s 40-plus planetizens, or those midway through their intellectual growth when the computer came along, the binary world is an external one. To the current juvenile generation and the youth, computers are at worst prostheses and at best an extension of their synapses.’ In other words, Man is a social being, not a recluse. The Net can at best serve as a digression, not a destination.
But what happens when a digression becomes the destination?
THE PLUG-IN DRUG
To describe somebody who spends most of his time watching television, the English language came up with the phrase ‘couch potato’ in 1982. The image that this phrases creates in your mind—that of a potbellied person slumped down like a bag of potatoes on a couch before an eternally running TV set—may be quite comical, but the import is far from being a laughing matter. Television addiction is today as much of a fact as drug addiction. And, like drugs, both the medium and the user have contributed equally to this phenomenon: the user by suspending his power of choice and the medium by being potentially addictive.
According to psychiatrists, the mechanical methods that are used to hypnotize patients closely resemble television. Both fill your mind with a rapid succession of images, and you can’t afford to move your eyes away for fear of missing out on something. The only way to stop this from happening is to switch off the set altogether. But such a simple task demands a certain amount of self-discipline. And this is what television addicts lack.
Although reasons vary from person to person, psychiatrists underscore two major addictive factors: stimulation and companionship. Television provides a tremendous amount of diverse images to help foment the urge for a new thrill.
Some people have a higher level of sensation-seeking tendencies than others and are, therefore, more prone to TV addiction. According to psychological research, television also artificially hikes up the addict’s ‘optimum stimulation level’ by its barrage of sensational images-to the point that watching TV becomes a neurotic obsession.
Unfortunately, television addiction is still considered a trivial matter in most Indian households, and it remains undetected unless the addict himself chooses to deal with it or begins to show serious mental aberrations.
Lesser still is known about Net addiction. This, despite the fact that the Net and television are alarmingly similar in their addictive potential: both can change your version of reality, both offer choices galore, both are an antidote to personal ennui, and both use sex as the primary motivating factor. Further, in the case of the Net, each time you hit a desired site after the effort of surfing, your desire to put in the effort all over again in the hope for another rewarding hit increases, and you go on surfing ad infinitum.
According to Dr Ivan Goldberg, a New York-based psychiatrist who coined the term Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), the phenomenon is not, like alcoholism, a recognized medical addiction abroad, but is ‘more like an out-of-control behavior that threatens to overwhelm the addict’s normal life’.
However, IAD has, with time, gained more credibility as a clinically significant disorder that adversely affects social, occupational, family and financial functioning. Says Dr. Kimberly Young, director of the Center for On-line Addiction at the University of Pittsburgh and reviewer of more than 400 IAD cases: ‘Anyone with access to a modem and the Internet may become addicted, and home-based computer users are most at risk of developing IAD.’
Yet again, as in the case of television, the onus of not getting addicted lies in the hands of the Net user. For, however alluring the info-glut or however dazzling the technology may be, the important point is what you can do with your machine, not what the machine can do with you. The ever-questing human mind has launched itself on a hi-tech evolutionary leap. Now all it needs to do is land on its feet—safely.
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