Medium is the Message


Devendra Saksena

We live in surreal times. Google and WhatsApp determine what we know, think or believe. Things have reached such ludicrous levels that many of us who have recently moved to a new location cannot reach their own home without the help of Google Maps and many of us cannot recall our own or our spouse’s telephone numbers.
Arguments are often settled with Google as judge; armed with Google knowledge, patients often suggest their own diagnosis and treatment to doctors. With more than 1 billion users, which is about 1/7th of the human population, Google and WhatsApp influence the thought processes of most of the persons who have access to a smartphone.
There is no denying the fact that Google has put almost the entire sum total of human knowledge at our fingertips, but relying on Google to the extent of suspending our own intelligence and reason may prove counter-productive. Google often errs because as Sir Humphrey Appleby said in Yes Minister; you have to ask the right question to get the right answer.
One also has to take into account that along with genuine information all kinds of fake knowledge is floating around on Google ~ which is readily lapped up by unsuspecting users. One result of the instantly available gyan on the internet is that we find ersatz experts on diverse subjects with nothing to back them except Google wisdom. As Marshall McLuhan would have gleefully pointed out, the medium has become the message now.
What Google is to knowledge, WhatsApp is to opinion. Anyone with even a small number of acquaintances is bombarded with hundreds of WhatsApp messages and videos so much so that they soon fill up an average phone’s memory. Most of the messages are of the hello and good morning variety but quite a few are alarmist; some suggest outlandish theories, others hint at deep-rooted conspiracies. Words are often twisted, videos are doctored and opinions are attributed to non-existent but genuine sounding persons.
The same message is sent to you many times over from different sources hoping that in the best Goebbelsian tradition you would end up by believing it to be true. For example, despite eating noodles over the years without any ill-effect, many of us were convinced by a fraudulent video that the noodles we eat are never digested; again based on another widely circulated video the more gullible amongst us would even believe that the Chinese are flooding our markets with plastic cabbage and plastic rice.
Never mind that the price of plastic rice, if produced, would be many times the price of the natural variety and a business savvy country like China would never embark on such a misadventure. One can only marvel at the audacity and inventiveness of the authors of such messages which befool and misinform millions. Not all such messages are circulated with innocent motives; many are inspired by hate and revulsion towards a particular person, country or community.
Contrary to the general perception that the internet is a communication tool between individuals, a formidable array of experts manufactures the messages floating around on the social media. In addition to the professionals who invent new jokes and witticisms, political parties have formed cells to milk social media for all it is worth. While acknowledging the right of political parties to propagate their ideology and glorify their leaders, one does feel that they should stop short of maligning their opponents.
Most of the time, we find that an elaborate defamatory theory is constructed on the basis of half-truths and innuendos. Before the defamed person can clarify his position, the message is repeated millions of times by millions of users convincing everyone about the message’s genuineness. It is high time that the Election Commission steps in to stop this political skullduggery.
The one thing that stands out is the ability of WhatsApp and YouTube to entertain and titillate; they are the opiate of the new world. Every second person is now a smartphone addict; shunning face to face interaction for the anonymity of the internet. WhatsApp and YouTube have opened up new opportunities for some in the field of video content and advertising but a much larger number simply while away their time looking at a tantalising world which would always be out of their reach.
It would seem that a new generation has come up which looks at inanimate images on their phones for advice and intimation. One’s success and failure are now more often shared with online friends rather than real ones. Our parents predicted that cinema would cause the ruin of our generation, who in turn were supposed to be ruined by drama and vulgar literature, and the downfall of our next generation was predicted to be caused by television; in actuality none of these predictions came true. However, if the present trend of blind faith on Google and their ilk continues we may soon turn into zombies ~ doomed to be slaves to our smartphones for our thoughts, opinions and even our memories.
The inherent danger of this situation becomes apparent if we recollect events of the Iraq war of 1991 when the US caused the GPS and computers of the Iraq army to malfunction, which led to a rout of the Iraq Army. Similar manoeuvring of credulous minds by internet content providers can prove disastrous for the human race.
Even today, for commercial motives, the internet has invaded our privacy to the extent that internet applications are aware of our current location, our spending habits, our friends, political affiliations, etc. It appears that we face a real and increasing challenge of preserving our human dignity, values and sensibilities while benefiting from the internet and its applications at the same time.
The only way to break the dominance of Google and its like is to educate the public about the right way to use the technology and applications available on the internet. Along with awareness campaigns on hygiene, consumer rights and so on, the Government should mount an awareness programme on the dangers lurking on the internet.
Perhaps, running such a campaign would be counter to the Government’s credo that technology rather than human capital has the solution to our problems, but reading the tea leaves, this awareness campaign needs to be run if not by the Government then by public spirited citizens.
The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income Tax (Courtesy: TS)