Living in cacophonous times

 A Hopeless Wish  

Posted on 1-August-2011

     Like other members of our young species, I am endowed with a brain which evolved in the African savannah. Neither the ten thousand generations or so of our species' existence, nor the seven thousand most recent years of the Holocene during which my own ancestral line has known agricultural and later civilisations could be enough for natural selection to have brought about any perceptible changes in the basic design of this complex organ. While sensory stimuli from external sources travel almost instantaneously to the brain, it takes the brain a fraction of a moment to perceive the source of those stimuli. It takes the cognitive faculties of the brain a little longer to give meaning and context to what it perceives. For familiar objects this process takes less time than for the unfamiliar or the new. Abstract thought and reasoning take even longer because the brain is designed to deal quickly mainly with concrete objects around us, which was necessary for survival in our original habitat just as other faculties such as curiosity were. Some of the brain's processes can be made automatic with repetition and use--another tactic for survival. For reaching a coherent, deep and wide ranging understanding of the world around us, the brain needs time and effort. Equipped with this archaic, slow, but extremely versatile organ, I, like other members of our species deal with our modern world. 

     I grew up with the habit of listening to a news bulletin on the radio in the morning every day and reading more or less attentively one daily newspaper. In addition I looked at a Hindi and an English weekly magazine--these were miscellanies consisting of news photographs, short stories, essays of different kinds, jokes, cartoons, comics and other matters of interest to a family and not today's glossy news magazines, all trying to copy the American Time Magazine or Newsweek--which my family bought most of the time. As I grew older, I would also listen on the radio to some play or short story or a radio newsreel. Later, listening to the radio was replaced by watching news and occasional documentaries, films and other entertainment programmes on the television. In the last decade I have, to a certain extent, supplemented my intake of news, comments and other information about the world from the television and newspaper with what I see on the internet. I subscribe neither to the twitter nor to any social networking site. I have remained a one newspaper man. Even in days when for earning my living it was expected of me to know what was appearing in a whole number of newspapers and newsmagazines, I had a close look at only one newspaper every day. I have never read the Time Magazine or the Newsweek or other newsmagazines except very cursorily and I read none now.  The old style weekly magazines I grew up with seem to have vanished. I still watch some television including usually no more than two news bulletins every day -one each from two broadcasters--and pick up some information that interests me, of which none more than NASA images of distant galaxies or of the Sun or the surface of Mars for example, from the internet. In short my exposure to modern news and information media remains modest by most reckonings and on most days I remain semi-literate on the latest developments in the world.

     Even then there are days when I feel overwhelmed by the noise I receive from the media. It is not information about facts for which I, like most other adults, have a large capacity, confident that my mind will use its natural filters to retain some in memory while rejecting the rest that is the cause of my unease, but it is noise created by people parading as experts ready with their glosses, pretentious and superficial, but put forward with foppish solemnity. Whether it is the shooting and bombing in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik, or the latest standoff between the US Administration and the Congress or the shenanigans of the Murdoch media empire or the latest achievement by an Indian cricketing star that is being reported, the news nearly always comes packaged with the analysis of some expert. The trouble with the packaged wisdom contained in analyses of this kind is that it often is a false guide to sound judgment and nearly always meant to mould the opinions of those who receive it. It makes it necessary for me to keep my critical faculties constantly on the alert when consuming the products of modern news media. If I inattentively allow myself to absorb the message of someone advertising a certain brand of toothpaste, the worst that can happen is that I shall buy the brand of toothpaste the advertiser wants me to buy. If I carelessly absorb the opinion of a newsman on the latest event he is reporting, I allow him to decide what significance I should give to that event. If I am careless over a period of time, I allow all manner of purveyors of information to change my view of the world, burying my critical faculties and suspending my judgment. To guard against this, I have to be alert and the effort of doing so tires me.

     I do not wish to suggest that I do not like knowing about serious opinions and judgments of others on matters of public interest. It is only that I prefer these opinions and judgments formed after slow, quiet and deliberative reflection and reasoning. I also prefer that I get to understand the arguments that support such opinions and judgment. Given the nature of our mental faculties, it is not possible for anyone to form such judgments within minutes or hours or sometimes even days of an event or development, much less seeing their deeper meaning, even less articulating them intelligently. Nor do I wish to suggest that modern news media never act as vehicles of serious thought. Very often they do. The annual Reith Lectures of the British Broadcasting Corporation for example are a valuable platform from which extremely important thoughts have been put forward. The problem is that the noise created by the hastily formed judgments, the frequently uttered easy certitudes to be abandoned with supreme aplomb in favour of diametrically opposed assertions the next day uttered with equal confidence by the newspaper columnist, the television reporter or the house expert drowns out the serious, the worthwhile, the really interesting stuff. It is hard work separating the good metal from the dross that is put forward by the news media of our time.

     All information about the external world or even our internal worlds is useful. Purveyors of information perform a very useful duty. Opinions of others have to be treated with discrimination. I wish for a world in which there could be television or newspapers to which I could turn for information with the confidence that no attempt is being made to colonise my mind. Yet, to escape being bombarded by those who while telling me of the world as it is also seek to change the way I look at it, I must in the old tradition of India renounce the world except that in the India of the twenty-first century there are no lonely bo trees left under which I can sit and meditate with uninterrupted concentration of mind. I could alternatively retire to the the deep interior of the rainforests of the Amazon, where it seems many tribal communities live even now in complete isolation from the rest of humanity. But having grown used to electricity, the telephone, the television, the daily newspaper and now the internet, and with my curiosity about the world still intact, I cannot contemplate a life of such isolation. And, since I must continue to live in my present surroundings or something like it, I must conclude that my wish for a quieter, less cacophonous world where my brain can function the way it was designed in the African savannah to function, not subject to the multifarious pressures from those selling soaps or from those selling their world views, as forlorn. Ours is what the author of a heavily written book I am plodding through at the moment calls an age of moblisation. In this age someone like me who cannot do without his daily newspaper or his daily news bulletin on the television must teach himself to fence his mind to keep off encroachment from the mobilisers. Howsoever tiring, the effort has to be made and maintained without any relaxation. Or else I shall allow my mind to be corrupted by the news media.      



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