Our new masters!

Freedom from foreign yoke may have come long back. But a British legacy, Commonwealth Games, haunts us this I-day, over six decades hence. The CW itself is an alumni of exploited colonial cousins and a hangover from a shameful past. But the warm-up to the games that have already generated unbearable heat makes one forget even that ignominy and yearn again for freedom, this time from the neo albeit indigenous looters.

Gandhiji, when confronted by the whiteman’s argument that India was getting good governance, declared that was no substitute for self-Government. To paraphrase him in a pervert way to portray ‘patriotic nationalism’ in the present political milieu, ‘local loot is preferable to foreign loot’ though ‘foreign’ at times passes off as local. In any case, now the loot, used to travelling all the way to England, now stops almost half way at Swiss banks. And that’s near enough. But I think I have gone far, for, I have no intention of delving into the British, CW or for that matter, even politicos … or their honeypots. That was just an opening gambit that strayed and stayed longer, thanks to habit. The point is even as we celebrate and hope for freedom from foreign and local exploiters respectively, we become slaves of new and newer masters. Here’s how.

It may seem like a slide from the sublime to the ridiculous but then these are strange times. More than exploitative humans, our freedoms today are hostage to a host of inanimate things. Now, this is no preview of a forthcoming flick or a review of a slew of past Hollywoods that show looming giant Robots or all-powerful aliens taking us captives. Our current captors, rather, can fit into our palms and yet make us their pawns. They imprison you, not by physical confinement but by mental conditioning. The entrapment of the mind often begins with the feather touch of your finger but is eventually all-consuming. We may imagine it to be a pleasurable voluntary surrender but it is actually a stealthy conquest since your will is taken and broken before you even realise it. The Remote, the Gadget and the Plastic Card are a few of such masters. Many more miniaturised, meticulous monsters are in the works.

The satellite TV with its multiple channel choices and the resultant remote was the first of such bosses. With its advent and advance, freedom of thought gradually receded and is now resting in peace in some dark recess of our brains. Not that the other media like print were paragons of intellecual pursuits but one at least had the option of putting away the newspaper. Not so with the TV. Once you pick it, the remote controls you. There’s no conscious quitting, only unconscious hopping. The dumbing down is absolute with the speakers and screen aloud and ablaze but your own head and facade mute and blank. And with entertainment channels naturally doing better commercially than the News ones, the lines have dimmed, dimming our mental faculties further. A bride-burning M-in-law on a serialised soap, a real-time serial killer and a hardcore terrorist shooting dead citizens, live, all chase TRP. And worse, get it. All emotions are experienced and expended on the ephemeral images with little left for earthly enjoyment. Enslaved thus, couch potatoes have however become couch pumpkins, occupying more free space. The British could have actually re-conquered India during primetime but didn’t probably because they themselves were glued to BBC!

The mass invasion via ‘cyber pass’ by computers and mobiles looks more potent. Chips and smartphones have spread their hegemony so comprehensively over our routines that mothers today SMS their daughters to call them down for dinner and fathers get to know about their sons via social networking! The personal touch has been pushed out by touch-screen programs. And then there is cloud computing that covers the whole world and even beyond with a thick info blanket where in persons are just categorised into files or profiles, with no regard for privacy or personality! Even nerds who created this digital demons are now nervous over such supreme slavery of humans to gadgets. Some have likened this ‘totalitarian, singularity approach’ of the digital regime to intolerant religions or dictatorships, which all display a marked distaste for individual freedom and uniqueness.

Jaron Lanier, a die-hard digitalist who coined the term ‘virtual reality’ makes some startling accusations in his game-changing book, ‘You are not a Gadget’. Chiding the inferiority complex of users vis-a-vis computers, he says ‘people degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smarter all the time’. And he elaborates: ‘When people are told that a computer is intelligent, they become prone to changing themselves in order to make the computer appear to work better, instead of demanding that the computer be changed to become more useful. People already tend to defer to computers, blaming themselves when a digital gadget or online service is hard to use’. He and many like him have put the blame for ‘the death of liberal impulse and creative freedom’ at the digital doors! Come to think of it, whatever happened to our own memories, that only a decade back, could recall phone numbers in a jiffy, but could not do without the mobile’s phone book, now? Talk of getting locked-up in a ‘cell’!

The plastic card is a boss who makes your budget very elastic till it snaps. Online, just the number on it is enough to blow your account; good old cash caused only a hole in the pocket. At ATMs, malls, theatres, restaurants and even barber shops, the proud presentation of the card is a prestige statement; a fantasy that fizzles when the real statement arrives at the doorstep a month later. By current global statistics, the plastic Pharoah has imprisoned more of humanity in debt than any other credit instrument. This Master surely grants Visas to doom.

There’s no escape from these bosses. So, just as we seamlessly switched from the imperial Raj to our own elected rajas and got looted either way, we will move across channels, chips and gadgets too even while remaining embedded in their collective grip. Praise our wise men who said human life itself is a bondage with one mortal coil (or Web) after another binding us!

e-mail the writer at [email protected]

Jawahar T R