Monday, December 8, 2014

Drowning in the trivial - III

Remember the third slogan of the Party in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four? IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.That appears to be the new mantra. People may not know the difference between an Assembly and General election, they may not be able to locate a major Indian city on a map (eg. for Ahmedabad, there may be guesses like, 'Is it in Orissa, Bihar, Punjab...?), may not know that Sherlock Holmes is a character and not an author...(I am talking of graduates.) One Std. XII boy was asked in a TV program whether he had ever heard the name 'Charles Darwin' and the answer was 'No'.

I saw an ad which stated that the most important reason for having a successful career is good looks! People will keep asking me what diet I am on to get a fair skin. The simple explanation never seems to occur to them that I don't roam in the sun collecting sunburns, dust and grime. A Tamil song says, 'Black is my favorite colour', but nobody else seems to say so. The level of narcissism keeps increasing. There are many people who don't wear helmets when driving a two-wheeler because it will spoil their hairstyle! People are never satisfied with the number of dresses they have, weddings become more garish, the bride keeps staggering under increasing amounts of jewellery... I saw an ad in which a model sees a pimple on her cheek and cries out, 'My life will be ruined!' Methinks the lady protests too much.

Many well-heeled people seem to be divorced from reality. It is as if uncomfortable facts like infant mortality, chronic hunger, female foeticide, etc don't exist. I once saw a program about e-commerce. One speaker said that the worst punishment you can give to a teen these days is to impose a 'no-screen day' on them. Apparently this means that they can't access any social media that day. That is the worst punishment? Really? And how many kids are there like that?

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes that 63% of American adults think dinosaurs lived with humans, half don't know that the Earth goes around the Sun and takes a year to do it, that some of his students in his undergraduate classes at Cornell don't know that the Sun is star. Bemoaning the preponderance of pseudoscience and psychic explanations on TV, Carl Sagan writes in The Demon-Haunted world:
In American polls in the early 1990s,two-thirds of all adults had no idea what the "information superhighway" was; 42% didn't know where Japan is; and 38% were ignorant of the term "holocaust". But the proportion was in the high 90s who had heard of the Menendez, Bobbit, and O.J. Simpson criminal cases; 99% had heard that the singer Michael Jackson had allegedly sexually molested a  boy.The United States may be the best-entertained nation on Earth, but a steep price is being paid.
Don't worry, America. India will catch up soon. I know that a science tuition teacher didn't know that stars produce their own light. Now she knows! Children here are not taught to think.  By the time they are in about Std VIII or Std. IX, they stop playing. They will be running from tuition to tuition memorising the same things over and over again thus strengthening their sphexishness or uncomprehending competence.  I get the uncomfortable image of kids in madrassas memorising verses from the Koran.The only difference seems to be that they are not memorising a religious book.

Sturgeon's law states that ninety percent of everything is crap. Unfortunately fluff and glitz will generally win because they require less bandwidth for human beings to appreciate them. A type of Gresham's law works in acquiring information with the bad driving out the good. People actually seem to think that the bromides that glamorous models coo like 'It doesn't matter where you come from as long as you believe in yourself' is true. The are seduced into believing that life is like an Amitabh Bachchan movie.

Politicians and marketers keep saying that people are getting 'more aspirational'. It increasingly seems to mean that people are becoming shallower. They seem to think that the raison d'ĂȘtre of life is to buy the next fancy gadget available in the market. I saw a clip in which Shah Rukh Khan said, 'I love the commercialisation of life. I am willing to sell my soul.' People who should know better buy into the catchy statements of politicians who follow a strategy explained by Obama in this article:
 “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.
 For eg. the BJP is very good in coining catchy slogans like 'Minimum government maximum governance', 'zero defect, zero efffect', etc., but translating them into reality is a complex, long drawn out process filled with false starts and disappointments. Or take the obvious idea that improving and widening roads will reduce traffic snarls. Only that, it is not so obvious due to what economists call 'induced demand'. But people easily buy into these statements without appreciating their complexities.

PS: I was pleasantly surprised to see these videos of Ramachandra Guha which had longish discussions with a young audience. The audience had read books and thought about issues beyond the narrow confines of their careers.

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