Wednesday, February 4, 2009

An increasingly insane world

There are few watershed moments that happen during the course of one's life. One of mine happened in high school, when I came across a passage by Bertrand Russell(Thank God I chose CBSE!) titled "Machines and Emotions". It opened a totally new way of thinking in me, and I have to accept that that passage did indeed broaden my scope of thought. The main essence of the passage, written post World War II is beautifully put in a single sentence in the passage:" Machines are worshipped because they are beautiful and valued because they confer power; they are hated because they are hideous and loathed because they impose slavery." In the passage, he mocks the assumptions of economics, which say that a person with two of everything will always be more satisfied than the one with one of everything. He goes on to say that machines have made our lives so monotonous that the "anarchic, spontaneous" side of human nature keeps us at a constant state of discontent and discord, that we seek fulfillment from other sources, like hatred and war. He states the example of how the entry of the USA in the second world war could have never gotten so much support from its people had it not been for this very phenomenon. 

His predictions find a strange resonance with our world today. Remember how Bush played an entire nation's paranoia of terror to win a second term as president? Remember how he waged a war with Iraq on the premise of complete lies? How could he have succeeded in fooling his country had his own people not had a strangely inexplicable craving for war? Their want for revenge for Sept. 11th was channeled into a torrent of hatred which he used to his advantage.Russell said that this would keep happening because the monotony bought on by machines would make war a grotesquely appealing alternative. 

He also spoke about the role of media and how it catered to people's base emotions. This is true in today's world, and in fact, even more so. I think the paranoia in people today is aided and abetted by our popular media, who seem to understand this deep lying dissonance in us and cater to it with content that is intended to shock and titillate the viewing audience. They pass judgement on cases that are in progress and besmirch the names and reputation of people in the name of "freedom of speech". They leave no stone unturned in making us believe that every facet of our lives is in constant danger, and that "popular opinion"(read shooting of terror suspects at sight) should dictate state policy. 

Decades after his essay, and with machines gaining greater and greater control over the way we live, the effects are getting clearer. We have a class of "digital natives", who have serious social disability issues, and are much more comfortable with their cyber avatar. We have a burgeoning set of gamers, who would drop weapons of mass destructions in their games in the blink of an eye. And finally, we are moving towards a society whose members are more concerned about safeguarding their own "way of life" rather than holding aloft the set of ideals which used to form the bedrock of their existence.

The question you would want to ask is why this bothers me. Well, its just that we are becoming an impatient and aggressive society by the day. Impatient, because machines give us what we want in the blink of an eye, and we expect the same with people. It is scary to note that, after every terror attack, thousands of people send emails and SMS's to TV stations urging our leaders to just nuke Pakistan. There might be a point in time when the government might relent to such pressure and take such an extreme step. The loss would be incalculable and the whole point would anyway be futile. Therefore, we need to take a more measured, "medieval" approach to life. We've got to understand that issues will just not vanish overnight, that the world is much more complicated than we think it is, and not every problem can be solved with machine-like precision.