“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser memorably asserted. The Stories aren’t merely essential to how we understand the world — they are how we understand the world.
Read this deeply profound commentary by Prasoon Joshi
The Content readily available, but narrative is rare
It was some hundred thousand years ago that speech transformed human communication; symbols and writing followed to eventually make us the mass-connected civilisation we are today. Over the last 90 years, technological advances have led to fundamental change, not just in the form but in the value of the ways that we express ourselves and connect with others.
As a teenager, I lived in Meerut for a few years. In this small north Indian town, it was not easy to find music stores, especially ones that stocked Hindustani classical music. It simply did not make business sense as there was little demand for classical music. But, I constantly sought it. If someone had a recording of ragas rendered by Kumar Gandharva, I would plead and badger till I got to borrow it. Then came a trip to buy a TDK cassette and the hunt for someone who owned a two-slot music system that had a recorder and would, for a precious Rs. 5, copy it for me. The details carefully written down on the cover, the cassette became a small treasure. Many of my friends went through similar pangs over recordings of English songs. There is a certain memory, a kind of a narrative around that thirst and search. Today, all I need is a credit card number and an Internet connection.
Buying music is that simple. Perhaps today we over-value the content. Content in itself has a certain value. But layered with experience and narrative, it becomes a powerful and precious memory. Today, content is readily available, but the narrative is rare. In fact, I wonder whether today we listen to music for the love of it or simply as a memory device. Often some pieces of music — whether classical or folk — have to be made palatable for ‘popular’ listening. Words are oversimplified, and, in some cases, dumbed down to create a hook line. Are we then dealing with minds conditioned culturally in one way or another?
At times, reaction to music seems almost premeditated. The majority doesn’t really buy music. It buys a block of emotions instead — ‘nostalgia’, ‘romantic’, ‘spurned in love’, ‘devotional’, ‘techno’, ‘party’, or ‘dance’. Preconceived emotions surge up and numb us into enjoying a song that fits into a familiar mould. The creative construct of a song — the complexity of composition, the depth of the lyrics or the intricacies of instrumentation — rarely gets any attention. The criteria for judging music and songs seems to have been reduced to one, all-encompassing, quality — ‘entertaining’.
This is, perhaps, a reflection of our times: instant gratification over the weight of content.
Books were another important medium through which thoughts, points of view and emotion were communicated and continue to be — to a degree. Now, we have our iPads and Kindles and an ease of access to virtual bookstores. Earlier, getting a book to read often meant waiting for a friend or acquaintance to first finish it; then the book would be borrowed and devoured; or it would entail a visit to the club or public library, precious hours spent browsing before coming across the couple of books one wanted to befriend over the next week or so.
Again, there was physicality — the hardbound cover, the feel and smell of paper — a narrative around it. Friends were made, and sometimes broken up with, for the sake of a book given or not returned. Today, we have the handy ‘read later’ function. I, and I suspect many others, have clicked on the ‘read later’ button never to actually do so. There’s a kind of intellectual procrastination. Earlier, the perishable nature of the moment made one consume it better.
Today, my iPad has the latest books and scores of photographs, perhaps too conveniently so. The dilemma of whether to buy the 24- or 36- frame roll for your camera is there no more, but neither is the effort to make every shot count, each carefully composed and posed for. Now a single shot is taken 20 to 30 times with a trigger-friendly digital camera and just as easily discarded. The entire narrative around going to the shop and waiting for the roll to be washed and excitedly poring over the prints and negatives in the shop itself, while fervently counting how many of the 24 or 36 were wasted, is no longer relevant.
There are thousands of photographs in a hard drive memory today, but perhaps the value of the few we had earlier was more. The purpose of the photographs too has changed. Photographs triggered memories, transporting you to an incident in soft focus. Today, imagination itself has little place, the world has shrunk. It’s the world of immediate reality. Smart phones are browsed and the picture shown ‘right there’ and you move on. The liminal space where your and the others’ imagination found space to take form and breathe is now too well defined. From neurons we have moved to gigabytes converting biological memory into a tech memory. Biological memory has a filter.
It stores things with an emotional bias because what adds significance is the emotion. This emotional bias comes in during the very fundamental action of storage. For a tech memory we do not have that. It is accessed through an easy, readymade window, sans deep involvement. The narrative that effort and imagination provided stands somewhat diluted.
This reflects in the manner in which knowledge is getting redefined in this information age. It’s now democratised and accessible to all. It’s wonderful that there is a free flow of information at a mass level, but perhaps the ease of access makes it less special in some respects. Today, a dinner-table conversation is not illuminated by the person who instinctively quotes from a poem, a couplet of Ghalib’s or reels off a mind-boggling statistic, stored away considerately and passionately in memory and heart, where it lived and breathed.
Anyone at the table can Google instantly to complete the couplet or present additional bits. Things are hurriedly scanned through and rarely pondered over. From being like blotting paper, our minds are becoming like smooth plastic that absorbs little and fewer things penetrate. A loss of a kind. For, only the internalised can truly transform. Knowledge stored with a narrative is deliciously warm, accessed only through technology it’s a trifle cold.
The language in which information and knowledge is received and communicated too has been altered. Language had to be learnt and adhered to; today, language is subservient, it can be moulded very easily. We have witnessed the ‘chutneyfying’ of English, wherein Hindi and regional language phrases have brought in the ‘Hinglish’ flavour or the ‘Tamglish’ flavour. Although the Internet has been around only 20-odd years, it is adding online language codes of emoticons and abbreviations. Be it everyday parlance, official communication or mass media entertainers, intermingling is far more pronounced.
That language has to evolve is fact, but the delicate fibre of authentic language and unique dialect needs some protection as well. The Kumaoni language, for example, has some 20-odd words to describe particular kinds of smell. Today, only a few remain in use. Regrettable, for a word is a capsule of culture. Take the Galo language of the North-East, which reportedly has a uniquely encoded grammar that restrains one from assuming and referring to a third person’s thoughts; this too is on the wane. Along with the dying of a language, its folklore, rituals, customs, learnings too are asphyxiated. Over the years, a shift towards homogenisation of language has parallely led to the watering down of the precious heritage and intellectual legacy of varied mini cultures.
Rising individualism too has played a role in the way communication has changed form. Self-expression is fundamental , but the desire to own, consume, and micro express for self has gained more traction in the last few decades. This, of course, is linked to the advent and popularity of social media platforms.
Social media makes communication easier, faster and people more connected, and presents unheard of opportunities, but it has its limitations as well. I recall that a few years ago, Second Life, a virtual world, was cited as the next big thing. Different online identities were assumed. But as I donned an avatar on Second Life, what struck me even then was that the codes followed were not new or unique. The pursuit of finding a mate, buying property, opening an office, fashioning a wedding, planning a funeral, all borrowed from the real world.
But one hue that has become more pronounced in communication and expression is anonymity. Today, in the comfort of online anonymity, any deviant can much more easily find resonance be it for a political ideology or sexual behaviour. Anonymity gives comfort to communicate without a social identity.
The bright side of instant communication is its laudable role in revolutions such as the Arab Spring. But we mustn’t forget that it’s not only the medium, but also the power of an idea that’s at play. It is the power of an idea or the power of emotion that gets communicated, virally or otherwise.
Of course, the art of communication, its methodology and tools have changed dramatically over the last 90 years and we are in a flux that will take time to evolve and settle. Yes, every new age brings its own narrative. But I would urge, let not the charm and bitter-sweet pang of nuance be forgotten.
Let’s definitely celebrate the new and the better, but, importantly, let’s not lose the ability to pause, to listen to the murmurs and lament what ought to be lamented. After all, the past and the present together morph into the tomorrow.
The Hindu©Prasoon Joshi is a National Award-winning writer, poet and lyricist
and Chairman/CEO of McCann Erickson