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Analysis: Medium Is The Message

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A cry for clarity! What am I, a parent, to do? What am I, a teacher, a principal, to do? Is there any position that is clear, complete and secure?

There is a shakeout happening right under our noses and we are barely aware of it. It is happening in the way we cook, the way we spend our day, what we mean by ‘work’, the gadgets we use, the means we use to communicate, what we buy, and how we buy. It has been happening with an increasing acceleration with clever technology at our disposal, and easier use of air waves. Only a few decades ago, we called the television a revolution; what would we call a video call or a blog upload from a bus travelling on a dusty road in rural India?

As individuals and as a society, much like a frog in a slowly heating pond, we have not registered that the ground is shifting, and that the landscape is metamorphosing into something that requires a reorientation of definitions.

The two perceptions that I found valuable in the case are that “students are products in process…” and that “I firmly believe that we are what we consume”.

Let me explain. There is a notion that we can dabble in something — gambling, liquor, pornography, etc. — and yet be untouched by the contact. But that is not so. It is time to digest the fact that ‘we are what we consume, what we participate and engage in’. The experiences shape us, subtly and beyond the ken of our conscious mind. For example, if a group conversing is not made up of peers, the language may be balanced and not abusive. If someone says something ugly or rude, there is scope for eye contact, or a response that is not necessarily verbal. But social media ensures that everyone hears all. Worse, even if a comment is polite and thoughtful, if it is boxed in by profanities, it is unlikely to balance the exchanges. Further, while I am all for an inclusive conversation among people of all ages, the language, metaphor and the content of social media exchanges does create a youthful ‘peer group’.

Our society is searching for balance. But the times and technology have us adrift. We have not found new moorings and the ones we have, seem woefully inadequate.

We are wanderers in eternal time. There seem to be two possibilities — grab the first or second straw, Facebook or Hangout. Or, be alert in communion with people, the landscape, the skies and other creatures on this planet. The second option raises the level of the conversation — about life and death, what we wish to leave behind, what care we bestow on another. It is not about instant gratification that technology offers with comments, reactions and jibes.
I believe that it is only by broadening our vision will we find good responses. Facebook fills a need of our times. There is a paucity of close and meaningful communication among adults and children. If one had a few friends with whom one could speak, listen and learn, would there be a need to be on Facebook and have 248 friends? The dictionary says ‘a sense of communion with others: affinity, fellowship, kinship, friendship, fellow feeling, togetherness, closeness, harmony, understanding, rapport, connection, communication, empathy, accord, unity.’

We easily settle for just ‘connection’. The other dimensions are lost. The social media offers less and packages it as more. Most of us would have no problem if people expressed what we consider sane and polite opinions. Unfortunately, the medium opens the door and we have little say over what comes in. The medium is the message, and the two cannot be separated.

But I also ask, have we made our choice? Are we sure that saying more is not better than saying less? At school and college, do we know how to communicate what is valuable rather than what is saleable? Have we become sellers and consumers of opinions, rather than searchers for the authentic? Are we clear that our view, however good it looks, is but another view? Is there space for the other view? Have we created ivory towers, from where we cannot but shiver in terror at the voices and screams we hear?

There would be no problem with FB (or other social media), or any other outpouring of the human spirit, if a large number of us were discerning listeners and responders. Unfortunately, that has not been our priority in education, and with each other. What we have is confused blundering.

Do we wish to be discerning, listening individuals? Is this what we want for our children? I do not know if the questions posed in the case can be answered without first answering these questions. That will be tilting at windmills.

There is an unseen orchestration in the marketplace beautifully documented in The Century Of The Self, by Adam Curtis. We have war at our doorsteps, and as one voice said, “If you loved your children you would see to it that there is no war” (J. Krishnamurti).

The author is director of The Chennai Education Centre of KFI (Krishnamurti Foundation India) overseeing Pathashaala & Outreach. He Was the principal of The School KFI for almost 2 decades.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 21-01-2013)