Monday, February 22, 2016

The Age of Information

Over the last few weeks, I have seen the internet explode into bitter arguments between polarized camps. In the US, this is election year, where in an assuredly periodic pattern differences of opinion transform into vitriolic name-calling. In India, there have been the cases of Rohith Vemula and the more recent JNU agitation. It has taken great self-control on my part to not voice my arguments on the internet during this period. This, despite the fact that my eyeballs roll to the back of my head more times than I can count on my two hands on a daily basis. You see, even though I have more or less successfully attempted to not engage in internet arguments in the last few years (with a few, perhaps ill-advised exceptions), the bad habit that I haven't given up is reading what other people write. The latter has not always been good for my eye(ball)s, let alone my brain.

For the most part, the internet has been one of the most powerful and beneficial inventions mankind has ever come up with. There is no denying how easy it has made the lives of those who are privileged enough to have access to it and know their way around it. One of the things the internet has made extremely easy is the dissemination of information. Unfortunately, this has also been the internet's biggest failing, or rather, this is where we may be failing the internet. The ease with which information can now be shared unfortunately also appeals to our trigger-happy, mob-mentality instincts. Some of us (including myself) fall prey to that instinct often - that urge to press "like" and "share". Other times we are exhorted to do so - "Press share if ". Some of this is pretty harmless - no one is going to be hurt if you let others know you relate to things other kids who grew up in the 90s relate to, or share a video of a cat doing something a cat isn't expected to do. There is, however, a very dark side to this trigger happiness that has come to the fore in recent weeks, months and years that is extremely disturbing. 

You get a whatsapp text on your phone, a message on facebook, or a link to a blog such as this, with quotes (some famous, others not), mostly out of context. It makes up a few numbers without providing a source, and makes a compelling argument that completely convinces you, and then proceeds to exhort you to forward this piece of information. Sometimes you also get morally threatened with not being "X" if you don't share it. By now, you have been lured into an emotional trap and are extremely eager to pass this information on to others in order to enlighten them - it seems like the right thing to do. And it's Just. So. Easy. You don't have to move, you don't have to pick up that phone and call fifty other people. Just a simple click of the button and you've enlightened those fifty other people - good deed for the day done. A lot of us (including myself and a lot of my near and dear ones) have fallen prey to this trap at some point. The internet has often been used by private individuals or those belonging to the state machinery to spread half-truths and blatant lies. Outrage comes cheap these days. Time is money, and with the help of the information age, it takes very little of your time or effort to express outrage at things you think are true. However, the truth of the information age is also that there may be a much larger picture that you are simply not aware of.You could be needlessly endangering an entire community of people, ruining someone's reputation, taking away their livelihood, or in extreme cases, taking away someone's life. 

What strikes me as strange is that in an ideal world the internet should have been a place to engage people in an exchange of ideas thought previously impossible. Perhaps it does serve that purpose to a certain extent. However, it is also fast becoming that place where people go to aggressively express their opinion (accurate or otherwise) from the seemingly safe space behind a glowing computer monitor or a smartphone screen. This sort of behavior is shrinking the space where opposites can meet, converse and resolve their issues at an alarming rate. It is causing many to simply disengage from partaking in discussions online, because it never really leads anywhere but name-calling followed by angry silence. This is the opposite of dialogue. This is us being Dilbert's Dick from the Internet.

The next time you see things that look like compelling facts that you must be convinced by and must share with others, pause to think. Someone could be exploiting your good intentions to make you an accessory for their agenda. Someone could be involving you in their conspiracy to defame a person, a community, a country, an organization, or a cause. Don't be an accessory. Control your trigger-happy self. There is a difference between opinion and fact. Share those opinions as opinions, and verify those facts before you "like and share". If they are not true beyond reasonable doubt, don't "like and share". You may not be "X" if you do so, in the opinion of the person who sent you this piece of information, but you'll be making the world a less stupid place, and you're a better person for that.