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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 16 April 2024

Caught in the net

Histories can be twisted, maligned, because we believe that which is given on a website, written in a manner that is unambiguous and spoon-fed to us, requiring no commitment from our end

T.M. Krishna Published 01.03.24, 06:49 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. Sourced by the Telegraph

When was the World Wide Web released to the public? Searching for an answer, I went to the only place that can provide me with an instant response — the World Wide Web. An NPR article informed me that it was created by Tim Berners-Lee and gifted to humanity on April 30, 1993, free of charge. By the end of the 1990s, this information web had covered the globe to such an extent that the post-90s generations don’t know of a time before the internet.

This one platform has revolutionised information access, learning, knowledge production and connectivity. And this has happened at a speed which is unfathomable. The number of technological developments that have aided, enhanced and accelerated these processes are mind-boggling. With Artificial Intelligence bursting onto the scene, things are only going to get even more unbelievable, literally and metaphorically. On an aside, it is philosophically valuable to consider Roger Penrose’s argument that Artificial Intelligence is a ‘misnomer’. That the computer can only ‘mimic’ intelligence. He argues that consciousness is not computation. Anyway, let me not wander.

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Before you jump the gun and assume that this piece is about fake news, deep fakes, post-truth or the dangers of Artificial Intelligence, let me inform you that it is not. The drawbacks of not having the internet and the democratising role the medium has played are there for all of us to see, acknowledge and appreciate. Therefore, I am not going to dwell on the obvious. Neither am I going on a nostalgic rant on ‘the good old days’. But there are other questions about the pre-networked age that require consideration.

Let us begin with something as simple as thinking, a process that every human being engages in by default. To receive information, comprehend and make decisions is nearly automatic. The question before me is whether there was something different about the way we thought before the online network became a permanent fixture in our lives. Similar to how technology helped us reduce the time we spent on gathering, cooking and consuming food, the Cloud has greatly reduced the burden of remembering dates, times or exact events. Such information was given great importance in the past. Unfortunately, the lifting of this unnecessary weight has not meant that we engage earnestly with serious questions. The ease with which the Web provides us with answers somehow curtails the extent of our questioning.

The rapidity of search results and the way material is presented on and for the Web do not make us curious. Furthermore, the tone is more often than not, definitive. In other words, the internet has surreptitiously removed doubt from learning. Doubt is not distrust. It is a prerequisite for education. It is the opening that leads to further investigation. This does not happen by accident. It is part of knowledge creation. In the sharing of what we know, we embed the possibility of doubt, change and growth.

The virtual information highway largely functions in the opposite manner where you get more hits if you present an assured face. Your fingers itch to click the first possible link and people pay to place their links on top. It requires great effort to go past these innumerable layers of ‘surety’ to get to a place where learning is exciting; dare I even say true! This makes me consume in an unthinking manner. Questioning is stunted and people hold on to the programmed opinion they clicked on.

Hence, we should not be surprised that ‘educated’ folks fall prey to blatant lies. This problem did not begin with social media. The algorithms that nurtured cyberspace have always been designed to lessen the time used for assimilation. Speed in time spent on accessing a page and the way the information is presented are key to its success. The moment we foreground the paucity of time, urgency or the claim that we can do more productive things in those extra minutes that are needed to read, read again, think, read again and pause, we lose the ability to learn.

Is the internet a reality? Since creators, developers and participants are real people, we have to accept that the virtual universe is a part of a larger reality. But this agent has drastically reduced physical interactions. Childhood in the 1980s and 1990s entailed feeling the soil, being close to the trees, and meeting people in person. Today, it is all about video calls, playing games and learning via iPads and mobile phones. Parents say technology has made children smarter at an early age. I am no child psychologist, nor an educationist to counter such a claim confidently. Yet, I have to wonder about this smartness. Building the capacity to solve arithmetic or mathematical problems, or remembering things, or cleverness without empathy, love and care is not intelligence. I will argue that true intelligence is felt and every emotional connection is intelligent. When this is missing, humanity goes into hiding. Watching videos on YouTube or Instagram of the horrors that are unfolding in Palestine or Manipur will not make a person more empathetic. Love and compassion have to be learnt and shared physically, directly, without an intermediary.

If something does not exist on the Web, is it real? And, as an extension, is everything that happened before the virtual age and has not been digitised irrelevant? The first question may sound moot because we cannot imagine that there are people or things that do not find mention on the internet. The falsity of this belief stems from the fact that we trust it as a democratic space. The internet is a marketplace, a bazaar where everyone is selling. The fact that anyone can open a shop without paying rent does not imply equality. Social equations that govern our everyday interactions also control the internet. Hence, there are many unheard, wrongly represented and lost voices.

The imperative to give every­thing a digital avatar wipes out all that does not find space in this all-encompassing network. Innumerable cultures, stories and peoples are lost to posterity not only because we do not look beyond the infobahn but also because we have forgotten to remember from life experiences, from what we hear, see and learn in person. Even lived histories have to be virtualised. Histories can be easily twisted, maligned, because we only believe that which is given on a website, written in a manner that is unambiguous and spoon-fed to us, requiring no commitment from our end. Naysayers may argue that all this is hocus-pocus theorisation. That the website is merely the new avatar of the book. Books also spread lies and wipe out people. This is true. But a book required the writer to explain and demanded attention and time from the reader. The internet, on the other hand, celebrates loudness and preys on the lack of attention.

T.M. Krishna is a leading Indian musician and a prominent public intellectual

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