Easily the most characteristic shift in our times is the switch from journalism to media. Since it has hit us like an avalanche and we are hurled off our feet by the very abruptness and scale of the process, we have come to accept it as the given. In a short span of time, the world of journalism, which died only a couple of decades ago, has begun to look dinosaurian.
In the age of journalism, we were informed and were left, mostly, to think for ourselves. We were not infantilised towards thinking only along hard-set tracks. The media age has fitted a feeding bottle, with a cosmic nipple, to the mouth of our minds. We suck in the stuff, hours on end. There is no intermission, no time, or need, to think. It is all thought out for us. We only have to slurp.
What we overlook is the fact that we are, in this process, denied a foothold anywhere on the threshold of thinking. Going by Descartes’ view of things, we are not allowed the leisure to exist; for it is in thinking that we exist.
Cognitive psychology prescribes: “What you see, depends on where you stand.” So, you need to stand somewhere, no? What, if you are not allowed to "stand" and are kept afloat, like a piece of deadwood on the stream flowing down-hill, inexorably? Of course, we advocate various "stands". But are they really our stands? Are they not biases borrowed from what is euphemistically called public opinion?
So, all that tell us something about where we are already. We think we choose where to stand. No, we choose only where to sit, which relates only to the channels - often, the programmes - we are addicted to. To understand the situation for what it entails, consider the following:
Medical sciences record the case of a person, born blind, who was operated upon and, as a result, gained sight well into his teens. When asked how he found the world, he said that how he saw the objects around him was quite different from the impressions he gathered about them through touch, until then. In the visual media world, we only see and hear. We do not use the rest of our senses. We certainly do not use our thinking abilities. There is simply no need to think.
Or consider this familiar thing. Before the time of Copernicus, people believed that the earth stood still and the sun made its daily rounds from east to west. What justified this dogma was the distance at which people viewed celestial objects. The decisive thing in the media age - that on which the power of the media rests - is distance. What seems to be persuasively the truth of a matter from a distance, could be laughably off the mark in proximity. This is what science says. So, if we have a "scientific bent of mind", we will take media versions with a pinch of salt. And realise that the media cult which has taken control of our lives is inimical to developing and propagating "scientific temper". The tension between the media age and this very mandate of Article 51A of our Constitution is too crucial to be overlooked.
Consider a third instance. You are standing at one end of a road, the sides of which are lined with trees, equidistant from each other. You are looking at the other end of the road. What do you see? The trees near you are big and at a greater distance from each other than the trees at the other end. They seem much smaller, and closer together. Again, the reason is the same: distance. Distance is a medium of distortion. It is on distance, and distance alone, that the power of the media rests.
But distance per se, distance in the abstract, need not bother us. It should, when it is taken advantage of. It becomes deadly when it hijacks thinking. Electronic media makes the problem a shade worse, compared to the print media. It thrives on incessant flow, which creates temporal distance. This aggravates "spatial" distance, in which the subject matter is already shrouded. On TV screens, images flow continually. No single image lingers. Animation on the screen is made possible only through steady, incessant change. We have to be temporally distanced from each frame to create the illusion of momentum. It is for this reason that we find it hard to think for ourselves while watching TV programmes.
We become necessarily passive, and settle down to be docile consumers. So, the old metaphor, "couch potatoes", is neither inaccurate nor impertinent.
At this point, we need to reckon a popular notion about the advantages afforded by the electronic media; namely, that we can be better informed. True. But, that doesn’t mean we think. We become a heap of information in which data remain indiscriminately piled up. Our connection with what we "know" remains hazy. Information, for want of being thought upon, fails to be organised into knowledge. So, our gain in information implies a loss in connectivity to the real world, which is the essence of knowledge. Information induces escapism.
The quality of our life, the substance of our personality, stems from the authenticity and range of our thought; especially thought leading to action. It is only through this process that information gets internalised as integral to our being. This takes us straight into the paradox of the media age. Its quantitative abundance consigns us to qualitative poverty. We have much, but we are little. Our life gets drained of substance. So, we pursue our self-accentuation vicariously, by belonging herd-like to this block of opinion or that. The more aggressive and irrational, the more reassuring. Causes need to be cults before they can fill the vacuum within for those who refuse to think for themselves.