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“Lost” in Thought

Yet another lament

Lost in Thought

Nothing new about what I’m going to discuss. It’s an oft repeated theme these days and I do not have a new take on it. So it is the same old wine in the same old bottle. You don’t need to read it further. It won’t enlighten you one bit. I’m writing this one only to get it off my chest.. Caveat Emptor.

Last week I read the transcript of a lecture by Bertrand Russell on “Free Thought and Official Propaganda”. The lecture was given a 100 years back and explored the “New Dangers” facing the freedom of the individual and freedom of thought at that time. The inadequacy of education to inculcate critical thinking and rationality, the culture of conformity induced by economic rewards to those who fall in line and punitive actions against those who don’t, how propaganda and media hype favours the rich and the influential so that only their side of the story is emphasised while other views are ignored or marginalized – in the lecture these were diagnosed as the perils that if allowed to go unchecked would result in a society which is selfish and easily manipulated. The significance of the lecture has not diminished over the span of a century; the dangers identified are still clear and present in varying degrees ; only that time and technology has added new ones to the cocktail.

We are probably freer to think whatever we like these days than was 100 years ago, but who thinks?
[Freedom of thought doesn’t mean freedom of expression of those thoughts. This is not so encouraged. Thoughts challenging the status quo are usually met with vehement opposition in spite of the new age mantra of innovation, lateral thinking, thinking out of the box etc. ]

Do we really think anymore? What would qualify as “Thought””? The interminable buzz that goes around in our brain could scarcely be called Thinking. It is a meaningless flux focused primarily on the troubles or pleasures we are experiencing in the short term. To think, one needs to take the time, focus on the subject, consider the pros and cons, weigh the evidence, question the assumptions, review the inferences, imagine implications, check for consistency and lot more – thinking through takes a lot of effort; it is hard work. I do not think I have ever thought the way I have described. There are several impediments to serious thought (or even idle contemplation) that I can think (sic) of based on my personal experience in our times and our lives.

If I consider my typical day; I am at work for close to twelve hours, another hour is spent getting to work, seven hours of sleep, one hour of exercise, an hour spent in the toilet and shower, half hour for food and half an hour before the TV, half hour spent with family – what is left? Just half an hour in the evening when I’m already drowsy and exhausted and eager to get to sleep. The only thoughts that go on in the head during this period is an incessant repetition of the troubles at work. Chasing the work deadlines (a term taken from prison camps to describe a physical boundary which if the captives try to cross, the guards are allowed to shoot them dead) have become hazardous to physical and mental health. The thoughts related to work are inevitably stressful and frustrating. It is difficult to overcome the fatigue and despondency they periodically induce. Work thoughts sabotage most of my waking hours. To me work has become such a dominant aspect of life, insidiously infiltrating and vitiating my time off it. The last thing I want to do on a working day is to think of anything that is unrelated to it.

Another factor which is a major drain on time and intellectual energy is the prevalence of internet and social networks engendered by the proliferation of mobile technology. Thankfully, I have not yet fallen into the social media trap where one is incapacitated by a constant flow of messages which demand and garner attention from serious business. Social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook do not demand thought, they only ask for soporific immersion – a flight from interesting titbits to another. There are also social media pandemics where some real world news (mostly tragic or horrifying) inspire a conflagration of messages and emotional flare ups. Even though social media do not demand thought, they clamour for attention. One can detect shades of obsession in the compulsion to respond to the messages as they come. After all, it is instant messaging which need to be responded to instantly. The finger tips and eyeballs and the amygdala are continuously engaged catering to the flood of text and images and sound bites that overwhelms the brain leaving little energy for thought.

Round the clock internet news, social media updates and online games provide constant entertainment and welcome respite from the quotidian real world. This escapist tendency is also manifest in our preference to participate in frivolous entertainment. Multi player online shooting games for example. The most successful movies these are those featuring super heroes, or those with fantastic animations. They take one away from the troubles and tribulations of everyday life into a world of make believe for a short while. But, given a choice we would have liked to permanently inhabit the exotic worlds portrayed in them. Reading books or watching movies with serious plots is passé. Active discourse over the ideas and knowledge gleaned from books and movies were sources of entertainment and personal growth when I was a student. I do not know if it is the case any longer.

An offshoot of the ubiquity of internet access and smart phones is the paucity of intelligent conversation. People are so engrossed in their mobiles that conversation proceeds in fits and starts and eventually peters out. Social media groups offer a continuous dialogue with multiple participants in real time. Conversation with flesh and blood people is much less interesting. Serious talk is effortful and needs thought and engagement which is diametrically opposite to the passive, effortless twitter of social media.

My rant against smart phones and social media does not mean that I dismiss them as totally irrelevant and useless. I do use a smart phone and WhatsApp to communicate at times, but I have not come to a juncture where I consider them as major consumers of my time. But, for so many it is. One only need to observe the avid interest with which people ponder over their WhatsApp, totally oblivious to what goes around them, to come to the conclusion that social networking and mobile phones are addictive. A new word – Nomophobia – has been added to the lexicon to describe this addiction. I have also read that there are mobile phone de-addiction centres in India.

So, work, social media and smart phones are a substantial drain on our time which we could have spent thinking. But then, think of what? This is another dilemma that we face these days. For one thing, there is too much information passing through at a rapid pace that nothing sticks. We have become jaded of everything – tragedies, catastrophes, discoveries, developments, art, music – there is a surfeit of all things that we do not know what to focus on. The digital world that envelopes us require moment to moment engagement, but it does not demand conscious retention of the data that it flashes before our eyes. We are bombarded with information that leaves a crazy kaleidoscope of images and sounds and music each day. We drift in the digital soup moving from message to message, from hyperlink to hyperlink, unaware of the passage of time. Like the multi-coloured wheel which when spun turns white, the mind draws a blank under the assault of fragmented data. The mind, continuously overwritten is empty of vivid memories, a tabula rasa with nothing to remind of the passage of time. No wonder so many of us complain about how quickly time passes since all that it leaves within us is an undifferentiated blur.

Yet another gift of technology that depletes the capacity for thought is the search engine. 10 years back, faced with a problem one had to think about it, search for information in books, go to libraries, talk to knowledgeable people. Now, all you have to do is to Google for it. One doesn’t have to think, or make an effort. The answers are ready made, just a click away.
The reliance on Google is ubiquitous, I’m not immune to it. In a world that demands quick solutions, the old time consuming methods of search is impractical. One has no choice but to rely on Google. When the information and solutions are available at the tip of your fingers, then why think. Thinking is old fashioned and cumbersome. I am not advocating a retrogression to old forms of search, but when something comes easy, it also goes easy. We no longer value information, since it is there for free and a click away. We do not bother to remember, which certainly affects our capacity to think.

Thought also requires a congenial environment which help to focus on the problem at hand. It cannot thrive in a world characterized by noise and distraction. As I write this, a soap opera with meaningless dialogue and disturbing background music is running on the TV disrupting the train of thought. It is difficult to concentrate, to find the right words and expression. In the city, we live in confined spaces within which the interests and desires of every family member has to be accommodated. Given the constraints, seeking solitude is a fruitless endeavour in such circumstances. Again thought suffers.
[TV also does its bit to propagate superstition and ridiculous, formulaic fantasy. The less said about it, the better. I’m amazed at the number of intelligent people who watch idiotic TV serials. I find it difficult to explain.]

Bertrand Russell lived in a time when intellectuals were respected and influential. A hundred years hence, social attitudes have changed substantially. We now live in an utilitarian, business oriented society where wealth is supreme. The influencers of our time are businessmen, investors and to a lesser extent economists. Now we want to do “business at the speed of thought”. Speed and action are considered paramount; thought and introspection are no longer qualities perceived as worthwhile. Intellectualism has lost its glory. The word – nerd – denoting an intellectual, carries a negative connotation, calling to mind a boring, solitary, bespectacled and effeminate entity.

Education has likewise become a commercial enterprise, a money making venture. Its aims have become utilitarian, to churn out fodder for the commercial, industrial and service sectors. Under the present educational model, teaching has turned into a stressful, thankless, low paying job in private schools. The idealism, wisdom and respect once associated with this profession is now gone. Google has also contributed to the erosion of faith in teachers. Google is considered as the ultimate repository of information and knowledge vastly superior to the teacher with his/ her limited knowledge. Any teacher who cannot give something more than what Google can provide quickly loses face. Students also acquire a false sense of superiority in their pseudo-knowledge which is a deterrent to acquisition of true knowledge. Since the goal of education has shifted from inculcation of the capacity of critical thought to imparting commercially valuable skills useful to industry, it can be concluded that the danger posed by education to the freedom of thought has magnified since the time Mr. Russell made his speech.

Where we stand:
Going by what I have described – we don’t have time to think, we do not have energy to think, we are too busy with our gadgets to think, we do not have the ideal environment which fosters thought, society is apathetic to thoughtful people, thinking doesn’t pay and teachers do not inspire. This is possibly the nadir of human reasoning.

Where are we likely to go if we chart the same course:
The introduction of mechanical devices dramatically reduced physical effort at home and at work. The sedentary life style this engendered contributed to rise in obesity and diseases such as diabetes and heart attacks. We now have gadgets, “Apps” and search engines which are aimed at reducing mental effort. The mental lethargy such gizmos will introduce, coupled with a stressful life is predicted to cause psychological problems and proliferation of brain diseases such as dementia. The consequences to society of people ill equipped to think are manifold.

The dangers to freedom of thought touched upon by Bertrand Russell were mostly external. Now we voluntarily participate in decimation of our capacity of thought. We shall continue to outsource thought in the foreseeable future, to artificial intelligence, to bots, to augmented reality. It is possible that very soon an algorithm will make the claim – “I Think, Therefore I Am” as humans relinquish this capacity and are consigned to collective amnesia. I find it ironic that this deterioration of the role of thought is happening at a time when the most influential literature in the history of mankind is accessible to anyone who has an internet connection, that too for free…

Until we recognize the threat and take concrete steps to overcome the dangers – both internal and external – in our individual capacities, the fate that awaits us is likely to be terrible.

So what can be done? We need to THINK about it.

Bertrand Russell: Freedom of Thought and Official Propaganda

Categories: Musings
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