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In This Race For ‘Shares’ And ‘Views’, Are We Also Judging Things Too Fast And Too Easily?

Posted on March 10, 2016 in Society

By Devaansh Samant:

People surf the web during the annual "Campus Party" Internet users gathering in Valencia, Spain, July 26, 2005. "Campus Party" is a nine-year-old event that joins people from several countries to share experiences related to computers and communications. More than 5500 Internet users turned their computers on at mid-night yesterday to kick off this year's "Campus Party" week-long gathering. Participants will be able to surf the web at speeds much faster than their regular home connection until July 31, 2005. REUTERS/Heino Kalis SV/NL - RTRIQTA
Image credit: Reuters/Heino Kalis.

Speeds of consumption and communication have increased manifold over the past few decades. This trend has a variety of impacts both on how we perceive the present world and what we hope to achieve in the future. Through this article, I will try and explore what seem to be various manifestations of humanity’s increasing obsession with speed followed by a discussion of the implications of the same. Finally, I make the case that this need for speed is an unstable positive feedback loop due to its influence on political discourse and public dialogue.

A disclaimer is in order here. While it isn’t within the scope of this article to make claims about whether polarisation and public hate have reached new highs or new lows, what I do wish to claim is that the rate of change of public sentiment is higher than ever. Thus, the entire article makes a claim for instability and not a claim over the absolute merit of current political dialogue.

Since the early nineteenth century, the world has witnessed gargantuan productivity growth. From the advent of the assembly line to the dawn of the internet age, we have been able to surround ourselves with more comfort and higher standards of living in exponentially shorter times. In the past few decades, we have advanced our capabilities further than we did in all of human existence prior to this period. The speed of innovation is likely to continue snowballing as well. Along with the increased luxury and progress, there has been a rise in consumer culture and the externalisation of sources of satisfaction. Many have argued that the abundant economic progress at the expense of social balances is ill-advised while others have defended the increased capacity as a genuine advancement of the human race.

However, I do not wish to dwell on the age-old debate regarding capitalism here. Even if one dismisses Marx’s concerns about consumerism substituting human relationships, taking for granted the merit of mass production and market incentives, there arises another set of questions – those of what implications this age of plenty has. Commodities come thicker and faster than human relationships.

We are now used to obtaining our wants entire magnitudes of order faster than we were just a few generations back. For most of the past five decades, our computing power has doubled every 18 months. Not only do we get what we want faster and cheaper, we are also used to making ourselves heard a lot faster because of the digital age. Personal communication has gone from telegrams to video-conferences rather quickly. Mass communication has switched from the radio to colour television and the age of YouTube more recently much faster than we tend to appreciate.

So how have our mindsets changed? The need for speed has led to an insatiable need for instant gratification. We now want more satisfaction and we want it faster. If the issue with that statement is not immediately clear, then think of it in terms as an obsession with quantity over quality. As we push down our costs and give way to high volume businesses to increase accessibility to goods and services, we also start telling ourselves subconsciously: “I can make do with easy-fix gratification as long as there is a lot of it.” A classic example of the same is the recent rise of ‘Fast Fashion’. Prominent brands like Zara now offer clothing lines at lower prices while replenishing stores with supplies as often as twice a week.

Now, how does this reflect in the fabric of everyday society? The particular manifestations I wish to explore have to do with developments in the manner of political discourse and how public opinion works. There are two key points to be mindful of here. First, we can now reach out to multitudes of people through a few keystrokes. Each of us can make ourselves heard a lot more easily than we could before – suddenly everyone has a magnified sphere of influence. Secondly, we have slowly been biassing ourselves towards instant gratification as the lead times for everything from food to fashion go down drastically. I wish to argue that these two developments combine to help give rise to the venomous phenomenon of hateful and reckless dialogue on key public matters.

Three instances of the effects of this poisonous cocktail are discussed – the cacophonous presence of the online keyboard warrior; the increased frequency and intensity of media trials; and the highly polarised nature of public debate on economic and social issues.

The online keyboard warrior is deadly. This agent has most likely dispensed with fact-checks, has selection bias when it comes to the views received and re-transmitted, is trigger-happy when it comes to sharing strong opinions and in many cases, is more interested in appearing intellectual in a public setting than in actually understanding an issue. The most pronounced effect of this toxin on political discourse and public opinion is to make discussions extremely volatile and highly emotive instead of having a dialogue with the due process of diligent debate. As has been the theme of the article, much of the venom this agent carries is due to the obsession with instant gratification – likes on Facebook now measure political merit.

A study carried out by the independent IRIS Knowledge Foundation talks about High Impact constituencies – those where the number of Facebook users are more than the margin of victory of the winner in the last Lok Sabha election, or where Facebook users account for over 10% of the voting population. Their analysis shows that 160 out of the 543 general election constituencies fall under this category.

The commoditisation of most goods and service meant that news was never going to remain untouched forever. Commoditised news appeals to hateful and baser instincts of violence, physical or ideological, against those we disagree with. This might be direct violence, as seen by the rise of debate format news shows, or the incitement of violence, as evident in the dramatic and fearful tones news is delivered in. Once again, having found routes of appealing to viewers that are faster than informed discourse, such as pride and moral indignation, the media’s obsession with instant gratification is leading to another public agent having its well poisoned.

We want judgement faster than our judiciary can supply it and our media gleefully obliges in exchange for TRP. The rise of lazy journalism in the form of primetime debate television captures the declining quality of news we consume. The Atlantic in 2012 published a piece titled ‘Television Is An Atrocious Format For Presidential Debates‘. The concerns regarding the over-emphasis on theatricality and catchy one-liners cited there have now been accentuated and displayed with some fanfare by Donald Trump and his domination of the current U.S political landscape.

The last instance of this need for quick appeasement of the conscience is the increasing polarisation in political discourse. More and more people wish to discuss liberal views as pitted against conservative ones, instead of merely using these classifications as broad frameworks to be used as references for the origin of these lines of thought. It is fashionable to claim to be on one side or another while it is unglamorous to take the understanding of ideologies and apply it comprehensively to any issue in a manner which ensures that the divide between ideologies doesn’t overshadow the actual issue at hand. Public engagement has now been shortened to classifying people into left and right.

Having discussed the sources of an increased obsession with speed of consumption, communication and gratification and also having examined various manifestations of the same in political discourse and public opinion, I would like to end this piece by arguing that the results of the need for speed result in further addiction to speed thus leading to an unstable positive feedback loop which needs to be broken through acute self-awareness and conscious effort.

Ill-researched and emotive arguments on social media provoke confrontational attitudes that are propagated further through hateful responses which lead to the creation of further toxic emotional blather. While our politicians spew hate speeches, our comedians retort with ill-conceived humour thus perpetuating intellectually sterile political discourse (read John Oliver’s campaign against Donald Trump’s name). The increased frequency and intensity of media trials mean the audience burns through news via highly entertaining narratives with zero patience, needing the next debate sooner and sooner, regardless of whether previous ones reach mature stages or not. The obsession with identifying with sides and labels like liberal, conservative, capitalist, socialist etc. leads to actual issues receiving lesser and lesser attention and the antics of the leaders of polarised political factions hogging the limelight. This implies that involvement in the public dialogue on an issue is likely to leave you with no choice but to participate by choosing a side, instead of fact-finding.

Moving forward, we have to counterbalance the increased speed of production and available space for communication with responsible consumption and consciously patient expression of our views.