The Fettered Internet Part 1 – Five things you should know about surveillance

Technology and its impact on our psychology has been one of my pet subjects lately. I wrote this post on the brilliant book by Nicholas Carr on ‘What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains’ apart from this post on front-facing camera and most recently on selfies.

One of the most insightful books that I have come across on this subject in the recent past is Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet by Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Jeremie Zimmerman and Andy Muller-Maguhn. I read the book a second time over the weekend and this time I took some notes on my phone for this post. The book is essentially a dialogue between the 4 authors who are a group of thinkers and cyber-space activists on the politics and economics of privacy, surveillance and censorship on the internet and how states across the world alongside private corporations are colluding to ‘control’ lives of people and threatening what we considered ‘free’ internet. The book outlines the major issues and speaks about how cryptography can offer people a chance to retain their freedom.

The points made in the book are extremely pertinent especially given the increasingly ‘virtual lives’ we lead. Instead of one long post, I am breaking this into a series of posts.

In this first post, I ll set the context shared in the book and focus on 5 reasons why surveillance today is so dangerous.

Context

“The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen. The internet is a threat to human civilization.”

Human life has always been at the cusp of shifting power balance throughout its history. Religion and the State have been the traditional coercive forces who have held control over the masses. They have held control over physical resources such as land, money and colluded with those with similar access on oil wells, plantations to ensure that the power balance remains in their favour. Most importantly they held control over intellectual resources such as knowledge, access to new ideas and means of communication to spread the same. As the authors share:

 Factions within a state may compete for support, leading to democratic surface phenomena, but the underpinnings of states are the systematic application, and avoidance, of violence. Land ownership, property, rents, dividends, taxation, court fines, censorship, copyrights and trademarks are all enforced by the threatened application of state violence. Most of the time we are not even aware of how close to violence we are, because we all grant concessions to avoid it. Like sailors smelling the breeze, we rarely contemplate how our surface world is propped up from below by darkness. In the new space of the internet what would be the mediator of coercive force?

The internet held the promise of a new level playing field where an equal access to the intellectual pool (access to best ideas, ‘free’ communication, one-to-many collaboration) meant a whole new world of possibilities and potential as an ‘individual’ over your own destiny. However, this is a dream that today stands threatened by a new seismic shift being caused by some of the traditionally powerful (state, private corporations) and the neo-powerful (data companies) who ‘control’ the access to the infrastructure through which this knowledge is created and shared. The authorities who hold the switch to fibre optic cable lines, satellites and computer servers are gaining monstrous scale and this growth is ironically being fuelled by us – who just can’t have enough of ‘sharing’ the most private aspects of our lives and thoughts on Facebook and Twitter or worse turn-in all our concerns, worries, fears by ‘asking’ Google.

It’s no longer Science Fiction.  We are all in the house of ‘Big Boss’

The authors discuss how the people in power see internet as an illness that would “affect their way of governance”. The “medicine” they have found to this illness is surveillance:

The state would leech into the veins and arteries of our new societies, gobbling up every relationship expressed or communicated, every web page read, every message sent and every thought googled, and then store this knowledge, billions of interceptions a day, undreamed of power, in vast top secret warehouses, forever. It would go on to mine and mine again this treasure, the collective private intellectual output of humanity, with ever more sophisticated search and pattern finding algorithms, enriching the treasure and maximizing the power imbalance between interceptors and the world of interceptees.

They look at the internet like an illness and ask their consultants, “Do you have some medicine against this thing out there? We need to be immune if this affects our country, if this internet thingy comes.” And the answer is mass surveillance. It is, “We need to control it totally, we need to filter, we need to know everything that they do.

Five aspects of surveillance in 21st century which make it deeply disturbing

  1. Mass commercialisation of surveillance – unlike in the past where only a select few had the means to ‘intercept’ like the Americans, the British, the Russians, the Swiss and the French, today nearly EVERY state is accessing systemically the lives of its people, from the mighty China to even a small nation as Libya . It’s real cheap to snoop over ‘everybody’ than even bother following select targets.  Consider this:

…you get decent voice-quality storage of all German telephone calls in a year for about 30 million euros including administrative overheads, so the pure storage is about 8 million euros. JULIAN: And there are even companies like VASTech in South Africa that are selling these systems for $10 million per year.

We’re now at the stage where just $10 million can buy you a unit to permanently store the mass intercepts of a medium sized country.

2. Everybody is under watch – previously a person was put under watch when he was ‘suspected’ of something or was in a powerful position that made him a ‘target’. Today everybody is a ‘target’ or a ‘suspect’ because technology makes it ‘efficient’ to intercept everything and store it permanently and then ‘sort’ that data in future. From your financial transactions, political beliefs to all your private and public conversations are being ‘tracked’ today by companies ranging from mobile operators, credit card and social networks

 3. Not only your ‘public’ data your most ‘private’ data is being intercepted – as one of the authors shares aptly: 

And it’s totalizing now, because people put all their political ideas, their family communications, and their friendships on to the internet. So it’s not just that there is increased surveillance of the communication that was already there; it’s that there is so much more communication. And it’s not just an increase in the volume of communication; it’s an increase in the types of communication. All these new types of communication that would previously have been private are now being mass intercepted

4. There are tanks in our bedroom. We just can’t see them yetone of the grimmest aspects of surveillance today is that much of this is being conducted by military organisations. Again the economics of it have a major role to play – compared to traditional military budgets, “cyber warriors or mass surveillance are super-cheap”:

When you communicate over the internet, when you communicate using mobile phones, which are now meshed to the internet, your communications are being intercepted by military intelligence organizations. It’s like having a tank in your bedroom. It’s a soldier between you and your wife as you’re SMSing. We are all living under martial law as far as our communications are concerned, we just can’t see the tanks—but they are there. To that degree, the internet, which was supposed to be a civilian space, has become a militarized space.

5. Deliberate complexity in technology, hence users don’t question what they don’t understand – from aeroplanes to mobile phones, nearly everything in our life is nothing but a ‘computer’ and the technology behind most of it is not “not intended to be understood. That’s the case with proprietary technology.”  This can be dangerous:

 “…it is important to understand these systems, because when we don’t understand them there’s a general trend to defer to authority, to people who do understand them or are able to assert control over them, even if they do not understand the essence of the thing itself.”

In the next post, I will cover some of the other key themes such as  ways to tackle surveillance, how private corporations are complicit and the ‘economics’ of control.

Do share your thoughts.

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How men see women and the case of leaked celebrity pictures

The recent episode  of nude pictures of celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence being leaked by a set of hackers launched widespread debate on the topics of privacy and consent when it comes to a woman’s body.

Their were two fairly polarised views on the subject. One, why would these celebrities click nude pictures of them in the first place. If they need to protect ‘privacy’ they shouldnt have clicked such a picture:

 

 

The other view has been widespread shock and outrage at such lack of sensitivity and understanding of the concept of ‘privacy’:

 

When I wrote my previous post on selfies, there was actually something else in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing that had caught my attention in context of this episode which I originally wanted to share.

There is a particular chapter in the book that explores the ‘usage and conventions’ around how  ‘the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man’. I have shared some excerpts which I found very powerful (highlights in the text are mine).

Man

A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies…The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual – but its object is always exterior to the man. A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you.

Woman

By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – indeed  there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence…

To be born a woman has been to be born, within an alotted and confined space, into the keeping of men…But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self  being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is continually accompanied by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.

 

How Men ‘see’ Women

Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it…Every woman’s presence regulates what is and is not ‘permissible’ within her presence

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns into an object – and most particularly and object of vision: a sight.

 

Over centuries, there has been much change in both work and public sphere as well as the home sphere in the widening of space available to a woman to assert her presence. And yet if you really look at every form of abuse against women and the justification given by the perpetrator (man or woman), it can really be summed up by the above convention – men act, women appear.

Hence, by such a convention in the act of clicking a nude picture of herself, the woman is ‘defining’ how she needs to be ‘seen’ – a visual object of pleasure. Why should it then matter that this image resides in the private recesses of her phone gallery or splashed across the internet goes the argument? She herself has ‘sanctioned’ such a ‘view’ of herself and the men are only complying with how she would like to be ‘seen’. The question of her having clicked her nude for her self-pleasure does not arise, after all ‘objects’ can’t ‘feel’ pleasure, they can only ‘give’ pleasure.

Consider, some of the most common justifications given for sexual abuse against a woman – she was dressed provocatively, she was walking alone at night etc all place the ‘choice’ of the treatment that was meted out to the woman squarely on her. She was the one who invited such a behaviour. On the other hand, boys will be boys, their defined role by the convention is to communicate that women have no ‘agency’ on their bodies. They need to comply with the conventions of the ‘male gaze’. If there is an aberration in the woman’s ‘appearance’ from the expected convention, then she is liable for ‘punishment’ to reinforce the social order where -

men act and women appear

 

Unfortunately, the current conventions continue to reinforce this belief. There is an immense focus on a woman’s ‘appearance’ for her acceptance. We can talk about social change and preventing crime but till things change at a belief level, the scope for real change is limited. There is a lot of work required to crack the deep internalisation of the need to ‘present’ a self among women and the sense of entitlement among men to watch this ‘presentation’. Awareness of these dynamics can be a good first step.

What do you think?

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Looking at Selfies through John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’

wos

About a month back I started reading, John Berger’s classic text ‘Ways of Seeing’. It’s been on my reading list since my literature days. I am only half-way through but it’s a fascinating read on how we see is not a random act of looking at a thing; it’s always us “looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Berger analyses a wide variety of images from oil paintings to graphic art to look at how we “look” is affected by a set of “learnt assumptions” that we form about ‘Beauty, Truth, Genius, Civilization, Taste.’

He sets the context in the beginning by talking about qualities of an image:

“An image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and preserved – for a few moments or a few centuries. Every image embodies a way of seeing. Even a photograph. For photographs are not, as is often assumed, a mechanical record…The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject…Yet, although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image depends also upon our way of seeing.”

I am fascinated by this concept in context of “selfies”. What are the implications of this “reproduction” when the photographer and photographed are the same person? Does it give us more “control” by creating an image of us which is how we would like to ‘see’ ourselves or be ‘seen as’ by others? Or do we only create a deeper “delusion” for ourselves by aligning the physical image to our internal self-image and propagate that myth to ourselves and to others? Hence, do others start seeing us as WE see (or like to see) ourselves? Or can the only thing they can any longer “see” is “how we like to be seen”?

Now I am sure this isn’t that simple because we ‘see’ ourselves is a complex intermesh of what are the “assumptions” or the accepted cultural codes around being ‘funny’, ‘beautiful’, ‘rebellious’, ‘sensational’, ‘shocking’, or ‘goofy’. These codes exist outside us, as ‘masks’ that we wear to navigate the external world. Is it possible that if we wear the ‘mask’ for too long, we will soon forget the ‘face’? As avid participants in the vicious cycle of creation and consumption of these masks on our newsfeeds every day, are we getting stuck deeper where we “see” and are “seen” to be “accepted” only if we constantly appropriate these ‘masks’ for ourselves and then reprocess as the ‘norm’ for our network?

If what we know is what we perceive, are we on a downward spiral in our knowledge of self and the world outside?

Will there be no place for the ‘hidden’ and the ‘unknown’ on the Johari window as we redraw our realm of comfort between what we mutually already know (known) and that we rather not know (blind)?

Johari Window

Johari Window

What do you see?

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Talk on Social Content at TERI’s Future Leaders Cafe

One of the focus areas at the work front is that of ‘social content’. I recently spoke at TERI’s Future Leaders Cafe event on the topic. Here is the deck that I presented. Check it out to know more:

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How Kindle is changing my reading habits

In my previous post, I wrote about the impact of the internet on our brains. One of my favourite key take-away from the book which inspired that post was how we need to evaluate the impact of a new technology:

In one of the most perceptive, if least remarked, passages in Understanding Media, McLuhan wrote that our tools end up “numbing” whatever part of our body they “amplify.”

“McLuhan’s point was that an honest appraisal of any new technology or of progress in general, requires sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained.”

The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” wrote McLuhan. Rather, they alter “patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”

I have been thinking a lot about this in context of my changing reading habits with the introduction of Kindle. I am keen to evaluate the changes that I can see its bringing about me.

This post isnt about the pros and cons of an e-reader but unalterable cognitive changes triggered by it.

What makes me happy

Extended reading hours  

Most of my reading (as I guess for most people) takes place in the quiet hours of night. With a physical book, the upper limit for reading was based on when the lights needed to be switched off. At this point, I did, at times choose to move to the living room but on more occasions chose to resume the reading next day. The back-lit screen of the Kindle did away with all such constraints as I could continue to read in the comfort of my warm bed without causing any distress to the other person in the room (on a different note, with the back-lit screen, my childhood fantasy of reading in hiding comes alive. I grew up watching this Bajaj ad and used to imitate the child with the torch inside the blanket for many years)

The compact size of the Kindle means that books I carry don’t have to be evaluated basis their size or that of my bag. Hence, I have also been reading more during local metro commute and travel outside the city.

Access to best global content at seductive rates

 Previously the choice of reading content was governed by ease of access at the bookstore. Sure the option of online shipping has existed for years but the shipping costs would sometimes become a deterrent. With the Kindle, the biggest value unarguably is the access it gives to global content at unmatched prices. From an old obscure title to the newest title from my favourite author, everything is available like a form of instant intellectual noodles

What worries me

Picking easy reads versus long texts

The previous post quotes research studies which show how “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”

To an extent I have experienced this both in the way I read and my choice of books.

As my use of internet and digital media had increased, there had been a parallel rise in levels of distraction and I had started struggling reading a printed book. Strangely, it’s easier to focus reading on a Kindle perhaps because the mind has become “used to” experiencing digital text (what confuses me though is that I still like reading the newspaper in print format than digital, if changing consumption habits are responsible for the struggle with printed book, how does this not extent to the newspaper?)

While I am able to focus better on a Kindle, I feel that I do on occasions end up “browsing” and “scanning” instead of using deep concentrated reading. Re-reading a page is often more conscious and deliberative than a natural act to assess and assimilate.

Further, as a means of self-discipline, I have created a ground rule, not to purchase a new book on the Kindle till I have completed the previous one (don’t wish to end up with an unread shelf of digital books!). Hence, I carefully sample a new book in terms of writing style to make sure it’s not something I will end up getting stuck with. I wonder if this makes me choose ‘a certain kind of book’ which is compelling and different yet not too lengthy, nor too dense (nor an obstacle in gaining psychological brownie points of “finishing” a book). This I consider a really dangerous “change”, already the amount of fiction that I read has dramatically decreased, the high focus on most “useful” (in my case books on marketing, consumer behaviour and the internet) is perhaps leading to a narrowing circumference  of intellectual discovery.

As I write this, I realise that some of the changes that I am talking about are not entirely to do with the piece of technology itself but a function of who I am as an individual, my own motivations and anxieties. I must confess though that I am beginning to be worried about our growing subservience to technology and ‘Singularity’ not remaining just a possibility in the realm of science fiction.

More on this soon.

 

 

 

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Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains

I have been lately feeling ‘concerned’ about some changes within me. My ability to ‘focus’ has been a major casualty. When I moved to a smartphone sometime around this time last year several things happened. My consumption of information exploded but somehow my ability to draw meaning and retain imploded. I found myself addicted and since my object of affection were usually Coursera, learning apps, self-quantification apps, I felt ‘these could only make me smarter’. I became highly distracted. I could neither read, write or think introspectively.I thought I was the only one.

Then, I came across a brilliant book by Nicholas Carr — Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains.

The book epitomises the aphorism ‘to know the future you must know the past’. It proves how the internet is not just changing ‘what’ we consume but our fundamental patterns of reading, writing, thinking, perceiving and behaving.

I have curated some of my favourite parts from the book and have experimented with a  format below using elements such as  multimedia, non-linear text – which ironically the author at some level critiques in the book. Since you are going to read this on the internet, filled with thousand other distractions, you ll probably find it distracting enough to temporarily focus on :)

https://amritochates.jux.com/1962342

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Empathy and the Role of Personal Experience

This is an issue to which I am yet to find a satisfactory response:

What role does our personal experience play in our ability to express empathy towards others? Is it possible to truly empathise with someone’s pain or suffering if one has not directly experienced a similar sense of pain or loss? Alternately, is lack of a direct experience a ‘convenient excuse’ and perhaps a sign of being insulated and selfish as a person?

Empathy is defined as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in their situation.”

I personally have always ‘felt’ that the expression of empathy to someone else’s situation is inauthentic till one has been through a similar experience in some form or the other.  Though I do feel that indirect experiences (stories and anecdotes, cinema) can contribute to developing a sense of empathy I tend to be self-critical and always find myself short of ‘what it must be’ to be in a situation like that.

On different occasions, people with more experience than I possess have told me this is not true. And every time these are the examples that I have quoted –

 

  • Imran Khan built the largest ever cancer hospital after his mother lost her life to the disease. There are countless examples of victims of tragedy dedicating their lives to causes that inflicted the same tragedy upon them. Would they do so if their lives continued ‘normally’? Would they have found empathy with those who suffered without having experienced the pain, sorrow and the loss themselves?
  • During the recent Delhi rape case, there were several alternate voices that questioned why similar and more barbaric episodes from north-east or Kashmir in India don’t elicit a similar reaction of outrage. The reason why the Delhi case elicited such a response is also because the victim in the situation was representative of ‘people like us’. The middle class which was at the centre of these protests was horrified to imagine that the victim could have been me, my friend, my daughter or my neighbour. Many of us frequently watch movies at the cinema, travel by the road or live in the neighbourhood to which the victim belonged. We can’t really say that about disturbed regions such as north-east or Kashmir. We don’t what issues are faced by people in these places, what their lives are like. For us often their story is a piece of ‘regional news’ that we read in the newspaper, they inhabit a space which is far and alienated. It doesn’t take much imagination for us to conceive that it could have been ‘me’ on the bus on that fateful day. Somehow we are often not able to extend that imagination to include the pain, sorrow of people who may not be ‘like us’. Of course, I see the danger in pursuing a direction like this making us selfish, unimaginative, insulated beings stripped of mere humanity (I had in fact raised the same point at a session titled ‘Colliding Worlds: The Quest for Justice at the Jaipur Literature Festival, see the question and the response by two panelists social activist Harsh Mander and philanthropist  Rohini Nilekani in the last part of this video 1:02:01)
  • Scenario – a road accident has happened and a crowd has formed where some people seem to be trying to take necessary action. Would you stop your vehicle and double check that the victim is being taken care of or would you feel assured by the strength of the crowd present around the victim? Would your reaction be different if you had lost a loved one because they could not be provided urgent medical help in a similar situation?

In the latest edition of the Tehelka magazine, there is an interesting anecdote shared by Digvijay in the Personal Histories column of how he was confused whether Rs3-Rs 4 was ‘too little or too much’ a pay for labourers to shift cement over a distance of 40metres and says ‘There was only one way to find out. I decided to join the labourers in their task’. You can read the article to find out his conclusion but I was able to deeply relate with the story. Is there a way for someone like me who has never been deprived of food or money to be able to ‘feel’ what its’ like to shift cement bags in scorching heat for Rs 148?

There is one set of people in the world who I know are able to empathise without necessarily having experienced the situation directly. Actors. Their profession requires them to step into shoes of other people, play out their lives. We do hear stories of actors who as part of their research, would literally live lives of their characters for a short-period or spend time with people who are representative of those characters.

The cynic in me tends to question if actors can ‘feel’ deeply and empathise with their characters and bring them alive on screen without personal experience, is ‘acting’ an element of empathy?

Am I low on empathy because it requires to look beyond the immediate environment and ‘imagine’ life beyond the same. Is that it? Lack of empathy = lack of imagination?

Do share what you think.

 

 

 

 

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Mirror versus the front-facing camera

I have been thinking a lot lately about the difference between a mirror and a front-facing camera.

In the usual rush to reach work, I end up using the commute time for completing the ‘last mile’ of the ‘getting ready’ process. I recently noticed how I have started using the front-facing camera instead of a mirror (or mostly the rear view mirror of the car J )for the purpose.  I remember staring back at myself intently wondering if I look the same with the camera as I do in the mirror. I didn’t.  I felt a bit puzzled because at one level the camera served well the purpose of the mirror (enough for me to replace it right?) yet I looked different. Why?

It occurred to me that despite similar functionalities there is one big fundamental difference in my experience. When you look in the mirror, you don’t just look at yourself, you look at yourself in the eye. On the other hand, when you look at a front-facing camera, you do look at yourself but interestingly not in the eye, instead you find yourself looking at an external object – the camera. The mirror poses no boundary between the real-you and the reflection, the front-facing camera masquerades to do the same, but its very existence invades the space between self and reflection.

Is this important? In context of how we are adopting technologies such as the front-facing camera, I thought it perhaps might be.

Sharing on social media has got a shot in the arm thanks to technologies such as front-facing camera where you can ‘control’ the self-image. An outsider no longer ‘holds’ control (quite literally) of how you appear, with the self-facing camera, you decide the precise moment, angle, expression that you deem ‘correct’ for the construction of your self-image. There is a reversal in the hierarchy of the final sanction of the image creation, from an outsider to you. The control lies not with an external person shooting your image, it rests with you. The sense of ‘control’ is misplaced and can actually have dangerous repercussions because it misses one important point:

When we look at ourselves in the front-facing camera, we are actually not looking at our self, we are looking at the camera. In process, we are losing all individual agency to an external device and making it the intermediary between our image and the real self. There soon will come a time when we no longer have the desire to see the self. In fact there will be no self.

There will only be a self-image.

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Ode to Bards of Lavatory – Part I

Sometimes feels real and at times just a dream

Two belligerent siblings fighting to reign supreme

Clamour and void

are their names, their mission to abort the same story

whose very being lends them glory

 

Both can’t look other into the eye

and believe the identical effect they produce upon their subject

is just a delusion

a big lie

 

They probably never heard the adage -

Looks can be deceptive

For only when they collude and collide

That their subject is most receptive to

a paralysis of the worst kind

an impairment that imposes status quo

of the heart and the mind.

 

If you ever come across these two

You can always spot them like you can pink from blue

They make your life a bumpy ride

As they can,

Run as well as hide

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‘Feel Good’ vs. ‘feel-good’

I find it interesting how logical ‘thinking’ and rationality is given precedence in every-day life but every time I have attended an ‘intervention’ (training/workshop) it is always the role of ‘feeling’ that is highlighted as a key area of work.  We always find it safer to state our beliefs by saying – ‘I think’, I have noticed myself and others switch to this line after saying ‘I feel’ lest others think we are governed by some ‘unpredictable’ emotions and that we haven’t ‘thought through’. I also find the whole chicken and egg syndrome with thought and feeling (what came first?) quite amusing.  Though this piece is not an exploration of the syndrome.

I may as well have called it – ‘In Defense of Feeling’, which for me is remarkable since I have lived practically my whole life devoted to the altar of logical thinking. I would suspect anything that would be lacking ‘consistency’ or ‘evidence’. I consider myself no less than a convert as I have found new gods in ‘intuition’ and things which may not be backed by historicity but ‘personal experience’.

So here’s the question that bothers me – why is ‘feel-good’ relegated to realms of superficiality when actually at some level that is the very purpose of why we live – to feel good.  I looked up the Merriam-Webster which explained ‘-feel-good’ as “relating to or promoting an often specious sense of satisfaction or well-being <a feel–good reform program that makes no changes>”. The synonyms for specious include “false, hollow, phony, erroneous, baseless, fallacious, inaccurate, unfounded”. I am not sure which part of the phrase is considered more legitimate target of the attack – ‘feel’ or ‘good’ – after all both in isolation itself  represent capriciousness of the highest order, together they seem even more elusive and whimsical. At the heart of the attack appears to be a belief that ‘feeling good’ would drive inaction since once experienced as an ‘individual’ it will leave one with no motivation to drive that change for the ‘collective’. It is ‘selfish’ to ‘feel-good’ and as an individual you need to stay discontent to be able to externally drive that sense of dissatisfaction and lead to change and affirmative action in the outside world.

As a convert, I sense something not quite correct with the set of assumptions at play here and fear that they in fact may work to the contrary. Since ‘feel-good’ is superficial, we need to engage in something beyond the surface and deeper (think good?). To go to depth of the matter, we need to abandon these –non-empirical’ beings called feelings. It’s even ‘okay’ to ‘feel numb’ but not ‘feel good’. In case of former, we somehow seem to retain the agency of control (“look, I could put my feelings on mute mode, yay I am in control!) while in latter something inexplicable within us seems to be in-charge.

As an ex-rationalist, with some vestiges of ‘logic’ still intact, I am left to wonder if the reason for relegating ‘feel-good’ to the pits of the moral order is because ‘feeling’ is an individual act and lending it a free hand may bring it to clash with ‘collective’ good which far from being intuitive is extremely contrived. An individual’s ‘feel-good’ may be impulsive and morally incorrect. In a society with set rules and structures, where morality has been arrived upon with much deliberation, the ‘larger good’ has got to take precedence over ‘feel good’ to maintain order and avoid chaos.

What do you feel? J

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