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 :)

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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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Musings from Day 1 at THINK, Goa

Becoming aware of one’s own ignorance is said to be the first step towards knowledge.

The nuances and multiplicities of disciplines discussed on the Day 1 of the THINK festival was stimulating most on this particular count. I mean the last time I found myself amidst any pursuit of subjects as diverse as mathematics, ecology, internet, society was perhaps only in school.

The one thought shared at the festival which kept playing back in my mind was what the neuroscientist, Daniel Wolpert mentioned about ‘beliefs’ must translate into ‘actions’. It set me conjecturing about the core of the festival – ‘think’ and if the thinking will empower me into challenging status quo in some way.

I ‘believe’ in the Swamis who are willing to give their lives to preserve the purity of Ganga, I ‘believe’ in the ecologist who says there can’t be only a few people branded as environmentalists, all of us need to be one, I ‘believe’ that large pockets of our nation are victims of politics of repression.

And yet I sense a strong sense of apathy and indifference within, which stalls me from feeling the pain in a deep, compassionate way. Even with real people talking about real tragedies, the physical distance between them on the stage and me in the audience is somehow symbolic of the distance that I experience within, from them and their realities. I applaud in delight on their triumphs and feel teary at their agonizing experiences, at times almost as if I was watching cinema.  When I step out of the hall, general life and mostly its petty concerns take over and after some self gratifying discussions and exchanging of notes with friends, most of it dissipates. I fear sensing the same pattern at play even when those experiences are not fictional.

So, I am left a bit confused and upset about how while I am able to ‘think’, I am unable to ‘feel’. Is it because my ‘beliefs’ are based on relatively frail foundation of recently acquired ‘data’ and not solid grounds of personal experience or memory of injustice or deprivation? Does the mundane nature of my middle class experience rob me of ability to think beyond ‘urgent’ to that which is ‘important’?  Is the choice always between being the hero or the commoner? Life they say is not about any singular reality but about multiple realities. Which one should I live? Transcending beyond ‘what should I make for dinner’ (micro) to reflecting on how many in our country go without one (macro) seems herculean.

When ‘Personal’ is so diverse, can it feed into a shared ‘Political?

Still thinking.

Image Source: Tehelka Facebook Page

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Finding meaning beyond ‘Operational Efficiency’

I am currently on a sabbatical of sorts, the idea is to take out time for myself and family and possibly to undertake some self-introspection of life in the past couple of years and defining purpose for coming time.

In terms of professional work, I have less than a decade’s experience and in full-time house work avatar only a week, but I see some common threads emerge across the two. In the initial phases in both cases I have found there is much that keeps one engaged – new situations, where you predictably flounder and some where you surprisingly succeed. There is a journey of self discovery, things that you do well, those that you don’t, processes and means to improve upon the latter. Over a period of time, there are a set series of situations that seem to emerge, only the skin changes but at the core the issues are the same. We naturally learn to adapt, adopt and create unconsciously a series of template responses to these issues.

The closest example that comes to mind is of channels on TV (we got a set-top box installed today). Initially, there are 300-400 odd channels and there is no way to remember which one plays in what sequence, one needs to continuously surf back and forth.  However it is easiest to remember where the favourite channel plays and over a period of time most of them (even ones that you don’t care about)

Hence, once you have been through the circuit a couple of times, you know the drill, from this point it’s about (in a loose usage of the wordJ ) operational efficiency. Ensuring you do it clinically, consistently, less time to achieve more etc. From this point, the actual task matters less; the efficiency of its delivery is the key. To use a cliché, romantic discovery fades and are replaced by daily rituals of marriage.

I am at this point where I wish I could find meaning beyond doing the same thing well repeatedly. I don’t wish to be just busy anymore (like the saying goes, ‘It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants’). I had imagined being away from 9-5 professional work would give reprieve from seeking efficiencies only to realize that home work is about attaining efficiencies of a different kind.

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Traveler 2.0

Thanks to social media, our lives have become a performance, for a ubiquitous audience that is tuned to every move.  There are counter voices that are questioning how much ‘information’ we are now sharing about our lives and blurring of boundaries between public and private lives.

What I find of interest is not just the ‘sharing’ but how we are fundamentally changing who we are for the ‘production’ of that information. ‘Sharing’ seems innocuous because it assumes that something ‘happened’ and it was merely ‘distributed’ to a network of people with an interest. In reality, each one of us has become media and beyond a point, there is not enough content to broadcast. We need to churn out and produce more content to keep our audience engaged.

This mindless preparation for this 24/7 spectacle leaves us with no opportunity (or inclination) to think of our lives beyond the audience, to introspect and connect with ourselves. This irony is all the more evident to me at this point as I am on a holiday at this point. I notice travelers and in case of a vast majority can see, there is no real interest in anything that they see and experience.  There is a mad rush to strike contrived poses against scenic backgrounds that can be devotedly played to the gallery for their awe and approbation. In one instance, I spotted a tourist at a museum hurriedly clicking pictures of all artifacts without even glancing at any of them. His single point agenda appeared to capture maximum ‘footage’ which he could go back and edit to broadcast himself (perhaps  as a lover of art at best or a seasoned traveler at the least).  Nature’s inspirational value is reduced to being a mere backdrop as we engage with it at a transactional level as a showcase than really a reprieve from human chaos.

I speak of all of this not as an observer but as a participant. I face the anxiety of being a content producer (compelled to put life/travel together in popular audience templates) and on the other hand trying hard to cling on to simple joys of life.

More about this later.

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