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Digital Unfreedom

With the advent of social media and the rise of network society, we are living not just in virtual reality but in real virtuality. In a network world, both fake news and lethal viruses go viral. The Coronavirus is unprecedented in its infectiousness.

ASH NARAIN ROY | New Delhi |

The Earth truly is a virus planet. There are more viruses on Earth than there are stars in the Universe. Only a few hundred are known to harm humans. But when humans squabble, viruses double.

The novel Coronavirus is not the only pandemic that nations and societies are currently wrestling with. The pandemic of xenophobia and the infodemic of information are other time bombs ticking. What we don’t have is a solidarity which is an essential vaccine. Eremophobia, fear of being alone, too threatens to become a mass phenomenon.

With the advent of social media and the rise of network society, we are living not just in virtual reality but in real virtuality.

In a network world, both fake news and lethal viruses go viral.

The Coronavirus is unprecedented in its infectiousness. So is the infodemic of information. After all, “vices are”, says Charles Dickens, “sometimes only viruses carried to excess.” We are fast becoming a “viewer society” in which the many watch the few. Public discourse is increasingly unable to differentiate between sound and din.

Today, people have begun to regard facts as opinions.

They discard the ones they don’t like. More so, when the motto of the 24 x7 media seems to be, “if it bleeds, it leads and if it roars, it scores.”

The followers of the false prophets have become what Hillary Clinton called “a basket of deplorables.”

In the good old days, we had upholders of individual conscience. Today we have laptop warriors. Citizens of democracies are entitled to their opinion, not their own facts. Leaders across the world too are telling us their own facts and want us to believe them.

As the truth empire is waning, we are witnessing a weaponization of ignorance. The difference between what feels good and what is true is getting blurred. Faith is replacing facts. The 21st century is threatening to become a ‘post-enlightenment age’, with the sleep of reason breeding monsters. Each society has a regime of truth.

It excludes, it represses and it masks. Politics is no different. German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt saw it coming when she wrote, “Half of politics is image-building and the other half is the art of making people believe the image”. Populist leaders are indulging in verbal gymnastics, data fudging and behaving like a messiah. One expert calls it a phase of post-modern totalitarianism.

We live in an era of info abundance. But more information is not more freedom. On the contrary, it takes us on road to digital unfreedom.

Democracy must have a soul, and the soul of democracy is political equality. Without such a soul, free market for hyenas may become a slaughterhouse for the wild beast. The path of development that we have followed leads us to the point where we are dead in the long run and sick in the short.

The economic stimulus announced by the government hardly inspires.

The cards shuffle, but the deck remains the same. The crisis facing the poor and the migrants is unprecedented. The migrants have become the new borders.

The millions of migrants have not migrated but seen borders migrating over their heads. The pandemic has upended both society and politics.

But the Centre and states are fighting yesterday’s battles. They need to fight the present battles. India needs new political, economic and social story to match the demands of the post-Coronavirus world. Raising new walls would be counter-productive. No one is safe from Coronavirus until all are safe.

We can’t rescue some and allow others to sink. We can’t hope to save the economy and allow politics to drift. We don’t need a Leviathan but a bridge between society and a political system, between demos and cratos.

The contrary is happening. While the demos are undergoing a change, politics remains stagnant.

The pandemic has exposed the many hypocrisies of the world. The West frowned upon veiled Muslim women. France went to the length of banning full-face veils.

Leaders claimed that the French Republic “lives with its face uncovered.” Didn’t the French Revolution enjoin upon the state to look for no more than the ‘mask’ of citizenship? France took pride in equal respect for each citizen as also recognition of differences. Banning veil amounted to hiding all differences and denial of human uniqueness.

Tony Blair described the veil as a mark of separation. Suddenly, as one European commentator says, “We are all niqabis now.” In our own country, many of us are used to our ‘smiling mask’ ~ remaining silent about our feelings but quite vocal about our appearance.

The migrants are the ones without masks. They know whose mask is slipping. Isn’t our face often a mask of our real self? The world is yet to fully grasp the unprecedented scale of the pandemic’s consequences. Major parts of the world face the deepest economic contraction in a century.

A quarter of American workers are claiming jobless benefits. In the wake of the Coronavirus, India’s unemployment rate has reached a record high of 27.1 per cent as per the data released by the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy which is four times higher than the US. Despite media hype and the government’s chest thumping, the Indian lion never roared as India never became a tiger.

It remained an elephant. India has failed to attract foreign technology and capital the way China did. China was attractive because of its considerable gains in education and health. And post-reform growth in China has been more inclusive. India’s historical failures, aborted land reforms, slow extension of basic education and healthcare and feeble attempts to transform entrenched systems of exclusion and oppression made it anything but attractive.

India that became the flavor of the world has lost its shine due to illthought-out policies at home. The alliances, institutions and values that bind the nations are all coming apart. Sadly, some political leaders are still engaged in their flight of infancy.

The post-Coronavirus world will have multiple challenges.

The countries that have robust institutions and high levels of trust and social cohesion will do well. And where political leadership facilitates great meeting of minds will recover fast. In this social media age, we expect more from technology and less from each other. Believing that technology can solve everything is living under techno-hallucination.

Our soul dies as the technologies rise. Capitalism is using technology to eliminate labour and government is using it to control behaviour.

Technology connects, it doesn’t touch. It doesn’t heal. Technology should have freed mankind from the burdens of life. Instead it has created new ones. Societies flourish when beliefs and technologies are congruent. The scourge of Coronavirus is no ordinary public health crisis. Art and culture in Europe after the “Black Death” became “a mirror of the plague.”

Will this pandemic have a similar impact on society and politics? Past societies mourned the loss of collective memory caused by the epidemics.

Will modern societies return to the middle age when people lived in fear of the plague? It is unlikely. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez says in his much celebrated novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, “the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good.”