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Twittering Machine

The weakening of democracy comes at a time of multiple crises. We are witnessing a dangerous new era of superpower confrontation. With the aggravation of the climate crisis, a large number of countries face severe economic contraction due to Covid.

Ash Narain Roy | Kolkata |

The 21st century promised to be an age of tremendous progress in human knowledge that would invigorate a new faith in the idea of progress and a new revolution of the mind. Some even expected that the new century would see a reassertion of the ethical dimension of humanism. Instead, a combination of crises is setting back the clock on human progress. Humanity is moving towards a new tribalism, subjugating independent thinking to a group or a cabal.
As sociologist Nikos Sotirakopoulos says, “we have become victims of pious claptrap,” lapping up loopy ideas contrary to sanity and reality. It is affecting all walks of life including academia. There is an inherent danger that our centres of higher learning may become what Sotirakopoulos calls “an epistemological tower of Babel.”
In December 2019, Fudan University removed the phrase “freedom of thought” from the charter in favour of a commitment to “weaponise the minds of teachers and students using Xi Jinping’s Socialist ideology with characteristics of China in the new era”.
Weaponising the minds of teachers and students is happening in other parts of the world including India. The campus environment today is quite hostile. It is no more a place for free flow of ideas. Earlier the campus saw an intellectual thrashing of ideas. Today, universities are shielding students from unfamiliar ideas and avoiding respectful conversation for fear of someone’s feelings being triggered. This is leading to what many academics call “infantilization of higher education.”
Scientists claim that adolescence, which was previously thought to end at 19, now stretches from 10 to 24. In medieval times, childhood ended at seven. For four years, the US and the world suffered at the hands of Trump, a pathetic man-child.
The disease has spread globally. Today the Western world is witnessing   incidents of de-platforming, cancelling or suppression of ideas that many believe do not adhere to the West’s worldview. Prominent American public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker and Yascha Mounk have signed a ‘Letter for Open Justice and Debate’ against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
The 21st century is turning out to be an age of post-enlightenment. The tragedy is that tomorrow’s generations aren’t here to challenge this insanity; they will be only the worst victims of our follies. A tool that could have empowered the people is now fast becoming a tool for mass surveillance, phishing, fake news and tribalism.
Social media is the new opiate for the masses and an incubator of absurdity. We don’t know if the magical gadget in our hand is what one commentator calls “a benevolent genie or a tormenting demon.” What we know is that the algorithms of Facebook and other similar tools are not to liberate us and save our souls. We have become, to borrow a phrase from Richard Sigmour, “Twittering Machine” in the age of digital dystopia. Today even school children are desperately waiting for likes and congratulatory messages.
There is growing evidence that these dumping sites for garbage, hyperbole and mendacity are a drag on our collective productivity and mental health.
Cal Newport of Georgetown University has launched an anti-email movement, A World Without Email, arguing “how much email and chat have reduced our focus, increased our anxiety and made our days a buzz of frenetic activity.” Another commentator says social media has been “consciously constructed as an addictive time sink.” We are no longer humans, says Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, “we are now angels jostling to out-angel one another.”
The political class makes grandiose, vacuous and mendacious statements and claims, conveniently leaving truth unsaid. Governance under elected autocracy is a scripted and stage-managed show and is conducted by sleight of hand.
Thanks to dystopian technology, we are submitting ourselves to a devil’s bargain. An MIT study says that fake or otherwise misleading news is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than the truth.
If you are on Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok or Snapchat, you are in the image-obsessed world of likes, retweets, follower counts and filters.
In the post-enlightenment age, there is politics without ideas or alternatives.  Poison is coursing through the body politic and violence is permeating political dialogue. The West can no longer pretend to be the role model. Western democracy is over the hill. Its prime is past. Elsewhere what we have is ‘Zombie democracy’ in which people are reduced to passive bystanders. State is becoming depredatory. There is a sweeping gap between politics and society. Politics and society seem to exist in two different ecosystems.
Dodgy democracies are proliferating, swamping the people with disinformation and conspiracy theories. The autocrats use online armies of trolls, cyber militias and online mobs to attack opposition and drown out criticism.
Political zombies are digging out dirt to frame their political opponents. Democracy is losing its moral compass. In some countries, democracy is fast becoming a basket of deplorables.
The weakening of democracy comes at a time of multiple crises. We are witnessing a dangerous new era of superpower confrontation. With the aggravation of the climate crisis, a large number of countries face severe economic contraction due to Covid.
Has democracy reached its tipping point? It appears to be so if we go by what John Adams visualized long ago: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Today, with the intrusion of dark money into democratic politics and the currency of power leading to “crypto-politics,” what we have is what Martin Moore calls “democracy hacked.”
The capitalist world is pushing for a model that can be termed “as much market as possible and as much state as necessary”. The puerile debate between capitalism and ideology has ended up glorifying poverty. Climate crisis and ecological emergency are the results of broken democracy and greedy capitalism. Happily, citizens are gradually wresting initiatives. The climate campaign is morphing into a full-blown democratic movement.
Technology is a double-edged sword. It is a tool. Are we becoming just tools of our tools? Can we afford to become a “technopoly,” a society in which technology is effectively deified? Years before the advent of social media, Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz had a prophetic glimpse of the future when he wrote, “progress has peopled history with the marvels and monsters of technology but it has depopulated the life of man. It has given us more things but not more beings.”