Turning off the media

BY SHYAM G. MENON| IN Media Practice | 15/01/2014
To reform the media, start with the fact that people can live without it. Not for lack of time, but because people don't want you and your assumptions of what they are, what they ought to be,

Ideally, I would think that a government wishing to rule well would seek an overall view of country in terms of how many people to look after and what they have by way of resources. This unglamorous matrix lay at the root of practical administration. Yet in the last so many years, I haven't come across a single minister of worth who reminds India that its rising population is a liability. What I do remember from the recent past is the laundering of high population to market and further to fantastic promise based on the predominance of youth in it. Consequently we highlight every national deficiency and inefficiency in abstract, inorganic terms; like an undeserved affliction apart from the matrix nurturing it.

It is not in our blood to fault ourselves. In fact we have no need to because we habitually live in families and communities, which surround us with 24x7 endorsement of our immaculate existence. You have to step out of this clustered, sheltered life by majority taste to glimpse how heartless and myopic, it can be. But then, what is myopia if vision itself is myopia? Besides, those stepping outside and seeing the other side, do so subsidised by cash flows from the clustered lot. When the two are so intertwined for survival are the few stepping out entitled to criticise? I have friends who advise what they call the middle path, best described as a hodgepodge of philosophy and pragmatism, partial to the personal and social predicament birthing it. I am inclined to admire the hermit. Unless you give up the cluster totally, you have no voice even if what you wish to do is sing paeans to the middle path. At some point an Indian Prime Minister will have to rise above fear of the electorate and remind his / her people that they can't wash their hands off every mess in this country, unless, their presence in 1.2 billion-strong population is like Bruce Willis in Sixth Sense.    

Several years ago, when freelancing crippled my income, I decided to cut cost. Among things scrapped was the cable TV connection and daily newspaper. As I look back, I have very specific needs from the media that those two mediums represented. But 24x7 TV and newspapers everyday exceeded it. The Internet, which I could get on and get off, seemed apt. I like the outdoors and spend much time away from my laptop. Since I am often in places where mobile phones don't work and am gone for a month or two, my phone stays switched off. I am completely off media those times. I have reached the stage where on return from long outdoor stint, I tangibly sense the approaching human cluster and its life by media. It starts as trickle, then, becomes a deluge. Within weeks, I crave to be away again. The misery is compounded by the sort of embedded media human beings have become. It is the media inside and outside; countless clones of manufactured perspective. The idea of media is everywhere without proper comprehension of how the media gaze affects natural life. Worse, everybody knows everything and yet actually knows nothing - such a world is hollow and unbearable. If you think that such world is fashionable or has every right to be, then by all means do so.

The only reason I write this is because I see, late in the day, some signs of introspection in organised media on why an evident state of decline is setting in. I thought I should therefore submit my hunch that what happens to me when I return from self-imposed isolation to media-bombarded world can happen to anyone. And I say this simply because it doesn't take anything much to move away from the daily din of organised media and rat race in human cluster. Try it. Living without media is only as difficult as staying off alcohol. I believe that it is me today, you tomorrow because none of us can live convincingly in a superficial world of hyper media. Much as any boozer at the deep end of the bottle will eventually wonder - am I not missing something?  People will want to have their world available as a clean slate free to live in, free for each to author a genuine life. You see the sun every day. But you want the sun of every new day to feel like a new sun in your ever ageing eyes. When days become similar, life becomes dull. That's what the media does; the more its mutual competition claims mutual difference, the more similarly shrill it all seems. There is only so much we can tolerate being at the receiving end. The media feels nice when I see it after prolonged stay away from it. Prolonged denial also manufactures similarity in days. What engages me is this - the number of days it takes to turn around and flee is reducing. The cycle is shrinking at the media end. Isn't that the passing of a paradigm?

To reform the media, start with the fact that people can live without it. Not for lack of time as the MBAs would have us believe. But because people don't want you and your assumptions of what they are, what they ought to be. We are arrogantly insulated from the need to examine this, thanks to our professional equivalents of family - our business models; our unions, associations, offices, press clubs, even this meek surrender to technology and outsourcing of media's future to capital laden-technology. A story is a primeval human want; story telling is an ancient talent. Now it is imagined by the marketing department and written by journalists for instruments and devices designed for other purposes. Does it surprise you then - the argument that reading is dying? Like life sunk by population, today's media is sinking by its own hand. Until it sincerely introspects with questions beyond just protecting media rights, it will keep eroding its raison d'être. I would go to the extent of saying that currently the media exists because we media professionals know nothing else to do. That is actually an anachronism because a thing called media professional is laughable when everybody is on media and therefore in it. Who is a professional when everyone and their mobile phone are as good as us or can claim to be as good? On the other hand, manufacturing reasons for professional apartness when the inherent craft has become so democratised is an untenable proposition. Still for our own sake, let's assume that 'journalist' won't go extinct that fast. Let's focus on what media should do.

What we must notice as retreat to rediscovering ourselves as journalists is this - those choosing to live without the media or live with limited media, aren't exactly unhappy about the experience. I won't stretch their happiness into an eternal bliss sort of thing; I will stick to my friends' middle path even though I prefer the hermit's way. Living without the media or much less media is quite feasible and if pushed to it, many more wouldn't find it tough doing so. Such shutting off should worry us more than losing employment. Why are we more worried of losing jobs and not being shut off altogether?

I don't need a presentation by MBAs or research by PhDs to sense the peace I feel when I am off media and the way that peace crumbles when I return from the mountains to cities of media and people by media. I know synthetic from natural. I suspect the same is true of anyone reading this article. Then why don't we listen to our intuition? That's because the money is in how things are and we all want money. Very similar to our reluctance to question high population because it brings the dirt home and includes us in the mess. The two are even interlinked for if we weren't journalists in land of high population, continuing to practise old social order with family, mortgages et al, we may have been lighter entities authoring engaging change rather than seeking refuge in a future by organisations, capital and technology. Forced by lifestyle to seek livelihood, we covet job opportunity. Nothing wrong in that, except, there are times when knowing the river is more important than fishing in it. We are in such times. Unfortunately all we know is fishing. The big fisherman is still hero. River explorer is avoidable bore.

To complicate matters, we are unclear how the media or for that matter, anything, will evolve because evolution no more seems powered by us. It appears to be powered by money, which isn't evenly owned by us to argue it is evolution by us in the inclusive sense. So you can turn around and tell me - Shut up! Money, not you, decides the future; I will have no reply. That's frightening. But it is very possible. Rather than go off media, we may choose to soak ourselves in it till the next newspaper or TV channel is formally implant. Oppressive population has already done that to us. We no more question high population; we no more sense our circumstance. A population, existing and not existing at once, spawns similar media.

(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai
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