City City Bang Bang, Columns

Consumed by Pseudo-Reality

Cricket is just a game. Amitabh Bachchan is just a film star. My Name is Khan was only a film. Valentine’s Day is only a made-up festival. Speaking in Marathi carries the same meaning as speaking in any other language. Statues, however large are not real people. Sania Mirza is just a tennis player. And television is just a box full of images that may or not have any connection with the real world.

It is interesting that if one were to look back on issues that have been the most controversial and talked-about in the last few years, a staggering proportion do not pertain to how we lead our real lives. They do not materially alter virtually any action we take in our everyday lives. They do not directly affect the way we make our living, the relationships we cherish, the things we value and the choices we make that shape our lives. And yet, they seem to be the contentious issues of the day, which we debate hotly and expend energy and passion on. We tweet indignantly, sms furiously and respond to any and every opinion poll that records our views. Our sense of the world is shaped by these issues; we think that these are the things that matter most.

It was a common joke during the worst period of the so-called recession that the downturn in India existed for only that part of India that read the Economic Times and watched the business channels on TV. For the rest, it was business as usual. There is more than a grain of truth underpinning this joke; in a sentiment driven area like business, the perception of bad news creates its own reality. On the flip side, in areas where such perception does not work, the irrelevance of issues debated on TV become apparent. The elections revealed that the issue of youthfulness, so enthusiastically raised in TV studios was of no interest whatsoever to the India that went out to vote. And while both these examples point out the role played by virtual simulators of reality like media in framing our sense of the current, it does not alter the fact that we have created an alternative universe with its own set of rules, its own heroes and villains and its own way of dealing with issues.

We are increasingly finding ourselves enveloped in a media bubble from which little, not even our sense of perspective, finds easy escape. Being inside this seemingly all-inclusive cocoon gives us an illusion of completeness and we shrug off the significance of all that lies outside it. It is easy to lose perspective; take the IPL mess that we are all so consumed by nowadays. After all, the IPL is a tournament created for businessmen out to make money. If it is administered poorly or if money exchanges hands, it is an issue, but since no ordinary shareholders are involved, since nobody poor or vulnerable is being exploited, should this be such a big deal? Rich and famous people are becoming richer or poorer, more famous or more notorious at the expense of our attention. The only real currency here is our attention; that is their source of their interest in this game. Most of them would not know fine leg from a leg of lamb- they flock to the matches not to see the game but to be seen. We oblige them by caring. Take away the interest we invest and there is no IPL, no money and no fame.

The effect produced by media is to create a self-perpetuating and self-justifying world which seems to contain all our questions and all our answers. By implicitly catering to its own viewership and readership base it herds reality into a small arena full of self-reference. In media we see a magnified mirror of things that interest us, the consuming class. It appropriates issues by picking symbolic issues or converting real problems into symbolic ones for only then can it offer a sense of complete coverage. The television by virtue of being a medium can only simulate reality and hence it converts reality into a simulation. The Maoist issue for instance is too real for television, and hence for a long time it was ignored. Now that the consuming class feels threatened by this insurgency, the issue gets airplay, but it gets framed through the filter of patriotism and police action, rather than that of poverty and exploitation.

The digital world only amplifies this distance between what appears real and pressing and what in all probability, is real and pressing. The internet is a full blown alternative universe which allows us to simulate many realities. We can pretend to be a version of ourselves or someone else entirely, we can post comments and twitter ceaselessly; there is a great sense of activity and purpose. But eventually what we call action is an act of typing words onto a screen .

The truth is that we live in a symbolic world and have always done so. In India for instance we can testify to a bewildering number of rituals and customs that had little to do with anything real that we could grasp. But those rituals served to amplify important occasions in our lives. We may not have understood why we tied a knot and walked around a fire seven times, but we knew it underlined the importance of marriage, which was a decisive part of our real everyday life. Today’s symbols are getting increasingly detached from our everyday lives. This transition to a form of hyper-reality is inevitable, but some perspective might help us see that this a part of a simulated game we are playing with our free time. This is our way of using the attention surplus we have lying idle with us. We can pretend to care, but really does it matter that much?