City City Bang Bang, Columns

The making of the individual in India?

Historically, the idea of being an individual in India could generally speaking, only be expressed in the plural. The ‘I’ was never quite alone, coming accompanied as it did with the overhang of the ‘we’. Our sense of identity was akin to that of a grain of sticky khichdi- potentially separate but always clinging on to a clump of the collective. It would seem that finally, we are being to bring some shifts in this area as the idea of being an individual begins to take clearer shape, aided by the insistent but implicit nudge provided by technology.

The thing about technology is that it makes change invisible; it moves faster and deeper than our awareness of it. We realise that we are being reshaped by the gadgets that we use, but even as we become aware of some aspects of this change, it is difficult for us to fully fathom how our behaviour changes our thinking. We are used to thinking of the world the other way around. Thought shapes action; forethought and intention are key drivers of the change that we desire to see. In the case of technology, we act with one kind of intention (to take advantage of the benefits of the technology) but get changed by the manner in which we access technology.

The mobile phone makes us experience ourselves as individuals without explicitly setting out to do so. The mobile phone, whose reason for being is the ability to communicate with the outside world, has in time become our primary instrument of being wrapped up in our own selves.

We become a unique number and get an individual and distinct address in the world. We process the outside world through a device that has become an appendage to our senses, and cannot bear even momentary separation from this potent personal facility. We make thousands of choices in a day- clicking, swiping, pinching, dragging, typing, issuing voice commands. We are the dictators of this world, making many more micro-decisions than we ever did, for after all this is our own personal realm. Our wish, that needs a mere touch to manifest itself is a command- this is a world that leaps to our touch, the slightest indication of our desire. We can leap from one world to another, hyper-linking our way across domains. Search engines operate on the basis of what we want, and not on what they have in store. The GPS makes us a dot in the world giving us an eerie out-of-body experience of watching ourselves as we wind our way through the streets. Facebook narrativises our life by making videos of the year that went by. Never before have we had such an acute and continuous sense of our own selves as we do today.

Usually when we talk of burgeoning individualism, the causal variables we work with are things like the influence of the West, the deeper penetration of markets, the power of media and so on. These are content variables- here what we hear, see and absorb, changes the way we see ourselves in relation with the world. This process of cultural change too has an implicit structural element- we are not fully cognisant of how markets and media alter our priorities. For instance, markets legitimise the popular and make very different things comparable, by attaching a price to them and so on. But as compared to technology, we do offer a more considered form of resistance when faced with such influences. We worry about changing values, we ask ourselves if we are becoming too materialistic, and we often modify our behaviour in order to preserve our sense of who we are.

But technology works more noiselessly. Coming from a background where we were rarely faced with the prospect of making choices, we now make any number of micro-choices on a minute-by-minute basis. We are continuously, relentlessly experiencing the world as individuals without consciously meaning to do so. We are developing a sense of who we are, what we like, what we outrage against and suchlike. We fill in little quizzes that promise us new ways of defining ourselves (what kind of flower are you?), we keep indicating our likes and dislikes by tagging a lot of what we see with our opinion. With time, we begin to crystallise a shape and form of ourselves without really having to test it out in the real world.

The downstream effects of this change are beginning to become visible in India. It is now a common sight for families to be together physically while being lost in their own individual worlds. We see this in the increasing assertiveness of opinions on social media as in the casual narcissism of the manner in which we constantly present ourselves to the world through our words and images. We can see this in the engagement that we see young people across the country have with their bodies. We see it in the way people talk about a personal sense of fashion, as they go about finding ‘looks’ that work for them. We can see it in the efforts that are made to invest in oneself and develop skills that mark them out in a crowd. We see signs of this in the highly individualistic acts of creativity that are available for view on the internet. The awareness of one’s individuality and the need to flesh out one’s uniqueness is a theme that is beginning to find expression in several ways across the country.

The cascading impact of experiencing the world from an intensely individual lens is difficult to predict. In the Indian context where the codes of the collective held sway, what happens when the young in particular start removing themselves from the mainstream and find their own customised worlds? The rise of a fragmented sense of individualism that responds to a personal set of values creates room for a new kind of uncertainty about the future shape of societies.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *