City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Overachieving Verb

If earlier we liked someone or something, it usually stayed within us. it gave us a nice warm feeling, it was a little fund of goodwill, a splashy puddle of well-being. Sometimes we communicated our appreciation, most often we did not. The words we used to describe our way of being have now been hijacked to describe our ways of doing.

Now on social media ‘liking’ something is an act. It involves pushing a button and displaying our appreciation. This is then aggregated and displayed and becomes a measure of sorts. We seek ‘likes’, we negotiate them- why should I like so-and-so’s admittedly excellent post when she didn’t like mine? As with anything that is measured, our likes are solicited, we are specifically invited to like something, and quite often we comply, not because we like it, but because, after all it takes only the click of a button. As gluttons of appreciation, our need for it is boundless and the satisfaction derived from it diminishes dramatically in utility.

The verbification of our lives is all around us. Like has become ‘liking’, games have become ‘gaming’ work has become ‘working out’. We ‘post’ frequently, ‘share’ without giving anything up. We follow, we mute, we unmute, we block. Each of these words take on a new life when used in the today’s context. Language is coaxed to perform additional tasks as old concepts take on new connotations.

In an increasingly automating world, leisure gets reframed as a form of work and begins to take on the shape of an occupation. We don’t just eat, we are ‘foodies’.

To be a foodie, we have to fetishise the act of surviving by putting organic fuel into our stomachs. Food has never been a prosaic act of survival, but a life devoted to eating and talking or writing about it is now considered normal. Similarly, one is a fashionista, doggedly pursuing the cause of fashion against all odds. Or one is a fitness freak mastering the murky art of running a lot without going anywhere.

The holiday is another example of how pleasure has turned into work. Holidaying is hard work. Chatting is an action. Parenting a terrifying new science that needs to be learnt. Partying an occupation. Chilling is what we do, rather than not do. Detoxing is a thing, an active pursuit of not pursuing something actively.

An unexpressed thought is such a waste. The distance between thought and its utterance has shrunk, making the blurt the most common mode of self-expression. The loss of interiority is a consequence- every emotion or thought needs to have an external manifestation. Like a traditional Hindi film where every emotion must be displayed using the eyebrow, we must ripple outwards onto the surface of our lives. Surrounded by screens, we must find things to project.

The sociality of digital media is of visibility without touchability. We erect transparent glass chambers, and post updates about what remains unseen. It is an act of turning ourselves inside out, converting the withins into withouts. Reportage has a way of crystallising intention into some form of action.

The news is increasingly about things that can be shown happening, rather than things that are important. On television, the act of talking is not the opposite of the act of doing; talking has taken a dynamic outwardly dimension. War is waged through the voice, and the fate of nation routinely decided. The anchor is able to imagine himself in the most active way possible, instead of seeing himself, more plausibly, as a deranged windbag.

The noun gives things a name. The adjective qualifies them, giving them texture and lending direction. The verb bustles with its own importance, revelling in its brusqueness. In a world where verbs rule, things keep happening. More accurately, everything gets imagined and presented as an event. Things need to materialise, become manifest. The urge to do things, makes us convert thought quickly into some action. The illusion of action has becoming like a fix we need all the time.

The urge to do things all the time makes us react to everything with a view to improve them. We become the missing magic ingredient in a flawed world; it becomes our responsibility to confer words of wisdom on anything that is transpiring. We insert ourselves as subjects in every conversation, however incidental we might be to it. The world is a problem to be solved and our opinion holds the key to all answers.

Not long back, we lived in a world with a startling paucity of verbs. We sat near windows, stood in balconies, spent hours drifting in boredom, without having anything to do. We lived off other peoples’ routine activities; we were voyeurs of the uninteresting, dreamers of things unheroic. We can still catch a glimpse of this world in a few parts of the country, although the mobile phone has all but changed that.

Perhaps government offices that often give the impression of living comfortably without feeling the slightest need for a verb, are the last outposts of this world. Action when it occurs, seems to happen as a geological stirring in cosmic time. Things move at the speed of file, which is slowest unit of time known to us. The physical file has a life and mind of its own, and traverses space decorously, unlike its digital counterpart, which travels with unbecoming haste.

The overachieving verb makes us more active and enthusiastic participants in our own lifescapes. As protagonists with responsibility to keep the world going, there is an added edge of purpose that is felt among more people than ever before. But keeping one’s thoughts to oneself is a luxury worth enjoying. The time has come to revisit the pleasures of not sharing, of not reacting and of not enacting our feelings as they occur.

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