Pain, Pleasure And The New Culture Of Small Bits

The year was 2004, and we used to wait for someone to write in our Orkut scrapbooks. Broadband connections were nowhere nearly as fast as it is today, but we refreshed our scrapbooks every few minutes.  The arrival of each scrapbook entry made us happy. It’s easy to call us losers, but social networking websites met a fundamental human need. There was a time when I used to wake up at 6 to log into my Yahoo mail account. My internet connection was too slow that I couldn’t read mails before 8.  But when I could, I felt happy.

I spent many hours every day in Yahoo chat rooms. The boys in my hostel found this a waste of time. But I was instantly a hit with chicks. I metamorphosed into an online Casanova. Jocks in my college were worried. They said I was cheating. The plain truth is that I wrote well. Always on the lookout for great genes, teen girls didn’t miss this. Nerd is the new man. I felt pleasure when I was flooded with offline messages when I logged into Yahoo Messenger after many days. When I did not see enough of them, I was sad. Such pleasures and disappointments are what the internet and social media are all about. It is easy to call all this trivial. But this is big deal, because social media is our culture. For a nerd, the cost of sending out an instant message isn’t much, when compared to walking up to someone. Through small chunks of text I sent out and took in, I was creating a whole world inside my mind. My understanding of human nature became deeper over a long time.  Continue reading “Pain, Pleasure And The New Culture Of Small Bits”

Lousy Women

Young Women's Republican Club of Milford, Connecticut in 1941One afternoon, when I went out for “lunch”, I saw lots of fat women playing cards in the restaurant. I was not in a good mood. I felt giddy after Mr. Old Fashioned’s meeting in which people ordered many rounds of tea and snacks, while he repeated, “The problem with India is that the debates are not based on facts. [Emphasis his.]” A girl sneered, “But, we know how good he is on the facts.”

I heard that Mr. Old Fashioned once tried to prove that Gujarat’s economic performance is not so good. Like a shrewd sleuth who untangles a mystery, he listed the facts and figures to prove his assumption. Soon, someone on Twitter pointed out that he had mixed up the figures of Gujarat and Jharkhand. Mr. Old Fashioned swallowed the mortification, and yelled at the young reporter who did the “leg work” for him.

I tried to read in the restaurant while I waited, but these women were too noisy. They played cards in the restaurant in the afternoons, perhaps while their husbands worked themselves to death somewhere in the same lane.

I can’t read when women are shrilling into my ears.

They shrill into my ears when I write about them. A year ago, an ex-colleague called me and screamed, “You called me a grim, joyless lady who wouldn’t crack a smile?” I said, “Ummm, well, Yeah.” trembling. She gave me a stern lecture on the consequences of violating the modesty of women. She said that I have so much angst against the “society”, but do not know the laws of the land, and how they are tilted in favor of the female race.

I have so much angst but know so pitifully little.

She said, “Many women might have done things to you. But, that is your problem. That is not my problem. You may write about any woman you want to write about, but you shouldn’t write about me. To write about me, you need my permission.” After she made me cow down, there was a note of triumph in her voice. She then mellowed, and began to list the specific laws that might be used against me.

                                                                                           ******

At times, it is their husbands. A few years ago, I used to talk to a middle-aged journalist on Facebook. I gathered that she stalked me when I noticed her “moon face” on my profile page every day. When I asked whether this is true, she removed me, saying, “You seem to be one of those stalker kinds my 16 year old daughter asks me to politely ignore. I know that you are otherwise a wonderful fellow.” I see the world through my pure, uncorrupted eyes. It took me many months to understand what she meant.

She seemed not to mind when we talked on Twitter much later. But, one day, her husband, a low IQ Malayali idiot messaged me on Facebook: “Stop stalking my wife or I will !@#$%%%.” WTF. What could have happened? When she noticed that her hair was graying and that she no longer has quite the same effect on this moron, she might have hinted that she has a secret admirer on Facebook. These stupid men believe anything their women folk tell them.

                                                                                              ******

Once when I saw two South Indian women “writers” telling each other that their men think of them as Idli-making morons, I said, “But, you people make beautiful Idlis. :* ” One among them, a plump young woman lashed out at me saying, “Spare us those “kissies”. You don’t know what I am getting into.” She was hinting that the law was skewed in her favor. The other woman, Kavitha, sounded calm and serene. I thought, “This is a nice auntie.” But, then she started selling her “yet-to-be-published” book to me. A few months later, when I walked into a book store, I saw her book. 

Everything You Wanted to Write About Freelance Journalism (but didn’t know whom to ask)”

By Kavitha and Charu.

That evening, I was ROTFL:

“If you aren’t sure of what you want your article to achieve, you’re going to have a hell of a time convincing an editor.”

“The key to a good interview is to understand exactly what you need with the person you’re interviewing.”

“You don’t want to plagiarize. None of us do. Do you cut and paste information from the internet? Do you use several sources, including wire services, books and research? We all do, but there’s price to be paid for this quick access to information. It means that it is easier than ever to plagiarize without even knowing it. It also means that if you do plagiarize, intentionally or not, anyone, with a bit of digging, can find you out.”

A few weeks ago, when everyone was whipping Pankaj Mishra on Twitter, I noticed Kavitha tweeting, “You can write for the foreign media, even if you are not establishment elite, like Pankaj Mishra. Buy my book.”  😛 

Facebook, My News Editor

05paper3A decade ago, while debating capitalism and socialism in an Orkut forum, I shared a journal article of Murray Rothbard. This evoked response to this effect: “I don’t care about what some guy on the internet says about economic depressions.” It did not occur to them that Murray Rothbard was one of the greatest polymaths ever lived, and that they were adolescents who did not know what they were talking about. When journalists like Manu Joseph claim that the internet disseminates rubbish, I feel quite the same way. They do not know what they are talking about. When journalists see nostalgia as a business model, a bit of iconoclasm is in order. Let me evaluate those claims.

“Friends, as most of us know, are people on Facebook who usually share information. Among the things they post on their newsfeeds are, in fact, news. And columns, too, thankfully. An increasing number of people are now doing many things primarily on Facebook, including consuming journalism. And what they are most influenced by is what their friends have shared. As a result their hopes and convictions find easy confirmations, and are seldom challenged on their newsfeeds. The world might be fragmenting, but within the fragments there is an eerie, almost indestructible, uniformity of minds. Facebook did not create this, but it has facilitated, and will do so more effectively in the future.”

Are these arguments even new? Hundreds of years ago, when the print culture was taking off, the narrow minded Luddites without sufficient imagination raised the same arguments. They believed that The Bible and the works of Aristotle would be printed and read throughout the continent. When people read the same texts, there would be “an eerie uniformity of minds”, or so they believed. Of course, this was not what happened. The body of literary output, before and since then isn’t even comparable. It was not just that the people did not read the same texts over and over. Their belief in earlier texts was shaken when they compared the ancient texts with more credible, modern works of literature. This would not have happened without the printing press. Over five centuries later, the ancients sound stupid. Why didn’t they see the obvious? People aren’t good at comprehending or anticipating change, especially when they are dull and have a vested interest in preserving the “good old ways”.

When I was a child, the only English language publications my parents subscribed to were The Hindu and The Indian Express and The Reader’s Digest and India Today. The internet wasn’t around. These newspapers and magazines were the only source of news and analysis. There was a certain uniformity in consumption of news and analysis. Even now, the range of political and philosophical positions debated in the public sphere in India is quite narrow. It was much worse when I was a child, or even in my early teens. The contemporary events were analyzed by journalists, by mediocre minds. When they debased the ideas of their superiors, there was no one to call them on this. The journalists couldn’t interpret the world quite the same way the public intellectuals or the academic bloggers do. They were blinded by envy and ignorance. A lot of them did not even read books. Even today, I cannot think of a single Indian journalist who knows elementary economics—Or the fundamentals of any social science, for that matter.

There was not much access to the non-fiction classics of the west before early 2000s. Before the blogging revolution, the brightest academic minds couldn’t publicize their thoughts on contemporary events. The internet changed everything.  News, when seen through the prism of social sciences, did not make any sense to me. The journalists never made much sense to me, but the internet made them look naked.

An academic who has been thinking about the internet for the past quarter of a century would not have missed the parallels with the arguments of the Luddites at the outset of print culture. Fifteen years ago, I had to be content reading such third-world ignoramuses who wrote for the Indian newspapers and magazines against tight deadlines. Now, to understand the internet I read Tyler Cowen, Clay Shirky, Chris Anderson, Paul Graham, David Weinberger or Sherry Turkle. Why? They know what they are talking about. They aren’t writing to make a quick buck.

When the brightest intellectuals discuss contemporary events on their blogs, they see many aspects the journalists would have missed. They see many aspects other intellectuals had missed. They continually challenge each other. In the pursuit of the truth, they push themselves hard. Do you see uniformity of opinions here? I do not.  

“Facebook is now an ally of mainstream journalism as any good distributor of content would be, but it is also an efficient medium for disseminating rubbish.”

True enough. Way too many people write on the internet. The median blogger is, in all likelihood, a moron. This is inevitable. But, India has 99,660 publications according to a recent estimate. The media allows way too many people to write. The median journalist is also, in all likelihood, a moron. If you judge the media and the blogosphere according to the performance of the median journalist or the median blogger, there is no substantive difference. As a reader, I do not see much difference between writers that live with mild mental retardation and the writers that live with borderline intellectual functioning. So, why do I read blogs? The best bloggers are geniuses. Here, I am not using the term “genius” loosely. The best bloggers are more informed than any newspaper columnist. If the best bloggers are geniuses, why should I worry about the incompetence of the large majority of incompetent bloggers? 

True enough, rare as they are, the western capitalistic democracies have very good journalists and columnists. I sift through newspaper and magazine archives. I read them. Of course, bright academics and public intellectuals do write for the mainstream press, but they are not merely bright intellectuals, they are also politically correct, clever “politicians”. When compared to the best bloggers, they are not so good. The newspapers and magazines do not turn over their editorial page to truly iconoclastic thinkers. To speak for myself, I do not write carefully constructed prose for a middle-aged harlot to botch it up.

For instance, Manu Joseph writes for the New York Times, but not one of my favorite western bloggers have a regular column at the New York Times. The mainstream media does not cater to elite insiders. His views are well within the mainstream because he is not a particularly well-read writer, or an extraordinary thinker. But, every single blog post of the best academic bloggers reflect a lifetime of scholarship. It is not surprising that their views might offend the readers of the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. I cannot recall a single blog post on Econlog, or Overcoming Bias that disappointed me. On the internet, anyone can contribute to world literature, but the internet also allows the geniuses to publish. It is the geniuses who push humanity forward. Time is very, very, valuable.

“Facebook is most dangerous when a major conflict divides society, as did Israel’s attack on Gaza. Facebook users, in the passions of their ideologies, found, in their newsfeed of course, news and visuals that endorsed their emotions. They attached credibility to these stories because they were posted by their friends, and propagated them without enduring the inconvenience of verifying them. For that they would have had to take the trouble to go to the website of a respectable news organisation.” 

The journalists are not more credible than the best bloggers. To begin with, the talented academic bloggers would find the cheap rhetorical tactics of third-world journalists beneath them. I was never disappointed reading a journal article or book the best bloggers recommended. I do not trust the Indian literary critics. No Indian journalist has sound judgment in such matters. No news organization is “respectable”, in any meaningful sense of that term. Verifying facts ain’t easy. No Indian journalist knows how to interpret studies because they do not know social statistics. News is worthless if you do not know how to interpret what you read. Most people who read the newspapers cannot interpret news. But, it is the processors that matter, not the hunters and the gatherers. The talented bloggers are better processors.

Could any journalist have written any of these blog posts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I doubt. So, should a reader form his opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by reading the lesser “eminentoes” that write for The Times Of India or The Hindustan Times? Or, should he read what the brightest minds on earth have to say on this? For once, I leave the answer to you.

“Over the past few weeks, many were fooled by a story that was originally the work of a satirical website — that all of Earth would be enveloped in total darkness for six days in December because of a solar storm.”

But, the supposedly respectable newspapers and magazines have always fooled the readers. This is not necessarily because they were trying to purposefully fool the readers, but because they are duds. While working against tight deadlines, even a bright mind might just give up. Journalists do not see how they are distorting reality because they do not see how their cognitive biases deceive them. Even if you point this out, they wouldn’t recognize this, because they are not introspectivist enough. . They do not have ethical standards not because the advertisers corrupt them, but because they are barbarians, and do not have any values to begin with. They did not grow up reading books.  Morons cannot have moral values. Much as they rant about falling journalistic standards, the journalists haven’t even identified the problem. But, on the blogosphere, the brightest minds analyze contemporary issues. The brightest minds on earth are not journalists for the same reason the copy editors in news organizations are not the most grammatically skilled people around.

“Facebook, like most smart people and entities, has a mild disregard for what humans might achieve when left to their own devices. So it intervenes in the composition of newsfeeds to make them interesting. It does this through a secret, evolving algorithm that decides, on the basis of personal histories, what people might be interested in seeing when they are inside Facebook. Such a seductive newsfeed not only makes it easier for the users to shift to online journalism but also lures them to bypass the digital versions of conventional media. Already, for a vast section of the youth, the very idea of a newspaper’s homepage is nostalgic. They are not foraging for news, they are being fed, and fed what they like.”

This is the philosophy of a middle-aged Luddite in its full glory. There were not many talented fellows among the published writers before the internet. There aren’t many talented fellows among the writers who publish on the internet today. Talent is innate, and scarce. The internet has not changed this. So, what has changed? Unlike newspapers and magazines, the internet allows the obscure geniuses to publish. A typical blog post or essay does not fit the format of a newspaper or magazine piece. The traditional publishing outlets, especially in poor countries, were never good filters. 

Much of published literature was always mindless pap. The internet hasn’t changed it. But, this is irrelevant. The problem was never that there are way too many writers. But, it was always challenging to find the diamonds in the rough. But, too much “rubbish” being published on the internet does not make it harder to find those precious diamonds in the rough. Quite the contrary.

In the past, when there were tens of thousands of publications, perhaps filtering meant subscribing to, at most, a handful of them. In those times, perhaps filtering meant reading what the literary critics or friends consider to be good. These weren’t good filters. How do I filter? I read what the best academic bloggers and writers link to. I peruse the footnotes religiously. I subscribe to their blogs. I follow the most thoughtful thinkers on Twitter. I create lists on Twitter and Facebook. On Facebook, I add them to my “close friends” list. I receive instant updates when they share insightful essays. 

The social media is a great filter. But, human minds resent the algorithm-driven filters of the social media because human brain isn’t good at comprehending probabilistic statistics. But, in many contexts they act as if they do comprehend probabilistic statistics because they are instinctively shrewd. But, while reading newspapers they do not act quite the same way. They prefer a “wise editor” for the same reason they pray for a benevolent dictator. It is not Facebook or Twitter, but the supposedly “wise editor” who does not have much respect for what human beings would have chosen to read if they were left to themselves. It is the supposedly “wise editor” who lumps too many unrelated essays together, nudging the reader toward consuming them mindlessly .

Facebook, Google, Twitter, Gmail and YouTube impels us to compromise on the margins to optimize in more substantive ways. When I Google “Neurodiversity”, I might not see some of the best pages that Google does not display on the first few pages. But, this is a small price to pay for macro-scale optimization. It is better to use Google than to grope in the dark. I would rather not read some of the best content than avoid Google altogether. This is what Facebook and Twitter feeds do too. The social media saves time. It cuts “searching costs”. I can barely influence what the media publishes, but I actively influence what Google and my Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds shows me. If you are able to make fine distinctions, you cannot afford not to filter. This is what being a discerning reader is about.

For long, the journalists argued that a lot of nonsense is being published on the internet. The solution is of course, learning how to filter. The social media is one of the greatest filtering tools. Now they claim that filtering creates uniformity. These two claims cancel out each other. But, does this even occur to them? 

“Most of the stories that become popular on Facebook are, naturally, free. Newsfeed functions like a supernewspaper of free content from various parts of the world. There is a popular view that most of the world will not pay for online journalism as they have been habituated to paying nothing for journalism. But it is inevitable that in the future high-quality journalism will not remain free. Great journalism then will become niche and expensive, and very rarely found on Newsfeed.”

The journalists have been saying this for at least two decades. But, this has not materialized, and probably won’t. This is not true of other forms of literature, like academic non-fiction or literary fiction. They have long found a niche. So, why did the truthful journalists fail to find their sweet niche? As Clay Shirky put it, Nostalgia cannot be  a business model.

The Brilliant Marketing Campaign: The Times Of India And Deepika Padukone

finding-fanny-wallpaper-17-12x91When I see condemnation of the journalistic standards of “The Times of India” littering my newsfeed, a question posed by Gail Wynand whose media empire spread like bubonic plague comes back to me: “Do you think it took no talent to create the Banner? The critics of the Times of India do not know that it takes breathtaking creativity to create the largest selling English language newspaper in the world—in a country where most people cannot read, let alone read an English language newspaper.

It is an ancient method of swindling, but virtually everyone is hoodwinked because it is instinctively shrewd. But then, human nature has changed little since the 17th century frauds took to the streets to put on a show, stir up the masses and sell dubious medicines to large numbers of people. It did not matter that the show did not have anything to do with the medicines they were selling—By any stretch of imagination. But, what are the principles involved? Robert Greene tells us:

Appear as news, never as publicity

“People pay more attention to what is broadcast as news—it seems more real. You suddenly stand out from everything else, if only for a moment—but that moment has more credibility than hours of advertising time. The key is to orchestrate the details thoroughly, creating a story with dramatic impact and movement, tension and resolution. The media will cover it for days. Conceal your real purpose—to sell yourself—at any cost.”

When her new movie was released, The Times Of India reporter posted a video of Deepika Padukone’s cleavage. Continue reading “The Brilliant Marketing Campaign: The Times Of India And Deepika Padukone”

I Stand By Deepika Padukone

Finding Fanny?
Finding Fanny?

“Yes! I am a man. I love breasts. I stare and share. You got a problem! Don’t talk about patriarchal culture if you do not know how to respect men!”

If the Times Of India reporter had said this to Deepika Padukone, would the twitterati have said, “I stand with the Times Of India reporter”?

The truth is that men’s right to stare and share has the same moral status as Deepika Padukone’s right to flaunt her boobs. A truly liberal society would recognize and celebrate both. But, the Indian society celebrates only Deepika Padukone’s rights, not that of the innocent men who love to see her boobs. Isn’t that mean?

Untitled

Why are many Indians selectively liberal? Perhaps because the mass media, universal education and popular literature have created a minority that can at best memorize, mouth and repeat cue words.

But, I suspect this is a clever trick to get people to see her new movie, “Finding Fanny”. But, Finding Fanny? (Good God!)

Read:

“When I see condemnation of the journalistic standards of “The Times of India” filling my newsfeed, a question posed by Gail Wynand whose media empire spread like bubonic plague comes back to me: “Do you think it took no talent to create the Banner?”

Sameer Jain’s Times Of India And Gail Wynand’s New York Banner

And: Gail Wynand And The Times Of India

What If Tharoor Had Tweeted This?

Sunanda Pushkar was found dead a day after she accused her husband of cheating on her on twitter. A smarty on Facebook said this: “If you can’t commit to a person, don’t. If you do, stand by your word. In solidarity with the innumerable betrayed women of the world.”

I, of course, do not know the facts of the matter. But, it is believed that a man who cheats on his wife is judged not as harshly as a woman who cuckolds her husband. To know whether this is true, imagine what would have been the response of men and women if Sashi Tharoor had tweeted this:

I do not care about that, but does a man have to berate me to do that? If my wife wants to be with him, I will be the last one to stop.

Sadly, she is one of those soft people who cannot say no.

Absolutely a man obsessed by another woman who is an Indian wife!

Sadly, it is not the woman; It is the man who hit on a woman when the husband is under treatment. How gross.

I want solidarity from my Indian friends to stop following him on Twitter. There are good Pakistanis, and then there are people like him.

Guys, BTW, this is a personal affair. Why is it news? All you have achieved is having him telling lies. His 5 minutes of fame. I have all the bbm.

Not just that. I have his bbms to various other women in 2013. I am ashamed to call him a man.

I have all his emails and bbms to my wife. I don’t lie.

Leave us Indians alone. Stop talking to my wife, and pleading with her. It is degrading. Respect yourself as a man.

The audacity of a man desperately in love with an Indian woman. “Please Sunanda, don’t make me go. I pleaded and begged. I love you, Sunanda”

Indians who have dignity unfollow him. Aare there no people in Pakistan? Men who are desperately after the wives of other women. SHAME Continue reading “What If Tharoor Had Tweeted This?”

April Fool’s Day

April Fool!

We were in Kindergarten, and our Summer vacations had just begun. On April 1st, when my little brother and I woke up in the morning and opened the door to play, we saw all our chairs hanging on a tree. On a placard, it was written large: “April Fool!” We stood there with an expression of astonishment on our faces. When we called our parents, they told us that it was the “April Fool’s Day”.

We intuited that some of my father’s students did that. I had seen these people. Once when my father gathered that they did not know the difference between Arabic numbers and Roman numerals, he called me and my brother. And then he said: “My children—They are in school. They know what it means.” After explaining it to them, I looked at them with intense disapproval, thinking: “I will never study with you, people.” Continue reading “April Fool’s Day”