Leaps In Information Technology & Our Shrinking Moral Universe

Any discussion on politics among friends these days assumes a confrontational pitch quickly. Emotions flare at any mention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. On issues, opinions get sharply divided along political lines. Offensive, hurtful words fly both ways, and in the end there are sullen faces all around.

It was not so a decade or thereabouts ago. Politics figured in conversation among friends but not as a matter very personal. All aired independent views on issues and it was devoid of rancour. Banters didn’t end up in verbal fisticuff. The stand of political parties on those was incidental not central. Politics didn’t drive a wedge between friends or splinter them into groups.

Something has changed.

Observe hard. Real life is mimicking virtual life. There’s a certain shift in inter-personal behavioural traits among all of us. And it follows a pattern similar to how interactions play out on social media. The patience for the other view is shrinking, civility in dialogue is less visible and there’s a tendency to hang together with people who hold the same world view. In the previous article, we mentioned how technological leaps in the digital age are likely to usher in massive life-altering changes in the economic, social and political spheres. In this article we explore how technology is impacting human beings as social animals.

By technology, the article means information technology and it seeks to understand how the new age media is shaping us into human beings we were not earlier.

Let’s begin with the recent controversy involving Member of Parliament Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and outgoing president of Wrestling Federation of India against whom top wrestlers of the country have brought sexual harassment charges. When the issue hit the headlines and became a topic of discussion, the immediate verdict from a section of rather well-informed people was ‘not guilty’. Their conclusion: Singh was a victim of opposition politics and the complainants were being used as pawns in political games. The sober suggestion that the matter involved the question of morality and abuse of power, and an investigation, at the least, would be a good move to establish the truth, was received with contempt. WhatsApp messages were playing their part in pushing people into political positioning over the issue. Good old sense of morality would be shocked at the suggestion of sexual harassment and react in anger. Not so the case anymore. Somewhere technology as a means of information is making us less sensitive and empathetic humans.

The same shrinking of moral judgement is evident when people, responding to a hue and cry over rape cases, argue “Didn’t rapes happen earlier? Why are you complaining? Or where were you when X rape case happened?” This is just one example. Notice the social media closely, you will find similar take on grave issues routine. Check real life, the approach is not far different. Hatred towards certain communities, persons or ideas was never as intense as it is now and the expression of it was never so unapologetically open. (To get a clearer picture just wind back to a recent incident where an RPF constable sought out and shot dead members of the Muslim community on a Mumbai-Jaipur train before making a communal speech.) The gap between the real and the virtual and online and offline has started blurring. The nastiness and crudeness of online life have started percolating to actual life and settling in the human psyche.

The politics of divisiveness is to blame. But it was there earlier too. Now it is riding on technology to reach deeper into the human mind. One can argue that technology is neutral, the blame should be on those misusing it. True. But we are only discussing how technology is bringing profound changes in us, not whether it should be there. Without it the spread of hate campaigns would be pretty limited.

In the book ‘The People Vs Tech’ Jamie Bartlett points to the tribalisation of people due to the internet and social media – the most intrusive offshoot of new age information technology. He says information overload and connectivity has encouraged a divisive form of tribal politics, in which loyalty to the group and anger outrank reason and compromise. Fierce loyalty to the group, Bartlett suggests, ”has the effect of magnifying the small differences between us, transforming them into enormous, unsurpassable gulfs”.

“What transforms a group of like-minded people into a motivated, mobilised tribe is a sense of shared struggle and common grievance. And the internet is the largest and most abundant stocked pantry of grievances in the history of mankind,” writes Bartlett. We may add: “A sense of victimhood comes with loads of misinformation via social media with a design to provoke mob mentality.” Tribalisation – that sense of we-feeling and self-vindication – is coming at a price: the loss of moral judgement. When people defend a criminal just because he belongs to the group, you know moral values are losing relevance.

The bad news is it can get worse. The more technology enters the domain of private consciousness, the more divided people are going to be. The consequence could only be bad.

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