Where Curiosity Ends

The morning of May 20, as I was sharing my morning cup of tea with my mother, she started chatting with me mostly to brief me about the things that had happened in the family and in our neighbourhood.

She broached the topic concerning a recently married relative of ours not going right. After seeing my non-interest to participate in the discussion, she changed the topic to the latest and most happening thing which has captivated the whole nation – the 2024 Election. Realising that most of her observations are a copy of the narrative created by the local TV channels – each of which voices the interest of one of the major political parties, I chose to caution her.

I asked her, why is she watching these channels which are out to manipulate her mind and influence her decisions and why is she curious to know about the life of the relative over which we have no influence or control to guide it for better? Is it not a waste of time?

She was visibly upset. But was she an exception?

I think all our mothers do talk about such general things. Do we expect them to discuss jobless growth and income disparity in our country with us? No. Every one of us indulges in such discussions occasionally in our free time; some more some less.
For us, it can be a discussion, to the person being discussed, it’s gossip.

Same day, by early evening a Tweet from Rohit Sharma created a flutter in the media. He directly blamed the broadcaster Star Sports for intruding into the privacy of the players and releasing content that has nothing to do with the game being played. It was a private conversation between his teammates. He prayed for good sense to prevail and appealed to everyone involved to show respect, sensitivity and maturity while dealing with an individual’s right to privacy and public curiosity.

The channel realising the insatiable appetite of the cricket crazy nation to know anything and everything about their cricketing heroes publicised the conversation after being requested not to do so, in their enthusiasm, not respecting where to fix the boundary of the viewers’ curiosity before that turning voyeuristic which intrudes into peoples’ private spaces.

Such invasions are commonplace now with the advent of easily accessible and affordable communication devices. Unknown to us our privacy is violated by many, and we are gleefully violating others’ space too.

Two incidents in one day. The first is about our curiosity, how to stay curious and control it by directing it and regulating it to give positive outcomes without damaging us and things around us. The second is about how we are vulnerable to other’s curiosity and how they can or are manipulating us to get their interest achieved.

Curiosity is not bad
Every journey of major scientific discovery has begun by someone’s curiosity. The history of scientific discovery is filled with stories of how individual curiosity has resulted in great scientific discoveries that have optimised human efforts of that time and resulted in the overall well-being of society. One can’t be curious about everything at once. Such curiosity is naturally drawn to a specific topic based on one’s interests, experiences, and biases. The journey gives us unknown knowledge and the chance to discover unplanned and unexpected objects and results. That journey comes with its cost. It requires a great deal of focus, attention, time, and financial resources.

We are generally curious about famous people like politicians, sports personalities, cinema stars and successful new-age businessmen; to know more about them and their private lives beyond their work. If their authorised biographies sell like hotcakes, their unverified salacious sides them make rounds through gossip circuits and unregulated media. Many draw inspiration from the various situations they tackled in their lives and use them to manage their own. This also has led to the existence of the paparazzi culture which relentlessly tracks famous people and feeds the hungry audience with the minute details of their private lives with photos and saucy news creating a multitude of speculations. A casual dining out with a male friend at a restaurant leads to a national debate about whether everything is fine with her marriage. Excessive curiosity turns into obsession leading to unrealistic expectations and develops a cult personality around celebrities. This constant push and pull between the public interest and someone’s privacy leads to an ethical dilemma for the news outlets that thrive on TRPs, journalists who gather and post such stories and the fans who consume them.

If curiosity is good, unbounded curiosity comes packaged with negatives. Unethical exploration and exploration of the unknown and unknowable can frustrate us and lead us down paths that are harmful to us and others.

Every man is born curious. Scientists are curious, and so also the cat in our house, and the monkey sitting on your balcony.

What is the difference between us?
When we pick up a particular book to read, turn on a TV and tune in to a particular channel to watch a particular show or the particular anchor of a particular news, pick up a particular newspaper, choose a particular item to read in detail, trawl the internet, scroll the phone screen for a particular type of content, call a particular person to discuss another particular person, behind our general curiosity, we are naturally drawn to specific topic based on interests, experiences, and biases. It shows a predictable pattern. Our innate instincts drag us to what now can be called as Voyeuristic curiosity. A conscious mind can know when he wanders off from the track of positive curiosity to voyeuristic curiosity.

Curiosity and voyeurism offer a very thin strip of land to navigate between, especially when it comes to other people.
Ideally, curiosity about a famous person is fuelled by a genuine interest in their work, accomplishments, or public persona. This information is often readily available through interviews, documentaries, or public appearances. But when curiosity ventures into seeking out private details or experiences a person hasn’t chosen to share, it edges towards voyeurism. A healthy curiosity often seeks to learn, understand, or appreciate someone better. But voyeuristic curiosity is often driven by a desire for excitement, titillation, or a sense of power over someone’s privacy. Curiosity can be a positive force, inspiring fans to emulate good qualities, support causes, or appreciate a person’s talent. However, voyeurism can have a negative impact, causing emotional distress, damaging reputations, and fostering an unhealthy obsession.

Many of us are slowly becoming aware of our vulnerability to someone else’s curiosity. Big companies like Google, Meta, X, and Instagram gather real-time data from our smart gadgets and sell it to the marketeers at a price or charge a fee as a marketplace. Unknown to us, newspapers, advertisements, social media platforms set traps to know more about the behavioural patterns of our consumption choices, preferences, and lifestyle, and income to drive traffic to our screens to grab our attention. Smart advertisements makers have realised the chink in the armour of their target audience and use the potential of social media to take advantage of this weakness and create contents to control and manipulate people’s minds towards a product, misinformation, and a political support base. The whole game of marketing involves discovering and exploiting these cracks and biases of human psychology and planting their seed to grow inside their target audience turning them their slaves.

We are privy to the power of WhatsApp and WhatsApp University and the damages it can cause. Thousands of digital warriors with pseudonyms were made to sit in front of their terminals to produce and push content to your screen which used an algorithm that exploited these patterns of yours. Highly educated and rational people these days are seen forwarding false, and doctored videos even without checking their veracity. If there were a thousand trolls in the IT Cell a decade back who were pushing one agenda, now every house has one or two who are fighting a non-existent enemy forgetting the immediate issues that concern him. Unknown to them their unbounded curiosity has slowly killed their rationale and turned them into zombies or puppets who are controlled by an invisible force to achieve his agenda.

Ultimately, the line between curiosity and voyeurism is subjective. By considering the factors mentioned above, one can determine if his interest in another person is healthy and respectful, or if it’s veering into an intrusive and potentially harmful territory. A healthy balance is the key. Curiosity can be a positive force that fosters connection, but it’s important to be respectful of others’ privacy and boundaries.

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