Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Online Ennui

An atmosphere of dissatisfaction surrounds our present day social setting. And this is particularly true of the setting that exists only virtually, inside our very own fluffy computer set. Not all of them are fluffy though, especially now that sleek and stylish notebooks and laptops rule the roost. The new idiot box that it has come to be regarded as, together with internet – its enduring companion, would have us think that nothing’s really working for anyone. If life were a zero sum game as some game theorists would have us believe, then ‘it’s going trashy’ for a hundred people should translate into ‘it’s rocking’ for an approximately equal number. But from what is apparent, it is trash all over the park. Have we ever stopped to wonder why it’s a desert of woes with an occasional oasis of hope and not the other way round? If the desire for ‘other way round’ is foolish optimism, we could at least settle for a fifty-fifty which was so true of a time not long gone, couldn’t we? Even with that yardstick, the existing equation is alarmingly lopsided.

The trend can be seen amongst a wide array of people, cutting across boundaries of age, religion, location and gender. The young most prominently fall in its line, but the old and middle aged are not far behind. Everyone cosies up to their virtual avatar on the internet to seek solace and reassurance. It is available without much hardwork, and works in a way strikingly similar to our good old analgesics. Instant gratification notwithstanding, it makes one forget, even if fleetingly, that he’s any less, or that he’s not worth. The catch however remains – it’s virtual.

On social networking websites, on blogs, and on discussion forums – the writing is on the wall – we’re not very happy the way we are. It is a particularly intriguing category of gloom, the one that appears most widespread on the web. It is not a sadness of loss of job, it does not reflect an epidemic or extensive medical illness, it doesn’t give a picture of a hard-up man struggling to make ends meet, and no dear, it’s no love lost either. In fact, it is no clearly visible crisis, this one that seems to be ailing scores of us. As a basis, it is this absence of a distinctly defining explanation of this category of gloom, which sets it distinctly from others. Dissatisfaction comes close to describing it appropriately; boredom comes closer, and loneliness closest. But none of them quite captures it comprehensively.

As a case in point, consider blogs – although the content holds equally for other realms of the internet. Scores of amateur writers and hobbyists turn up regularly to give text to their thoughts and publish it for everyone to see. As has become a practice, one goes and appreciates fellow bloggers’ work – which, make no mistake, can at times really make the day for the one being appreciated. For he might never have guessed that something he mumbled out of sheer boredom and angst, something that took two minutes to prepare and publish could be hailed as a masterpiece or compared to the prudence of thought reserved as a label for the likes of William Wordsworth. The veracity of these lavished praises will however remain doubtful as long as the possibility of a hidden motive of being appreciated back on the part of the one who showered the praises can not be eliminated. And, umm, well, ok, it can’t be eliminated. Scratching backs is completely sanctioned here, and goodness, it’s rampant. Citing a personal experience here, the first and only time I went to a particular blog and commented on it off the cuff, the first thing I got back was an invitation to be part of their mutual appreciation circle wherein they shall appreciate whatever I write, in return for me appreciating theirs. The ‘invitation’ came in a tone of humorous disguise though; the one that signals: “If it’s taken positively – great! If not, then it’s just a joke.” This delusion, as I increasingly discovered, is getting so firmly embedded among avid netizens that they no longer consider how absurd receiving an admiration would be when you already know it’s under a contract, whether or not you want to acknowledge it. What kind of fulfilment can be derived out of it is beyond logical understanding, but it’s welcome as long as it comes. There, you see, is an anomaly, and it's only the proverbial drop in the ocean when seen in the larger perspective.

The one logical backing that I can think of for the thing I just referred to as an ‘anomaly’ is the neural circuitry that says ‘applause garners further applause’. People with a sub-urban and rural grounding would appreciate this principle more than others, for they must have seen halwais and street-food-hawkers deliberately getting bogus customers to surround their stalls, so that wandering souls would come flocking too, thinking of their stall as a popular food-haunt. This precept might have one tempted to beg, borrow, steal, or ‘make arrangements for’ some applause initially in the hope that more of it would eventually follow. Often it does. But quite often it doesn’t and we’re back to square one – more dissatisfaction and dejection, and higher levels of despondency than before. Even when it does the desired there still remains an iota of suppressed conscience trying to outburst, which even though might forever remain unable to actually burst out, but carries out the task of spoiling the unblemished gratification (that true appreciation otherwise gives) pretty effortlessly.

Now let us move out of the web for a change. Even though a leading radio station would want us to accept a frivolous report that considers Delhi-ites amongst the happiest people on earth, you don’t need to be a social scientist to be aware that in India’s capital city, cases of suicides have risen exponentially ever since the new millennium dawned on us. A more sombre fact that concerns is that for every suicide committed, there are nearly twenty attempted. Psychiatrists never had their bank accounts this bubbling, and spiritual healing has mushroomed into becoming a full fledged industry in itself. The problem however is that all this isn’t showing the results. The situation is only getting grimmer by the day, and it is there for all of us to see and fret. Don’t fret. Chose to ponder and make a dignified way out.

I would like to sneak in another personal experience at this point. Recently, a company that rewards the students it appoints with an initial remuneration of around Rupees Forty Lacs per annum, short listed one from my class for the final selection. Far from being proud or wishing that he makes it, their must have been a hundred silent prayers going up the heavens from my class-fellows themselves, all wanting that this guy doesn’t make the cut. Just for the record, eventually he didn’t. However, this leaves it very clear, that the students measured their own success based on how successful their peers are. Ponder closely, and you will find how absurd this line of thought is. The forty lacs dream job, for which you were already out of reckoning, will now not go to your mate who you also rivalled all these years. Reason to be content, it seems. But it won’t come to you either, and it will certainly go to some other guy now, only that you don’t know him. You’re still going to get your four lacs an year, but your mate didn’t get forty either congrats, but it’s not as though no one’s going to get it now, someone who’s not your mate is going to get the forty. Figure an anomaly here? There it is. Another drop in the ocean, one into which we must save ourselves from drowning. As long as we measure how rich or popular or accomplished we are according to how rich or popular or accomplished the guy we envy is, we are doomed to languish in our self made cocoons of frustration, grief, and general ennui. Because, at the end of the day, the guy we envy is invariably going to be better than we, isn’t that the reason we envy him in the first place ?

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