Culture & Society

The Network Of Our Lives

Despite being added to each other on social networks and our electronic leashes, we are still in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, acute as it is for the digital natives born in a world of networks but limited connections.

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Representative Image Photo: Getty Images
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Pings, alerts. Groups, calls, texts. That's the language in which we converse today. Whatsapp groups have determined not only election realities but also levels of discourse and average intelligence around us. We live in clusters of the same, safe in our echo chambers. And comfortably unaware of the world that is around us, since we are able to now hide what we don’t want to see.

But what has this done to Indian social order? Where has society moved from where it was? There has always been a huge amount of pride in India’s beautifully diverse, inherently disparate yet strong social fabric. And yet that fabric lies in tatters, used meticulously by political parties in the last 10 years, with the fault lines on which India was always divided by, only deepening further. 

Handloom offers the greatest simile for India. Once a society of deeply intertwined, interwoven fabric held together by strength and multiple warps and wefts, has now transitioned into a networked cluster of homogenous pieces, that exist in isolation, oblivious to other clusters that exist, struggle and live. 

A critical reality to confront, since it is now changing the way we behave, the roles we inhabit, what we think, what we watch, what we react to and what we are apathetic towards. It is a telling sign of the times we live in, that is reflected in culture. 

Despite being added to each other on social networks and our electronic leashes, we are still in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, acute as it is for the digital natives born in a world of networks but limited connections. Conversations are often task oriented, reaching out for information, work or help, and then remain further isolated till opportunities to meet emerge. Even relationships are impacted by the forced isolations, when we assume we are connected to friends since we see their updates, but are otherwise far removed from their everyday struggles and life, since the impressions we make are from the information they share. Relationships and people have made way for touchpoints. We are in touch with personas and their stories, not with people and their struggles.

But how does this transcend into everyday life? RWAs have WhatsApp groups that serve as reminders for mornings, and vehicles for propaganda by the ruling regime. And many times a space for upper class audiences to reach out to each other for hiring domestic helps and lamenting how ‘they’ behave. 

Who is the ‘they’? The cocoons of social media with class privilege, have furthered divides in physical spaces. Service lifts for domestic helps is a segregation reminiscent of colonial times. Societies are segregated by who will live where, and the ‘them’ live in makeshift jhopdis close enough to walk down to their employers. However, when was the last time we paused to reflect and do our part for making their lives better, or at least use our networks for building equitable lives? Our connections as a society are waning, where there is steady and increased apathy. As class enables us to look at a section of society nothing beyond our own convenience and gain. 

We outrage over crimes we see. Voices amplified Black Lives Matter. But do Muslim Lives Matter in today's India? As per a report by Maktoob media, 6 muslim people have been lynched since June 6, 2024. And there is little conversation, and even more limited outrage about this. In this networked life, we are selective about the people we feel for. Some of us feel for Gaza as we absolutely must, but do we feel for the atrocities being done in our very country? The impunity that hate and violence enjoy - do we look beyond our own echo chambers to call them out? Beyond the occasional conversations in selective spaces, do we use our voices as a collective since Not in My Name?

The election results were a breath of fresh air. But it is critical to note whose voices saved democracy. It was not the entitled upper middle class. And it's important to see how the upper middle class is blinded by privilege, bolstered by access, and together purely by needs or status. Beyond glass windows and sanitized environments, neither do they themselves nor do they allow their children to mingle with the ‘other’ in their minds. The ‘other’ could be on the other side of the class, caste, language, religion and gender divide. 

Societies are therefore becoming divided into microcosms of tightly knit homogenized networks. Where within those clusters spaces are shrinking. Access and entries are either on the basis of aspiration (considered so by the group) or conformity.

Till 30 years ago, in simpler times, people interacted more with those not like them. We interacted with shop keepers, and rickshaw pullers, with people who made keys to those who helped with our rations. We stood in lines and made friends with strangers. Public transport had us in tight corners with people we didn’t know but traveled with closely, inexplicably not even to the same destinations, and yet were just a part of someone’s journey. There were handcraft festivals that were looked forward to, vendors and artisans who became friends and were invited home much like family for their gorgeous art that was purchased religiously every year. Those interactions have either become limited with generations, or replaced by online orders. Where everything is available at a twitch of a finger, robbing us of tactility and becoming a part of a weave that once existed.

I often wonder how does one feel for people one doesn’t know. Does that feeling get evoked only by extreme brutality (Gaza) or is it evoked by empathy born by a sense of personal connect? The deep depersonalisation of communities ‘othered’ by a vocal majority is impeding us in recognising the everyday struggles and ostracisation of the working class, farmers and labour. 

Cinema in the late 60s through 70s was a vehicle that helped us see and empathize with their struggles. We had films on coal miners (Kaala Pathhar), coolies (Coolie), labourers (Deewar), struggling and cynical doctors (Anand) and farmers (Upkar). Those films were also watched in similar collective spaces, with a pricing variation that ensured some sort of segregation. Yet the transformative and enjoyable streak of cinema existed for all, as you watched and engaged with stories that for some were their own, and for the others pure entertainment. And yet we felt for the protagonists and empathised more with their struggles.

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The class segregation in a very rigid society today has brought in the multiplex. Where ticket sizes and spending options are catered only to the upper middle class. The upper middle class in turn is so deeply self involved that they are keen on watching films that are either about them, or their aspiration or their entertainment. Stories on the ostracized communities have vanished from our screens, and the apathy that that brings is visible. 

For those who argue that OTT brings those stories to life - OTTs inherently are isolated viewing. They rob us of the collective viewing experience - which is laced in empathy by the virtue of watching something with strangers, that needs you to be aware of your behaviour and its impact on others in a public setting along with collectively being moved by a piece of art. Isolation enables quick decisions, pauses and a more unabated experience, that increases the lack of maintaining a decorum. When viewing cinema now in a collective, the apathy manifests itself in behaviours of audiences who treat every public space as a private enterprise. 

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For us to return to the original warp and weft, we will all need to look beyond. Beyond those we think like or represent, beyond the conversations we have in our spaces, and most definitely beyond the stories we create in cinema today. All these acts together will help us one more time break out of the echoes to diverse, multiple voices that enrich the world. And create stronger bonds of solidarity and fellowship, beyond the network. 

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