When problems and issues surface, the public reaction is swift, strong and openly aired via social media. However, what remains in short supply in this era of quick sound bites is the will and patience to aim for solutions through dialogue and engagement.
The easy way, it seems to me, is to blame Twitter. Our deteriorating reading skills, the hero worship of new messiahs, the coarsening of public discourse … must be those 140 character limits that are responsible. Must be some deep desire for sound bites rather than in-depth comment.
That there is some truth here, I have no doubt. Look at most newspapers today, for example. You will invariably find a “Twitter-speak” column in it, featuring the latest tweeted tidbits about something-or-the-other from somebody-or-the-other in Bollywood. Or if there’s a major news event -a hijacking of a plane, a gang rape — you can be sure the paper will similarly carry a column devoted to tweets about it. Often sms-style – u no, ‘lyk’, ‘wid’ n d lyk- deficient in grammar and spelling and infested with exclamation marks, but still offering pithy comment and strong opinion.
And of course that’s the point — and the great value to a busy journalist -of these tweets. Want comment on the #MidDayMeal calamity? Or the #MumbaiGangRape? Or some other event that has us all abuzz? Fire up your nearest Twitter client, search for those hashtags, and take your pick from the list that shows up on your screen. Alternatively, simply follow a few well-known figures on Twitter, and choose from their tweeted remarks on the event you have in mind.
The thing is, we all have opinions. In the past, when a reporter wanted to find some of those to flesh out a piece, she would have to make several phone calls. Twitter’s great triumph is that it offers every one of us a way to put our opinions out for public consumption. Makes you wonder how we even managed, before hashtags came along.
Yet the question to ask about all this is not whether Twitter is to blame for our situation today, whatever that may be. Twitter is a tool, after all. It will be used and misused, as most tools have been in the past. Viewed in a historical context, we might remember that nearly every great technological advance — radio, TV, computers, cell phones – was also greeted with a degree of consternation and worry. Worry about whether we can and should do without it, whether we’ll get hopelessly addicted, whether it will addle our minds beyond repair. But look back on such worry from years later, after the new has become routine, and it seems misplaced, even ludicrous.
That’s how I believe we’ll look back at Twitter.
All of which is a rather long-winded preamble to say this: if we are indeed in an age of sound bites and decreasing attention spans, the fault does not lie with Twitter. It lies instead with us.
I happen to believe we are in such an age. In particular, I think the way we engage politically with those around us has changed a lot.
Representative democracy means dialogue — often lengthy, argumentative, even heated dialogue. Parliaments evolved as the place to conduct such dialogue. In Iceland, you can visit the meadow where possibly the world’s oldest parliament — the country’s earliest incarnation of its “Althing” — first gathered in the year 930. Think of that. A millenium ago, Icelanders met in this grassy place to craft laws, proclaim them and dispense justice. And it’s arguably from those roots that today’s sophisticated parliamentary institutions (our Lok Sabha, Israel’s Knesset, the USA’s Congress, England’s Parliament) have grown.
Sophisticated they may be, but fundamentally parliaments are still about dialogue. They are where complex issues get examined in detail and taken to some resolution. And in a large, diverse country like India, the complexity is greatly compounded.
Which is not to say dialogue and examination and resolution cannot happen in India. But the issues in India are so many and so complex that we often seem unable to fully discuss them or to adequately address them in a reasonable length of time. Think poverty. Think public health. Think primary education. Think the caste system. Think religious differences. Think sanitation. Think … well, take your pick.
Each of these is a concern that India has had to grapple with since independence. We have tried tackling them in various ways, but our peculiar reality is that we have not managed to solve most of them. So as the years go by, a certain public impatience sets in. Because we haven’t found answers, we grow impatient with dialogue, with parliament, even with democracy itself.
This is, at least in a political sense, where we are with sound bites and the like. What the impatience translates into is that we don’t want to invest the time and energy to understand the other person or engage with his different views. So our stated opinions take the place of nuanced dialogue. I state mine, you state yours; perhaps we abuse each other because I don’t like yours and you don’t like mine; we move on to the next thorny issue and repeat.
And for an endeavour like this, Twitter is a fine tool indeed.
Is this a simplistic view of where we are today? Possibly, but I am sure it will strike more chords than anyone is willing to admit.
So where to, from here, if we want our problems solved? One route leads to what a number of countries have tried, usually with unpleasant consequences: the dictator who promises miracles but delivers misery. Count Germany, Argentina, the old USSR, Romania, Pakistan and many more in that list.
The other route is to retain trust in and strengthen democracy and to understand that a society’s problems take time to solve. But if sincerely addressed, democracy at least holds the promise of solving them. Which means keeping faith in dialogue, and in the time that dialogue takes.
Though I honestly don’t know how you tum back from sound bites, or how you increase attention spans. Then again, it’s always possible someone on Twitter will have ideas.