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Learning from Lewinsky: Confronting the culture of bullying and shaming, creating a culture of support

If you haven’t read Reema Moudgill’s piece titled Monica Lewinsky Takes On The Cult Of Shame, you’ve missed out on an important conversation about the culture of shaming and the legitimization of the violation of privacy by our blind acceptance of digital behavior. In a flatter world created by technology, it’s obvious to me that we have not simply recreated the ogling men on the corner of the streets, the vicious auntys whose gossip can ruin reputations and the medieval lynchings of ‘witches’. In fact, we have amplified it. We have turned everyone into the voyeuristic creep, the bitchy aunt and the maligning man. Yes, it’s become normal, this online bullying and shaming, the blind consumption of content used to bully and shame in the name of gossip. And, let’s face it, you and I are party to it too.

Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk is indeed admirable for bringing to the fore issues we will not talk about. Even as we cheer about the win for freedom of speech by the striking down of the 66A, we will not talk about how humiliation, shaming and acts of sexual offense on the Internet are causing deep psychological damage. In India, where talking about a whole bunch of things (especially stuff that matters) is not the done thing, young people are not getting enough guidance on how to deal with bullying and intimidation on the Internet. Cyber bullying is real and we need to wake up to it.

Lewinsky’s talk pushed me to think about how we can create opportunities and spaces for youth to discuss how they feel, what they observe, to bring issues to the table, to learn through shared experiences. If the online world can be abusive, it can host moderated support forums too. But my hunch is that the change needs to start at home, in schools, in the park, among friends. As my children grow and become more independent, I’m constantly under pressure to rethink they way I deal with them. My focus is shifting from managing and controlling their routines, to playing the part of a guide and adviser. How can I co-opt my kids to evolve and follow an ethical code for using the Internet, for instance? How can I set up a system in which they have someone reliable and mature to talk to, even if its not us the parents? How can I eliminate the sense of taboo around topics like sexual abuse, abuse of power, bullying and aggression that are deeply encoded in our psyche?

Too much noise, too many voices: How the Internet is changing the way we perceive current events

Yesterday I was musing aloud about perceptions about the past. History as we know is written by the powerful and subaltern sources can reveal very different sides to historical events and people. When humans in the future read about the events we are living through today, they will have access to (thanks to the Internet) several more perspectives on the same event than what we have today of history recorded in more traditional formats.

Today, as I read the hundreds of stories in reaction to the Boston marathon bomb blast, I cannot stop marvelling at the creativity of the human mind, the sped with which news unfolds and metamorphoses, the endless hunger to know more….

The day of the bomb blasts, we were reading opinions on how the Islamist terror organisations were challenging the US on their turf again, the implications of this on US foreign policy, the pressure cooker bomb’s link with the subcontinent and what that meant for us in India and what have you. Today we are being educated (in efficient Q&A form as well!) about the complex politics of the Caucasian region and Chechnia in particular, where Dzokhar originates from. Of course, he is also the nice guy who ‘seemed normal’.

What would a researcher in the 22nd century make of all this information, or would the intermediate commentary be insignificant in the face of the final outcome- suspect being caught, killed, jailed, etc… I don’t know, it’s hard to say and an intriguing thought. (This is what you think about post midnight when you can’t fall asleep!)

On the flip side, I am disturbed by the extent to which writers and journalists and hackers would go to grab attention….

Example: One guy whose handle was previously @footytube or something created a fake handle for the bombing suspect Dzokhar, having the same number of followers and the same last tweet as the original to mislead people into following him! What would he gain from this and did he not worry about attracting the wrong kind of attention from police and government authorities desperate to catch the criminal at large?

Why wonder about future researchers? The speed of news production and consumption and the plethora of opinions available has changed the way we perceive current affairs. As an avid blogger, I am all for freedom of expression but how do we discern among various sources of information? I am also acutely aware of how power influences the production of news as well. Everyday, I see how peripheral the coverage of the sad and terrible stories of death and injustice coming out of places like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Mali and how obsessive the coverage of incidents in the West that are trivial in comparison (if human impact is used as a measure).

As consumers, we pick news guided by emotion. And nostalgia, paranoia and fear make for great hooks, it seems! And in the end, it’s probably just about being entertained……

Tech is changing us deeply, scarily! So love your children more, as much as you can! #THiNK2012

Sherry Turkle has been thinking about the social and psychological impacts of the Internet and that makes this session super exciting. Technology is having a deep impact on us, changing who we think and even who we are. Is it taking us to places we don’t want to go? What are the ethics of advancement? Questions we ask all the time. Are we humanizing tech while we dehumanize ourselves? Robots become men, men become machines. This is her life’s work. Eager to hear what she has to say!

Hackers gave her a clue that humans now see their minds as a computer. Change in the way we evolve. Changing our identity. Initially celebratory about these changes, Sherry is now not so optimistic. As a psychologist, she thought it fascinating that people could experience playing with identity and learn from their online lives to live better real lives. The situation has turned darker now. She saw in the ‘90s that mobility changes. Transitions between computer identities and real connections become faster. We were never completely present to our reality. Another phenomenon was sociable robots. A new kind that doesn’t try to be smart, but tries to make you think it loves you. By using the right gestures, this robot pushes your Darwinian buttons to make you feel someone is home. Fascinating! We nurture it, we love it. She began to study these bots used in Japan for eldercare and to be nannies. Strong attachments to computers that do not deserve our love and that we never leave ourselves alone at all are disturbing trends we need to be aware of.

Why would we rather text than talk? Because it gives a larger sense of control, which is seductive. We can hide real feelings. Tech allows us to have the illusion of companionship without the demands and intimacy.

So does tech make us lonelier? All those of us addicted to technology, are we actually keeping the real people out? The real relationships away? I wrote about this recently. One of the wonderful things about being here at the Thinkest is to hear experts and researchers take forward my tentative musings about how we live life. That’s why so many of us are back to this fest.

People text at funerals, mothers in the park are texting…Are we losing the sense of human attachment? I find that scary, concerning. Why do we want to be elsewhere when we are somewhere? Why do we go there at all? I don’t want to be this sort of person, who forgets the difference between conversation and mere connection. The person who forget nuance. But yet I love what technology makes possible as well. When we have sessions at Shikshantar where my kids go to school, we often are told about how texting during dinner is not a great thing to do. We roll our eyes, hate the lecture! Well, Sherry used the exact same example today. Children deserve to grow up feeling they are important enough for us to set aside even something as important as technology. And I agree.

We need to set rules for ourselves that will help us achieve some sort of balance. We need to make a better attempt to really connect, with ourselves and then with people around us, then also with issues and events. Many levels of connection make life exciting.

What is reassuring is that Shirley thinks the younger generation is more likely to be able to build a tech Sabbath, build in breaks from technology. We, who came to it later, appear to be completely smitten! Kids might stand a better chance to achieve the balance. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that when children are little, say pre-teens and teens, we adults who ‘parent’ them (I say that in a larger sense) have the opportunity to give them a real sense of how important human contact is. We can love them with all we have got, reach out to them, involve them. Give them a legacy of humanity so that they can use technology to their advantage without being emotionally consumed by it.

Not possible to ‘control’ the Internet! Are you relieved or alarmed? @THiNK2012

That’s quite a radical statement from Ben Hammersley here at the Thinkfest 2012 in Goa. Apparently, it isn’t technologically possible to control content on the Internet. Governments want the good things that the Internet brings you, but not the bad stuff. That isn’t really possible.

Any sort of move towards censorship brings out a considerable amount of fury from Internet users. I don’t really see the same sort of fury from repression of other sorts of expression (writing, poetry, even cartoons!), so sometimes I really wonder! But to come back to the argument…. 

Ben argues that the need to censor or control the Internet is a social, or political problem. For parents worrying about what their teenage son is up to, it is a parenting problem! His argument is that we need to differentiate between a technological issue and a social one, or a political one. When you want to repress the Internet, you end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater and giving up on the benefits as well.

Point taken. But it still doesn’t give us a solution to deal with misuse, fraud, crime…. Also, like many other problems in the country, dealing with the social and political dimensions takes a concerted effort over a long period of time.

Sachin Pilot is arguing that the Internet itself is not run democratically. The compliance rates of requests from the Govt of India to Google and other platforms is much lower than similar requests from other, more powerful nations, like Norway and Germany, who apparently make far more such requests in the first place! Now that is something for us to think about. More democracy is needed and is being demanded by India and other countries. More representatives from Asia, Africa and South America is part of what he is talking about. Impressive. He also talks about the funds India is pumping into providing connectivity to remote places in India as part of an ideology that believes that the Internet can and should and must benefit the masses. Am eager to see that transformation play out over the net decade or so. I think it is a wonderful opportunity for entrepreneurs to tap new markets and for social businesses to make real impact!

So we come back to that social, political problem! Is society mature enough to understand the nuances of being able to sift content? No! But that too, like many other topics we are hearing about, is a facet of our society in transition, a society in flux….permanent flux perhaps! We have to live with it and bring up our children to become responsible citizens and human beings with strong values and strong powers of rational analysis.

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