I firmly believe that teaching is the best way to learn. The many remote conversations I had with my students due to the pandemic led to an extended discussion on my characterisation of the media ecology under two rubrics: digital empowerment that ensures access to credible information and digital disruption due to algorithms.
Hierarchies created by technology
I explained to them the trappings of the algorithm-driven universe. The dominant elements of this universe are metrics and analytics. I drew their attention to Umberto Eco’s reflection on how technology can act as a barrier. He argued that state of the art technological devices are notorious in demanding an upgrade every six months, which is beyond the means of many. He also cautioned us against having an irrational focus on all the information out there, which is beyond any individual’s ability to grasp and process meaningfully. He wrote: “Once upon a time, if I needed a bibliography on Norway and semiotics, I went to a library and probably found four items. I took notes and found other bibliographical references. Now with the Internet, I can have 10,000 items. At this point I become paralysed.”
Due to the pandemic, most of us are forced to source information remotely through technology. And this option has re-emphasised a hierarchy. The available bandwidth and prowess of the devices are the markers of this divide. In this difficult reality, how does one deal with technology that has nearly become omnipotent and omnipresent? In other words, what are the means journalists can deploy to retain the cyberspace for empowerment? I have often been confronted with a question: isn’t disruption a positive development that can shake the status quo? If so, why do I fear digital disruption?
My reading on the role of cyberspace-led ecology flows from the veteran broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow’s reading of television when it was a major disrupter in the 1950s. Murrow said: “This instrument [television] can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference.” This is vastly different from the imagination that is governing the Silicon Valley conglomerates that rule cyberspace, and in whose rules there is little space for an idea called public good.
The lesson I drew from Eco and Murrow is that I must devise my own filters to manage this information overload and create a system to look at materials that matter. I get about 25 newsletters a day from diverse sources which leads me to credible information and informed analysis. This includes not only The Hindu ’s newsletters such as The Morning Filter, The Evening Wrap, The Daily Digest, The View from India, and The Hindu Data newsletter, but also initiatives such as The India Cable, The India Forum and a host of websites, some of which are free and some of which are behind a paywall. These newsletters let me choose about 1,00,000 words which I can read and process in a day instead of the infinite number of words and images that clutter my screen. The newsletters have sharpened our ability to curate the information we need and hence, they are an integral part of re-imagining journalism.
The India Cable pointed me to an ironic move by the Union government in defining its relationship with credible news. Following the entry headlined “Centre cites liberal media as alibi for its own failings on Tablighi coverage”, I examined the difference in power between credible journalism and propagandist drivel. Those who attack news organisations that retain their journalistic values should read the affidavit filed by the government in the Supreme Court. Channels and websites that are apologists of the regime were not mentioned when the government wanted to talk about examples of “largely factual reports” and “objective reporting”.
Editing makes any story, irrespective of the platform on which it is published, a coherent whole. And if readers and viewers develop editing skills, they can easily convert this avalanche of information into a meaningful, democratic tool.