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Mind games

Why we trade our intellect and memory for smartphones, and privacy for almost all the apps we use

When Edward Bernays staged a parade to promote the idea of smoking among women in an era they barely did, little did we know it was a business gimmick to exploit the untapped market of non-smokers and to double the industry’s clientele. He called it "Torches of Freedom", describing cigarettes as a symbol of emancipation and equality with men, thereby inducing a false sense of liberation to women and gradually killing off the stigma, making an already unhealthy, unethical practice accessible to the other end of the spectrum. Although he himself called it propaganda later on, cigarette companies had already reaped the benefits and they still are in the modern era.

This was a game changer in many forms. Businesses gradually realised it was okay to be unethical even if it meant infusing insecurity, disrupting privacy or disturbing the sociocultural fabric of a prospective market.

We are nearly a century ahead now, but the game is still the same. Take the example of cab aggregators. They started off as a transit app that helped you commute at a modest cost with reasonable comfort to short and sometimes, fairly long distances. But unlike traditional businesses, they noticed what you did with the app, when you used it more (convenience) and where you went with it the most (restaurants), thereby realising a new business opportunity and powerfully pouncing on it, to create their next best business: food delivery.

With hindsight, you could also wonder whether they assess the frequency of your food intake, the accompanying fat, sugar and chemical content and the possibility of diseases that may follow and bring you personalised medicines.

For a lot of people, this is pure coincidence. But for others, it is Big Data. Sure, it is convenient when someone delivers something at your doorstep but does it come at a ‘cost’ is the question that needs dissection. And if it does, how do you weigh the costs against the benefits? For generations, humans have constantly compromised a key element of their physical and psychological self for the sake of convenience. Their intellect and memory for smartphones, their health and lifestyle for fast food, their appetite and lungs for cigarettes, and their privacy for almost all the apps they use.

Here is a clear example. It wasn’t long ago that the pub culture hit India. Even as of 2004, only a tiny percentage of Indians used to go to nightclubs, primarily in Tier 1 cities. But for the big guns in the business, this wasn’t enough. They saw immense potential in India (the youngest market in the world) and to leave that big a goldmine untouched would be a serious mistake. There was one big problem though. To penetrate into a market like India, where traditions rule the roost and religion acts as a definite barrier, even advertising their presence was far from a distant dream. This is where propaganda played a significant role. In alignment with what Bernays did, to combat the strong adversaries in India, the entrants finally found a solid companion. A confidant strong enough to transcend traditions, underplay morality, and depict divinity as a non-existent myth whilst portraying nightclubs, recreational drugs and sexual liberty as the definition of legitimate liberation.

You wouldn’t be surprised if every new Bollywood movie renders you an item dance (willingly objectifying women) and at least two, if not more, nightclub scenes where the protagonist (usually a famous actor with a huge fan following) dances around in a classy outfit and happily accepts the perks that follow. The same can be seen with online streaming services and the pop industry. It’s fairly evident that the focus has now shifted from just music to materialism.

One may ask why it is imperative for the media to do this and even if they did, what makes people so blinded they do not realise it? Well, like the old Ponzi scheme that deceived millions in the name of high-return investments, the devil here too, is in the detail. Is it not surprising that the businesses they indirectly promote (whether licit or illicit) have gone supersonic in growth and profit in the last decade or two? The rationale is simple. When businesses run out of options, they create new ones. But in the most escalated stage of despair in pursuance of the so-called "distinct new market", they often discard their ultimate social responsibility of safeguarding the physical and psychological health of individuals who use their products or services. What this also implies is that the celebrated post-modern world view on materialism, isn’t an organic change. Rather, it is an organised chaos rolled out in the form of polished propaganda and the young media fanatics are probably already blinded by the sheer supremacy of it.

The key to success here, or of any sublime propaganda, is in either not overtly expressing it, or covering it up in the name of "creative expression". Like product placement, the infiltration is mostly subtle and slow, and one would say the "entrants" are now smoothly succeeding in infusing inadequacies in the lives of millions of Indians who frequently watch these shows, follow their heroes and emulate their routines with no intention of unravelling this dangerous notion.

nirmalabraham@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 12:31:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/mind-games/article31877168.ece

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