by Raju Peddada
(Swans - January 14, 2013) A long time ago, I lived in a society that was, and for the most part still is, consumed by superstitions and astrology. Astrology, the business of predictions based on one's birth time and date, celestial alignments, mixed in with some religious mumbo-jumbo, is a big part of Indian lifestyle. Indian society (particularly Hindus), along with the Chinese, are potentially the oldest societies, with their continuing way of life into the present -- and, like all ancient societies, astrological prognostication by ordained priests is the only way they embark on anything new. Engagements and marriages, businesses, new ventures or voyages, the naming of newborns is gauged for propitious times, auspicious dates, evaluating compatibility with various forces, based on the above metrics. One such society that died at the hands of Catholic conquistadors from Spain was the Mayan Civilization, an advanced society from a millennia ago, that issued a prediction: That the last year and date on their Mesoamerican calendar was the day when the world would end -- the 21st of December, 2012.
Ironically, I am sitting on this 21st freezing day of December in Chicago, and contemplating whether it is the end of the world, trying to extrapolate viable rationales to buttress the Mayan prediction. In a way I am lamenting as to why the world did not end -- at least then we could scratch everything and start anew! This is the way I see it. I believe the Mayans did not actually predict the physical destruction of the world, but rather a figurative one, an intangible one that cannot be seen, but felt by those still with a conscience, and I feel that our rampant corruption, in every sphere, is really the end of the world. The Mayans were bloody right! The physical and the material is really immaterial; what is real are our personal values, our individual operating system, which has become corrupted, whether it's governance, business, or society in general, inadvertently or deliberately helped by the prevailing technologies.
The new technologies, instead of becoming sustaining technologies that thwart or end corruption and to improve lifestyles and productivity, are being rapidly employed by criminals, not just individuals, on a large scale, to short cut their way to illicit wealth. I call our current global culture "the collusion of deniable intensions," mostly to circumvent individual probity and systematic integrity -- vanishing values, to say the least. Have you checked your wireless carrier bill lately? You are being systematically, without your knowledge, shaken down by your wireless carriers for streaming videos and data you never receive, nor use, and there is no way to refute their claims either. Computer Science PhD researcher Chunyi Peng probed the systems of two large US wireless carriers and discovered that nearly 50% of our mobile users have been overcharged. If you are overcharged, better yet, if they steal $10 from you, you wouldn't know it, because it doesn't pinch you, but multiply $10 each with a hundred-million subscribers, and the shakedown is staggering. This type of corruption is glossed over by the Federal Trade Commission, as well as the individual, hence it persists.
In the latest issue of the MIT Technology Review (vol. 115, No. 6), the cover headline reads "You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead, I Got Facebook," under the forlorn face of Buzz Aldrin looking straight into us. I recommend Jason Pontin's piercing article: "Why We Can't Solve Big Problems" on how our technologies have regressed since 1972, the last Apollo mission. Unbridled optimism on the power of technological advancements to solve global problems has dissipated considerably. Issues like hunger, poverty, climate change, cancer, and old age diseases have remained implacable, and even proliferated. Here's what Pontin says:
"...there is a paucity of real innovations, instead, they worry, technologists have diverted us and enriched themselves with trivial toys. There's an awful lot of effort being expended that is just never going to result in meaningful, disruptive innovation."
Bruce Gibney, a partner at the Founders Fund Manifesto says "Venture capitalist has ceased to be the funder of the future, and instead become a funder of features, widgets, irrelevances."
More than a billion people live without electricity, have no clean water, work on exhausted soil next to vanishing tracts of forest, starve for food in dense pollution, with a burgeoning epidemic of dementia, and incidences of cancer, but, we have Facebook and Twitter. Technological marvels?! Without equivocation, I would say that this communications technology, more than anything, has spawned a societal degeneration, in rampant infidelity in every sphere, with illicit texting. Texting may be a great tool, (horrifying when the textor is driving) but, it has rendered people voyeuristic, as text messaging thwarts inhibition, affords privacy, and incites abuse of trust and confidence. Here's one blogger with a feigned contrition:
"... like many other people, my mobile is used for illicit text conversations with people that my other half wouldn't approve of..."
According to the Midland PD in Texas, "sexting" is an exploding global trend. What you cannot say to the face you can text; it desensitizes us, rendering us immune to such social values like shame, embarrassment, and rebukes. Many men, including police officers, have been caught texting to fifteen-year-old Lolitas -- it is an epidemic. In 2009, the Beijing Morning Paper reported that 900,000 phones were suspended in Guangdong by the local magistrate. What is even more revealing is the fact that none of the subscribers had filed a complaint for the suspension of their service. However, we have to accept this with a grain of salt, as freedom of speech is not guaranteed in China.
Technology in itself is of no benefit to man, if his own ethical-moral advancement is not parallel to that of his technological innovation. Science, over the decades, has placed new and deadly inventions in the hands of both the democratic as well as the despotic nations. This bodes evil portents for the future of our species, and it was articulated passionately by Winston Churchill at MIT, sixty-plus years ago:
"This vast expansion was unhappily not accompanied by any noticeable advance in the stature of man, either in his mental faculties, or his moral character. His brain got no better, but it buzzed more... our need was to discipline an array of gigantic and turbulent facts. To this task we have certainly so far proved unequal..."
Last weekend I saw two classic films that pretty much encapsulated our present conundrums as a society, but these movies were based on issues that addressed the individual moral predicaments and dilemmas -- persisting issues with society in general, even more so today. The first is the 1946 black and white masterpiece Brief Encounter by David Lean, written by none other than Noel Coward -- a seminal film in realism, which explores the illicit romance at a train station between a happily married woman, played to perfection my Dame Celia Johnson, with Trevor Howard as the young doctor. The plot is revealed in a series of flashbacks narrated by the housewife in wrenching guilt and piercing contrition in a doleful voice. Here's how she reflects, as she delivers in that diffident narrative:
"It's awfully easy to lie when you know you are trusted implicitly... so very easy, and so very degrading."
Do you think this kind of a reflection resonates with most of the young texting public, bound for their quarry, at various hotels and motels across the world? When the faculty for compunction is non-existent, the act of violating a promise, an agreement, or a covenant, whether personal or institutional, becomes a drive for thrill and excitement -- getting away with it -- and that is how corruption metastasizes. See the film.
Another film that is an imperative, which shows how corrosively corrupt the "collusion of the guilty" is, is the awesome Bad Day At Black Rock. This classic is sardined with character actors with six Oscars between themselves. A WWII veteran, played by the gritty and magnificent Spencer Tracy, gets off a stream-liner at a small settlement in the middle of a dusty nowhere, only to be faced with hostile malevolent town men who didn't want anyone visiting, let alone a tough mysterious man from a big city. The whole town was a collusion of the guilty and the not-so-guilty. The older men represented corruption, and managed to infect the future, the young in the movie, without any burden of guilt. Finally it's the not-so-guilty that follow their conscience, in helping Tracy consummate his mission. I won't tell you the story, but the message is pretty simple. All it takes is a few; a few can give us hope, they are the straws that help us sustain it.
Avarice is the implacable agent of corruption, whether it is the avarice of an individual or a group, in race, religion, power, or property. We are being assailed relentlessly by this agent of corruption, and under such circumstances one can, in time, succumb to defeatism, which can be fatal -- especially fatal when the resilient fires within ourselves start to wither. We all know of that intense fire that burned in Gilles d'Aymery's belly for years, and, I have come to the conclusion that it's the apathy, from his own contributors, that sprayed soda ash on his fire, in addition to all of the external issues.
One recent event partially redeemed my hope from that same kind of apathy. I got reunited with an old friend from the early 1970s, Pankaj Garg, who told me that he still had that Tora-Tora-Tora poster I painted at sixteen, which I had given to him in 1974. I contemplated rather mawkishly in private after that revelation, and came to the realization that Pankaj managed to preserve an inked piece of paper through 38 years of his own growing, and transfer of residences, without losing it. It seemed that Pankaj, like I, was avaricious of sentiments, of memories, and of objects that evoked our youth, in uncontainable pathos. At a time when most people avariciously dashed headlong into their financial security, here was a friend who tried hard to slow the drip of time, and that was the straw I was looking for. We all must find our straws, and I hope my editor finds his.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)