Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Wife swapping to information swapping

CYBER AGE: BY ND BATRA From The Statesman

The current season of the television sitcom Hope and Faith introduced a double episode about wife swapping, which despite its suggestive open marriage indecency wasn’t as naughty as it sounds. In fact Wife Swap is a separate reality show, where two housewives in culturally different states exchange households with children but without swapping beds. Americans too have morals.
In a parody of the reality show, in the Hope and Faith episode of wife swap, Hope leaves her home in Columbus, Ohio, and moves in with a family in Manhattan. She finds the high-tech New York family members have all the cyber age gadgets but seldom talk with each other as a family. The culprit is the workaholic father, Aaron, who in a delightful mockery of “always on, always available,” is always talking to someone on his hand-free cell phone. When he looks at his “swapped wife” Hope at the dining table, she thinks he is talking with her, but of course, no, he is talking past her, with someone else on the other side, a customer. The Manhattan man symbolises the multitasking man of the future, always in communication, always networking, always connected, except when it comes to touching someone emotionally and keeping relations on a steady keel.
There was a time, you would agree, when production, distribution and processing of information, news and movies, for example, existed in a state of balance. We consumed and assimilated what was produced. And then there was time for silence, for gossip, and for imagination. But that was before computers, microwave and satellite transmission created a deluge that seems to sweep away everything else from our lives. Some of us, especially of the older generation, raised on the logic of linear thinking and writing, can’t handle what we see as an information flood. Others, especially of the digital generation, raised on computer games, cell phones, instant messaging, kids born to multitasking, revel on this new culture.
David Schenk laments in his book Data Smog that – thanks to a ceaseless development of computer technology – information and data production has become so abundant that it clutters our minds as “a pollutant.” We produce too much information for our own good, and so fast that our minds can’t assimilate it. Of course what is a pollutant could become raw material for something new in the future, only if know we what to do with it. In other words we don’t have enough information on how to turn pollutants into useful products; we need more information not less.
Making a sweeping statement, Schenk says the phenomenon of accelerated production of data collection and information production is of recent origin; it began only a half century ago. “For nearly 1,00,000 years leading up to this century, IT has been an unambiguous virtue as a means of sustaining and developing culture… Then, around the time of the first atom bomb, something strange happened. We began to produce information much faster than we could process it.” He does not mean the atom bomb triggered an unstoppable information avalanche, though there’s no gainsaying the fact that the dropping of the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki created information explosion that could not have been handled by traditional means of information processing especially in a manner that would have created knowledge and understanding of: what man had done to man.
Like Luddites of the 19th century, who out of fear of loss of jobs and traditional lifestyles, destroyed machinery instead of adopting and accepting it, Schenk too seems to be giving up instead of trusting that the human mind has not come to the end of its development and evolution. “We have quite suddenly mutated into a radically different culture, a civilisation that trades in and survives on stylised communication… The blank spaces and silent moments in life are fast disappearing. Mostly because we have asked for it, media are everywhere. Television, telephones, radios, message beepers and an assortment of other modern communication and navigational aids are now as ubiquitous as roads and tennis shoes – anywhere humans can go, all forms of media now follow: onto trains, planes, automobiles, into hotel bathrooms, along jogging paths and mountain trails, on bikes and boats...” Of course, you can’t deny it. The world of information is too much with us, to paraphrase Wordsworth.
Re-visiting the Manhattan wife-swapping cell-addicted man, the episode ended with Aaron deciding to give up his always-on wireless communication gear, sell his multimillion-dollar apartment and return to his family’s bosom and turn to simpler things. How long that new lifestyle would last is in the realm of television fiction and might become another episode of a sitcom or a spin-off. Nevertheless, we have to consider the possibility that confronted with an ever increasing deluge of information, the human mind might evolve and adapt and learn to improve the signal-to-noise ratio; new technology might help us to see patterns in what is called noise and clutter. Human evolution has been a struggle to transform nothingness to information, from empty cave walls to primitive carving and murals, from rags and papyrus to manuscript writing, from zero-and-one sheep counting to decimal system to bits and bytes. Tools that help us create information would help us to find patterns and meanings in that information.


  1. "Americans too have morals", Professor Batra says. I don't think "Americans" (presumably meaning people of USA) are any different from other peoples of the world. Why did Professor Batra find it necessary to put this queer sentence in his essay?

  2. Just a teaser, Dr. Raman