The Sound Of Silence

The question about the rights of a writer and a commenter is full of gray areas. It used to be pretty straightforward when publishing was limited to print. Readers used to write letter to authors and editors. Reviewing of text was in the hands of few critics or peers who had the credibility to comment. Books used to exchange hands via libraries and used books stores, gaining annotations along the margins with every exchange. The chain of dialogue was always consecutive and never concurrent.

Online publishing does not enjoy this privilege.  The web has opened the flood gates of social interaction. Anyone can express any opinion and find a large audience with few measured efforts. Publishing your thoughts is easy. So is commenting on it. We live in a day and age where everyone is “Google expert” and feels it’s their right to express opinion. We rarely stop to think – what, why, who, when, where and how we should articulate our thoughts.

Lack of barriers means there is a growing gap between what gets published and what actually needs to be published. Similarly, who comments on what is a complicated concept. In both instances, someone decides that it is a good idea to break the silence and write about a topic or for someone to comment on someone’s work.  Perhaps this Zen story can convey the conundrum of social interaction:

Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out.

The first monk said, “Oh, no! The candle is out.”

The second monk said, “Aren’t we not suppose to talk?”

The third monk said, “Why must you two break the silence?”

The fourth monk laughed and said, “Ha! I’m the only one who didn’t speak.”

Each monk broke the silence for a different reason. The first monk became distracted by one element of the world (the candle) and so lost sight of the rest. The second monk was more worried about rules than the meditation itself. The third monk let his anger at the first two rule him. And the final monk was lost to his ego.

There is no right or wrong way of looking at who gets to moderate feedback or who is entitled to give one in the first place. What we, as a society, need to spare more thought to is our reasons for breaking silence. Yes, freedom of speech gives us the write to express ourselves, but this fundamental right comes attached with duty. We’re responsible for what we express. And that applies equally to the writer and the commentator. Self-moderation is what we need, where online text is concerned.

Maybe there was a fifth monk in the story, who slept through peacefully, blissfully unaware of the value of his silence.

 

 

A Wild Goose Chase

As I put on my soothsayer hat and predict the decline of one of the “Big Four” companies, I feel a sense of irony as I use Google search extensively to come to my conclusion—Google could be the next one to fall. As things stand now, the four companies—Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, collectively own the virtual world that we live in. They look invincible to someone like me, who routinely prostrates herself in front of a browser window or mobile app to get through the day. If asked about the role these companies play in my life, I often flounder over the answer. Yes, I use technology on daily basis to accomplish work, socialize, explore, research, shop and express opinion. But on closer inspection I sense a measure of helplessness as my life gets documented without my explicit consent. I am left questioning the role these companies play in my life and vice versa.

I feel Google might meet their hypothetical doomsday within the next decade. Technology giants often meet their end not with a bang, but with a whimper. Take the case of Nokia, Kodak, and much closer to home—Microsoft, on its decline. These one-time market leaders are no longer the same. In the dynamic virtual world, things change extremely fast and it’s inevitable for companies to pivot in response to the winds of change. Google has been consistently investing in building its AI that intends to gather, rearrange and disseminate the collective knowledge of this world. They have set themselves a humongous task that is primarily financed by their ad revenues. Google enjoyed the first-mover advantage in the online advertising field. Ad revenue contributes to 90% of their earnings. The growth in the ad revenues has flattened over the years because of Amazon and FB in-app advertising. This exposes Google’s handicap. They have tried and failed to establish their presence in the retail or social media. Much of the ad revenue is directed through social media sites and Google is definitely feeling the pinch. They have been confined to browser window that serves as a transactional interface to connect other websites. This affords a very limited interaction between the user and Google.

Also, consider the coping mechanism we all develop to keep the noise of ads away. Advertising experts suggest that we are inevitably developing “Banner-blindness” that affords us to tune out the ads that pop-up in our browsers or mobile apps. Considering this and the fleeting affection we have for Google, which is sometimes an afterthought—a means to an end; what does it mean for Google?

The era of ruling on data alone is over. I feel that the next big move in the tech is context. How well do these companies know us? How well do the understand us? What value proposition are they offering us? What do we actually want? These are the questions all four companies need to deliberate on. But being on the back foot with their ad revenues, Google is vulnerable to becoming redundant in our lives. Unless they can provide a richer context to their searches and not merely peddle their partners, Google will lose their edge to their nearest competitor.

I agree that this theory has holes in it and can be countered in hundreds of ways. The arguments for and against are moot at this point. Because only time will tell how the cards fall. One can only predict the direction of the wind. And Google might have some turbulence ahead of them.

We’re not above this disruption heading for us either. Our interdependency on technology is growing day-by-day. Does the health of the big four companies affect us too? Maybe yes. Maybe no. It all depends on our perspective.

There’s a Zen Koan that goes like this: “If a man puts a baby goose in the bottle and feeds it until it is full-grown, how can the man get the goose out without killing it or breaking the bottle?”

The idea behind any Koan or riddle is to provoke doubt and question the status quo. The point is to sit with the sheer illogic of the situation; tearing at it with the logical part of your mind, until finally your mind surrenders further attempts to analyse and makes a leap into “pure consciousness”. In this case, the goose is your consciousness and the glass bottle is the mind. You might start with raking your head about ways to get the poor goose out of the confines of the bottle, until you realise in a moment of utter clarity that there is no goose; there in no bottle.

Similarly, we are the geese living in the shiny technology bottle bearing the label of the big four. We can either live in it or we can simply decide not to. If we stop being the goose, there will be no bottle. It’s that simple.

Anumeha Gokhale