From material testing of ideas to embodied experiences and learning, to meaningful conversations and relationships, to the desire of finding and nurturing close-knit communities, these are the high-risk thrills that I chase. Of course, not always successfully and quite often with miserable outcomes.
The fear of the infectious disease, the scientific advice of maintaining socio-physical distance and the mis-orchestrated and mis-played lockdown has fallen on my adventurism like gigantic clouds of lead. Most, if not all, of what I know about learning and community now lies pinned down, wriggling, unable to move the way it used to. Fortunately though, I have my breath, body and loved ones to care for and tell me that I am alive and good.
While the evolutionary power of adaptability is firing away in all directions to find a conducive response to help us survive this threat, one of its inadvertent attempts, since beliefs are incredibly resistant to change1, is to rush to a sense of normalcy – doing things as we are used to doing them. Although this may require extraordinary effort in framework, all three – the extraordinariness, the effort and the framework – are almost always considered insignificant; since even their acknowledgement is an admission of the prevalent threat and the fact that things are not normal.
The prompt shift to digital platforms, be it schools, colleges, offices or businesses, is a case in point. Although the PR and marketing machineries’ cost saving on wine and tikka is understandable, the apparent opportunism in the incessant torrent of webinar announcements is unbearable.
Yes it is good to keep going, but perhaps not so in unprecedented circumstances. Crises, whether presumed by an individual anxious mind, or perceived as clear and present by the collective intelligence, demands attention and care. Continuing to operate without pause, acknowledgement or conversation, betrays a society and mind that is in a state of perpetual crisis. As a popular post on social media states: “The virus didn’t break the system; it only exposed a broken system.“2
Fortunately though, we have our breath, body & loved ones and we will walk home. Perhaps trying to prove that it is not humanity that is in crisis; instead, its economic model – our idea of “making a living“, the little worth that we place on life – which needs radical rethinking and complete reconstruction. Perhaps if we were to pause and breathe, we would see not only that the system has been broken for long, rather intentionally, but also that the system is supposed to serve us and not the other way around; that while we are worrying our days and sleep away in making a living, life already is… here and now…
Learning, Community & Communication
Learning is haptic, tactile and predominantly peer-to-peer. All of which is now under arrest. Online platforms do encourage and assist us autodidacts with demonstrations, but this is only supplementary to learning, which depends primarily on application, figuring out and reflection; the latter is perhaps best practised in company. Learning involves the dichotomous awareness of our subconscious and others’ perspectives towards the expansion of our understanding. Reducing this process to instructions and language seems detrimental.
Majority of our communication is non-verbal. Online interface, however, is limited in its ability to communicate the embodied expressions, particularly when they are subtle. Just our location and stance in a space of congregation says so much. Most of this is flattened out in digital interactions.
There is far too much emphasis on the face and articulation in spoken and written languages, which, while conveniently submitting to documentation, tends to expel the subconscious processes of communication. No doubt that the face is most important for expression; however, it is very difficult to distinguish between an emotional twitch and a digital glitch. It becomes further complicated with the digital-real-time necessitating accommodation of lag in data transmission.
Digital meeting platforms allow the host to not only record a session, but it also does not necessitate explicit permission from other participants. This is turning out to be a major challenge for privacy & security concerns.3
All except the speakers are expected to mute their microphones to avoid noise from participants’ environments (usually homes now) in an ironic subversion of infringement: formal engagements invading private spaces and seeking protection from disturbance. There can be no discreet exchange of glances as everyone seems to be looking at everyone else simultaneously; however, without anyone seeing the other, while everyone is actually watching and being watched. Add to this circus a little cherry topping of one’s own inset live video and watch narcissism ooze.
There is little scope for digression from the agenda as the clock is ticking particularly loud now – contrary to the analog world where everything seems paused at the moment. Participatory creative processes are straight-jacketed to fall in line and deliver the intended outcome. The envelope of space that buffered one from another in the physical place of congregation is now replaced by a rather tight frame, which offers little allowance for displacement – the phenomenon essential for evoking emotions – and the first and biggest casualty is humour. Since the other contextual support which lighten things up – physical stance & gestures, participation from others and signs of reassurance – are extremely limited, humour could easily be perceived as violence. So almost everyone refrains from it.4 With humour gone, playfulness is nearly negligible in the engagement and the stakes turn really high. Whether or not the agenda of coming together was serious, it has now acquired larger-than-life dimensions and we have all transformed, from a community of people, to a group of workers that cannot proceed without a ring leader and have to deliver what has been asked for. There is nothing to be created but only to be managed.
The Tyranny of Documentation
The primary role that I have been playing during the lockdown over the past few months has been that of a spatial design educator. I can barely express the loss that our processes have faced in not being able to share space and work with physical spatial representations of the designs which were being explored by the students of the first year of specialisation in this creative discipline.
Digital communication tools seem biased towards management and offer very little for creative engagements, which deal with unknowns and necessitate community interactions. Its perpetuation of documentation is evident from the fact that of the nearly 1300 emails that I have received on my institutional mail ID for the past 18 months, 30% have come over in the past three months, that is during the lockdown period. While 40% of the overall 800+ messages that I sent, were mailed during this period.
There were several lectures that I delivered during this period, which were recorded. One five-hour long online review, that was conducted for the design studio, took me three days to edit into an hour-long lecture. Almost all of the silence while drawing, the “okay?” and “right?” and tongue-in-cheek digressions were edited out in the interest of predominantly decontextualized comprehension.
Being forced to adapt, engaging in a format that I inherently mistrust, uncharacteristically unsure of my tread, I was under significant duress and my anxieties frequently spilled out from the cracks in my stiffness onto students & colleagues rattling my limited patience.
The concluding evidence of the straight-jacketing caused by the substitution of physical shared space with digital fragmented space is that, from a batch of 30, I can recollect less than half-a-dozen designs from this term, compared to the score that I distinctly remember from the previous term. Diversity had been compromised to achieve common minimum standards through rigorous checks and control on the process. Of course, this is the inevitable outcome of attempting to educate without adequate experience of the medium of education; the larger question, however, needs to be against the inadvertent rush to doing things as we are used to doing them.
There wasn’t a single phone call from the institution to ask, “How are you?” or “How on earth did you pull off the documentation job which we’ve set for the institution to help beat our British partners at their own game of bureaucracy?” Of course, they were all busy pulling their own acts off. The HR Manager did call, however, to inform me that in the difficult situation that the institution is facing, my contract will not be extended; paying little attention to the extraordinary effort in framework that doing things demands in the face of a crisis. Of course, compared to the rampant passive aggression and the lack of institutional vocabulary, my forthrightness and perceived short-temper prove to be convenient targets. Nonetheless, considering that this was one of the better places of work that I’ve been associated with in my seventeen years of professional experience, one can only imagine the plight of people who are dependent on their job not just for livelihoods but their very existence.
Politics of Capital Mis-governance
Take note of the poverty of this nation where not only capitalist enterprises have no surplus to retain workers for even a few months, but the responsibility of holding or transporting migrant labourers was also shuttled between the states and the center.5 Laying off thousands of workers is as expedient as donating crores of rupees to the opaque and unaccountable PMCARES fund.6 Further, not only did some states attempt to dilute extant labor laws,7 they even attempted to double workers’ shifts with a new law under the pretext of austerity measures to sustain economic development in the face of the pandemic.8
The business of toppling elected governments or stressing in power without getting elected is flourishing better than the pre-pandemic days. Neither is there a breath of doubt on wasteful and detrimental projects like the Bullet Train, the Coastal Road or the Central Vista, nor is there a batting of an eyelid in wreaking environmental protection by opening up the coal sector and weakening the EIA policy.9
We seem to be riding the crust of global neo-fascism with several prominent countries bringing authoritarian regimes to power mid-first-decade of the twenty first century,10 affecting restrictive and discriminatory laws, leading to widespread protests, resulting in severe state crackdowns which further intensified the protests11 and then the pandemic happened.
Not only have the fear of the virus and its socio-political waves taken the stream out of protests, but dissenters across the nation are being hounded and imprisoned without due process of law or under “horrendous legislation”.12 All this while the Parliament and the Judiciary have chosen not to congregate, citing socio-physical distancing. State surveillance seems more rampant than ever. Even routine engagements like traveling and attending work, which one does today only if unavoidable, mandated (now rescinded) installation of a state sponsored tracking app in one’s mobile. What good will this tracking do when the state’s extant medical infrastructure is in shambles, private hospitals are turning patients away and medical staff in both sectors, in addition to the disease, battle for their own lives and livelihoods?
Through the duration of India’s young democracy, opportunist businesses, of politics and produce alike, have known well to play on the fears of people in the name of religion, caste, domicile, language, class, skin and so on. Traditionally, we’ve been a populace that looks up to the rulers as gods. As far as governance is concerned, it’s a culture that accepts abusive parenting against having no authority figure at all. Our heads have almost always been bowed down and hands tied behind. The only difference today is that the hands are tied upfront with a smartphone that is incredibly far more powerful than the computer that landed humans on the moon half a century ago.13 Where do we go from here?
Asking Questions to Appear Open-Ended
To keep them from being misplaced in rhetoric, I’d like to frame these emotions and thoughts as questions around three pivotal aspects of our lives: communication, learning & community. This way I hope to leave the ramblings open-ended.
Are we at the cusp of a dramatic change in human communication, or will this affect a widespread redevelopment of digital tools to facilitate comprehensive communication?
How do we address the extant tension between the needs of a learning environment and the restrictions on sharing space?
Notwithstanding the transformations brought about over the past two decades by digital-social-media, are humans set for a metamorphosis in the definition, creation and sustenance of communities?
How do we regroup to grow while avoiding authoritarian and exploitative tendencies from overwhelming and taking over us?
In all likelihood, everyone will try and get back to life as they knew. I’d get back to the 9-to-5-job-with-a-decent-pay, nobody even needs to drop a hat for that. Not only because one has to make a living, but also because I love creative pursuits particularly with young learners.
Nevertheless, something would’ve changed and we all need to be keen and curious about that shift. Although a few months is a very short time in the grand scheme of things, certain abrupt changes, I believe, have the capacity to affect ever so slight changes in our DNA which is enough to impact the forthcoming generations.14
Notice how expats and the floating populace are returning to their natal place; those who can afford to, are buying houses in small towns neighbouring large cities and those who have only their breath, bodies and loved ones, are walking back home.