by Malik Abbas
This is the second part in a two-part series about the need for a new narration for crises. The previous piece used the medium of fictional foretelling in order to reliably convey the probable devastation caused by the climate crisis, job insecurity and food scarcity in South Asia. This one shall focus on the remaining powder-keg: A lethal imbalance of Demography and Online Polarization. South Asian states and societies are at great peril if the risky aspects of these two realities are allowed to fester.
The Power of a Story
“Why would a piece of fiction be more convincing to your intended audience than a peer-reviewed paper or a well-researched Op-Ed ?”
Most recurring criticism received regarding the previous piece hovered around the usage of exaggeration via fiction. It was said that deploying figments of our imagination to tackle any crisis instead of solid studies reeks of overkill. This criticism is not without merit and needs to be examined.
“No one is unaware of the grimness of this era. Why add imaginative horrors to it?”
Agreed. We are certainly not unaware of the crises. The awareness is regularly manifested in forms of mobilizations, studies, legislation, policies and even contemporary culture. There is awareness, tons of it, no doubt about that. One’s gripe is with the value of awareness itself. The futility of mere awareness has been pointed out in the previous piece, wherein desensitization and a class-discriminatory nature of consequences render mere awareness pretty ineffectual. Awareness is a notch below the bare minimum when it comes to the requirements for a long journey of overcoming any challenge – let alone a challenge of existential nature. It’s also a fact that people often learn to live with uncomfortable realities as long as absolute desperation doesn’t take hold.
The answer to the initial question lies in the most basic of human inventions around which empires, religions, civilizations and nations have been woven into existence: A Story. The oldest and most resilient of human creations, stories have made and unmade realities of all human eras. Storytellers take from the observable world, add elements from the experienced world (our psyche) and weave some powerful narratives which shape the world for aeons to come. Prophets, founding figures, sages, priests, philosophers, revolutionaries and historians: all were master storytellers of their eras and they outlive and outgrow them. The oral and written scriptures
which hold enormous sway over the majority of our world population in this advanced age, are the living legacies of these people. Stories outlast their creators, create an impact beyond borders and last for generations – even millennia. They create active followers, even fanatics, for whatever causes their creators to espouse. No dissemination of facts and figures can match the power of stories, for better or worse.
It is precisely this power that needs to be harnessed by the movers and shakers of our age in order to make a lasting impact. Considering the annihilation we’re collectively facing – yet are not collectively affected by, stories have the power to bind people from the cross-sections of our respective societies towards some crucial goals. For the very purpose of sounding provocative, there might be a need for an almost religious belief in these stories and narratives if cross-sectional and generational action is to be sustained. Stories of this sort need to become a part of our folklore, national ethics and personal tales of self-actualization because the situation demands it.
As for the fear of the words like apocalypse and annihilation, it probably stems from the misinterpretation of the words. Slavoj Zizek calls apocalypse a “revelation of the truth”, interpreted as the consequences of our actions catching up with us. Yet, each myth foretells an apocalypse precisely in order to avert one. Let’s create new narratives of our own age which tell grim tales of a probable future with the express intent of avoiding one.
Dividends of Damnation: Somewhere in South Asia circa the late 2020s and onwards
Blogspot entry by a freelance journalist
The synchronized chatrooms of Meta, Omega, SupraMeta, Reddit+ and Youtube were getting heated in and NationalistZeigeist2050 (or NatZei2050, the online avatar) was reveling in it. Never had they (the user identifies as a “woke-hater but maintains ambiguity online to infiltrate gender-sensitive spaces) thought that online destruction would feel so good. For the past six months, NatZei2050 earned about 60 mini-NFTs after overachieving the target of sending about half a dozen journalists offline. Any time a journalist, preferably female, would post a message about quitting the online space, NatZei2050 here would earn 10 mini-NFTs. These allow them to rise up the hierarchy of online CHADS—an online identity of Metaversial masculinity.
“Online spaces are as important as offline spaces like my neighborhood and my street. Would you let some wayward elements roam around in your surroundings? No, right ? The same applies to online spaces. I shall only rest when my list is empty”
These texts from the NatZei2050 during our interview in the MetaVerse coincided with their Avatar catching fire. Since the VR devices, especially the GioVerse versions, now convey real emotions of the users through their Avatars, it’s obvious that the anger is real.
“I’m sorry. Anger is not optimal at this point. Let me create positive emotions”
They sent me a link to the latest online promo of the newly released historical revivalism series. the supreme leader, the ideology, the flags and the slogans — this series is perfect for artificial nostalgia, i.e., nostalgia created out of implanted memories.
“Isn’t it marvelous?!!!”
The gleaming avatar signals nostalgic joy and I move ahead with the interview. I ask about the list that NatZei2050 is so serious about and am presented with an encrypted portion. The usual suspects were there: journalists, activists (preferably minorities), liberals, communists, social scientists and anyone displaying sportsmanship. Needless to say, women from each group were primary targets. There was an additional prize if the target vacates online spaces out of trauma. “Nothing better than a permanently disabled enemy”, reads the note by the Mod.
There was more to come. I collected data on some 300 Avatars like NatZei2050 and profiled them to the extent possible. Most were young, partly employed and asocial in the offline world (the time spent online was a giveaway). NatZei2050 was typical of this kind: angry, vengeful, self-righteous and autonomously dedicated. These people were not braindead foot soldiers but actors with agency and commitment toward a cause.
“Job? Why would I seek a job? I am part of a transformational moment in our nation’s history. Jobs are anyway not available. And I earn enough from my online work. Occasionally, I win more than I lose from ludo and betting. Also, I am waiting for the conversion of my mini-NFTs into Jio-credits. When that happens, things will get easier as I would be able to make purchases from JioBazaar”
Despite the bluster, I get a sense of quiet desperation from them. The recent mass layoffs from IT firms have rendered hundreds of thousands of skilled workers of their age unemployed. With no social safety net to fall back on, people of this age group were left to fend for themselves. Some turned to freelancing, a few tried to build businesses (if they survived the acquisitions/undercutting/lawsuits from the two bigwigs of the country) and the rest got sucked
into the ever-growing rabbit hole of online hate ecosystems. This must certainly have an effect on their relationships.
“Friends? I have more than friends online. I have brothers and sisters!! Part of a community that transcends our political borders but lives and breathes for this country. They are just like me and do not look down upon me. Why would I need any friends when I am doing so much better?”
That is not the only kind of relationship you can have, I quipped. The avatar receded in size. Clearly, I had hit the right chord.
“Well, I did go that route once. There was this person from the other community I liked and I felt a reciprocated connection. The community itself was dangerous and I wish that person was born in my community. But I wish I could have….”
Loud music filled with bluster interrupts this chain of thought and a MetaAd gets played. The booming voice of the leader fills this space and his 7D hologram fills up the entire space with his presence. The leader’s voice, his face, his smile, the garments, the movement of his hands—all overwhelm the sensory range of this space. The ad moves on to show the enormous progress that the country (wrong, this civilizational state) has made. The borders move beyond their current status and engulf the surrounding regions into a warm embrace. The people cheer happily and one color shines all above this envisioned reality.
I slap myself back into the Meta-reality. NatZei2050 is gone. I cannot distinguish him from scores of other shining avatars who are in awe of the leader. The leader’s smile is on the faces of these avatars and he points towards pictures of a few people, many of whom I know from that earlier list. A chant reverberates throughout the space:
Malik Moin Abbas is a Master’s in Liberal Studies (IR) student at Ashoka University.