Erosion of Trust

Two words – Fake News.

Lies, gossip, speculation and slander have been prevalent in society ever since humans developed the concept of language. Gossip was in-fact the prime cause of language development and even the bedrock upon which human connections were developed, ultimately leading to the unification of the word as we see it today. But what has changed in the last decade with the penetration and power of social media that has completely destroyed the notion of trust.? Everything now seems fake until proven otherwise.

Thanks to hundreds of algorithms at work, Facebook has turned into an echo-chamber. I read somewhere that TV was in-fact much better – even if it created false narratives and spread rumours, it did that to extremely large audiences and gave a united message. Today social media has made the reality different for every one of us, it is a mind numbing concept – make your own reality and facts, dividing us at every level. How can the fast growing tentacles of this gigantic beast be controlled?

I am very critical of social media’s role in this emergence of “fake news” and “alternate facts”. I always wondered who had the time to make these elaborate articles look so genuine with chock-full of bullshit and make clever gifs and animated files, videos and clickbaits. It is with horror I read a report about how making these false news items and “viral” content is also an industry. You can now “buy” twitter followers to boost your credibility, hire “troll farms” to spew malicious lies and outright nonsense at your detractors and thanks to the AI algorithms of Facebook, connect intimately with only the crowd of your choice. This isn’t the rise of social media, it is psychological warfare.

It in turn has made me a skeptic. I refuse to trust anyone (apart from a very small inner circle) and my eyes quickly scan for the sources. I have quit all forms of social media and need atleast two or three independent sources to confirm any news before putting my faith into it. You might call it a good habit, but it is draining. The more you run away from vile, unsubstantiated news, the more it is flung at you and your life becomes more and more difficult. Look for sources, trust no WhatsApp forward and learn how to maneuver google’s search lists to spot authentic content. As far as Google’s involvement in my life, I have given up and have to implicitly trust this one company.  I can only hope that they are hiring the best cryptographers and have a tough handle on their security unlike yahoo.

I try and get inspired from simpler creatures like my dogs and people who have led relatively uncomplicated lives like my parents. I am consciously trying to live a simpler, more fulfilling life offline with a minimal online presence. I knew the internet was dangerous right from the yahoo chatroom days but off late this danger is threatening our very existence. Tech-industry folks, drop striving for the bottom-line alone and get a conscience!! How long will you pretend to just be tech platforms with no social conscience? How long will you focus on just the business model without any concern for its sources? How will you recover the trust from your users? When will you go back to being the fun websites to connect with family and friends  and making life convenient without being a platform for showing off, spreading misinformation and creating dangerous worlds for people to inhabit?

Everyday I read the news, I sigh and wonder what happened. Seriously, how did we get here?


Do you revere your shackles?

This article sums it up brilliantly!

“Women are the biggest enforcers of patriarchy” – I read this quote somewhere and this pops up in my head rather frequently when I read such articles. How true! This post has been in my mind for a long time and catalyzed by the article linked above, I finally decided to pen it down.

Marriage brought me into contact with a completely new set of people, people who were completely out of my world-view. I was brought up very liberally, encouraged to do, speak, dress and behave as I want. I was the lucky one in the sense that I never walked the tightrope between tradition and modernity – my mother and grandmother did that for me. The worldviews that women are equal to men intellectually, as-capable and in fact mentally stronger was not just an opinion but my reality. My idols reached the top of their games and my friends and close-colleagues seem very bright, smart and women of the 21st century. My mother excelled in her chosen profession and despite having different responsibilities at home, I never felt that she didn’t have an equal say or equal decision making powers. To me, power was balanced at home. So when I got married, what I observed outside this familiar progressive circle of extremely independent, smart women, came as a literal shock to me.

I saw women who worshipped patriarchy for no other reason than the comfort of familiarity. What the author observes in the column is the ground reality for many women who have been raised ( religious and traditionalist propaganda, in my opinion) to be subservient to men for their “benefit”. I saw women who were happy to act as mere helps and maids, while the man made all the critical decisions. This balance of power was for no other reason other than gender – she was female after all. It was astonishing to see how the women basked in this second-grade role and even justified their reasons to be delegated to the wifely duties alone. The so-called protection was seen as a mark of their pedigree – the inability to venture out as wished, wear clothes as desired, step out at odd hours was seen as being from a “good” household where women were to be protected, treated like breakable china until shipped off to a husband’s home where a new “protector” was established. I saw parents worry incessantly about a grown-up daughter who ventured out to buy some milk in a shop that was less than a minute away. You might argue that there are safety issues prevalent which justify many of these actions. There might be some element of truth to that, but stunting the ability of an individual to protect herself, make her own decisions in the name of “safety” or “culture” is mere a tool to weaken the female gender and render them shackled to the “safety” of patriarchy.

What astonished me even further was this –  women are so mired in the system, they don’t realize how rotten it has become. Small freedoms – the ability to maybe spend an afternoon shopping or make a decision to watch a movie with their girlfriends satisfies them. They argue back that they are in fact independent when to me it looks like they win these small battles, but lose the war big time. They compare themselves to their mothers or grandmothers who lacked that basic right, and feel blessed that their condition is better just because they could venture out or decide not to make dinner. (It is all with the husband’s blessings, mind you.) Women are very much the caretaker of the children – ensuring the household is running smoothly with a spotless house and a hot meal waiting for the husband returning from his job.

I saw women with jobs  – jobs, not careers feel the rush of freedom and turn a blind eye to the obvious walls around them. It is true that much of the female workforce was unemployed a generation ago, but mere jobs don’t qualify as true progress. The funniest part was how the husbands where the ones credited with “allowing” the wives to work and the women never flinched when such statements were made to their faces. They are indeed “allowed” to work, but pursuing careers, moving cities, chasing promotions that disrupt schedules are options for which sadly “permissions” are still required. Worse, if they dare try to break these glass cases, it is the other women (aunts, mothers, relatives, friends) who will shoot down the idea instantly. It is then natural to accept patriarchy, the mundane responsibilities as enough because fighting so many battles and breaking so many shackles is discouraged, portrayed as unwanted, scary and often character-slandering. These extremely capable women then satisfy themselves with a job that adds a significant amount to the family’s earnings, but still consider themselves second-grade.

The real scary part is that there is a part of society that is not recognizing that it is actually being segregated against – atleast earlier the women were marginalized and they knew it. It just seems like they have broken the prison walls only to find themselves in the yard of an even bigger prison – and they don’t know it yet! I have heard conversations where they find flaws or shortcomings in the lives of successful women who have climbed to the top of their fields and compare it to their own healthy home-lives. “Oh, her daughter stays with the maid all the time” or “Look at her, she never makes food for her family” are so commonly used to judge other women and paint their achievements in a negative light while turning  a blind-eye to their obvious positives. This kind of back-biting attitude is human, but also a reinforcer of the old-school patriarchy where women were judged on the quality of their cooking, the cleanliness of her home and the satisfaction of her husband.

I felt many times that I had indeed gone back in time. It was eye-opening for me to see the reality of  so many women and their blatant disregard for the bigger picture of their rights and life. With so many conversations happening now about women’s rights and empowerment, I hope these women don’t dismiss this as just news but use the moment to take a look at their own lives and their rights. An equal society would be a wonderful place and changes do happen slowly, but I hope the change is concrete and tangible and from within – not just a larger prison yard with glass ceilings.


Are you afraid of the cold?

Newly faced with a proper 6 month long winter as a part of the calendar year when I moved to the US, I needed to make adjustments to my lifestyle. Far from the “winters” of India where I experienced the occasional zero degree weather in the doon valley (it included me sticking my head out of the doors and windows to feel the freezing temperature, much to my mom’s chagrin) and being oddly happy that it was the temperature where water froze. Winters were cozy affairs, with days spent sitting in the sun (and dozing, only to be woken up by a nasty headache) and having “tel-maalish” or head massages with mustard oil. Razais and wool blankets prevented any morning activity and getting out of bed was a chore. School uniforms included sweaters and blazers ( I was very jealous that mine never had those smart blazers as part of the uniform and I never wore one), caps and other color-coordinated winter gear. In theory and in my very biased memory, I recall feeling very cold and facing “brutal” winters. In reality, that was only “mild fall weather” when compared to what this north American continent faces.

Faced with long sub-zero nights and uncomfortable wind chills, outdoor life comes to a grinding halt. The pups no longer get their hour-long evening strolls, vegetation goes into hibernation (or in my case, ceases to survive) and the roads become quiet and isolated. It is one thing to protect oneself against the winter and have a version of hibernation in your home, but when the conditions ease – the one day of bright warm sunshine or where I live right now, the non-rainy day, the pattern of zero movement continues. I don’t see anyone outside and catch only a glimpse of someone scurry from their door to their car. We have temperature control everywhere – homes, offices, schools, malls, shops and can actually spend winters without ever facing the outdoors thanks to connected garages in homes. There is no dearth of winter jackets, coats, gloves, caps and other gear that do a magnificent job of keeping one toasty, in-spite of the elements. I then wonder, why does no one venture out? Why so afraid of the cold?

I share the pang of disappointment with my dogs, as they expectantly wait for their friends to come out of their homes during winters.  We let a collective sigh and look up at the lit curtained windows and wall mounted TV’s playing football matches or America’s Top Model, with folks presumably curled up on their couches, refusing to venture outside. I wonder what makes them so afraid of the winters? Maybe it is a feature of the American suburbia where this complete isolation during winters occurs. I think a big, bustling city would be a different story altogther.

We trudge back home, wet and muddy. Yet another day passes by, where not a soul is seen outside.

The pursuit of happy-ness

The 2006 film of the same name shows the story of a single father who faces insurmountable odds at first and eventually ties the ends of the protagonist’s frayed life beautifully. The movie ends with the father being successful at what he does, a typical tale of hard work, perseverance and luck ultimately bringing success and much needed financial stability to the protagonist’s life. But is the protagonist ultimately happy with his newfound wealth and stability? We will never know.

Such stories abound in the Indian diaspora that is thriving outside the country today. You hear of folks from modest backgrounds, with parents living very middle-class lives, only dreaming of the lifestyles their wards lead today. But the part I have since realized is missing, both in the movie and reality is the happiness. I work in a society full of accomplished individuals, smart and tech-savy, making many times more than the American average salary, living in posh-neighborhoods, driving swanky cars and warmly clothed in their expensive Columbia jackets. It looks great on the outside. These people have proverbially “made it”, aced tough competitive exams, majored in various engineering fields, worked hard through graduate school here living in near-poverty conditions, bagged prestigious jobs and now lead cushy lives. Everyone’s life is like a movie tale. But only a small fraction of them seem to be generally happy.

I am not saying one must be happy and upbeat when faced with a crisis or an emergency. Those are unfortunate but necessary experiences faced during a lifetime. But what about that occasional gathering? That birthday party? The impromptu dinner or lunch? Or a drive to the beach with friends? I have begun to notice that the upbeat conversation fades quickly and is replaced by a constant worry – of job security, deportation, company financials and more recently – immigration status. Those are valid reasons to worry, no doubt. Private companies don’t provide the cushion of job security or retirement benefits and the tech-sector is especially vulnerable to setbacks and layoffs. But is the other alternative constant worry? Do we strive to improve our lives only to mentally burden ourselves with the fear of losing it all? Where do we draw the line between being ambitious and anxious?

Everyone is different and handles a crisis, imaginary or real, differently. The pressure to perform well in tests, get a good college degree, job and working hard are directives issued in pursuit of the eventual “good” comfortable life. We worked towards a better standard of living, a job where you could have a positive impact on the world and enjoy life. I see everyone living swanky lives , enjoying fantastic vacations, buying large mansions and cars but being generally unhappy because they constantly worry about something. Yuval Noel Harrari, in his book “Sapiens” points out that human beings in their pursuit of a better life have actually increased their burdens and revved up the pace and anxiety. He rightly calls it “The Luxury trap”. Are we being ensconced in this trap as well? Does the promise of earning money, living the desirable life, holidaying in famous places around the world come at the cost of mental peace and sanity?

I will not be the first to point out the exponential rise in stress being faced by our generation. The stress to maintain the lifestyle, being threatened by unfavorable immigration policies, the peer pressure and competition today in the work-force are all man-made evils. It is no wonder that our parents’ generation were more social, interactive and generally happier. To me, personally, if you aren’t able to be happy and constantly seek that utopian existence without risks and only rewards, you have to evaluate what your ultimate goal is. The phrase “Happiness comes from within” is often overlooked and brushed off. But the ability to be at peace and pursue the feeling of being joyous without depending on circumstances all the time is key to avoiding feeling blue for something or another.

I still pursue happiness. I am aided in no small measure by wet noses and wagging tails who welcome me home everyday. Their love, excitement, happiness and ability to live in the moment is not actually an evolutionary drawback, maybe it is the real goal.

The minimalist life

Recently, I watched a documentary “The Minimalist” on Netflix. I might be late to the game, but I realized how the American marketing companies had me in their tight grip. Not an obsessive or compulsive shopper by any yardstick, but the concept of the true “worth” of an item had undergone a gradual shift in my worldview. I have been swept away by trends in both fashion and electronics, stashed away books half-read because their second and third parts no longer piqued my interest, and despite regular donations, found myself suddenly surrounded by a lot of things. I liked the concept of the “American template” that the documentary could clearly debunk, which is what I describe in this blog.

One of the first things anyone will notice when they first land here is the supersizing. It caught me unawares. It was a sort of decompression, as though everything that was compressed and shrunk back home, was allowed to expand into its normal or abnormal size here. Not only were the cars bigger, the roads wider but the appliances were gigantic, fridges could fit a kid easily, the couches were gargantuan and everything, from the galleon milk jugs to cereal boxes and bowls, everything is very very large. Over time, one gets used to it and finds stuff smaller back home. The American dream, I figure is “big”. Everything, from the literal size to the ambitions and opportunities tend to be large here. Accumulating a large amount of stuff is a part of that. Advertisements and societies slowly built on the idea of “more is better”. Larger homes and things are ascribed to powerful people and the yardstick of success slowly became what you can buy vs. what you are/did. This vicious cycle is what leads to the excessive production of “stuff” that we no longer need, but desire.The part about homes being so much larger nowadays as opposed to 30-40 years ago with 3 car garages but people requiring additional storage space shown in the documentary is eye-opening. I am nowhere in that ballpark in terms of what I own, but I shudder at the thought of drowning in so much stuff. With no ambitions of living in 4000 q.ft  houses and managing 3 garages worth of items, the idea of living using a different alternate template appeals to me.  The real template, is not to own less but to value more.

For example, I love my books. I have carefully curated a collection, mostly in print (and some in electronic format). The minimalist trend is not to immediately dispose them due to their bulk and occupied space, but to keep only what you value. I helped me finally overcome the barrier to donating and giving away books I won’t revisit or did not complete (something we never did growing up). Marie Kondo uses the term “joy” to describe this addition of value and personal connection to any item you own. To me, value is a clearer concept than joy and this in its bare form, is minimalism.

Finally, it might also be a right of passage. The thrill of earning your first salary, of having your own economic standing and finally fulfilling childhood dreams of buying stuff you liked with your own money is unmatched. But as time marches on and you realize that all that stuff is also adding  responsibility (if not joy or value), it quickly becomes burdensome to pack and move and drag those possessions along just because you bought it. The Minimalist opened my eyes and influenced my thinking about material goods in profound ways.

Let’s hope being a minimalist and downsizing is one resolution I can stick to. Oh and by the way, Happy New Year to whoever is still reading this blog!

Adiós Facebook

I have a confession to make: I  was an addict, a social-media addict. I was so used to mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed without registering any information, or at times, remembering insignificant details of others’ lives. I found myself remembering random irrelevant people (destroying the natural progression of life where people and friendships fall by the wayside ) and during the last five years, found facebook nothing but a glorified wedding album of sorts.

I remember creating my account sitting in my college library upon hearing about this new facebook website that seemed so much more fun than Orkut, the social media craze of its time. (Gosh, it feels old typing this). I missed the Myspace wave but was firmly latched on to Orkut. Orkut testimonials felt like an electronic slam book with conversation threads and groups. Slam books were all the dope in high-school and it felt nice to immediately convert the slam book filling experience to an electronic one bolstered by the sadness and uncertainty experienced at the cusp of college life leaving one’s home and school behind. But Orkut wasn’t addictive and the dull blue and purple color gave it an old-fashioned feel. Facebook, with its clean white and blue page structure and “poking” options was a fun thing to do in college. The influence and power wielded by the social media giant today and its content and feel are nothing like what they were 10-15 years ago. To be honest, I think it lost a lot of its “fun” feeling converting itself from a college hobby to one of the largest media outlets in the world ( Even though Zuckerberg might insist on calling it a tech company, I think he should just accept that it isn’t just a tech company anymore).

With advancements in AI, algorithms, big data, social media evolved into time black holes and emotional manipulators, tapping into basic human vulnerability and emotional depravity. I read about tools such as SDK which spy on you all the time, algorithms and features deliberately designed to make one addicted and about how the facebook model has turned users into products with targeting advertising. The look and feel of the website has changed so much not just superficially, but in its ability to control people’s minds as well. Targeted posts, so much advertising, ability to log and post every single detail of our lives started out as interesting at first and now feels rather scary. For me, the final straw was fake news – the true black plague of the cyber era.

Fake news is poison and clickbait is like mold that threatens to infect any lesser-vigilant user. I needn’t mention the ramifications of fake news at all – just look at the Presidential elections in the USA in 2016. As legal authorities clamp down on what actually transpired leading up to the national debacle, Facebook’s name gets thrown around frequently. Indeed, as the largest distributor of (fake) news and targeted advertising, it brought to light the algorithms and psychological tricks used by the giant to draw users and keep them hooked.

I am not qualified to describe these algorithmic inventions and uber successful psychological warfare unleashed on the unsuspecting users by facebook. But I definitely was one of its victims. As studies upon studies come out  revealing why this social media platform captured the public’s imagination and time, one thing is clear – it clearly worked. I found myself opening the app and wishing to “check-in” during my activities or scrolling through profiles of people I have no contact with or have no intent to contact. It was unnerving to know what my friend from kindergarten ate for dinner yesterday without a conversation in over two decades.

It isn’t without its benefits. For people from the older generation who are now slowly settling into retired life, it is a second chance at re-establishing their friend’s circle and reconnecting after decades. When I hear my mom or dad talk, I can envision Zuckerberg’s lofty, well crafted and seemingly innocent vision of having the world more connected come to life. The first few weeks of being on facebook are indeed exciting – you  get to see how your friend’s lives shaped up and view photographs of them and their families. For the generation that grew up with facebook however, the thrill and excitement is long gone.

So I quit. I quit cold turkey one morning when I decided I no longer needed to see and debate if news articles were authentic or click on useless videos that were trending. I realized at the risk of losing out, I would get back my peace of mind, restore sanity and read news articles from their trusted origins and forego the requirement of leaving behind an electronic trail of my life for data scientists at facebook to pore over and decide to push out advertisements tailor made for me.

The surprising part is I don’t miss it. Not one bit.

The supporting cast

Any success story will tell you that the supporting cast is as important as the leads. Be it film production (the most literal analogy) where hundreds of supporting cast and crew function in the background to make cine-magic happen or corporations where the leadership is held aloft by an ably trained and managed work force. In the case of individuals, several popular sayings exist, such as “Behind any successful man/woman, there is a successful man/woman.” In today’s times, when a large part of the young Indian workforce emigrates to the western world in search of career opportunities and wealth, the supporting cast comes clearly into view. I am referring to obviously – parents and spouse. Each having their own roles to play, let me shine light upon the parental crew first.

This was the generation of Indian parents who sacrificed their comforts and faced restrictions of a semi-socialist, closed economy to uplift their economic standards to form the largest middle/upper-middle class in history. Indian middle-class, comprised largely of such hard working folks forms the foundations of a society that is deeply entrenched in a conflict of tradition, culture and modernity and placed the burden of its progress solely on education. Education proved to be its salvation and millions of youngsters flew out to seek greener pastures, higher education, improved standard of living and wealth. Owing to our rigorous education system (debatable and is a lot more nuanced than this simple description) and various other societal pressures, a large number of Indians found their education and skills desirable and functional in the western world.  With fear in their heart, hopes and dreams in their eyes, hundreds of parents hid their tears as they waved goodbyes to their wards from airports all over the country.

Fast-forward a few years and now their children have settled into their new lives, owning homes, driving fast cars, working for big companies and earning comfortably enough to be well within the upper echelons of the western world as well. They now invite parents to spend time with them in their new surroundings and experience the life they have built. Parents fly in willingly, to experience the joys and fruits of their hard word and persistence. Vistas or places heard about in books, news reports and mentioned once by the very rich, are now within reach. The parents also get to partake in a version of the ‘American Dream’.

Once the initial joys of visiting and experiencing the USA dies down (maybe in 2-3 trips spread across many years), the finer nuances of living in the US come to the fore. American culture is a far-cry from the very-involved, familial and interwoven communities existing in all societies that have evolved from ancient civilizations – Oriental, Arab, Persian, Greek and of course Indian. Loneliness raises its ugly head as parents, left alone after their children,children-in-law are off to work and grand kids are away at school, face an excruciating 6-8 hours of being alone, in an alien land, far away from their stomping grounds. Faced with responsibilities of mundane tasks such as cooking, cleaning or babysitting, without the freedom of their own place, the mind begins to rot. Now before you go all nuclear on me by quoting exceptions of how parents are now very well adapted to this life – driving, shopping, heading to temples and trying to form their own mini-circles, I speak for a large part of the population that still hesitates to call this place their own. Children rely on their parents restarting their life in a way to help them out with babysitting, childcare, cooking and raising grand children while they are away slaving away in cubicles night and day. Now, Indian culture is very accustomed to having grandparents be very involved in these activities, but bringing them across the seven seas to do it seems a tad exploitative to me .

Even though most Indians who make it here are proficient in English, their parents might not be. They often struggle to deal with the heavy accent (having watched none of the sitcoms or heard the music that their kids did),  battle nerves as they go behind the wheel and deal with fast-moving traffic as they never have back home or when they live in suburbia in the states, feel trapped by the lack of accessible shops or things to do. They have to ask the children to drive them everywhere and depend on the weekend for a chance to break out of the routine and do something fun. It feels like  entrapment for someone used to his/her own freedom in the comforts of their own people and land – bouts of anger, frustration and irritation begin to appear among both the parents and their wards. They feel disconnected with friends and family back home due to the time-difference and general lack of internet awareness. Did I mention that this is the generation where millions struggle with the tech revolution and fumble with buttons trying to see faces of their children/family/loved-ones once a week? Yupp/Sling TV and the occasional ride to the mall to watch that Indian movie becomes their sole connection to a life on hold. Purchasing power, where your hard earned money is downgraded in terms of value and your children buy things for you might also feel wrong for someone who has led a life of self-sufficiency and has saved enough to live the life of their dreams back home. Forming a social circle of parents has a huge initiation barrier and feels forced upon for want of other alternatives. Imagine, if you work your whole life expecting to retire comfortably, meet long-lost relatives and friends who have been left behind in the hustle-bustle of life and enjoy the joys of being with your grand children and being able to pamper them with goodies and treats on your own terms but suddenly being denied all of it. Most parents I know, contemplate never returning for the aforementioned reasons.

My point here is that, we, the first generation immigrants here are an entitled bunch. We rode on the sacrifices of our parents in India. They willingly led carefully planned lives, skimping on extravagant vacations and material comforts for themselves but built their lives around educational (best schools, coaching, sports lessons), cultural opportunities for us (dance classes, music lessons) and opened doors for our careers and encouraged us to live our dreams. With heavy hearts, they accepted our decision to live thousands of miles away and were content with annual or bi-annual short vacations to meet us in person.  Sadly, that wasn’t enough for us. They continue to sacrifice their retired dreams and lock the lives they have painstakingly built for months on end, for us to continue living ours. They transform themselves into cooks, baby sitters, drivers so our lives can go uninterrupted and we enjoy the best of both worlds. Next time, spare a thought for their sacrifices, for this supporting cast will never dare complain.