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.

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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.

Rain rain, go away

After 5 months of gray skies apart from the 10 minutes of sunlight in January, I am jaded by rains. Sometimes, I find myself oblivious to it, with me not noticing the rain drops, the soggy jacket or the puddles on the street anymore. My last three winters have been textbook cases of the phrase – “Too much of anything is a disaster”. Also, “Be careful what you wish for”.

My latest stint in the Pacific northwest has been full of new and delightful geographical experiences. Watching a snow-clad mountain from my office desk took a good 6 months to become routine and the beauty of gigantic fir and spruce trees in my backyard lasted a whole year before it became mundane. The cascade mountains, that flank the city, were an unknown mountain range to me (blame it on the geography textbooks that stopped with the Sierra Nevadas -technically, they are an extension, but the climates and greenery surrounding them are so distinct!) Surrounded by such natural beauty and the untouched Pacific coastline, it was a joy to live and explore the region all summer, spring and fall.

Then came the winter.

Now, with a stint in Buffalo, NY that automatically elevates your tolerance to colder-than-Mars temperatures and gigantic piles of dirty snow, the winter here is extremely mild. I didn’t even take out my actual winter jackets. However, it does rain. A lot.

Rains are romanticized to death in Indian literature, movies, books and I had an extreme love for it too. Watching dark, cloudy skies after relentless sunny summer days and oven-like temperatures elevated my mood and made me so happy. But having 5 months of it, almost without a break, shows you how so much rain can actually bore you too. I was told when I moved here that I will dislike rains once I live here. I couldn’t believe them. I don’t hate it, but sure, my fandom has sure decreased a few notches. For one, you can’t wear nice shoes. Dogs are wet all the time leading to non-stop colds, coughs and hours of blowdrying and toweling. No outdoor sports, no biking, no casual strolls without umbrellas or rain-gear. Skies remain gray and cloudy, albeit warm and mild. Plants don’t do too well either, my herbs died because I delayed transferring the pots indoors and the dryer runs on overtime every week. Mud rooms are muddy and soggy and heavy vacuuming is essential to maintain general hygiene. A rainy weather routine is fun if the rain lasts for a week, or two. But once the season extends to a couple of months, you long for the sunshine already.

I stopped checking the local weather. How different is it going to be afterall? Only a 85% chance of rain, down from 100%? Oh well, guess what, it is raining. For the next 3 weeks.

My (worthless) two cents

11/9 was momentous in many ways. It was momentous to me as an Indian, that finally a big step was taken to do away with corruption. Corruption has seeped through the Indian way of life so deeply that it is rusting and corroding morals, principals and ideas. The step taken is inconvenient in the extreme short term, but, it will finally do away or bring to light the corrupt folks and their “black” money. But I am not here to talk about that as much as about the elections held in the country I’ve been living in for the last 7.5 years.

Yes, it was devastating. I have never been so personally invested or interested in election outcomes and as I sat agape staring at the numbers before me, I could not understand. I went through all the stages of grief -anger, denial, sadness and so on. I couldn’t even muster myself to sleep. I was devastated that a woman had failed to break the glass ceiling. But I was more upset that the opponent was who he is. Over the last six months or so, the Republican candidate was called thoroughly incompetent and other nasty adjectives. His debate performances just made interesting television and drew laughter from the educated,literate crowd. I never in my wildest dreams expected him to win. It would be closely contested I thought, but winning, not a chance.

Now that slowly everyone is accepting the reality of what has happened and articles upon articles emerge trying to assuage the public and heal their wounds, it has brought out the hordes of trump supporters in all their glory and they deserve to be heard. I have had the opportunity to travel and work in the “rust-belt” that seems so different from the world that my family, friends, co-workers and I inhabit and I think I deserve to describe the little I saw.

The whole area seems to be stuck in time, a once-glorious past, full of dilapidated buildings, rusting plumbing, potholed roads, faded neon signs and old-dented scratched cars. You felt you went back in time to an America that hasn’t caught up with its coastal developed belts. The houses look shabby and run-down save for some posh neighborhoods and bars are always full, even at noon on a workday. Chimneys poke through the skyline, all in different stages of ruin, full of graffiti, no longer functional. There are hundreds of restaurants that don’t understand the concept of vegetarianism. I have seen Walmarts with no vegetable or produce sections.This exists, today, in parallel to the swanky neighborhoods of the silicon valley and the skylines of Manhattan. People have old-fashioned ideas of the roles of man and woman, do not believe in travelling far and wide and college education seems a rarity. I have interacted with these folks who disregard the ideas or even the presence of a woman in their midst, because she is a woman. Call them misogynist if you will, but in reality, they have much bigger problems to deal with. Can you imagine the quality of education they receive? What is their stimulus to change? I can see in my mind’s eye, how his campaign would have appealed to them. Clinton was realistic in not promising all the lost jobs or reversing globalization. He wasn’t but his message was simpler, more directed to this demographic and it paid off. They live in a world where unemployment and worry about having enough to feed their family and pay off their mortgage lies foremost on their mind. Misogyny, racism comes afterward.On my coast-to-coast road trip, this was more than evident. The inner-cities have indeed fallen behind. Globalization might have brought in more material goods and made movement of items easier, but their life has seen a downfall and it is easy to see their contempt and anger against the system. They look for anyone, just anyone who might fight for their cause, his personal digressions and character flaws mean nothing to those who struggle to earn, live and eat everyday. This America is not very visible to the rest of the world, but it exists. It shocked me the first time I visited too. I realized the slim bubbles or fragile walls that separate my world from theirs. It felt like a different place. It is.

My anger is directed towards the newspapers and media outlets. It is normal for media houses to take sides but just showing one side of the coin is akin to brainwash. An avid consumer of everything printed – from the New York Times, The New Yorker, Washington Post and other publications who are described as liberals, I feel cheated. It is alright to publish opinions and ideas of left-liberals and denigrate a republican candidate who shows no regard for public decency or political correctness, but the other side should also be shown. Name-calling, adjective writing is one thing, but media outlets have a responsibility to present the reality to society and not just print what like-minded individuals want to read or see. It is uncomfortable for sure, but it gives the right picture. If I believed everything I had read, I would have assumed there was absolutely no one who was on Trump’s side and that such a vile, idiotic,corrupt individual should not even be allowed to venture close to policy-making, let alone represent a major political party. Had I not been to the inner cities myself, I would have never had that iota of suspicion that he does have takers and his words are finding support in some parts of this country.

I think it is time to move past this and move forward. It would be interesting to see what powers a President can yield and the system of checks and balances that exist in this country that would prevent any disastrous outcomes.  This election has brought to light the stark differences in mindset, economy and ideals that exist in this country. It is time to accept , bring to light and work on the gigantic flaws of racism, poverty, misogyny hiding in plain sight in this global powerhouse.