Humanscape - December '96
Is the electronic media, offered as highway to people-centred development, actually homophobic?
By - Priya Shah
'The information highway is littered with the unloved', says a promotional insert on one of the music channels on cable television. Unreal though it sounds, it isn't. Today, media, the very thing that was supposed to bring human beings together is, in fact, isolating them. The disembodied voice on radio, the blur of images and voices on television, the anonymity afforded by the Internet are proving to be the antithesis of what they were meant to be--a way for people to reach out and be a part of that greater entity known as human society.
The communications revolution has made it easier to obtain information, it creates global concern about human tragedies and oppressive regimes, educates, entertains and has so enhanced our awareness of the world around us, of other peoples, cultures and places that it almost seems as if we're really there. But only almost. For can these images and information that we are bombarded with ever substitute for what humans as social animals, really need?
Can they replace the relationships that require interaction with real, flesh-and-blood people? Do these methods of communication allow us to look behind the image on the television screen, the name being interviewed on radio or the message on the computer screen to see and know the real person they represent?
In fact, does communication today even require people? Or are we just creating an illusion for ourselves, allowing people to believe that they need little or no social skills to have a wide circle of friends, and why not, when they can talk to anyone they want on the World Wide Web? Why go to all the trouble and the agony of communicating and building relationships with family, relatives or friends when you have a less demanding substitute like the computer screen?
The anomaly of high technology communications is that it has become, in the words of T S Eliot, a 'medium which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time and yet remain lonesome'. Rather than building the bridges it promised to, the media is allowing the walls between people to stay, while allowing new ones to be built.
At a superficial level, media influences people, and more importantly children, into thinking they can have it all right there in the comfort and isolation of their homes. The surreal and sometimes hypnotic images on television has adults and kids glued to their television screens, so much so that togetherness for a family often means spending an evening in front of the telly, with the only communication between them being restricted to a debate on which channel they should watch.
More affluent homes may settle the matter by buying another television set, which only increases the isolation between family members as each of them settle down in front of their own sets to watch programmes of their choice.
Because of emphasis on diversion, television is engineering a new kind of illiteracy of the literate, to whom a five-minute treatment of a problem gives the illusion of adequate knowledge and discourages any effort at a more painstaking study. Gone are the days when parents and children would sit down and talk after dinner, when parents read aloud to their children, told them stories that would arouse their imagination, played Scrabble with their kids, took them for a walk to the park, or invented new ways to keep them entertained till bedtime.
Exposed to the glut of information, kids are more aware, more cynical and have a lower threshold of boredom that is fed by the split-second programming and enticing commercials on television. In homes where both parents have busy careers, kids are often left to fend for themselves, while parents, tired and unable to cope with their children's emotional needs and queries, gladly turn them over to the electronic babysitter.
At a more sinister level, this seemingly innocent habit is making people, especially children, slaves to the values, ideals and stereotypes promoted by the big business interests behind the innumerable advertisements in both the print and electronic media. Liberalisation and growing consumerism have resulted in parents developing conflicting values about the choices that they should allow themselves and their children. Increased purchasing power has enabled parents to buy expensive branded products, but it has not resolved their inner conflict of whether they really need (or even want) such extravagance.
In a world in which communications technology is becoming increasingly expensive, media is becoming steadily more dependent upon big money. Advertisers are now targeting children, who they know will ultimately influence their parents' choice of purchases. That it is an extremely effective strategy, has been proved by researchers Namita Unnikrishnan and Shailaja Bajpai in their book on 'The Impact of Television Advertising on Children, where they note that 'children below the age of eight enjoy watching television more than adults, but cannot articulate the selling intent of advertising and think hyperbole and magic is real'.
The Thums-Up advertisement which inspired six-year old Rinku to imitate the bungee jumper and leap to his death lends weight to the theory that media influences put pressure on kids to perform, to be heroes and even perform dangerous acts. The toothless clauses in Doordarshan's Code for commercial advertising to prevent products being advertised 'which would lead children to believe that if they did not own or use the product advertised, they would be inferior in some way to other children' have not prevented expensive toys and Barbie dolls being advertised, inasmuch as the ban on advertisements that encourage 'conspicuous consumption' have not prevented costly electronic goods from being promoted.
The outcome of this crass commercialism is that parents are left confused and questioning their own values, unable to resolve their own desire for a better life plus the unreasonable demands of their kids, with the values and ideals that they want to inculcate in their children. Too caught up with the upheavals of modern life, they often ignore the rot that has set in until it is too late. A recent episode of the popular televised serial on Star TV's Star Plus Channel, 'Picket Fences' dealt with the dangers of the parent's failure to realise the perils of unsupervised exposure to uncensored media like the internet, when their son unwittingly gets mixed up in a pornography ring.
Parents, by entrusting the media with their children's emotional well-being and intellectual growth, are allowing them to be transformed into stereotypes with the 'desirable' qualities that they see in the people glamourised and held up as examples to be followed-beauty queens, models, actors, rock stars - without making them aware of the sleazy side of the professions they aspire to be in. Is it possible to teach our children about healthy eating when advertisements for MacDonald's line the playground? Or to get them excited about the beauty of our natural world with distractions like video games and cartoon characters vying for their attention?
All attempts to counter this invasion of their senses with intermittent doses of culture will be in vain if parents do not become more conscious of their role as media educators. The confused messages that they send to their children do more harm than years of cultural and commercial invasion, for it is to them that their children will turn when they need guidance.
Priya Shah is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.