The politburo of pieties

Two versions of freedom jostled for space in the global mind, each with its own set of moral certainties.

By S Prasannarajan

Published: Tue 2 Mar 2021, 11:59 PM

We seem to have exhausted our semantic options to categorise the shifts in the history of freedom. The Cold War lasted longer, with a grander theme and a matching territorial division. After the hot war that ended with the world partitioned between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, the Cold War launched the clash of ideologies. Two versions of freedom jostled for space in the global mind, each with its own set of moral certainties. The inter-changeability of truths and lies, the real and the fantastical, was the chosen method for domination. When the Wall finally came down, and when one part of the world was proved to be the most comforting mythology man ever built, history did not end. It took a pause. What followed was equally divisive; the old ghosts of nationalism came to haunt the space just vacated by ideology. The new wars were fought along religious and ethnic lines, and the nationalist rearmed embarked on cleansing the swamp to make a point: inherited blood is thicker than acquired ideologies. Soon, in the name of an unforgiving god, revolutionaries armed with the Book and the sword would launch another freedom struggle. The desert would become the new gulag. Angry gods have not abandoned their war on sinners, and the search for a Divine Imperium is not over yet. Our divisions are as stark as ever.

Today, gods of a different kind are at play in a world where the scripture of domination is written on silicon. The digital alternative that overwhelms our conversations on politics and society is as divisive as its ideological and theological predecessors in another time. Then, the imperatives of geography made the war easier to index—as convenient blocs. The new gods are hidden in the machine, and the way they exercise their power and extend their spheres of influence is beyond the comprehension of their subjects. At one level, the difference with the earlier systems is redeeming. Technology is not the new ideology, even though its target is the human mind. It’s not the enforcer of a new form of enslavement either, even though we are all obedient subjects in its kingdom. We are the authors of our charter of freedom; we are the owners of our words. And we are not sure whether we are what the machine thinks we are— or what the algorithm wants us to be. It’s only now that some of us have started complaining, and some of our elected governments have become paranoid.

Our complaints are selective, and we are hardly honest whenever we try to moralise our motives. The governments’ paranoia is an old story: they all feel so fragile—and behave as if nations too are equally fragile—whenever some “seditious” minds out there dare to tell a bad story. Is it that, after the reign of the Book—of gods’ and men’s—technology is the ideal liberator, the unifier? Forget the panopticon for a while; assume that we can overcome the dark arts of hackers from Russia and North Korea; and think that we have enough strength to survive the hypnotic powers of the machine. And see how we have become active citizens with more questions to ask, more ideas to exchange, and more knowledge to share, in a world of interconnected destinies? Think of how we have become conscience-keepers and muckrakers, debunkers and storytellers, liars and illuminators. How we have become the most audible noisemakers of democracy.

Lost in this noise, we fail to recognise the divisions of the digital world, the power of pieties and the harshness of new taboos. Maybe we are even using the wrong nomenclature to identify the world where our digital identities add to the passions and pathologies of democracy. It’s not the post-ideological world at all. Ideology is back, but not with a Capital I, and technology has become its enabler. The self-righteous zeal of this world is as effective as the old Ideology in inventing enemies—though class has been replaced by culture. In this world of digitally altered reality, a president’s tweet can drive a vast section of people to reject an election, and the same president can be consigned to a digital Siberia by the Big Tech commissariat. An ‘insensitive’ edit page article, a column that calls the insensitivity bogus, an old slur couched in a joke—the transgressions are being monitored by the politburo of pieties. In the so-called marketplace of ideas, everything is sacred; the art of propaganda—and the historical necessity of proselytisation—is being legitimised by the righteous majority. Even in journalism, old monikers such as ‘newspapers of record’ have been made redundant by the urgency of ideology; in the digital media space, it’s now all about feeding the base—and somehow keeping it intact. Pravda is being reinvented digitally to sustain the new progressivism. The partition of the global mind is purely ideological, once again. Freedom is a dispute, the noise of which is amplified in digital echo chambers.

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine

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