We are living in accelerated times. Technology and human ingenuity have not only increased the speed of change, but also the dynamic of existence itself. Rapid development has only hastened this process. What appears as a tumultuous age is not as violent as it seems. The last eight decades after World War II have been the most peaceful times since the birth of human civilisation. Fewer people die of disease, famine, wars and natural disasters (the recent pandemic included) today than ever before. If we look back to a mere hundred years ago, our lives are vastly different from that of our forefathers. The decade has seen the rise of the interconnected world. The world has witnessed upheavals of another kind: scientific and technological.
Every decade since the 1950s is defined by one more great leap for humankind. From electricity, automobiles, jet travel, cinema, television, transistors and microchips space exploration, to vaccines, antibiotics and organ transplants, hybrid seeds and modern farming, science have altered the way people lived for millennia. The Age of Reason gave way to the space age, and baby boomers to millennials. The Cold War is now relegated to the trade wars. Today, climate change is seen to be as much a threat to life on earth as the nuclear bomb is. The digital age as well as the attention economy have overwhelmed the global order. Never since the Industrial Revolution has there been such dramatic changes in the way we live, learn, play, work and flourish. Human development reports notwithstanding and wealth disparity increasing by the hour, far, far fewer people live in abject poverty today than they did 40 years ago. The post-digital society has now leapfrogged into the age of Gen Z’ers.
Geopolitics, too, is now more in the face. While the UN gamely limps on at least giving the world a platform to meet and talk, it is the new strategic groupings based on economic and tactical considerations which are the new political blocs. Trade, commerce and cyberspace are the new warzones. The world may still be flat, but new peaks and troughs have emerged in the 20 years since Thomas Friedman first used the phrase. A networked world has brought billions closer at the touch of a button. Yet, more people are alienated today than they were a decade ago. Tautology apart, our hyphenated lives are growing further apart. Digital privacy, hacking, cyberstalking, trolling and online gossip now make or mar careers. Globalisation has created large islands of parochialism, conflicts, and disparity. Jingoism is the new nationalism. Yet, digital communications, especially social media, have made the world more democratic. Even as strong political leaders rule large parts of the world, there is more dissent visible. Nothing has empowered people more than the mobile phone. Empowerment leads to exaggeration. The boast is the new currency of fame. Brazenness is the new cool. Social media is the new and preferred way of communication, and the language it uses is interlaced with hyperbole and attack.
Lance Morrow, writing an edit in Wall Street Journal in October 2020 in the context of Trump’s America’s use of hyperbole, says: “Exaggeration is a symptom of self-importance and insecurity. Yet to describe either Mr. Trump or his enemies on the left as “self-important” is a wistful understatement. One might as well refer to New York City as the community across the river from Fort Lee, N.J.
The left’s exaggerations have a different tone and metaphysics from Mr. Trump’s carny-barking. “1619 Project,” to cite one case, sets forth an invidious theory about slavery and race in America that obscures an essential truth of the country by exaggerating and distorting it to the point that it becomes, in effect, false. That’s the trouble with exaggeration. It turns a kernel of truth into a fancy lie. The first casualty of ideology is historical accuracy.”
This scenario resonates from China and India to Venezuela and Colombia with equal aplomb. Politics, showbiz and sport, art, science, media and academia, all are captives of exaggeration.
In a convoluted way, even as the quality of life has improved, there is more unrest and in the last two years, due to an unprecedented pandemic. While millions of people are dropping off the employment roster, an equal number is joining the gig economy. When one thought manufacturing was out, there is a new demand surge for certain products while others fall off the metrics. In this world of hyper everything, the traditional dialectic of needs and wants is becoming redundant irrespective of wealth, resources, demographics as the vulnerability quotient has gone up. Alice is not merely running to stay at the same spot but is being hurled around at the speed of thought. This is a post-everything world where hashtags change by the nanosecond. Yet, this is the time of innovation by the hour and the last few months have seen life turn topsy-turvy as the 7.9 billion people fought a pandemic. Millions died, and hundreds of millions were afflicted by this deadly respiratory virus. Life went online. Hundreds of millions of people lost their livelihoods. Yet, in a perverse way, work from home, long-distance learning, telemedicine, and e-commerce pervaded every segment of society. In a recent essay on life after Covid, James Manyika of McKinsey Global Institute sums up the changes well. “With the amplification of these trends, the realities of this crisis have triggered a reconsideration of several beliefs, with possible effects on long-term choices for the economy and society. These effects range from attitudes about efficiency versus resilience, the future of capitalism, densification of economic activity and living, industrial policy, our approach to problems that affect us all and call for global and collective action—such as pandemics and climate change—to the role of government and institutions.”
“Over the past two decades, in advanced economies, responsibility has generally shifted from institutions to individuals. Yet health systems are being tested and often found wanting, while benefits from paid sick leave to universal basic income are getting a second look. There is potential for a long-term shift in how institutions support people, through safety nets and a more inclusive social contract.”
Economic and political equations have altered forever. It’s a “them versus us” world where polarisation is the new normal. The past decade, which saw the rise and rise of social media, has led us to this situation. Every mobile phone user (and there are over 4 billion) is not only an ideologue but an interlocutor in every aspect of our lives. Partisanship in traditional media has given way to shrill, sharply accentuated antagonism. Hyperbole is the language of the thumb generation. Cutting across age, gender, income, race, religion, and nationality people are spreading opinions by the billions. Claims and counterclaims have thrown objectivity into the trash. Applause and critique are overstated ad nauseum. Occam’s razor is a fait accompli. Everyone is trying to push the other person off the edge.
Politics today is about polarisation. There are only greys in the spectrum of thought and speech. The pandemic has seen vulnerabilities that have only widened the chasm that was already vast. Shifting power elites and intellectual dogfights in the cloud have created a new state of continuous amplification. To sell a product, service, idea or ideology needs noise. The louder, the better. Facts and fact-checkers are equally dubious. It’s all about slicing data to suit your perspective. The power of one of another era is now the power of one social media handle. In a universe of tweets, posts, incessant crosstalk, the fight is for the mute button. At every level, at every stage. It’s no longer about grabbing attention, engagement, or even wallet share. It’s about whataboutery, slanging matches, and switched on forever. Abuse is the countermelody of extolling.
Leadership coach Julie Jungalwala talks of life after the fog of the pandemic lifts. She talks about how imperative it is today to rearrange our lives. “This simple shift—“What will I keep or put back in?” as opposed to “What will I remove?”—is a seemingly small but very impactful reframe.“ We will all rearrange our lives is definite. The conundrum is at what pace, and how much. Every generation has seen changing priorities. The sine qua non of the age of exaggeration is the quaint phrase from an old Hindi song by Shailendra, ‘Jungle mein mor nacha, kisne dekha’ (who sees a peacock dance in the jungle). In showbiz, this has been one of the founding principles. Now, it is the dictum of every individual. Whispers have gone out of our lives. From rooftops and fields to street corners and bastis, there’s a continued cacophony. From the nightly display of screaming banshees on what is perceived as broadcast news to relentless trolling, memes, and abuse on social media, we are living amidst an era of braggadocio. Mediocrity is the hallmark of the exaggeration generation.
“I am the best” and “he is a liar” are two sides of the same coin. Who is bothered whether you are famous or notorious? When amplification is the way ahead, then Tweedledum and Tweedle-dee are what we all are. The more you exaggerate, the more sense you make. This is the new grammar. The syntax is a work under progress. Meanwhile, the tooter takes it all: “Welcome aboard the gravy shuttle of the instant.”
Hype, hope, and health are the post-pandemic buzzwords. The more you exaggerate, the more believable you are.