Historical Distractions

Has the digital age resulted in the "pancake" generation losing its sense of history?

“The lack of a sense of history is the damnation of the modern world.”
― Robert Penn Warren

You are living in times where Vishwnathan Anand’s world chess championship victory is jostling for attention with the orchestra of the IPL victory parade, and the attention span for Mozart’s symphony is equal (if not less) to that of an Airtel jingle. And be prepared to be called a high-brow cultural snob if you ask for greater care while reading the nuances of Eliot’s or Nirala’s poems, than the instant consumption of Prasoon Joshi’s lyrics for a Bollywood potboiler.

A sense of history is obviously becoming a rare commodity and aesthetic sensibilities are undergoing a digital redefinition with shorter attention spans. Calling it philistine may be too self-righteous a judgment, but it’s certainly lacking the urge to “stand and stare”…and perhaps, reflect historically, aesthetically and critically. The lines of distinction are getting blurred. It’s ironic that technological sophistication and expansion in access to information, visuals and sound, has been accompanied by insidiously weakening the capacity to measure the scale and proportions of events and developments, subtle strands of history and aesthetic appreciation. I sometimes wonder whether Richard Foreman could have been be more precise when he remarked that the digital information age would produce people who could be called the “pancake” generation – information and understanding spread thinly over an area, but lacking any depth at any point.

There is an event called Olympics. It‘s going to be hosted by London from July 27th to August 12th this year. I am young enough to be denied the privilege of using the “those were the days” cliché too often. But you do carry a piece of something which you witness with you. Something that unfolds before you and in the process makes you either a nostalgic raconteur or a chronicler of the times. If you are more intense with your observations and information, it can also equip you with what to place where on the vast canvas of times. History is one of those things.

When I was a school student, I watched the Barcelona Olympics (1992) on Doordarshan. It had a distinct appeal to it which was uncluttered by other sporting spectacles that coincided with it in the calendar year. Jotting down the feats of athletes, reading about all that in greater detail in the morning papers, watching them for their sheer athletic excellence and just being a spectator of the great sporting carnival had a historic feel to it which wasn’t much different from the its pristine Greek origins. Awe, aura or mystique of the great global show! You may call it whatever, but us school students were sure that it was something that would find a place in sporting history more than anything else happening anywhere else in the sporting arenas of the world that year.

The Beijing Olympics of 2008 didn’t leave people (younger sports enthusiasts), with any such feeling. The event was missing that subtext of “historicity” and became coalesced with myriad sporting events which constitute the cluttered sporting calendar. It is also a sign of times that what was talked about more was how China managed to pull off such a grand spectacle, than the actual feats of athletes. Is it surprising that Olympics couldn’t be perceived as something different when even an India-New Zealand cricket series (or worse, even an IPL match) can have 4-page coverage in newspapers and round-the-clock updates and analysis on news channels and relentlessly be commented upon on twitter and dissected on facebook? And of course, the irony couldn’t get starker when you think that one of the few sports magazines surviving in the country (in its promotional campaign for its latest cover story) thought that Chennai boy Vishwanathan Anand’s victory at World Chess Championship can be a consolation for the loss of the private franchise Chennai Super Kings in the IPL final. What an equation and what a “compensation”!

These aren’t questions of having a historical hierarchy of sporting events. Sports is just a case in point of a greater crisis in the cognitive structure of the times which is grappling with the bombarding tyranny of digital “characters”, myriad images at the press of a key, and where every second throws out something “spectacular/ historical”. The times in which elevating Naipaul over Bhagat is condemned as the last resort of pedantic connoisseurs, the times in which economic punditry of a ponytailed Chaudhary can enjoy equal attention-span as that of someone who goes by the name of Sen/Stiglitz/Krugman.


Image: [Swarnabha Banerjee]

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