In the season of treason cases and bans, our society seems at its most vulnerable
Some sanity seems to have finally prevailed resulting in the reversal of the ban on TikTok in Pakistan. The video-sharing platform has been allowed to operate, but under strict conditions of not spreading vulgarity and obscenity.
In the season of treason cases and bans, the Pakistani society seems at its most vulnerable. One solid indication of this is censorship. If exercised freely, it can only be counterproductive in the end.
Pakistan has always been very insecure about its culture, expression and acceptance of openness. Free speech and action are seen as threats to the moral fibre of the society. The only recipe that is considered effective against it is to block it from our sight.
A few years ago, YouTube came under the microscope of exclusivity and was banned. Other digital platforms and sites, including Facebook, are also under threat of being ruled out of our lives altogether.
The corona pandemic has seen the exponential growth of the digital media services and its usefulness was apparent in the process of being exploited by the people who could not move out of their houses due to the government directives. And the companies that saw their profits soar despite the massive slowing down of the economies were these digital companies. People found an alternative, as the only way to function and interact in a phase where normal human contact was seen as a gateway to this incurable disease.
To a person of my age, TikTok may seem frivolous and too snappy to be of any consequence. Nevertheless, it is being used by millions all across the world, especially the young. And as we have seen in the past, new technologies create their own forms of expression. When recording was introduced, it impacted music in the sub-continent in its more formal sense and cinema totally transformed the way we interacted with the performing arts, particularly drama.
Under colonial influence, there appeared to be a greater degree of freedom. Gradually, in the name of religion and riwayat, the curtain of conservatism started to descend upon us. Now there are bans on large swaths of our poetry, fiction and paintings.
These digital mediums are the future and these will generate their own forms.After a while, the experience of it all will ensure its acceptability. The same critics who slammed the new technologies will embrace them like an article of faith. It will appear as if they have all the propriety rights over them including the intellectual property rights as has happened with as many technologies that were condemned as satanic machinations in the beginning. Loudspeakers, cameras and the radio all caused great uproar in the subcontinent when they were introduced. One is amused by their eventual unconditional acceptance by all.
One has seen greater insecurity over the years as Pakistani society has moved in circles in their struggle to find maturity. Under colonial influence, there appeared to be a greater degree of freedom. Gradually, in the name of religion and riwayat, the curtain of conservatism started to descend upon us. Now, there are bans on large swaths of our poetry, fiction and paintings. These days, innovative ways of censorship are sweeping out of our lives much that we had taken for granted just a few years back.
But censorship and banning the outside world has always been a counterproductive act and resulted in either the restrictions being bypassed or overcome through hacking and hence creating a sense of either guilt or an unjustified heroism. Thus, such steps have distorted and wrapped the way we approach the normal functions of life.
Societies that have quarantined themselves from the larger world have not really thrived in insularity. In this day and age, where the digital platforms are becoming increasingly relevant even in the day-to-day affairs, the need is to invest more in them and make them an integral part of our lives. In the beginning, it all may appear to be not what it used to be. We have seen people making very short films on their mobile phones and writing slam poetry that is communicated across in its briefest form. Similarly, new forms - that now appear to be too short to make sense - will consolidate over time to be preferred over conventional ones.
It was not so long ago that people listened to live music performances over hours but then fond greater satisfactions in a music number of a few minutes. The people read hundreds of pages of fiction marveling over Tolstoy’s or Hugo’s genius, but then even the short story starting looking too long. There is no need to shy away from change –it is inevitable and the best course is to embrace and create greater possibilities of expression in it.
Over the recent past, one has come to be more aware of the dominating role of the tech companies over our ideas and lives and the decisions that we take. The immense data that they have is manipulated and used effectively without giving the impression of absolute neutrality. Terms like ‘deep fake’ have been invented to pinpoint the growing role of these companies, but to ban and shy away is not the answer. Societies should instead make people more informed to enable them to take decisions based less on a prejudice as total absence of prejudice is not humanly possible. More and more information is the answer rather than an absence of it. The absence of it will result in a robotic reaction based on self-righteousness. The more choices being offered will necessarily produce greater complexity in the decision-making process. These days, the world is avoiding complexity and moving towards seeking simpler solutions that will rotate towards simplistic ones.
The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.