Loud and Stupid: On Groupthink and Mob Psychology

We live in an age when, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, it is easier than ever before to express oneself and to make oneself heard. On the other hand, thanks to these very same technological wonders, the sad reality of groupthink seems to be more pervasive than ever before — people appear, at some level, to be more inclined to follow the herd and less inclined to think critically as individuals and ask difficult questions of themselves and others.

The media appears to have lost every shred of integrity, a fact underscored most recently by the Brian Williams fiasco, and is so much at the mercy of market influences that one cannot take it seriously any more. The public appears to be more misinformed and deluded than ever before — at the mercy of unscrupulous politicians, marketers and PR firms peddling their dubious wares. The disturbing levels of pervasive religious superstition and the lack of basic scientific knowledge in mainstream society are getting to be downright dangerous — the prevalence of apocalyptic ideas among the religiously minded is on the verge of turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy!

And yet, the tools for widespread education and enlightenment are readily at our disposal. It is easier than ever before to educate oneself — one can even audit lectures from the world's leading universities online for free, and great works of literature have never been more accessible, thanks to their publication in digital form by such ventures as Project Gutenberg, Google Books and others.

So what keeps us in this state of pervasive ignorance? What prevents us from achieving the enlightened state that would keep us from being manipulated and exploited by politicians, marketers and religious con-men? Perhaps it is about recognizing that mere access to tools and technology is only the first step in a very long process. There needs to be a cultural shift away from ignorance, groupthink and a mob mentality, and towards education and critical thought. There needs to be greater awareness of the tools and technologies at our disposal that enable us to better ourselves and others. We need to learn to think for ourselves and give less credence to loud-mouth talking heads on TV who try to tell us how and what to think!

The truth is probably that we are in middle of a cultural paradigm shift — a fundamental transformation that is at least as significant, in many ways, as the invention of the printing press. Technology changes so rapidly that it hardly has the time to be fully appropriated by society before it makes yet another quantum leap! And the exponential rates at which technology continues to advance means that the problem is likely to get worse in the near future before it gets better!

I guess, in the end, the only thing that will save us is our own human individuality — our human capacity to grow, learn and adapt to the rapidly shifting circumstances around us — to develop the faculty for critical thought and the ability to learn empirically as well as theoretically.

In the end, I believe that we, as human individuals, can do a great deal to shape our destiny.

 

Controversial Visions

July 4, 1776 — a date that lives on to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and to celebrate liberation from the tyranny of an oppressive global empire. It was a day, like any other, marked by a decision made by a group of idealists in a small assembly room in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA, to ratify the radically egalitarian vision expressed by a visionary document.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the legendary figures of US history, who was the primary author of the Declaration, outlined his case for the separation of the thirteen American colonies from the British Empire, stating, unequivocally:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These words have since become one of the best-known and widely regarded statements of human rights the world over. Jefferson's document has since become the seminal text underlying all modern democracies, all of which may be traced back to this seminal event — the signing and acceptance of this document and it's vision by the continental congress.

And even so, the text and its author are not without controversy. At the time, this bold vision of the egalitarian rights of man and separation from a global empire were deemed radical to the point of being considered to be treasonous (by the British). And subsequently, the founding fathers have come to be criticized for being slave-owners and for holding double standards with respect to their slaves.

However, we must consider the fact that Jefferson's bold, controversial vision was, actually, in its inception, even more radical than we give him credit for. The original draft of the Declaration of Independence contained the following passage indicting the British Empire for the practice of human slavery and condemning slavery in no uncertain terms:

“[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain, determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce…”

The sad reality was that the horrific practice of human trafficking and slavery, as practiced by the global, Christian British Empire and its colonies, was so widespread and entrenched in society, that this passage was deemed as being too controversial by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. They edited and amended Jefferson's draft to exclude this passage from the final draft that was adopted by the continental congress on July 4, 1776.

It took another 87 years until Abraham Lincoln, another legendary figure from US history, issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, to free all slaves in the United States. This executive order was controversial enough in the second half of the nineteenth century — one can only speculate on how much more controversial Jefferson's vision of radical egalitarianism would have been nearly 100 years earlier.

And yet, one can only wonder — what if the founding fathers had decided to leave that passage in — effectively to condemn the practice of slavery at the very outset — would that have given the modern civil rights movement a 100 year head-start? Would it have made the bloody, brutal US civil war unnecessary? Would we remember Jefferson, not Lincoln, as the heroic liberator of the slaves in America?

Controversy can often intimidate us from pursuing our visions — but one can only speculate on what the cost of abandoning or compromising on those visions might eventually be, in the long run!

At Horizon Cybermedia, we aim to hold true to our vision of pursuing the endless possibilities of modern digital media to redefine our cultural milieu. We aim for the horizon and we move boldly forward in our ongoing exploration of the constantly shifting seascape of digital media.

Do check out our current, ongoing web series, American Castle: the Secret World of William Randolph Hearst, and our YouTube channel.

Wishing you the very best,

Uday Gunjikar,
Founder and CEO,
Horizon Cybermedia.

A Question of Belief

I take my beliefs seriously, and sometimes, I feel compelled to express what I believe and why. I'm not sure if it has any impact on the rest of the world — maybe it's a way of clarifying my own thoughts about my beliefs in my own mind.

In the 21st Century, the biggest challenge — really, the only significant challenge — to Christian ideas and beliefs is science and the scientific method. As Neal Degrasse Tyson stated in the first episode of the brilliant new television program Cosmos, the scientific method is so powerful that, in a matter of a few centuries, it has taken us from Galileo's telescope to the moon and beyond — to nuclear power, Wifi and to the edge of quantum computing and biotechnology. Who can honestly foresee where it will continue to lead us?

But even though science continues to push the boundaries of explanation of the observable universe, and pushes the limits of observation of the universe itself, there still remain some kinds of questions about human experience that science is incapable of addressing adequately — philosophical concerns such as the purpose of human existence, the nature of human consciousness and identity, the metaphysics of human morality, the role in our lives of the humanities and arts, and, most notably, the nature of the human heart.

I don't want to delve into the details of the philosophical questions I grappled with on my journey towards my Christian faith because doing so would be an arduous trek into some obscure conceits. Ultimately, what I personally find most compelling about Christianity, is an intangible, undefinable sense of veracity that seems to transcend any purely intellectual attempt to grasp it. Perhaps that is what a leap of faith amounts to — making a decision to believe in something without complete knowledge, but with a reasonable, reasoned sense of the authenticity of the object of one's faith. At the same time, one must be careful to keep an open mind and always ask questions, not allowing oneself to become trapped by dogma.

Like Giordano Bruno, whose life and vision were dramatically portrayed in episode 1 of the television show Cosmos, I guess my own faith is inspired by a sort of personal vision or insight that helps me reconcile what I know in the context of my scientific background and education and what I believe in the context of my faith. The difference is that my vision seeks to transcend science and religion (even as it is a concrete idea, not a mystical vision), and I hope that I do not meet with the same level of derision among skeptical scientific thinkers as Bruno did among religious people for his vision of a universe modeled after Copernican ideas.

The idea that inspires me is that the creation of the universe may be analogized with a more mundane act of creativity that we are more familiar with. If God's creation of the observable universe can be thought of as something like, e.g., J.R.R. Tolkein's creation of middle earth or C.S. Lewis' creation of Narnia, it somehow makes more sense. If we think of God as existing beyond space and time and creating the universe as a continuity, in the way that an author writes a book, then the universe may have a history of billions of years, even if it was, in a sense, created only a few millennia ago, from God's point of view. This would be similar, in a sense, to Tolkein writing his books 60 years ago, but his middle earth having a chronology or history of, perhaps, thousands of years.

We human beings, trapped in the continuity of our universe, would be incapable of comprehending or appreciating the space-time continuum that God might operate in even as the characters in a book might be incapable of comprehending the continuity of the universe inhabited by the book's author and readers. The difference, of course, is that the drama played out in our universe is seemingly impromptu and unscripted — real life happens as a product of human free agency, not, as far as we know, because it has been pre-determined or scripted by God (though some philosophers might argue to the contrary).

Anyway, to speak in simple terms, it helps me to think of the universe as something between a novel and a dream — a product of the creative imagination of an omnipotent intelligence beyond space and time, i.e. God. But because the characters in God's “novel” have free will and, as such, could influence the “plot” of the story with their own actions, things started going wrong when the “characters” started violently attacking and killing one another — depicted in the Bible as being initiated by a primordial act of fratricide — the story of Cain and Abel. Naturally, God, the author of this “imagined” universe, becomes concerned and attempts a series of interventions, which the characters in the “novel” perceive as supernatural events. Ultimately, God decides to write himself into the story as the protagonist to bring order to the chaos — and so, he creates Christ, who, though he is no different from any of the other characters in the story, happens to have God's own consciousness projected onto him. God identifies with the protagonist of his story, even as an author might identify with the lead character in his novel, and, in that sense, Christ is perceived as the very son of God, with a Divinely inspired mission to redeem mankind from its unfortunate condition.

Do I have any evidence to support these ideas? No, but it is a theory that attempts to explain certain facts about the universe, such as the origins of human consciousness and morality, man's relationship with God, etc. And even though it may not have any mathematical underpinnings to elucidate its meaning, it has the virtue of providing a coherent explanation of some Christian ideas. Much as the theories posited by major scientific theorists (Newton, Einstein, etc.) attempt to explain the observable scientific facts of our universe.

In that context, the miraculous and the marvelous are well within the realm of possibility. If one is limited only by the extent of our imaginations in our power to disrupt the fictional universes we might create, then a God, with an infinite imagination, would have an infinite power of intervention into the universe of his creation — our universe. Perhaps, some day, we might see such a display of his powers! In any case, it remains interesting to note that one of the New Testament gospels begins with the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God . . . .”

Thus, I am inspired by this somewhat grandiose cosmological vision, which may appear to be bordering on the fantastic, but is, ultimately, no more fantastic than one of Einstein's thought experiments! And while it is lacking in specificity, it is, at least, no less empirically verifiable! Ultimately, it inspires me and gives me faith along with some speculative answers to some of the questions that I am faced with. And while it may be far from the truth, at least it works as a theory, providing an explanation, however imperfect, of the observable facts, in a way that, perhaps, Newtonian physics provided answers before Einstein appeared on the scene!

Meanwhile, even as we reflect on these profound themes, I encourage you to check out Horizon Cybermedia's current, ongoing production — a multi-part web series entitled American Castle: The Secret World of William Randolph Hearst. I hope you enjoy it!

Wishing you the very best,

Uday Gunjikar
Founder and CEO,
Horizon Cybermedia, Inc.

 

The Paradox of Modernity

Are we becoming dehumanized by technological utopianism?

Every age has its myths.

One way to describe and understand myth is: they are the stories we tell ourselves to motivate and rationalize our thoughts and actions.

In archaic times, recent scholarship suggests, primitive societies were primarily driven by scapegoat myths. As civilization evolved and advanced, the myths were rewritten to appeal to more refined sensibilities, while retaining a ritual sacrificial practice at their core.

During the Christian age in the West, ecclesiastical doctrine displaced the ancient myths as the predominant motivating principle in people's lives — bringing its share of problems — crusades, inquisitions, witch-hunts and the like.

In our present age of scientific enlightenment and technological progress, we tell ourselves new self-validating myths — that modern education and industrialization will lead us to a utopia — a far cry from the darkness, superstition and ignorance of the past. And so, we are impelled inexorably onwards, towards scientific innovation, technological progress and self-illumination.

When religious fanaticism rears its ugly head, as it often does in various forms — fundamentalism, terrorism, theocracy, chauvinism and the like — we rightly denounce these as the misguided remnants of a benighted past.

And yet, even as we are impelled inexorably towards a utopian Promised Land in which all our needs will be fulfilled at the press of a button while we tread across space and time as effortlessly as the deities of the ancient myths, one cannot help but wonder if what awaits us is not really a utopia of liberty and abundance but, rather, a soul-crushing, dehumanizing form of enslavement brought on by relentless mechanistic technological progress.

As the inexorable tide of modernity washes us towards what may appear, from a distance, to be the shores of a progressive, enlightened future, in which we will have destroyed and exposed the superstitions of the past while all our material needs are instantly gratified, one wonders if we will pay for this future with our very souls! Will we end up as dehumanized, mechanistic beings with no sense of individuality or identity, while we progressively relinquish our humanity and privacy to corporations and governments in the name of security? Will we have lost touch with what it has meant, in the past, to be human, even as we progress towards a world of instant gratification and deliverance from want and need?

It is a delicate balance — to retain our humanity as we move towards a technological utopia — but it is a balance that one cannot afford to neglect, because we do so at the expense of our very souls! Ultimately, this balancing act will prove to be critical — it will make the difference between a true technological utopia and a nightmarish Orwellian dystopia in which we live slavish lives at the mercy of authoritarian power-brokers!

Horizon Cybermedia was created to tread the fine line between the promise of technology and the soul-enriching potential of the arts and humanities.

I am here, now, to proclaim that Horizon Cybermedia is still alive! In fact, watch for its imminent resurrection in an exciting new format, with fresh, new content!

Meanwhile, check out ExplorationTheSeries.com for an ongoing dose of soul-enriching, life-affirming content and stay tuned for much, much more to come!

Wishing you the very best,

Uday Gunjikar
Founder and CEO,
Horizon Cybermedia, Inc.