At the turn of the century, I was an undergraduate student at IIT Kanpur. It was a time when I was looking on at the world in wonder. I was experiencing unprecedented freedom and independence. I was discovering new and varied ways of looking at the world and its affairs. I was learning that being judgmental about things you have not been exposed to wasn’t a great idea. That being open to different value systems could enrich your lives. That the right and wrong weren’t the absolutes I had grown up with.
It was a lot to absorb, but it was okay because that’s what 21st century had meant for us before it arrived. We used to worry about certain things. That we would have depleted ozone layer by then, or that population explosion would have ended the world, or that robots would have started ruling us. But on the bright side, 21st century also stood for progress. We expected it to bring a more rational and liberal world at our doorsteps. A world where equality would be a given. A world that would value individuals for who they are, and not be bigoted about religion, nation, color of skin, caste, creed, gender, and sex.
Unfortunately, while the scary things 21st century meant for us have caught up with us in one form or the other, the good things haven’t. Refrigeration technology changed in time to save the ozone layer, but there are myriad of other environmental disasters that we have brought upon ourselves and continue to. Population explosion transformed into population dividend for a while, but our economics is in no position to really absorb all this ‘dividend’. Poverty and unemployment haven’t gone anywhere, even though you can slice and dice the numbers in different ways to make things looks rosy or its exact opposite, whatever be the flavor of the month. We may not be seeing tiny, humanoid robots as our liege lords, but automated systems, decision and policies based on large-scale number crunching, and data-driven ‘artificial intelligence’ are taking the world to a place where no human will be able to understand the systems that govern our lives.
The good things tell another story. Science and rationality aren’t making great strides into people’s lives. People are returning to religion, and not in a harmless way for personal consolation, or a useful way that could make them kind and considerate to others, but as a way of defining collective identity and practicing bigotry with impunity. The Internet and social media have given more people voices. But the technologies haven’t succeeded in making them listen to voices different or contrarian to theirs and broadening their horizons. The result is not a broad-minded world where different voices are coming together, but a cacophonous, nauseating world where every narrow viewpoint is fighting louder to drown out everything else. Crowdsourcing of wisdom is not bringing the progressive voices to the forefront, but only the most jingoistic and regressive. Liberal values are not an object of aspiration, but that of mockery. Individual’s dignity and freedom are being considered a fair sacrifice at the altar of clan, caste, religion, nation or even just megalomaniac leaders. Not in an apologetic tribute to the past, but in a stubborn claim over the present and the future. The more accessible, widespread and ‘democratic’ channels of communication have become even more of a powerful tool for pushing agendas, falsehoods and FUD than traditional controlled channels were.
And amid all this, I hear distressing news from my alma mater. A place where I had roamed in the nooks and corners with abandon at midnight, poring over whatever grand philosophical questions life throws at you at that age, without anyone ever batting an eyelid, has become such a paranoid place that students are being detained by the security at the flimsiest of the pretext, their movement controlled, their attempts at dialogues and exchange of ideas thwarted and alumni being threatened with police action for trying to be a part of the community.
Like the rest of the world, even at IIT Kanpur, 21st century isn’t what it meant.