The upside down era

 Published in: The Daily Star on January 11, 2017
The upside down era

This year, many of us read about ‘listening hairbrushes’ taking control of our split ends, toothbrushes filming the inside of our mouths, beds reacting to a person’s sleeping position, cars learning from the brains of drivers, like the Concept-i car by Toyota, which, with an advanced artificial intelligence system, can act as a faithful dog or a pining boyfriend. The gist of it all boils down to one thing: all products in the future will be geared towards developing relationship with the consumers. Truth is, we are living in an era when machines are taking over our lives, and our minds being replicated by artificial intelligence.

Two days ago, The Washington Post published an interesting story about two highly qualified software developers from Hyderabad. The two had fallen in love in America, returned home, and were all set to apply for their new H-1B visas. This extremely intelligent and rational duo was spotted orbiting the ‘Visa Balaji’ temple for about 11 times and leaving tulsi at his feet, promising to come back to orbit 108 times more in case the great ‘Visa Balaji’ blesses them with their work visas, helping their new sojourn. Is humanity looking for more beyond the material, while the material is guising its appeal with more heart?

Long ago, I used to watch my mother bake Upside Down cakes in her old, rusty oven. They came out perfect with the bottom part outshining the top. Actually, life today is similarly offering us more surprises than one is prepared for. For example, people woke up one morning and discovered that the stash of wealth that they hid below their mattresses were worth nothing. The vaults didn’t make sense anymore; the bundles in bags and sacks added up to a grand ‘zero’. That’s what happened in India when the Indian PM decided on a demonetisation drive. All the 500 and the 1000 rupee notes became paper trash overnight. While the demonetisation drive was meant to drive out the black, ill-gotten wealth, it’s actually the struggling middle class which suffered the most. In spite of best intentions, most of the times, what is intended is not what is achieved at the end and most unfortunately, while humanity evolves and marches ahead, most of our learning tools and lessons are being reversed.

For example, one fine morning, America, a country of democracy, decided to resort to vote for a Presidential candidate with a hair-trigger temperament and subject the whole world to his Twitter mania. His most recent one was to insult Meryl Streep, who he called “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood”, to defend his position of not having “mocked” the disabled reporter but simply having showed him “groveling” and finally insult the media. The list of other outrageous quotes of Trump includes him wanting to build a wall on the southern border of the US, Mexicans being rapists, Rosie O’Donnell being “fat, ugly”, his beauty of being wealthy, his fingers being long and beautiful, his friends being gay but him being a “traditionalist”, and being there on “7-Eleven” (instead of 9/11) after the World Trade Center came down. The list goes on and includes one more of my favourites: “It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming!” Apparently, it was a joke!

When was the last time we watched a President-elect contradict almost every statement he made? First he said that the hack could have been initiated by the Democrats themselves, then he chose to say that the Russian hackers probably accessed Hillary Clinton’s emails, and then he said that he had information about the hacking that no one else knew but him and that he would release it by last Wednesday. And then he ended up supporting a claim from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that the group’s source wasn’t the Russian government. It’s the same Donald Trump who initially even alleged that the summer hacker could have been somebody sitting on their bed weighing 400 pounds…

In times of increasing international surprises, many of us watched Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, bragging about having killed people with his own hands. He claims that the streets of the Philippines are much safer than before. In reality, crime went down in his first five months in office, with the country’s index crime volume falling to 55,391 from July through November from 81,064 in the same period of 2015. On the other hand, murder cases increased by 51 percent to 5,970 with the police killing 2041 “drug suspects” in the second half of 2016. So while they have safer streets, human rights are being shamelessly outvoted with Duterte apparently faring well through siding with countries which don’t grieve about human rights. Are we then learning newer codes of humanity?

In fact, even in our part of the globe, we are watching reversals on a daily basis. Amongst many intriguing stories, a second page of this daily on Monday caught my attention. Convicted fugitive killers of Zubair of Jahangirnagar University’s English department posted selfies from Genting Highlands in Malaysia. Shohan, one of the fugitives gone scot-free, had also posted his selfie on Instagram, enjoying a cup of Starbucks coffee. The Instagram post was most shocking. He had written: “Now I am a free bird… now I can fly.” Have the definitions of guilt and innocence changed? Just like an upside down cake?

I worry. With so many reversals, surprises and regression, many core values are also being challenged. Yesterday, I sat through an entire morning hearing a gender inappropriate conversation. An officer somewhere had not acted with “required” courage. I heard someone say: “O akta mohilar moto kaj korlo,” meaning that an officer on duty had acted like a mohila, a woman. Every time this was repeated, I corrected the conversation but little changed in the tone of the discourse. Heartbroken, I turned to the newspaper and read that Mahila Parishad has reported that more than 1000 women were raped in 2016. With so many women in powerful seats in the government, with so many of us leading so many organisations, with millions of women working in the readymade garment sector, are we all silently watching unhealthy reversals? Are we all becoming upside down cakes in an era where hypocrisies, dichotomies, and paradoxes cloud our functioning environment in one form or the other?