Look who's watching
The dramatic potential of social media is being recognised by literature and theatre. A play called White Lily Ani Night Rider that caught the cyber romance trend as it broke has recently been revived. The play originally written, directed and performed by Milind Phatak and the late Rasika Joshi about two chat friends who decide to meet offline, has returned with Sonali Kulkarni and it is now more relevant than ever, since social media has become an even bigger rage as compared to the old chat rooms, where bored or lonely people took on anonymous handles and interacted with strangers, in the hope that the perfect soulmate was out there somewhere.
With all its humour and an almost chaste encounter between two people living mundane lives (who would be called ‘losers’ by the smart set), White Lily Ani Night Rider is a modern day tragic love story in which expectations built up by the faceless chat room partner can rarely be met in real life. Bhakti and Keshav are good people, who seem to have missed the better, more fulfilling life they deserve.
But, what if they put aside hopes of an exciting life and did marry, because this was perhaps the last chance they had, would the end up like the couple in Zubin Driver’s Status Quo? In this new play, done on a bare stage with two chairs, the man and woman, probably bored and jaded, share vicarious pleasures over social media. They keep trying to look for thrills through fantasy, which, they hope to fuel through the safe anonymity of cyber sex. The play does not go into much depth, but the scenario it starts with is sad and bleak.
The community of Facebook friends and Twitter followers lull us into a sense of fake well-being — the consolation that we are never alone; we just have to reach out and all kinds of happiness is out there for the asking. People ‘like’ what we say, they support our stands, they admire pictures of our holidays and parties, they wish us on our birthday, join us in our fights, share our happiness and mourn our sorrows. They occasionally lynch an offender … virtually.
However, these plays explore the dark side of social media only in the narrow circle of relationships, but there is whole scary world of cyber snooping out there, that is perhaps too vast and complex to depict on stage.
Flashback to George Orwell’s classic 1984, that created a frightening world where the individual is constantly under government surveillance and citizens have no privacy, their every movement and even their thoughts monitored by Big Brother. Orwell’s novel was a satire on the suffocating control of communist governments, but the terms he coined — doublethink, newspeak, thoughtcrime — fit better into the cyber world. The post-Google and Facebook future is captured vividly in Dave Eggers’s The Circle. Maybe like Orwell, Eggers has imagined what could happen if we surrender our freedom and privacy.
The group called The Circle is a seemingly happy community of people who work and play in what looks like utopia from the outside. What The Circle does is innocuous to begin with, connecting people, reaching potential consumers of various services. When the first product — a small camera that can be hidden anywhere — is unveiled, its benefits are many. From checking out scenic travel spots to preventing government oppression, the idea being that no soldier would be able to commit an atrocity if he is being watched by millions worldwide through the hidden camera feeds. This sounds like a great idea, stop large scale crimes by totalitarian regimes and even small ones like mugging in a dark street.
Then, with the idea of protecting children, the idea of chip comes up, which can be inserted into a child’s bone, so that the parents know at all times where the child is — so no kidnapping, no abuse and no goofing off. Parents all over the world clamour for the safety of their children.
The Circle puts forward the idea that every politician and public servant should opt for complete transparency, by wearing a device that would allow Circle subscribers to see and hear them all times of the day — so no underhand deals, no corruption, no dereliction of duty. Of course, citizens demand this of their representatives, and those who refuse to be transparent almost declare that they have something to hide. The net of The Circle gets wider and tighter, to the point that the people simply cannot escape the scrutiny of the watchers. Privacy and personal space have no place in such a ‘connected’ world. Today it seems like too much, we believe we are just putting harmless little bits of ourselves out into the net universe, but who knows, in the near future, we may end up creating an insatiable, information-guzzling Big Brother.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator