An Obituary to the Written Word

There will come a time when I shall look back morosely at the Wordy world I once lived in. This obituary would serve as a chronicle of a lost world.

I always had a weakness for the written word. Through the late 1980s and mid-90s I regularly allowed a free rein to my imagination, which impinged itself on paper through the medium of the pen. Letter writing was one of these indulgences. It wasn’t just the letters that I penned that I looked forward to reading. It was the replies that I unfailingly received from the recipient that accentuated the delight. I loved the idea of round-trip communication. The love amplified as the process was repeated all over again.

Then along came the Internet.

I became the proud owner of an email id and later, a blog. My fear for the intruder was replaced by eagerness at the prospect of recreating my old passion on the World Wide Web. I soon began appreciating the vast advantages of virtual ink. Once my initiation was complete, the excitement escalated rapidly…

But cycles are all-pervading.

For a while emails elicited enthusiastic responses and blogs were read, at least cursorily. Concomitantly queer transformations were observed.

Gradually, the frequency of replies decreased, starting with a trickle. Soon the non-replies began accelerating in geometric progression. The rather illogical sounding ‘counting non-replies’ was achieved by counting the emails that flew out of one’s inbox, into the WWW, into recipients’ inboxes…and which died a quiet death there.

Those with a fondness for mathematical relationships observed that the replies bore an inverse relationship to the number of emails sent. The situation failed to improve even when the originator sent out emails with a ready reply included.

Time wore on and many sensed a vast improvement in their reading speeds.

This joy was sadly short-lived when realization dawned that replies were being truncated to a couple of ropey lines. The rare replies often included a string of the same alphabet repeated (heyyyyy, comeee soooon, missssssiingg youuuuu), possibly to convey the weightiness of whatever emotion that was being conveyed. Some paradoxes were observed. Mathematical symbols were liberally used to suggest love <3. Yet, math was otherwise abhorred as a medium of communication on matters pertaining to the heart (it was judged to be too unemotional).

Alphabets that contributed to coherent words were randomly scythed by the word-hunters, never to be heard of again. Long words bore the brunt of this word-poaching and more than a few joined the dodos and dinosaurs in extinction. The critically endangered words category was rapidly populated but support for their cause was scant, by celebrities or others. Words were replaced by their numerical brethren and the 4mer took gr8 offence 2 this. But there was little that they could do as they learnt with trepidation that Darwin applied to the word world too.

Neither were the Exclamations and Punctuation families spared from mutation and ultimate extinction!…?! When the duty-bound Word Processor flagged these juxtaposed punctuation/exclamation marks in Green for correction, they were duly Ignored, Once and then, for All. The Question Mark was avoided at the end of questions in those rare occurrences of email communication, as it seemingly made one appear intrusive and intimidating. The comma fell in coma and punctuations were punctured punctiliously.

Then there was the birth of a frightening devil called Social Networking which promised to exacerbate the process of word extinction. Emotion-laced words spouted by the unsuspecting brain met with a gory end as they perished at the hands of the Character Limit. Man’s growing impatience with almost everything around him extended to the Word world. The reminder of one’s existence and acknowledgment of another’s was confined to clicking on ‘Like’ buttons on Social Networking oblations. Over time, even these simple tasks of nature were forgotten.

Nobody seemed to recollect having come across many readable authors in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, J. K. Rowling aside. Enthusiastic readers who could bear long words found themselves scanning the early 20th century for appealing readership and extinct words. The latter was to assuage sadness and blame the present extinctions on history. Progress was slow through the 18th to 14th centuries as word-maniacs were thwarted by the richness of English expression during this period. The proliferation of whence and thence was too dense for many, who were relieved that these words were history.

Rancour reduced noticeably at this realization. One resignedly observed that the letter had evolved from sign language to indiscernible but attention-grabbing symbolism to Hieroglyphs to the relative simplicity and elegance that dominated much of the AD. But the tentacles of evolution spared few. A new Dyslexicon would be born.

Words couldn’t convey the emotion felt. They had moved on.

‘U wil b misssssssssed’, mumbled a few.

Signing of with XXX.


The Value of A Human Life

Are all human beings equal?

The principles of goodness would have us believe that all human lives are equal. It is axiomatic in legal systems of many territories around the world to assume individual equality. Social banter on this topic nearly always achieves a fashionable Consensus of the Affirmatives.

However, a tentative scratching of the surface of feel-good-factor consensus illuminates something disquieting. Lives, unfortunately, are not valued equally. Man has done a pretty good job of destroying himself through history, sometimes to self-made disasters (mass murders, genocides etc.) and at other times to the wrath of nature (earthquake, tsunami, natural calamities). Some events, however, are more visible than others, some more vividly remembered than others. Lives lost in the more visible ones somehow become more valuable than lives lost in oblivion.

Man-made disasters, first. Of all the despicable acts of mass murder known to man, the Holocaust figures very highly. With approximately 6 million massacred over a decade, the Holocaust is one of the episodes most vividly etched in human memories (it is safe to consider casualty estimates with a pinch of salt. The released numbers are almost always on the lower side). Grim reminders of this morbid incident lead to an outpouring of emotions even to this day.

Mid-19th century China went through a 25-year period of conflict which witnessed the loss of over 75 million lives. That’s a 3 million average per year, over 25 long years. That’s equivalent to a country about the size of Kuwait (3 million population) being wiped off every year for 25 years. But most are unaware of this annihilation. The Vietnam War resulted in over 3 million Vietnamese casualties. 9/11 killed 3,000 people but is unarguably the most vivid and most condemned tragedy in recent history. Operation Searchlight in 1971 resulted in 26,000 dead (Pakistan’s account) and over 3 million dead (Bangladesh’s account). The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 left 800,000 journeying into the after-life. From recent history, Darfur had casualties touching 500,000. In general, people know less about these incidents than others.

The British Petroleum oil spill last year killed 11 people and was one of the most extensively followed events in 2010. 30 miners perished in a blast in a New Zealand coal mine in late-2010 but this event got a fraction of the visibility bestowed on the BP oil spill. Chernobyl killed a million (estimates vary greatly) but is remembered with shudders even today. About 2 million succumb to AIDS annually but somehow, this is too ubiquitous to stir mind-space. The longer duration after-effects in both cases are severe but one event garners more sympathy than the other.

Turning next to natural disasters. The 2010 Haiti Earthquake, quite literally, led to a mass cave-in that swallowed 320,000 people. Widely covered by the media, the calamity led to an explosion of sympathy (rightfully). The 2004 Tsunami enveloped 230,000 people in various countries…

The list could go on and on.

Our reaction to events is significantly dependent on what (and how much) we know about them. And the manner in which the information reaches us. Some incidents pale in severity to others, even when the quantum of lives lost often differ greatly. Short-term memory, however, is relatively unimportant here. The Holocaust (1930s/40s) is more vividly remembered than the recent genocides in Darfur and Rwanda. Some episodes are more etched in memory than others.

Media scrutiny plays a pivotal role in colouring views by disseminating message content selectively. That’s old wine but is often forgotten in the context of determining the value of a life. Mass opinions get coloured by definitions and assumptions that frequently morph into axioms somewhere down the line in human psyche. We abhor the Holocaust but very few remember 19th century China. The loss of lives in the BP oil spill seems graver than the New Zealand mine blast, whereas these episodes should ideally evoke the same amount of sympathy.

The selected examples above also highlight something about human nature. Burst-tragedies (high severity events over brief periods) generally attract more attention than prolonged calamities. Although, often, it is the latter that claims more lives.

As the UN tightens the noose around Libya, many applaud the decisiveness of global intervention. Some even see it as redemption for global inaction in the cases of Rwanda and Darfur. Increased visibility has its benefits in stirring people to action. A life lost in Libya away from the world’s gaze is someway less valuable than a life lost in a visible Libya.

A life is a life, ought to be a life. But, is that the case?