Monday 31 January 2022

What is 'Dark Academia', and why is it trending on social media in 2022?

People around the world, mostly Generation Z, are obsessed with the look and feel of gothic, elitist universities. Why?

At the end of last year, Instagram released its first trend report: an extensive study of previous user behavior in order to determine what kind of user might follow which type of trend. Some topics like “racial justice” and “environmental awareness” were expected to show up on the report. Others, like “Dark Academia,” were not.

You would be forgiven if you didn’t know what “Dark Academia” meant. In short, it is the name given to an aesthetic and subculture based on the architecture and clothing styles of some of the world’s most elite colleges, specifically Oxbridge and the Ivy League schools — and perhaps Hogwarts. Think gothic hallways and robed uniforms, candlelit evenings spent marking up classic literature while raindrops platter against a stained glass window. 

That is the general idea, but Dark Academia can be interpreted differently by different people. Your school library can be considered Dark Academia, and the same goes for your grandpa’s study. On platforms like TikTok, even more telling examples of Dark Academia are being shared. It’s cursive notes written in Latin on a piece of parchment. It’s cutouts of Greek statues and the covers of Penguin classics, tweed suits, robed uniforms, and sexy librarians. It’s reading Beat poetry while listening to Chopin, preferably on vinyl. 

According to Instagram’s trend report, the Dark Academia aesthetic is proving to be exceedingly popular among members of Gen Z, or people born between 1997 and 2012. Until recently, cultural trends were difficult to ascertain. Now, thanks to social media, we can get a clear picture of the different types of users buying into the trend, as well as the possible reasons for them doing so. 

The Humanist Library of Sélestat in France is Dark Academic. (Credit: Photo Claude TRUONG-NGOC / Wikipedia)

A resurgence of intellectualism

One of the main reasons Dark Academia is currently trending is that the style means different things to different people. Some are here mainly for the “Academia” side. They appreciate that the style is getting others excited about the unbridled pursuit of knowledge and contemplation of artistic or academic topics that don’t receive enough attention from mainstream society.

The Dark Academia aesthetic is hugely influenced by Oxbridge and the Ivy League, two renowned academic networks that — through their elitist nature, internal hierarchies, and imposing architecture — created environments in which the otherwise slow, uneventful, and oftentimes unprofitable pursuit of knowledge is closely connected with much more enticing images of wealth and power. 

Dark Academia internet subcultures center on adopting and maintaining some important elements of the student lifestyle, including frequent visits to libraries and museums, above average caffeine consumption, and study sessions that often go on till way into the evening — even when you’re not in school and won’t get graded for anything. 

For many post-grads, Dark Academia helps treat the nostalgia they feel for their college days, when intellectual exploration came hand-in-hand with lack of responsibilities. Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that the Dark Academia trend really blew up during the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a time in which students across the world were forced to take classes from home, losing the cherished sociocultural aspects of their education. 

The dark side of Dark Academia

Others gravitate toward the “Dark” side of Dark Academia. These people are very much concerned with the pursuit of knowledge as well, but — writes Adiba Jaigirdar in Book Riot — only insofar as it relates to the “exploration of death and morbidity.” They subscribe to a dramatic but quite possibly accurate axiom about education: that he who increases knowledge also increases sorrow. 

This somber, at times sinister, character of Dark Academia is reflected back in the gothic design of many prestigious colleges in North America and Europe. The appearance of these institutions, more castles than campuses, harken back to a point in time when science still resided in the shadow of religion and inspired similar levels of devotion among its followers. 

The imposing appearance of these schools helped present higher education as an important, serious, and noble enterprise. What’s more, by disguising their buildings as churches and cathedrals, schools framed the knowledge stored inside their walls as a forbidden fruit, the consumption of which has become a religion unto itself. Indeed, something about the aesthetic is almost blasphemous.

Moody architecture and philosophical pessimism are such important aspects of Dark Academia that the online subculture eventually spawned its own sub-subculture, called Light Academia. If Dark Academia is a lamentation of death, Light Academia is a celebration of life. Its attitudes toward learning are more positive; the pursuit of knowledge, instead of causing us grief, can be used to make the world a better, happier place.

Escapism for the elite?

Despite its ongoing popularity on social media, Dark Academia has also drawn its share of criticism. Aside from promoting unhealthy lifestyles where caffeine-fueled study sessions take prevalence over sleep, Dark Academia has been accused of being Eurocentric, seeing that the style is built around European universities with predominantly Western curricula. 

Go on TikTok, and you will find that most Dark Academia content creators prefer to discuss Oscar Wilde and Emily Dickinson over Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, even though the latter two authors were just as insightful as the former. Talking with magazines, more than one social media influencer said they received DMs from others asking if they will fit into the subculture if they aren’t white or wealthy

Finally, we are able to understand what may well be Dark Academia’s single biggest appeal: allowing people from various backgrounds to feel as though they have been granted access to a world that, in any other circumstance, would be all but inaccessible. But interestingly enough, Dark Academia serves a similar purpose for people who actually attended university as well. According to an article published in Jacobin, Dark Academia is essentially a romanticized version of academia that highlights problems with real-world institutions. The aesthetic’s subliminal promise, “deep study, unfettered by time pressure,” is a response to the actual college experience, where mounting debt encourages students to move through the most exciting and carefree phase of their lives as quickly as possible.

In a way, Dark Academia is escapism for those who, if they had the money, would stay in school for the rest of their lives. 

(Source: Big Think)

Sunday 30 January 2022

Where are Britain's missing million workers?

There could be as many as a million missing workers in the UK job market, experts say.

Latest figures suggest that the vast majority of livelihoods survived the end of the furlough scheme, designed to protect the economy from the ravages of Covid.

Fears of a huge spike in unemployment when the support was withdrawn have failed to materialise.

On the contrary: with vacancies at a record high of 1.2 million, many employers are struggling to cope with a shortage of skilled workers.

On Thursday, the government announced plans to get 500,000 jobseekers into jobs by the end of June, with those claiming Universal Credit having to look for jobs outside their chosen field more quickly or face sanctions.

According to the director of the Institute for Employment Studies, Tony Wilson, the problem is that the pandemic has caused the UK labour market to shrink.

"We're seeing unemployment falling, but we're also seeing employment quite a lot lower than it was before the crisis began," he told the BBC.


So how has that happened?

Well, since the onset of coronavirus, there has been a big rise in the number of people classed as "economically inactive" - that is, people who are not looking for jobs and are not available for work.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reckons that there are 400,000 more people in that category than there were before the virus hit.

Darren Morgan, director of economic statistics at the ONS, says that total "increased sharply" at the beginning of the pandemic, a rise he describes as "understandable".

"If you lost your job then, there was little point in looking for one, given the economy was closed," he told the BBC.

But since then, the number of economically inactive people has proved "far stickier" than the number of people out of work, he adds.

"We have not seen falls like we've seen in unemployment, and this is particularly the case for those over 50," he said.

That, of course, includes some people who have chosen to take early retirement, although others may feel the choice has been made for them.

Recent research by the Resolution Foundation think-tank also suggests that fewer young men are now economically active, perhaps due to fear of illness or suffering with long Covid, while more women have taken up roles due to the rise in flexible working.

Who else is economically inactive?

Tony Wilson of the IES says students are also a factor.

"A lot of young people decided to stay in education instead of entering the labour market a year ago," he said.

"But actually, more recently it's been growing because of longer-term ill-health" - a problem that includes people suffering from the after-effects of the virus known as "long Covid".

"All told, we think because the labour market was growing pretty consistently over the last few decades, the fact that it's now gone into reverse means that this gap, this half a million gap in employment, is even larger when you account for the growth in the labour market that we were seeing," Mr Wilson says.

"We think there's a gap of about a million people between what the labour market would have been like without Covid and where it is now."

Are there other factors?

Many of the labour shortages in particular sectors have been attributed to a decline in the number of foreign workers in the UK.

Because of a combination of Covid and Brexit, many EU nationals who worked in the UK have returned to their countries of origin.

Mr Wilson of the IES believes that the lack of migrant workers is responsible for the one-third of the shortfall in the labour market, while the rise in economic inactivity accounts for the other two-thirds.

Which sectors are worst affected?

Kate Shoesmith, deputy chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), says the run-up to Christmas was "a touch-and-go moment" for many businesses, with Covid and recruitment problems coming together.

"It was a combination of the lowest candidate availability we've ever known and absence rates creeping up," she told the BBC.

Now Covid sickness rates are settling down, but shortages are still "a big sticking point", she says.

She singles out healthcare as one of the worst-affected sectors currently, with the NHS and private providers trying to woo a limited pool of skilled workers amid high demand for services.

"Sometimes the NHS will be paying more to retain staff, because the NHS and the private sector are competing on wages," she says.

Elsewhere in the economy, efforts to address the chronic shortage of lorry drivers have borne fruit, but at the price of attracting people from other sectors, such as fork-lift truck drivers or warehouse workers, she says.

"You have to look at the supply chain as a whole. There's a sense that we're robbing Peter to pay Paul."

And the beleaguered hospitality sector is under renewed pressure to raise wages, while not having had the chance to replenish cash reserves over the festive season because of Plan B Covid restrictions, she adds.

So what's the solution?

Ms Shoesmith says the answer lies in persuading the economically inactive to return to the job market.

But doing it properly, she says, will require a joint effort between the public and private sectors.

Jobcentres and recruitment agencies "working hand in hand" could rebuild the confidence of people who have dropped out of the job market and help them back into work, she adds.

"After the 2007-08 crash, there was a shared sense of purpose, a combined effort," Ms Shoesmith says.

"Jobcentres can get people in, while recruiters can offer deep understanding of a sector," she says. "We've done it before and we can do it again."

(Source: BBC)

Saturday 29 January 2022

Unknown space object beaming out radio signals every 18 minutes remains a mystery

While mapping radio waves across the universe, astronomers happened upon a celestial object releasing giant bursts of energy -- and it's unlike anything they've ever seen before.

The spinning space object, spotted in March 2018, beamed out radiation three times per hour. In those moments, it became the brightest source of radio waves viewable from Earth, acting like a celestial lighthouse.

Astronomers think it might be a remnant of a collapsed star, either a dense neutron star or a dead white dwarf star, with a strong magnetic field -- or it could be something else entirely.

A study on the discovery published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

This image shows the Milky Way as viewed from Earth, and the star icon marks the location of the unknown object.

"This object was appearing and disappearing over a few hours during our observations," said lead study author Natasha Hurley-Walker, an astrophysicist at the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, in a statement.

"That was completely unexpected. It was kind of spooky for an astronomer because there's nothing known in the sky that does that. And it's really quite close to us -- about 4,000 light-years away. It's in our galactic backyard."

Curtin University doctoral student Tyrone O'Doherty made the unusual discovery while using the Murchison Widefield Array telescope in the outback of Western Australia.

"It's exciting that the source I identified last year has turned out to be such a peculiar object," O'Doherty said in a statement. "The MWA's wide field of view and extreme sensitivity are perfect for surveying the entire sky and detecting the unexpected."

What remains of a massive star's death

Flaring space objects that appear to turn on and off are known as transients.

"When studying transients, you're watching the death of a massive star or the activity of the remnants it leaves behind," said study coauthor Gemma Anderson, ICRAR-Curtin astrophysicist, in a statement. "'Slow transients' -- like supernovae -- might appear over the course of a few days and disappear after a few months. 'Fast transients' -- like a type of neutron star called a pulsar -- flash on and off within milliseconds or seconds."

This image shows a new view of the Milky Way from the Murchison Widefield Array, with the lowest frequencies in red, middle frequencies in green, and the highest frequencies in blue. The star icon shows the position of the mysterious repeating transient.

This new, incredibly bright object, however, only turned on for about a minute every 18 minutes. The researchers said their observations might match up with the definition of an ultra-long period magnetar. Magnetars usually flare by the second, but this object takes longer.

"It's a type of slowly spinning neutron star that has been predicted to exist theoretically," Hurley-Walker said. "But nobody expected to directly detect one like this because we didn't expect them to be so bright. Somehow it's converting magnetic energy to radio waves much more effectively than anything we've seen before."

The researchers will continue to monitor the object to see whether it turns back on, and in the meantime, they are searching for evidence of other similar objects.

"More detections will tell astronomers whether this was a rare one-off event or a vast new population we'd never noticed before," Hurley-Walker said.

(Source: CNN)

Friday 28 January 2022

The people deciding to ditch their smartphones

 In a world where many of us are glued to our smartphones, Dulcie Cowling is something of an anomaly - she has ditched hers.

The 36-year-old decided at the end of last year that getting rid of her handset would improve her mental health. So, over Christmas she told her family and friends that she was switching to an old Nokia phone that could only make and receive calls and text messages.

She recalls that one of the pivotal moments that led to her decision was a day at the park with her two boys, aged six and three: "I was on my mobile at a playground with the kids and I looked up and every single parent - there was up to 20 - were looking at their phones, just scrolling away," she says.

"I thought 'when did this happen?'. Everyone is missing out on real life. I don't think you get to your death bed and think you should have spent more time on Twitter, or reading articles online."

Ms Cowling, who is a creative director at London-based advertising agency Hell Yeah!, adds that the idea to abandon her smartphone had built up during the Covid lockdowns.

"I thought about how much of my life is spent looking at the phone and what else could I do. Being constantly connected to lots of services creates a lot of distractions, and is a lot for the brain to process."

One study suggests we spend almost five hours a day on our smartphones. Getty Images

She plans to use the time gained from quitting her smartphone to read and sleep more.

About nine out of 10 people in the UK now own a smartphone, a figure broadly replicated across the developed world. And we are glued to them - one recent study found that the average person spends 4.8 hours a day on their handset.

Yet for a small, but growing number of people, enough is enough.

Alex Dunedin binned his smartphone two years ago. "Culturally we have become addicted to these tools," says the educational researcher and technology expert. "They are blunting cognition and impeding productivity."

Mr Dunedin, who lives and works in Scotland, says another reason behind his decision was environmental concerns. "We are wasting exponential amounts of energy producing exponential amounts of CO2 emissions," he says.

He has become happier and more productive since he stopped using a smartphone, he says. Mr Dunedin doesn't even have an old-fashioned mobile phone or even a landline anymore. He is instead only electronically contactable via emails to his home computer.

"It has improved my life," he says. "My thoughts are freed up from constantly being cognitively connected to a machine that I need to feed with energy and money. I think that the danger of technologies is that they are emptying our lives."

Lynne Voyce, a 53-year-old teacher and writer from Birmingham, has moved in the opposite direction - she started using a smartphone again last August after a break of six years.

She says she was reluctantly compelled to buy one again due to having to deal with QR codes in restaurants, and so-called Covid passports, plus making it easier to keep in touch with one of her daughters who lives in Paris.

But she plans to give up it up again, if she can. "After the pandemic, and when Ella [her eldest daughter] isn't living abroad, I might try and give it up again. It sounds like an addiction, doesn't it?"

When Ms Voyce first abandoned her smartphone back in 2016 it was to help encourage her daughters to reduce the time they spent on their handsets.

"They were glued to their phones. I thought the only way to stop it was to get rid of my own phone. And it made all the difference.

"For example, we'd got to a restaurant, and they would no longer see me pick up my phone."

Not having a smartphone "took a lot of pressure off my brain" she says, "I didn't feel like I had to instantly answer things or be available when out".

Yet, while some worry about how much time they spend on their handset, for millions of others they are a godsend.

"More than ever, access to healthcare, education, social services and often to our friends and family is digital, and the smartphone is an essential lifeline for people," says a spokesperson for UK mobile network Vodafone.

"We also create resources to help people get the most from their tech, as well as to stay safe when they're online - that's hugely important."

However, Hilda Burke, a psychotherapist and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, says there is a strong link between heavy device usage and relationship issues, quality of sleep, our ability to switch off and relax, and concentration levels.

"Many people have a constant drip feed of requests coming their way via their device, many with a false sense of urgency.

"They feel unable to lay boundaries down, with the result that they feel compelled to check their emails and messages last thing at night and first thing in the morning."

If getting rid of your smartphone seems too much but you are concerned that you spend too much time on it, there are other measures you can take to reduce your usage.

While it might initially seem counterintuitive, more apps are emerging to curtail mindless scrolling.

For example, Freedom lets you temporarily block apps and websites so you can focus more. And Off The Grid enables you to block off your phone for a certain time period.

Ms Burke says it would be useful if more people monitored how much time they spend on their smartphone. "Starting to realise exactly how much time you're frittering away each day on your phone can be a powerful wake-up call and catalyst for change."

She also advises carving out short periods when you have your phone switched off or left at home, and gradually increase the wait period till you check it again.

Finally, she recommends choosing an image or a word that represents what you would rather be doing - if only you had more time - as your phone's screensaver.

"Considering most of us check our phones 55 times per day and some of us even 100 times, this is a great visual reminder of a more valuable way to spend your precious time," she says.

(Source: BBC)

Thursday 27 January 2022

Taiwan invites Indian researchers to its National Archives to rediscover the legacy of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

 Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre’s deputy representative Mumin Chen urged Indian researchers and historians to study the disappearance of Netaji and his legacy at the country’s National Archive.

The Taipei Economic and Cultural Center in Delhi, also known as the Taiwanese Embassy, has announced that the Taiwan govt has decided to open up its National archives to study and rediscover the legacy of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose. While speaking at the 125th Birthday Celebration of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose organized by FICCI on Saturday, deputy representative Mumin Chen urged Indian researchers and historians to study information about Netaji and also his legacy which has had a huge influence over Taiwan in the 1930s and 40s.

While speaking at the event, Chen elaborated on the link of the Indian Independence struggle and its attempts in Taiwan which was then under Japanese occupation. Speaking about the Indo-Taiwan historical connections, he mentioned, “With India and Netaji, we have historical connections” that Taiwanese did not know…In the 1940s, Chiang Kai-shek (Former President of the Republic of China) wrote about Netaji in his diary. He felt sympathy…

decision to cooperate with Japanese fight for independence is understandable.” Chiang Kai-shek who ruled Taiwan until 1975 is known for his strong resistance to Japanese forces during World War II. While it is also known that Netaji had asked Japanese help to overthrow British rule in India with the Indian National Army. Chen, while narrating incidences of Netaji on the Taiwanese soil said, “Taiwan before 1945 was a Japanese colony, that is why Netaji stepped on Taiwan in 1943, and then in 1945, he came to Taiwan for the second time.”   

The Taiwanese diplomat in Delhi then urged that the National Archives and other databases of information are open for Indian scholars and historians to study. He asserted that a lot of young historians interested in studying South-East Asia and India are in Taiwan. “A lot of historical documents and evidence on Netaji, and the Indian Independence movement are in Taiwan. Right now, very few Indian scholars know about it,” he added. Mumin Chen also elaborated on the bilateral need for India and Taiwan to “re-examine and re-discover the common history of Indo-Pacific” through shared common connections.

The controversy over the suspense of Netaji’s death refuses to die down. It is known that Netaji, after the plane crash in August 1945 was taken to Army Hospital in Taipei where he breathed his last. The interesting development comes when the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi is all set to unveil the hologramic statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose at the India Gate on the occasion of his 125th Birth Anniversary.

(Source: OpIndia)

Wednesday 26 January 2022

Your attention didn’t collapse. It was stolen

 Social media and many other facets of modern life are destroying our ability to concentrate. We need to reclaim our minds while we still can.

When he was nine years old, my godson Adam developed a brief but freakishly intense obsession with Elvis Presley. He took to singing Jailhouse Rock at the top of his voice with all the low crooning and pelvis-jiggling of the King himself. One day, as I tucked him in, he looked at me very earnestly and asked: “Johann, will you take me to Graceland one day?” Without really thinking, I agreed. I never gave it another thought, until everything had gone wrong.

Ten years later, Adam was lost. He had dropped out of school when he was 15, and he spent almost all his waking hours alternating blankly between screens – a blur of YouTube, WhatsApp and porn. (I’ve changed his name and some minor details to preserve his privacy.) He seemed to be whirring at the speed of Snapchat, and nothing still or serious could gain any traction in his mind. During the decade in which Adam had become a man, this fracturing seemed to be happening to many of us. Our ability to pay attention was cracking and breaking. I had just turned 40, and wherever my generation gathered, we would lament our lost capacity for concentration. I still read a lot of books, but with each year that passed, it felt more and more like running up a down escalator. Then one evening, as we lay on my sofa, each staring at our own ceaselessly shrieking screens, I looked at him and felt a low dread. “Adam,” I said softly, “let’s go to Graceland.” I reminded him of the promise I had made. I could see that the idea of breaking this numbing routine ignited something in him, but I told him there was one condition he had to stick to if we went. He had to switch his phone off during the day. He swore he would.

Illustration by Eric Chow.

When you arrive at the gates of Graceland, there is no longer a human being whose job is to show you around. You are handed an iPad, you put in little earbuds, and the iPad tells you what to do – turn left; turn right; walk forward. In each room, a photograph of where you are appears on the screen, while a narrator describes it. So as we walked around we were surrounded by blank-faced people, looking almost all the time at their screens. As we walked, I felt more and more tense. When we got to the jungle room – Elvis’s favourite place in the mansion – the iPad was chattering away when a middle-aged man standing next to me turned to say something to his wife. In front of us, I could see the large fake plants that Elvis had bought to turn this room into his own artificial jungle. “Honey,” he said, “this is amazing. Look.” He waved the iPad in her direction, and began to move his finger across it. “If you swipe left, you can see the jungle room to the left. And if you swipe right, you can see the jungle room to the right.”

If you read your texts while working, you lose that time, but also the time it takes to refocus afterwards, which is a lot.

His wife stared, smiled, and began to swipe at her own iPad. I leaned forward. “But, sir,” I said, “there’s an old-fashioned form of swiping you can do. It’s called turning your head. Because we’re here. We’re in the jungle room. You can see it unmediated. Here. Look.” I waved my hand, and the fake green leaves rustled a little. Their eyes returned to their screens. “Look!” I said. “Don’t you see? We’re actually there. There’s no need for your screen. We are in the jungle room.” They hurried away. I turned to Adam, ready to laugh about it all – but he was in a corner, holding his phone under his jacket, flicking through Snapchat.

At every stage in the trip, he had broken his promise. When the plane first touched down in New Orleans two weeks before, he took out his phone while we were still in our seats. “You promised not to use it,” I said. He replied: “I meant I wouldn’t make phone calls. I can’t not use Snapchat and texting, obviously.” He said this with baffled honesty, as though I had asked him to hold his breath for 10 days. In the jungle room, I suddenly snapped and tried to wrestle his phone from his grasp, and he stomped away. That night I found him in the Heartbreak Hotel, sitting next to a swimming pool (shaped like a giant guitar), looking sad. I realised as I sat with him that, as with so much anger, my rage towards him was really anger towards myself. His inability to focus was something I felt happening to me too. I was losing my ability to be present, and I hated it. “I know something’s wrong,” Adam said, holding his phone tightly in his hand. “But I have no idea how to fix it.” Then he went back to texting.

I realised then that I needed to understand what was really happening to him and to so many of us. That moment turned out to be the start of a journey that transformed how I think about attention. I travelled all over the world in the next three years, from Miami to Moscow to Melbourne, interviewing the leading experts in the world about focus. What I learned persuaded me that we are not now facing simply a normal anxiety about attention, of the kind every generation goes through as it ages. We are living in a serious attention crisis – one with huge implications for how we live. I learned there are twelve factors that have been proven to reduce people’s ability to pay attention and that many of these factors have been rising in the past few decades – sometimes dramatically.

I went to Portland, Oregon, to interview Prof Joel Nigg, who is one of the leading experts in the world on children’s attention problems, and he told me we need to ask if we are now developing “an attentional pathogenic culture” – an environment in which sustained and deep focus is harder for all of us. When I asked him what he would do if he was in charge of our culture and he actually wanted to destroy people’s attention, he said: “Probably what our society is doing.” Prof Barbara Demeneix, a leading French scientist who has studied some key factors that can disrupt attention, told me bluntly: “There is no way we can have a normal brain today.” We can see the effects all around us. A small study of college students found they now only focus on any one task for 65 seconds. A different study of office workers found they only focus on average for three minutes. This isn’t happening because we all individually became weak-willed. Your focus didn’t collapse. It was stolen.

When I first got back from Graceland, I thought my attention was failing because I wasn’t strong enough as an individual and because I had been taken over by my phone. I went into a spiral of negative thoughts, reproaching myself. I’d say – you’re weak, you’re lazy, you’re not disciplined enough. I thought the solution was obvious: be more disciplined, and banish your phone. So I went online and booked myself a little room by the beach in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. I announced triumphantly to everyone – I am going to be there for three months, with no smartphone, and no computer that can get online. I’m done. I’m tired of being wired. I knew I could only do it because I was very lucky and had money from my previous books. I knew it couldn’t be a long-term solution. I did it because I thought that if I didn’t, I might lose some crucial aspects of my ability to think deeply. I also hoped that if I stripped everything back for a time, I might start to be able to glimpse the changes we could all make in a more sustainable way.

In my first webless week, I stumbled around in a haze of decompression. Provincetown is a little gay resort town with the highest proportion of same-sex couples in the US. I ate cupcakes, read books, talked with strangers and sang songs. Everything radically slowed down. Normally I follow the news every hour or so, getting a drip-feed of anxiety-provoking facts and trying to smush them together into some kind of sense. Instead, I simply read a physical newspaper once a day. Every few hours, I would feel an unfamiliar sensation gurgling inside me and I would ask myself: what is that? Ah, yes. Calm.

Later, I realised when I interviewed the experts and studied their research that there were many reasons why my attention was starting to heal from that first day. Prof Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained one to me. He said “your brain can only produce one or two thoughts” in your conscious mind at once. That’s it. “We’re very, very single-minded.” We have “very limited cognitive capacity”. But we have fallen for an enormous delusion. The average teenager now believes they can follow six forms of media at the same time. When neuroscientists studied this, they found that when people believe they are doing several things at once, they are actually juggling. “They’re switching back and forth. They don’t notice the switching because their brain sort of papers it over to give a seamless experience of consciousness, but what they’re actually doing is switching and reconfiguring their brain moment-to-moment, task-to-task – [and] that comes with a cost.” Imagine, say, you are doing your tax return, and you receive a text, and you look at it – it’s only a glance, taking three seconds – and then you go back to your tax return. In that moment, “your brain has to reconfigure, when it goes from one task to another”, he said. You have to remember what you were doing before, and you have to remember what you thought about it. When this happens, the evidence shows that “your performance drops. You’re slower. All as a result of the switching.”

This is called the “switch-cost effect”. It means that if you check your texts while trying to work, you aren’t only losing the little bursts of time you spend looking at the texts themselves – you are also losing the time it takes to refocus afterwards, which turns out to be a huge amount. For example, one study at the Carnegie Mellon University’s human computer interaction lab took 136 students and got them to sit a test. Some of them had to have their phones switched off, and others had their phones on and received intermittent text messages. The students who received messages performed, on average, 20% worse. It seems to me that almost all of us are currently losing that 20% of our brainpower, almost all the time. Miller told me that as a result we now live in “a perfect storm of cognitive degradation”.

For the first time in a very long time, in Provincetown I was doing one thing at a time, without being interrupted. I was living within the limits of what my brain could actually handle. I felt my attention growing and improving with every day that passed, but then, one day, I experienced an abrupt setback. I was walking down the beach and every few steps I saw the same thing that had been scratching at me since Memphis. People seemed to be using Provincetown simply as a backdrop for selfies, rarely looking up, at the ocean or each other. Only this time, the itch I felt wasn’t to yell: You’re wasting your lives, put the damn phone down. It was to yell: Give me that phone! Mine! For so long, I had received the thin, insistent signals of the web every few hours throughout the day, the trickle of likes and comments that say: I see you. You matter. Now they were gone. Simone de Beauvoir said that when she became an atheist, it felt like the world had fallen silent. Losing the web felt like that. After the rhetorical heat of social media, ordinary social interactions seemed pleasing but low volume. No normal social interaction floods you with hearts.

I realised that to heal my attention, it was not enough simply to strip out distractions. That makes you feel good at first – but then it creates a vacuum where all the noise was. I realised I had to fill the vacuum. To do that, I started to think a lot about an area of psychology I had learned about years before – the science of flow states. Almost everyone reading this will have experienced a flow state at some point. It’s when you are doing something meaningful to you, and you really get into it, and time falls away, and your ego seems to vanish, and you find yourself focusing deeply and effortlessly. Flow is the deepest form of attention human beings can offer. But how do we get there?

I later interviewed Prof Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Claremont, California, who was the first scientist to study flow states and researched them for more than 40 years. From his research, I learned there are three key factors which you need to get into flow. First you need to choose one goal. Flow takes all your mental energy, deployed deliberately in one direction. Second, that goal needs to be meaningful to you – you can’t flow into a goal that you don’t care about. Third, it helps if what you are doing is at the edge of your abilities – if, say, the rock you are climbing is slightly higher and harder than the last rock you climbed. So every morning, I started to write – a different kind of writing from my earlier work, one that stretched me. Within a few days, I started to flow, and hours of focus would pass without it feeling like a challenge. I felt I was focusing in the way I had when I was a teenager, in long effortless stretches. I had feared my brain was breaking. I cried with relief when I realised that in the right circumstances, its full power could come back.

At the end of every day, I would sit on the beach and watch the light slowly change. The light on the cape is unlike the light anywhere else I have ever been and in Provincetown, I could see more clearly than I ever had before in my life – my own thoughts, my own goals, my own dreams. I was living in the light. So when the time came to leave the beach house and come back to the hyperlinked world, I became convinced I had cracked the code of attention. I returned to the world determined to integrate the lessons I had learned in my everyday life. When I was reunited with my phone and laptop after taking a ferry back to where they were stashed in Boston, they seemed alien, and alienating. But within a few months, my screen time was back to four hours a day, and my attention was fraying and breaking again.

In Moscow, the former Google engineer James Williams – who has become the most important philosopher of attention in the western world – told me I had made a crucial mistake. Individual abstinence is “not the solution, for the same reason that wearing a gas mask for two days a week outside isn’t the answer to pollution. It might, for a short period of time, keep certain effects at bay, but it’s not sustainable, and it doesn’t address the systemic issues.” He said that our attention is being deeply altered by huge invasive forces in wider society. Saying the solution was to just adjust your own habits – to pledge to break up with your phone, say – was just “pushing it back on to the individual” he said, when “it’s really the environmental changes that will really make the difference”.

Nigg said it might help me grasp what’s happening if we compare our rising attention problems to our rising obesity rates. Fifty years ago there was very little obesity, but today it is endemic in the western world. This is not because we suddenly became greedy or self-indulgent. He said: “Obesity is not a medical epidemic – it’s a social epidemic. We have bad food, for example, and so people are getting fat.” The way we live changed dramatically – our food supply changed, and we built cities that are hard to walk or cycle around, and those changes in our environment led to changes in our bodies. We gained mass, en masse. Something similar, he said, might be happening with the changes in our attention.

I learned that the factors harming our attention are not all immediately obvious. I had been focused on tech at first, but in fact the causes range very widely – from the food we eat to the air we breathe, from the hours we work to the hours we no longer sleep. They include many things we have come to take for granted – from how we deprive our children of play, to how our schools strip learning of meaning by basing everything on tests. I came to believe we need to respond to this incessant invasion of our attention at two levels. The first is individual. There are all sorts of changes we can make at a personal level that will protect our focus. I would say that by doing most of them, I have boosted my focus by about 20%. But we have to level with people. Those changes will only take you so far. At the moment it’s as though we are all having itching powder poured over us all day, and the people pouring the powder are saying: “You might want to learn to meditate. Then you wouldn’t scratch so much.” Meditation is a useful tool – but we actually need to stop the people who are pouring itching powder on us. We need to band together to take on the forces stealing our attention and take it back.

This can sound a bit abstract – but I met people who were putting it into practice in many places. To give one example: there is strong scientific evidence that stress and exhaustion ruin your attention. Today, about 35% of workers feel they can never switch off their phones because their boss might email them at any time of day or night. In France, ordinary workers decided this was intolerable and pressured their government for change – so now, they have a legal “right to disconnect”. It’s simple. You have a right to defined work hours, and you have a right to not be contacted by your employer outside those hours. Companies that break the rules get huge fines. There are lots of potential collective changes like this that can restore part of our focus. We could, for example, force social media companies to abandon their current business model, which is specifically designed to invade our attention in order to keep us scrolling. There are alternative ways these sites could work – ones that would heal our attention instead of hacking it.

Some scientists say these worries about attention are a moral panic, comparable to the anxieties in the past about comic books or rap music, and that the evidence is shaky. Other scientists say the evidence is strong and these anxieties are like the early warnings about the obesity epidemic or the climate crisis in the 1970s. I think that given this uncertainty, we can’t wait for perfect evidence. We have to act based on a reasonable assessment of risk. If the people warning about the effects on our attention turn out to be wrong, and we still do what they suggest, what will be the cost? We will spend less time being harassed by our bosses, and we’ll be tracked and manipulated less by technology – along with lots of other improvements in our lives that are desirable in any case. But if they turn out to be right, and we don’t do what they say, what’s the cost? We will have – as the former Google engineer Tristan Harris told me – downgraded humanity, stripping us of our attention at the very time when we face big collective crises that require it more than ever.

But none of these changes will happen unless we fight for them. Just as the feminist movement reclaimed women’s right to their own bodies (and still has to fight for it today), I believe we now need an attention movement to reclaim our minds. I believe we need to act urgently, because this may be like the climate crisis, or the obesity crisis – the longer we wait, the harder it will get. The more our attention degrades, the harder it will be to summon the personal and political energy to take on the forces stealing our focus. The first step it requires is a shift in our consciousness. We need to stop blaming ourselves, or making only demands for tiny tweaks from our employers and from tech companies. We own our own minds – and together, we can take them back from the forces that are stealing them.

(Source: The Guardian)

Tuesday 25 January 2022

Behind the rise of the Hindi dub of Telugu crime drama ‘Pushpa’, a long journey of hits and misses

 The Hindi version of film, starring Allu Arjun, has been an unexpected success.

What’s behind the success of the Hindi version of the Telugu movie Pushpa: The Rise? Sukumar’s crime drama was a slow starter in Telugu but an unexpected hit in Hindi. It has so far earned an estimated Rs 84.44 crore at the box office.

The Pushpa dub has connected with Hindi audiences in a way that even Kabir Khan’s cricket-themed 83 couldn’t. The December 17 release, the first in a two-part film, is now out on Amazon Prime Video.

The hero of the film, Allu Arjun, who at 39 is already a veteran of Telugu cinema, is being hailed as the latest crossover star. Prompted by this success, his 2020 movie Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo is being dubbed and hastily prepared for a January 26 release in Hindi markets. This despite the fact that an official remake, titled Shehzada and starring Kartik Aaryan, is underway.

There are several theories about Pushpa’s commercial triumph. The most persistent explanation is that the Telugu production has the elements that Hindi cinema has been missing of late – stylishly filmed big-screen entertainment, thrilling action scenes, and an ultramacho hero who, despite jigging with a bar dancer, is faithful to his beloved.

Pushpa’s titular hero is certainly an unreconstructed male riposte to Hindi cinema’s frequently metrosexual and plasticky leading men. My name might mean flower but I am fire, Pushpa growls during his battles with various gangsters and a police officer.

In the success of Pushpa and the Hindi dub of the Kannada crime drama KGF: Chapter 1 in 2018, there appears to be a nostalgia for Hindi films as they were perceived to be: a grand 70-mm package, simplistically plotted and morally uncomplicated, with heroes, heroines, villains and vamps who stick to their moulds rather than breaking out of them.

Is Pushpa’s success a passing fancy? A hunger for exotic fruit at a time when local produce isn’t as readily available? The fallout of at least three years of sustained propaganda against the Hindi film industry by Hindutva forces, which has led to what some observers describe as an “anti-Bollywood wave”? Or a significant shift in audience tastes that will further the cause of the pan-Indian movie?

The perils of film trade punditry were summarised by American humorist Will Rogers in an essay as early as 1928: “It’s the only business in the world that nobody knows anything about. Being in them don’t give any more of an inkling about them than being out of them.”

Whether or not Pushpa’s rise will have lasting effects, what is certain is that the film has benefitted from years of assiduous groundwork. For decades, filmmakers from India’s various movie industries have been mixing and matching ideas and talent in their eternal quest for the box-office hit.

Since the 1930s, movies in Telugu, Tamil and Bengali have been remade in Hindi. At the same time, Hindi hits were retooled in other languages. With a few changes in the setting and a fresh cast and music, a movie could appear as good as new.

The traffic between Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad has been the busiest and produced one of the earliest crossover stars. Vyjayanthimala’s Tamil films in the 1940s and 1950s were remade in Telugu and later in Hindi. She spoke her own lines in the Hindi versions, rather than relying on a dubbing artist. Several Tamil and Telugu actresses followed her to the Hindi film world, from Waheeda Rehman and Padmini to Sridevi and Jaya Prada.

The journey is typically easier for actresses. They play a relatively diminished role in the average Hindi film universe. Their energies are focused on looking beautiful and executing song-and-dance sequences, leading to an enduring showbiz legend that Southern actresses have Bharatanatyam in their blood.

The burden of shouldering a film’s narrative journey is nearly always borne by men who must look and sound the part. As a result, heroes from other language cinemas have found it more challenging to surmount the average Hindi filmgoer’s preference for clean-cut men with generic North Indian features and names.

The exceptions include Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth in the 1980s. Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), K Balachander’s moneyspinning remake of his Telugu film Maro Charitra, briefly made Haasan a star in Mumbai.

Despite a few hits in the Hindi film world, though, Haasan remained a “Madrasi” – the pejorative term for just about anybody from the southern states. In Rajinikanth’s Hindi films, he was often a comic element with an undefinable accent and wondrous mannerisms.

The preference for women over men has been challenged by recent films. SS Rajamouli’s two-part blockbuster Baahubali (2015 and 2017), which was led by the Telugu actor Prabhas, the success of the Hindi dubbed version of the Kannada crime drama KFG, starring Yash, and Pushpa: The Rise indicate that an untested hero is no obstacle when a film is seen as compelling entertainment. If anything, the foreignness of the leads is part of the overall experience.

The true test of the Hindi filmgoer’s acceptance of non-normative heroes will be seen in the coming months with such films as Rajamouli’s RRR, led by Telugu stars Jr NTR and Ram Charan, and Puri Jagannadh’s Liger, made in both Telugu and Hindi and starring Vijay Devarakonda.

RRR and Liger have hedged their bets by casting Hindi talent – Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn in RRR and Ananya Panday in Liger. Not every film can be a Baahubali, which had only two actors familiar to Hindi audiences (Ramya Krishnan and Rana Daggubati). RRR and Liger also have universal themes – patriotism in the first, sports in the second.

The exercise can be pointless even when producers play it safe. Writer Ashokamitran, who worked in the publicity department of SS Vasan’s legendary Gemini Studios in Chennai, wrote about one such experiment in his memoir Fourteen Years with Boss.

“For the first time a Gemini film sported a real film star whom people in the north would readily recognise with a sigh or a gasp,” Ashokamitran writes with characteristic drollery about the Madhubala-starrer Bahut Din Huwe in 1954. (It didn’t work – the movie flopped.)

Two of the simplest ways to make South meet the Rest of India is dubbing or remaking a Southern hit in Hindi. When they work – Kabir Singh, the 2019 monster hit remake of Arjun Reddy, for example – they have been held up as further proof of Bollywood’s declining ability to come up with winnable material.

Dubbed movies have playing the role of introducing seasoned talent to new audiences. The success of Mani Ratnam’s Roja and Bombay in Hindi in the early 1990s are instances of how dubbing can break through barriers despite unknown faces and the visible mismatch between lip movements and dialogue.

Would Roja had worked if it didn’t have a nationalistic theme, didn’t explore Kashmiri militancy and didn’t have a score by AR Rahman? Similarly, if Bombay took Ratnam out of his comfort zone of Tamil Nadu,the movie’s setting was surely one of the reasons it clicked beyond the state.

Bombay’s exploration of the city’s worst communal riots following the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya by Hindutva mobs in 1992 – a national-level event – gave the movie a wider appeal. So did the casting of Hindi actress Manisha Koirala and yet another winning score by AR Rahman.

Dubbed films have also had a fruitful afterlife on television and YouTube. In the absence of quantifiable research, we have only anecdotal evidence and fan comments on YouTube videos to remind us that audiences can be more adventurous than filmmakers and trade pundits.

None of these efforts guarantee success for the remake or, that matter, the production simultaneously filmed in more than one language. Spurred on by Roja and Bombay, Mani Ratnam ambitiously filmed Aayuthu Ezuthu (2004) in Hindi as Yuva and Raavanan (2010) as Raavan. Despite casting Hindi actors, the remakes didn’t land with the same smoothness as Ratnam’s previous dubbed productions.

The joys of the culture-specific production, which defies the standardising compulsions of the all-India movie, can be preserved only through subtitling. But subtitling across the country’s many languages is even harder to pull off than dubbing.

The cult status accorded to such dubbed films as the Chiranjeevi-starrer Indra – The Tiger notwithstanding, there is no guarantee that a film made for a specific language culture will survive the journey to Hindi. There are several obstacles – the loss of specific cultural references, the quality of the Hindi dialogue and the dubbing, the lack of awareness about directors and actors who are stars in their own right. But when intent matches content, a blockbuster seems inevitable.

With so many remakes, dubbed films and subtitled films on streaming platforms and YouTube, it sometimes appears that the Hindi film industry is the one running low on ideas and imagination. The Bollywood obituary, which has been written over the years and is revised whenever there is a new controversy, ignores the fact that the traffic is two-way. If Hindi producers keep a close eye on Southern productions, Hindi films too are remade in southern languages.

Filmmakers yearn for a pan-Indian film to improve their earnings and increase their cultural footprint. Until that happens, they can best rely on the dubbed movie, which often provides a deceptively fresh look at dated material.

Apart from its filmmaking pizazz, little is actually new about Pushpa: The Rise and that’s possibly why it has worked. We’ve seen it before and we can’t remember where, but we go along because sometimes, familiarity breeds comfort.

(Source: Scroll)