Vandana Kohli is an acclaimed filmmaker, musician and photographer. She has recently researched, produced and directed the award-winning international documentary ‘The Subtext Of Anger’. Vandana has scripted, directed and edited projects for clients that include The National Geographic Channel, The History Channel, Doordarshan, various agencies of the United Nations and the Government of India. You can find out more about her at www.vandanakohli.com.
For those born in the 70s, 'Knowledge is power' was a well known axiom. And 'knowledge' was often interchangeable with 'information'.
Well, that's changed. We now live in the Age of Information. It comes to us from everywhere, 24X7, blasting its way into our faces, quite like a fission reaction gone wrong. Information, loads of it, some of it useful; most of it junk.
There's information from the Net, from TV, from radio, from hoardings, and from print that is now mostly going out of print. It's everywhere, and it's all pervasive.
Amongst these, the Internet is the most powerful tool invented by humankind. And like all such tools, it can be used or abused, or both.
A few mouse clicks for a student today opens up a wealth of knowledge to source from, whether it's seeking information on a subject, or on a college across the globe for admissions. That's the good part.
(Think 20 years ago, when a student had to write to the university, sometimes several times, await a reply and a form, fill it in and send it across with all documents - all through snail mail. At best, some could access a fax machine).
On the other hand, there's so much mindless information on the web, it's unquantifiable, and that's scary. There are opinions, views, vendetta, misrepresented facts and downright lies. There are also all kinds of 'entertainment' available- from the sublime to the most perverted, crass and grotesque stuff imaginable.
And erasing any of this is difficult, difficult enough for people to offer specialized tools to do the needful, if at all it can be done. So if someone wishes to defame you unfairly, you have no control but to have what's written or stated staring at you probably forever!
This limitless availability of all kinds of data is one of the greatest challenges facing parents in this era. Parents are at their wits end trying to control or monitor children and the time they spend with screens - computers, mobiles, video-games, television screens. Studies in the US point to children spending alarming amounts of time looking at screens. About 60 per cent of children under the age of 8 have televisions in their rooms and their access to computers is growing too.
Where am I getting with all this? Two points to consider.
The first is this - our brains can process a certain amount of information at time. If there is too much information, says Sanjeev Jain, a psychiatrist at NIMHANS, Bangalore, then the filter fades. The filter that tells you what to keep, and what not to; what is of use, and what is not.
So its not as if the human mind will fail, but the filter fails to work, it gets overwhelmed, and you end up clogging the input drives of your brain.
Which brings me to the second point - the value of discretion or good judgment, or 'the ability to decide and choose responsibly'.
With so much information coming our way, what can we possibly do to not lose control of our minds? We can be discerning, and we could teach the kids by example to use their discretion.
A discerning mind is a discriminating, intelligent, wise, clear and keen sighted mind. It's a mind that chooses astutely where and on what to focus attention and what to sift out.
This clarity of mind is a quality that experience brings with it. We file away our experiences, we observe and make note of our reactions and responses and what they have led to, and we then begin to choose more wisely. We remember and recall what we may have said or done in certain situations, put that away often subconsciously, and make changes if that leads us to better outcomes. Some of us learn faster than others, some of us beat the same drum several times before noting its effect.
But experience comes with age, and children have all but that. Worse, they have television screens with advertisements and series telling them of the 'good life' materially and how easy it is to have all of it, and that of course they must have all of it and nothing less. Even worse, they can beat and kick and shoot all they want and whoever they want to have all of this. To them, it seems a birthright.
So where do we begin, in this Age of Information and Easy Accessibility, to all kinds of substance, good and terrible. How do we begin to discern?
There, just there, with the concept of 'Good and Bad'.
Good and bad are relative terms. What's good for me may be terrible for you and the other way round. Not just that, but what's good for me today, may no longer be good for me tomorrow.
By that measure, there is no good and no bad. There are, however, things that can empower you and things that can weaken you.
Some time ago, a friend called us over for lunch. Her son is 26, and she had a trail of woes against what he was doing, and not doing, with his time. "He and his friends lounge around all day", she complained.
"Didn't he say he wants to live on his own?" I inquired. That would infuse some responsibility in his choices, one would imagine.
"He did, but where will he stay?" She said.
"I'm sure he'll figure that out!" I said, a little taken aback at this assumed helplessness. "You need to figure out whether you can let him go," I said to her, trying not to be too candid. "You're keeping him here, and that's not empowering him. It's weakening him."
Therein lies a clue to exercising our discretion - understanding and identifying what will strengthen and empower us, and what will consume and weaken us. These are instinctive decisions. We're hardwired to choose stuff that is inherently empowering for us, unless we're on a course of self-destruction.
Do children have the ability to take these decisions? I think they need to be guided initially, to weigh things consciously, functionally, aesthetically. In built within all of us is the potential to understand, appreciate and identify finer choices from more base ones. We probably need to be conscious about this potential initially, until the mechanism becomes active on auto.
Discretion adds value to our lives. If children know it, we wouldn't need to worry as much about what kind of stuff is staring at them - good or bad.
And as for what to believe and what not to, especially in these times of information explosion, there's only one thing to rely on - the timeless language of the heart.