Is reading passé?


“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”  Groucho Marx

In US the average SAT reading score is decreasing steadily. From 505 in 2001 to 495 in 2015. Whereas Raven’s Test scores, which measure visual IQ, are increasing steadily, while the overall IQ growth has slowed down. Summary, people are reading less and less.

Blame it on social media, media, stressed life, entertainment options or whatever, reading as a habit is dying. Consider these statistics drawn from different research studies. 8 secs is the average attention span of an adult before he or she gets distracted from reading. 20% is what people retain after they have read an article or a message. 81% of educated people skim than read online. Settling down with a good book or a magazine is not an in-thing anymore. Like fast food, people want fast information.

Welcome to the world of visuals. Not just children, we adults have switched our learning or gathering information into a visual exercise. Graphs, infographics, photos and videos are the formats we now prefer. Growth of social media is the main reason behind this change of habit. Twitter with its 140 character has limited our reading habit. With YouTube and videos what is the need to read. Growth of Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram is a sign that visual is the way ahead. It is expected that 84% of the world’s communication will be visual by 2018.

Guess the last time you opened a dictionary or an encyclopaedia to learn a meaning or knowledge about something. We just Google it! Psychologists working in the field of education have warned the negative effect of Googling information. Knowledge is about discovery. The journey to the discovery is more important than the discovery itself. With Google, the answer is quick, precise, need fulfilling which obviates the need to discovering beyond the present point of search.

When you read, you create a visual imagery of the scene being described. For example, while reading Alice in the Wonderland, you will create images of the places and people Alice encounters. You put your mind to more work, thus enriching and developing it. If you watch a video of the same, there is nothing to imagine, which robs the mind of great stimulation activity. Watch your child’s face when you read a fairy tale and when she is watching a fairy tale video on TV. The difference is the imagination and attention. Add to that the ‘special time’ you spent with your child reading to her which is invaluable.

Reading is one of the 4R’s for development at all stages of life. Writing as a habit is almost dead. Remember the letters that you wrote to your grandparents and friends? When was the last time you wrote or received a letter? Switching to visual media instead of reading is akin to giving calculator to a child to teach maths. Read more to think more visually.

To promote family planning in a slum area, an interesting hoarding was designed. Divided into two parts, it visually displayed the benefits of a small family. The small family, with two children, had all the comforts of life like TV, fridge, furniture etc. The large family was a contrast with few comforts. Message was clear, have a small family, be happy. A researcher was sent to get feedback. He stopped one man coming out from the slum and asked his opinion about the hoarding. The slum dweller replied, “look at the small family, they have everything in life, but God has given them only two children!”

Picture perfect!

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Good or great?


What you are comes to you – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The Man in the Machine”, the latest documentary on Steve Jobs has stirred a debate on Steve Jobs – the techie and the human. The debate has led to some reverence and some rile.

First the reverence. Visionary, innovator, marketing genius and a stickler for quality are some of the adjectives used to describe Steve Jobs, the Apple chief. Starting from a garage, Steve Jobs built Apple into a powerhouse in tech world that is much loved for its innovation and its marketing acumen. His ability to bounce back to head Apple after his dismissal from the company he founded, is a story of inspiration, triumph of human spirit and intellect. Apple created real wealth for its investors and employees and Steve Jobs gets the outsized credit which he deserves.

Now the rile. Daring to speak ill of the dead, Steve Jobs the person, has been demonised like few others. Early on in life, Jobs reportedly short changed his friend and Apple co-founder Steve Woznaick on a coding job, pocketing a ultra large share of the remuneration, while declaring a lower remuneration. His refusal to accept his daughter born not out of wedlock, his refusal to give to charities or even dividends to Apple investors are some of the well documented failings of Jobs. At work, Jobs was a difficult person to deal with. Expletive laden comments, temperamental and non-negotiable ways bordering on insensitivity, Jobs was a reportedly respected less and feared more at work.

One might dismiss Jobs’ failings as human – after all who is perfect. But these failings are not just human, these are shortcomings that are unbecoming of a learned human being. His failings are as large as his achievements. Steve Jobs (and achievers like him) raise an interesting equation – is success, especially at commerce, indirectly related to niceness as a human being? Simply put, do good guys finish last?

Stanford Professor, Adam Grant has helps us understand the ways of the world of people. He categories people into 3 buckets – Givers, Takers and Matchers. Each word is self explanatory but a description will help. Givers are the do-gooders of the society and the organisation. Intelligent, introvert, simplistic, non-demanding, sharing and caring are the traits of the givers. Takers are the banal villains of life. Shameless, self-centred, exploitative, generally extrovert with a myself-first attitude. Lick up to authority, kick down with authority is the personality trait of takers. Matchers are the balancers. Political, diplomatic, negotiators, good to givers, tough with takers are the clear traits of matchers. As you look around you will realise that takers are more successful, matchers are the challengers, givers are exploited and are the losers, commercially at least. What you need to ‘give’ to ‘take’ what from life is the moralistic argument economical man debates without a solution.

Please do not be hasty to conclude that all the self-serving takers are bad people. They are equally loving parent, spouse or sibling as a giver with traits for finer things in life. Hitler was a vegetarian who loved painting. Some of the most evil and despicable men of history were deeply religious individuals. Osama bin Laden, reportedly prayed 5 times a day. What then brings out Mr.Hyde from the soul of Dr.Jekyll, is the question.

Money clearly is a driver of many of the ills. Benchmarking material wealth as a sign out of success, we give up few bits of humanity. Next driver is power, the ultimate form of pleasure. A team that responds to your beck and call is a high which few drugs can deliver. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Obedience to authority, hoping to obtain gains in future, is an external driver of our Mr.Hyde like behaviour. Extreme love for money or power creates the monsters that pervade the society in the form of thieves or terrorists. A very fine line separates ambition and greed, lest we cross it!

In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna observes that for the enlightened, a piece of earth, stone and gold are all alike. With knowledge and understanding we can build resilience and resistance to material wealth and power. To win at all costs does not make you a winner but a loser.

Imagine a world with iPhone, iPad or Mac that Steve Jobs built with such passion and aggression. Yes there was such a world and there was happiness and joy. The answer to the debate what to give to take what from life is this – a benchmark called happiness of many. If your passion or efforts make the world a better place, go ahead. Aim not just at the ends, concentration on the means is more important.

Yes, good guys may finish last. What is good lasts longer. Isn’t that great?



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Ban the ban


I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it – Voltaire

It is the season of bans. Ban on pornography, ban on books, ban on documentaries, ban on alcohol, ban on beef, ban on meat… the search is on ban more and more to make us a highly moral, noble and virtuous society. Funnily though these bans is being planned for us by our bickering, divisive and parochial politicians!

Bans as a tool for betterment of society are not new. Failure of these bans is not new either. To ban alcohol (more on that later), smoking, drugs etc is one thing; to ban what one consumes in private for pleasure or survival is stretching the argument too far with very little attendant benefit. For what is banned, curiously attracts more attention than desired because as humans we are born to resist change through authority.

As humans we (believe) are born with what are called ‘behavioural freedoms’. Freedom to choose basic things in life like what we eat, whom we wish to love, what clothes to wear and such similar freedoms. When authority is used to curtail these freedoms, we develop what psychologists refer to as ‘psychological reactance’. It is our motivational reaction to oppose the act of restriction being imposed upon our freedom. In effect we will do the very thing (express our freedom) in a stronger expression than is normal. “Don’t do this” will lead to “I will do it”, reaction. While in normal times the same person would not even bother to express the freedom. You ban it, I will like it! Children’s behaviour in the house is the everyday example of psychological reactance.

Prohibition is the best example of failure of ‘ban of choices’. The first recorded ban on alcohol is from 1600 B.C. in China by the emperor Yu the Great! His ban lasted until his life, which was reversed quickly by son on his succession to the throne. So much for his greatness. USA tried to impose prohibition in the country through the 18th amendment in constitution. Started in 1920, it lasted until 1933 and was reversed as US population was unable to manage itself through the great depression without a peg or two! Various countries around the world have tried and are still trying to win the battle against the bottle.

Ban on alcohol leads to another problem – bootlegging. Alcohol is smuggled in from other places to the place of ban, which is sold at a higher rate than MRP, which sees emergence of gangs to win a share of the profits. Gang violence containment is a social cost that the state needs to pay for apart from losing precious excise revenue (which funds schools and hospitals). Al Capone is a legendary gangster in Chicago during prohibition era, who grew in notoriety and fame thanks to prohibition. Prohibition also leads to product delivery innovation. In Gujarat where prohibition is in place, you can get alcohol through a bootlegger who is called, believe it or not, folder. E-commerce companies can learn a lesson or two from these bootleggers – delivery on time, at your home, the product of your choice!

Commerce is the best place to test the effectiveness of a ban. Take ban on advertising of alcohol, cigarettes and ghutka. If the objective of advertising is to increase sales, the corollary is that, lack of advertising should hurt sales. Hardly. The ‘entry age’ of smokers and alcoholics is reducing. De-tabooing of consumption of alcohol and smoking has in fact opened up a new market segment –women. Stop one, get two!

While there are pros, however debatable, in the ban of alcohol, smoking etc., ban on books and arts is non-negotiable. Artists, writers and creative people are the bedrock of the society which is busy with finding the next meal or buying the next big phone. From thoughts emerge the ideas that change the society. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a healthy, vibrant and maturing democracy and society. Orwellian Thought Police (our politicians, et al) can do irreparable harm to the growth of mankind. Through its expressions (for and against), the society finds its nuances and ways as thoughts lead to debate which benefit all. Artists, writers and creative people of the society are those travelers who discover new paths which the society eventually treads upon. Of course, artistic freedom should not be the basis to defame or deride others which is a restriction on their freedom. “Suggest not decide” should be the credo of the creative person.

To ban or not to ban is not the Shakespearean dilemma. Education, distribution limitation and taxation are some of the means to contain the growth of the minor ills of society. Ban never was and never is a solution to any issue.



P.S.: One person who should really be worried about coming to India is the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon! When he comes to India, what will he welcomed as – Welcome to Ban?!




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