Writing, to change the world: too ambitious?
Tanay Sukumar • May 23, 2015

This article discusses
the role of mass communication in our lives. The labour of creating painstakingly slow social impact through mass communication may be tough, but ignoring that labour would mean making the mistake of avoiding revolution altogether.

The picture above is of Team NTMN, as in December 2013.

It was nearly into our third year of existence, in 2011, when we first coined the phrase “Inspiring Change Through Humour” as a mission statement for News That Matters Not. Now, mission statements are supposed to do two things: one, sound fancy, and two, show conviction. To me personally, our mission statement performed only one of these two functions. Unfortunately, for a long time, it was the former.

Our team was upbeat about the mission statement. I could easily convince people about this, and write at length about how this statement showed conviction, and that it was possible. But inside, I wondered, if it was indeed true. Could a bunch of satirical stories, twisting facts and built on insane plots, written by a self-righteous group of young amateurs, read by a handful of uncaring netizens, locked in the comfort of their leisure, indeed inspire change? What change were we talking about?

I let the thought go and the motto remain.

I quit my active role with the website in May 2013. For the next year and a half, I spent time as a neutral reader more than a creator (read more about my reflections here), now consuming vast amounts of information on the internet – information overdose had started becoming a reality. I watched television debates and shared posts on social media, and tried to understand what information was doing to us. I still used to write often, and the goal of my writing was to promote critical thinking in youth in order to influence mindsets, and to make them feel responsible. But then, I also realized the bigger picture behind producing good content.

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The road towards “change”

I realized that the phenomenon of how “public discourse” happens – most simply put, the conversations among citizens – was fascinating me deeply. There are four key stages of the journey of information or public discourse:

1) Production: Why does a TV channel or website choose to produce a work about child labour and rape and not Amitabh Bachchan? Why is the Times of India website full of semi-naked pictures and provocative links? Why does India TV find a news piece about aliens more newsworthy than a news piece about actual struggling humans?

2) Consumption: How is the viewer or reader consuming a piece of information about, say, the corrupt practices in the bureaucracy? Are they extending the conversations by discussing among their own peers about what they saw or read? How is the public opinion shaping up?

3) Usage: How is the viewer or reader using the multiplied information – information “multiplied” by the number of times it was discussed and the number of people it was discussed with, hence creating further new information and ideas? Are they, for example, going ahead and creating a public revolution against corruption, or filing FIRs and PILs? What is the public doing about its opinions?

4) Impact/Change – where it’s leading us: How is the use of the consumed information creating impact on us as a society? Is the revolution for example, leading us to a change in laws? A gradual change in mindsets? A change in policy?

Now, I was figuring out the secrets of public discourse: I had its map from production of information to its impact – social, political, cultural, economic, historical, geographical, technological, ideological, academic.

Suddenly, things started becoming clear. There is an unimaginably vast amount of information being produced all the time: text, video, images, cartoons, audio; fiction, interviews, music, satire, articles, textbooks, research, advertisements, movies, posters, drama; television, radio, blogs, newspapers, social media; politics, sport, cinema, crime, media, history, law – it’s so gigantic that the list of formats, media, and themes never ends. Let’s say we produce 100,000 kilos of information. Some percentage of information, say 80,000 kilos, gets consumed, through introspection, debates and discussions in our peer circle. An even smaller percentage of that information gets used; we are more of armchair thinkers and philosophers and it takes us a lot, to actually do something about things that we think about. Let’s say, about 10,000 kilos of information is being used, in the form of protests, movements, and PIL/RTI/FIRs. A much, much smaller part of this used information is creating impact: I’d put it at about 100 kilos. Too, too small.

But, imagine, if the 100,000 kilos of information were not produced in the first place, would we ever have those 100 kilos of impact? Is any impact possible which can not be traced back to production of somesort of information being created? For instance, would you ever expect a government to draft rights for a particular community in a remote village, without anyone ever producing a piece of information about it? Would you expect a teenager to be empathetic towards the history of Jews during the Second World War without ever reading a book or watching a movie about it?

For any impact or change whatsoever, production of information is the first condition to be fulfilled. The scale of production, the medium of information, the format: all these are less relevant. For impact, it is important that the reservoir of information in this world be continuously populated, limitlessly, so that some impact flows through, thus taking us ahead as the human race. Of course, I am talking about genuine, unbiased, accurate and logical information.

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Let’s put this into context:

Abolition of monarchy in France. Abolition of slavery. Voting rights for women. First World War. Crucifixion of Christ. The Mahabharata War. The shift from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar. The first Black President of the United States. More and more people believing in gender equality today. Schoolkids facing drug abuse. Banning of tobacco in a country. Stricter laws against rape. East India Company’s occupation in India…

Each of these pieces of impact – whether positive or negative – can be traced back to a piece of information produced.

I know more about the ills of the Victorian society when I read a historytextbook. I become more empathetic about those ills when I read a Charles Dickens novel. I think more about how patriarchy is all around us when I read an article in a newspaper. I realize how I myself am victim to it in many ways when I watch a satirical movie about the topic.

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Any impact, is impact

I may choose to not write an article or produce a documentary about child malnutrition, because it will most probably have no impact. But, if we all choose not to take part in the public discourse, will the problem of malnutrition ever get solved?

One cannot see a society moving forward without any form of public discourse. Public discourse is to the society what ideas are to a man – abstract but invisibly indispensable. It is essential for every citizen to get involved at some level in the journey of public discourse: production, consumption, usage, impact.

The “impact” mentioned here may often take a lot of time and perseverance. India did not get free in a year. The French Revolution required years of build-up. But at the centre of all historical changes in society, has been public discourse – the uninhibited flow of ideas, the networking and exploration of ideas among individuals and communities – facilitated by writings and other works of common people, the intelligentsia, and contemporary media organizations.

The labour of creating such painstakingly slow impact through mass communication may be tough, but ignoring that labour would mean making the mistake of avoiding revolution altogether. Every piece of content a producer of information creates, adds up to the sea of public discourse being populated by other producers: journalists, intellectuals, thinkers, and the general public. Once in that reservoir, impact is destined to come. If never in the reservoir, impact shall surely never come.

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I have been writing for the past seven years, contributing to that reservoir of public discourse. The times I have felt most successful were when readers wrote to me saying I impacted, if not altered, their perceptions and opinions on important topics.

When we at News That Matters Not say that we are trying to inspire change through humour, we indeed mean it, with conviction: the format, the scale, the genre notwithstanding, every piece of information produced is one small step towards change. Yes, often it may be lottery; an article on someone’s personal blog may be read by just one individual, but if that one individual chooses to think deeper, research further, discuss further, the job is done. As producers, we should be proud of being an active part of public discourse and the future of this world, in our own little ways.

However, it is of utmost importance that we, as a society, realize that being part of public discourse in any capacity, more so at the stage of production, is a task of immense responsibility: lies, bias, theories presented as facts, impulsive reactions, regressive ideologies, tasteless humour, are among the many ills we need to guard against, to be able to steer the painfully slow ship of public discourse meaningfully towards meaningful impact.