What is this noise?

btyRadio – Back to the Future III

(In this third and last part, I highlight the need for the society to slow down and reflect – and for the traditional media such as radio, TV, and newspapers to be proactive and not reactive. This article is an elaboration of the talk in Romania)

A story goes that a Rabbit was sleeping under a tree and dreaming of the world ending in front of him. He suddenly woke up, and thought: “What if the world really should collapse? What would become of me?” At that instant, a coconut fell on the ground. On hearing the noise, the Rabbit was like: “The world is really blowing up!” And he jumped up and ran just as fast as he could, without even looking back to see what had made the noise. Two deer saw him running, and called after him, “What are you running so fast for?” “Don’t you know? The earth is all breaking up!” he replied. And on he ran, and the deer followed him when they heard that the earth was all falling apart. They passed a fox, calling out to him that the earth was all breaking up. The fox then ran with them. The fox called to an elephant to come along because the earth was all breaking up. On and on they ran, and all the animals in the forests joined in the running.

The age of Internet has got the world running. We heard a noise and we all started running – and we are still. Nobody is asking what was that noise. Instead, it is speed, speed and speed. Everything at giga bits per second. Faster computers, faster Internet, faster emails and faster cellphones over above the fast cars, fast planes and fast trains that we already have. Even my country Bhutan, in less than a decade, has gone from 2G to 3G to 4G to soon, 5G. But faster to where or faster for what? Nobody knows.

The irony is that the traditional media, such as the radio and the television – the original gatekeepers and messiahs, have joined the bandwagon. So, news need to be put on air as fast as possible – and, at times, with accuracy and objectivity severely compromised. At best, the news item is shallow devoid of any context or background. Newsreaders have to read the news as fast as they can. That’s the trend. There is also no time to sit and watch a full bulletin. Hence, many news channels just flash the headlines without the main story. In-depth research is a passé because what is news in the morning is history by evening.

There is a fundamental question that we need to ask. Why are we running?

What do people do with the ‘extra’ time that they have ‘saved’ from whatever they were doing? Do they pursue something that they love, something that they are passionate about, their hobby such as painting, cooking, music or gardening? Do they spend quality time with friends and family? Do they pursue spiritual practices? We often notice that as we drive home, people don’t let others overtake because they want to get to their destination fast. There is growing impatience and anger. In Bhutan, we are seeing a new phenomenon that was unheard before: road rage. Anyway, what do people do after they get to their destination? Back to the fast life, I guess – or just gossiping – in our case.

edfSecond, the prophets of technocracy have promised that the world would be more connected. Physically I cannot refute the claim. Yes, we are connected to everyone in multiple modes – phones, Facebook, WhatsApp, WeChat, etc. We are even connected from 39,000 feet when I am cruising in a jetliner. However, just as there is a big difference between having information and being informed, there is also a difference between ‘being connected’ and reals connections. It is not very unusual to see these days groups of friends gather for dinner or coffee and, instead of talking to each other, would be on their respective phones or gadgets. Where is the connection?

People are unconsciously driven to be restless, impatient and anxious all the time. What will be the long term impact of such behaviours on the human species?

Last, and the most important. As a teacher one of the most difficult tasks in teaching is to grab the attention and retain them while you are teaching. Scientifically, the average attention span was thought to be fifteen minutes. With the world being pushed to be faster and speed being the new normal, our role has become even harder. The attention span of even adults, I assume, has reduced. In academic conferences we are given just ten minutes to present our paper. Some newspapers have asked me to write opinion pieces under 500 words. It is crazy. The impact is not only in classrooms but also in life where people are unconsciously driven to be restless, impatient and anxious all the time. What will be the long-term impact of such behaviours on the human species? Is anyone even asking that question?

Almost every place on Earth and beyond is connected and yet misunderstandings, war and conflicts continue to terrorize not only those involved directly but also those who have nothing to do with the issue. Similarly, there is so much information out there on everything – public health, for example, and yet the world is sicker than ever. Facts and figures are lying around like leaf litters in the forests while campaigns of disinformation and mal-information are very successful – even in the so-called developed world. According to a survey done by a German scholar, 40% of respondents in Europe said that they fell flat for the fake news while the same study revealed that 60% could not separate myths from simple facts.

More connectivity does not necessarily mean more connections. More information does not mean that we are better informed.

What does all this mean? It means that we need to slow down, reflect before moving forward. More connectivity does not necessarily mean more connections. More information does not mean we are better informed. Speed does not mean that we are getting things done well. We need to ponder on what is happening around us. We need to understand what the noise is all about – and stop running unnecessarily.

As is an individual, so is an organisation. The traditional media such as radio, TV and newspaper need to do some deep introspection and retrospection. They need to ask who they are and what is their fundamental role. Can they allow knee-jerk reactions? Is it to get the news faster or is it to give accurate and objective information? Is it whitewash the society with shallow and superficial shows or is it to enlighten the people with deeper meanings so that they make informed choices and make positive changes? I don’t mean that they should be indifferent. What I am saying is that they take time to respond – be proactive – but not reactive. The traditional media should lead – and not be lead. There is no need for them to play the catch up game.

The traditional media should lead – and not be led. They should be proactive – not reactive.

Niel Postman, writing in Technopoly, suggests that the impact of a technology is known only decades after it is introduced. Hence, it is too early to say that social media is bad. The initial studies are not positive. Narcissism, anxiety and loss of human connection, family and community are some of the initial findings. Hence, it would be wise for the social science to catch up and then the traditional media can decide whether and how to join the race.

The opening story ends with the King of Jungle, the mighty Lion, appearing and ordering for the running to stop. Inquiries and investigation ensue that finally lead to the Rabbit who had assumed that the world was falling apart after hearing a coconut fall behind him. The world was not cracking up. It was just an imagination. It was a simple error of not fact-checking.

Hopefully, one day, we would realise that a faster world is not necessarily better, and that, actually, we haven’t even set a destination as yet. Then what are we running for? To get to where?

What is this noise?



(At Centennial Radio 101FM in Bhutan one of the most popular programs in Slow and Easy that plays soft music with some pieces of life quotes. We are starting a Centennial Book Cafe where we will invite listeners to come and relax and have a coffee; to put down their phone and talk to each other; to call their illiterate parents or grandparents back in the village – instead of doing only status updates on social media.)


An additional challenge for teachers – Getting the attention of the students from an already attention-deficit-society


“Re-accommodating” in Bhutanese airlines

Flying, which used to be one of the most glamorous ways of travelling, is quite a nightmare these days. In the post-911 era, air travel has become a pain and nauseatingly complicated at times. At best the experience is dampened by airlines jamming more seats and packing us like sardines in tin boxes. And now we have this nightmarish video of a passenger, in the ‘greatest’ country on Earth: US of A, being dragged down the aisle like a mailbag._95586434_5ad21b7b-afb8-42b1-a60e-cb06b4ec985f

Honestly, I was very disturbed by what I saw – to the point of feeling like an idiot – because I have flown United Airlines. Maybe it was because they picked on an Asian-looking guy or maybe, this was the last straw on the loads of racist narratives coming out of the US these days. Anyway it was not just me but the whole world, especially this part of the globe, that is upset.

My father, who was a truck driver, took a better care of his loads of potatoes than how some big airlines from the ‘civilised’ countries – the US in particular, treat their human cargo. On a flight from New York to San Francisco in 2014, I was even made to pay for water.

Still, since flying is the best way to get around, let me share how we in Bhutan also ‘re-accomodate’ our passengers – and where flying is still fun and glamorous. And where passengers are not just payloads or figures on the balance sheets, but human beings.

Flight overbooking is a norm in airline business. But in Bhutan, we never overbook. Instead, we under-book our flights. That’s because the airport is at 7,500 feet above sea level – and engines, like humans, need a good level of oxygen to efficiently burn the jet fuel. And oxygen is bit in short supply at this altitude while the iron birds have to safely soar up the high mountains that encircle the Paro International Airport. The aircrafts are, therefore, handicapped from taking off at full capacity.  Also, our airlines don’t bump off passengers in favor of their employees. On most occasions, it is the other way around. Employees are kept on hold till all paying passengers are checked in.

1985 0827 [7] Druk Air Dornier at Paro airport (1)
Bhutan’s first aircraft was a Dornier that had one pilot, two props and 14 seats and nothing else. The flight left when the weather God smiled and when the only pilot didn’t call in sick.
Nevertheless, giving up seats on Bhutanese airlines happens all the time. But we don’t use computers. We use human beings. They look towards the cabin and identify the most-agreeable looking Bhutanese to give up the seat. It should be Bhutanese because all foreigners are guests in Bhutan. So twice, that person happened to be me. Once it was to hand over the seat of my three-year old daughter. I was asked to put her on my lap. “What’s happening?” I asked. The air-hostess replied that there was an emergency medical evacuation. As I lifted my daughter to take her seat and vacate mine, I jokingly asked, “OK! But what does Druk Air give me in return?” “Anything,” the air-hostess replied helping me to clear the seat. And seconds later I found a soldier who was wounded at the frontier – taking my seat. In Bhutan we rarely ask why we do good things. We just do it. And we don’t limit to offering just 800 bucks. Our airlines offer “anything”, which both parties later forget anyway.

The second time was in 2003 when I got my first chance to fly the business class – courtesy of my Japanese hosts who were paying for my trip. I had just settled on the spacious leather seat when a flight attendant leaned over to me and asked if I could go to the Economy section. “Why?” I asked. In Bhutan we don’t say, ‘I paid’, or protest. Money is not everything and passengers are not just PNR numbers. The flight attendant explained that they had a VIP travelling at last minute and I would be compensated for moving to the Economy. As we were negotiating – and as I was trying to cling to my rare chance to fly business, the chief steward, who was in kindergarten with me, rushed into the cabin. He didn’t even wish me. He instantly turned back to the exit door with, “Oh! It’s Dorji Wangchuk. No problem.” In Bhutan, we can still take our friends and family members for granted. No apologies and public statements are required. However, you can also hit back for being downgraded to the coach. When the lunch was served, I told the chief steward to serve me the food from the business class – and also to pack me some fruits, bread, wine, soft drinks and beer for my long transit time through Bangkok Airport – which he grudgingly obliged. Many flights later I also reclaimed my business class seat, for free, as I wasn’t feeling well that day. The crew members didn’t even ask for proof.

The jump seat reminded me of a dining chair in a Jesuit school I went. You sit upright all the time.

Another time, the captain was one of my good friends, whom I had not seen for a while. As soon as he saw me boarding the plane he said, “Drop your bags and come over. I know you like flying.” Moments later I was bolted on the jump seat behind him like a child with the seat belt crossing all over my body. The take-off was spectacular and the pit-stop landing in Kolkata was a walk in the park for our pilots used to the treacherous Paro International – considered the world’s most difficult airport. As more passengers joined in for onward flight to Bangkok, my pilot friend informed me, “Now you can’t go back to your seat. It is taken. We picked up one extra passenger here.” In Bhutan, if we have to release a seat, we can tie up someone in the cockpit. It is very uncomfortable in there for a 4-hour flight but the view is simply marvellous.

Of course, we are not perfect. Like, we rarely fly on time. The Bhutan Standard Time has been redubbed as Bhutan Stretchable Time. We are improving though – especially if we have to fly out. But when we fly into Bhutan we have our own definition of time. Few years ago, I met a Swiss couple who was visiting a common friend of ours in Thimphu. They missed their flight in Delhi and arrived a day later. “What happened? You guys overslept or got struck in the traffic?” I asked. They looked at each other and smiled and went, “Well, we actually got to the airport one and half hour before the flight.” “Then?” I asked – bit surprised. “We were informed that the flight was not on time. And that it just left.” “Left? Before time? Did you guys protest?” “Yes, we did. We were told very nicely that our ticket clearly reminds us that because of weather conditions in Paro, flights may not be on time. And that only westerners think that ‘not on time’ means delays. Not on time could also mean before the time.” A brief silence. Then we all bursted out laughing. And my friends continued, “We thought you guys are absolutely right. Why should not-on-time be always behind? It can also mean ahead of the stipulated time. We always learn a new thing every time we come to Bhutan”.


(PS. The whole of Bhutan has 6 airplanes and 2 helicopters. We are better off than John Travolta by the two helicopters.)

Bhutanese pilots are some of the best for, there are currently only a dozen in the world certified to land in Bhutan.
Only on airlines in Bhutan cakes are served to passengers on royal birthdays of the Crown Prince or His Majesty the King.
There is no inflight entertainment on Bhutanese airlines. If you are a foreigner expect a local seated next to you with “intrusive” questions like ‘where you are from’, ‘how old are you’, ‘how many brothers and sisters you have’, ‘are you married’, picture of your spouse please, etc. This is our way of being nice, which also helps beat the ‘boring’ flight.
If you are on the left windows seats you get to see tall mountains such as Everest, Kanchenjunga and our own Jumolhari and Jichu Drake (in the pic). Many Bhutanese offer the window seats to uninformed tourists flying into Bhutan for the first time.
Meanwhile elsewhere in the world this is a regular scene at security checkpoints in the airports.
And of course there are international airlines that operates a la Bhutanese. Last February Air Macau pulled me to business class after the flight went overbooked. So from the most-agreeable man I think I graduated to the most-decent looking. At least, on that one flight.