Living in the Age of Muck

by | Feb 15, 2022

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John Bunyan (1628-1688), in his seminal book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, writes about “the Man with the Muck-rake… who could look no way but downward.” He was shown to the pilgrim at the “House of the Interpreter.” John Bunyan created this metaphor for the carnal mind, which is always concerned with the earthly things that carry the heart away from the Divine. “There stood also one over his head, with a Celestial Crown in his hand, and proffered him that crown for his Muck-rake; but the man did neither look up nor regard; but raked to himself the straws, the small sticks, and the dust of the floor.”

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (1858-1919), President of the United States from 1901 to 1909, was the first to bring muckraking into public discourse. While he acknowledged the importance of people pointing out wrongdoings of others for the well-being of society if done indiscreetly and as a trend, it becomes counterproductive. At the time, a group of American writers were providing detailed journalistic accounts of the political and economic corruption by the big business houses in a rapidly industrializing United States, and it was an important contribution to nation-building.

The muckrakers had historically taken on profiteering, deception, and low standards of public health and safety. They also raised awareness about social ills like child labour, prostitution, alcohol, and the pathetic conditions of city slums. Later, pouring scorn on legislators had become fashionable and journalists enjoyed portraying political leaders as pawns of industrialists and financiers. The big businesses struck back and bought the media houses and today, muckraking has become a corporate warfare tool, rather than a social service. 

The French philosopher, Alain Badiou (b. 1937), felt that everyday life is constantly ruptured by “mediated” events. Things happen – both good and bad – but muckrakers talk about only bad things. Moreover, when muckraking becomes rife, it even feels as if the whole world is run by rogues. Badiou feels that “We pose only those questions whose answers are the pre-given conditions of the questions themselves.” Watch any debate on TV and you know it is all muckraking. The Anglo-Irish philosopher, George Berkeley (1685-1753), said very aptly, “We have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see.”

With two billion people on social media, we are indeed deluged with a cognitive surplus. And this deluge is no different than the great flood in the deluge myth that destroys civilization as an act of divine retribution. When Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil (b. 1948), sets the date 2045 for the “Singularity,” it can’t be brushed aside as some Nostradamus prediction. 

American social scientist at Stanford University, Brian Jeffrey Fogg (b. 1963), is hailed as the father of persuasive technology. He calls social media a flower on a behaviour-change tree. Social media is indeed being used to unleash new behaviour loops apparently designed to convert human beings into desiring-machines for the products and services that are promoted for a fee by the technology companies that have “created” social media itself.

Ramsay Brown, neuroscientist and Co-founder and COO of Boundless Mind (formerly Dopamine Labs), works at the intersection of brains, minds, and machines. He claims of developing technology to manipulate human mind. So, are we heading for a day when by adjusting some knobs on a dashboard we would be quietly changing our behavioural patterns? What is scarier is to imagine that these knobs are operated by others to change our natures! 

I do not see anything stopping it from happening. The helplessness of the world was severely tested by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our great medical system was exposed as treating individual ailments and incapable of handling any public health calamity. Our governments are already working as the markets tell them to. If you watch a TV channel carefully, you can very accurately predict what is going to unfold in geopolitics, weeks in advance. The currencies, stock markets, and commodity prices, from oil to eggs, are decided by algorithms, which have already gone beyond human control. Living in the Age of Muck, our destiny seems to be that of becoming a “desire machine.”

There is a lot of cognitive noise everywhere – ideas, opinions, comments, debates, opinion polls… And as if this is not enough, there is internal noise what is right, what is appropriate, should I fight it out or give up, struggle, or let go. The old has already crumbled and nothing new, beyond muck, has emerged. Let us give a pause to the thought machines inside our skulls and mind our physiology – our breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, sleep, bowels – and try to connect with the “life force,” the Immortal present inside. 

The Buddhist sage, Nagasena, who lived around 150 BCE, described a human being as a chariot. Just as a chariot is nothing but a collection of wheels, frames, handles, and horses that pull it, similarly, we are a body of flesh, bones, and organs, wrapped up neatly under skin, driven by our perceptions and emotions. Examine your thoughts and feel your emotions and instead of being carried away by them, settle them down by sprinkling some water of contentment upon them. 

It is also time not to rake the straws, the small sticks, and the dust of the floor but to learn to live a simple and local life, sparing the environment from litter. The high-priced urban estates are de facto concrete jungles, as risky and hazardous as the forests of the past. It is time to create self-reliant communities based on the principles of simple living, which maximize self-sufficiency, particularly in food production. Please find your livelihoods away from cities. Even if you make less money, it will suffice if your life is a little simpler. 

The American biologist and writer, Edward O. Wilson (1929-2021), said in his 2016 book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, “The great challenge of the twenty-first century is to raise people everywhere to a decent standard of living while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible.” Wilson proposed that half of the Earth’s surface should be designated a human-free natural reserve. 

My personal take is, “Want less, buy less, choose well.” The decision rests with you and not others. Don’t add to the muck already there in plenty and refrain from raking it as far as possible. It is high time for a little peace. 

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25 Comments

  1. An astute perspective of current environment of muckraking, Prof Tiwariji !

    Your advice to give a pause to the thought machine and get connected with the immortal life force present inside goes a long way to cope with cognitive surplus…

  2. Yet another insightful precis on the challenges facing present day society and the ramifications of wanting too much, caring too little and hoarding whatever one can lays hands on.

    My personal philosophy is simple, if I can share something I have with someone who needs it, it is shared or it goes…less clutter. If I want to acquire something, I ask myself will ,” If I wait a year to get this , will I still want it?” or is there any use for this that cannot be gratified by something I already have?

    Muck can stand for Many useless capitalist kilos….which, as you so righty said, can be materialistic, or to do wit the endless much swirling through our heads. Indeed , this pandemic times we live in has inadvertently taught us to “muck around”. The will to not do so could be exercised with patience and erseverence.

  3. The choice is simple and straight forward… be a part of the band wagon or isolate from the din. Isolation may sound difficult…..it is the only means to live in peace … do good to yourself, your family and friends

    Throw away the junk for it a business for most of the creators….We as children were thought …”simple living and high thinking”….how apt it is even after 6 decades… Best wishes to all…The seasons have changed…let uf feel the changes in nature…savour the changing scene…

  4. The economic collapse of the advertiser and subscription financial model has decimated local media, mostly newspapers, and magazines. A lot of towns wake up every day realizing there’s no one covering their government, empowering whistle-blowers, or keeping an eye on things. People are worried about how things will turn out, but no one discusses issues. Electronic media is owned by muckrakers and every channel pushes a particular agenda. It is important that the concerns of people are expressed and shared at the local level. That and that alone will bring peace and stability in society.

  5. Dear Sir, I like these words of George Berkeley most, “We have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see.” Russia’s military incursion deeper into Ukraine is one of those rare events that won’t merely affect the world. It will change the world. It was not unexpected. For many months it was discussed in the media but when it finally happened no country came to the rescue of Ukraine.

    I think we are getting carried away by the nepotism of respective media on various issues. Real-life remains hard and tough, and even dangerous. Change is as ugly and painful as it has always been. In our own country, there is so much noise created by 24×7 so-called media houses, which have turned into muckraking machines. It is time to stop nitpicking and bickering on every issue and have some serious take on making our vast country secure in this unstable world.

  6. Dear Sir, I feel so happy reading your blog, as if I was in your class in Hyderabad University in 2008 and enjoying your lecture. Thank you for staying connected and sharing your positive and inspiring thoughts.

    It is indeed a fact that when someone throws negative energy at another human being, what is very aptly called muckraking, whether it is realized or not, the negative energy is created into the universe for everyone. And no surprise that what we put out is what we get back.

    When everything is interconnected, meaning everything affects everything else, then perhaps we need to realize why it’s so important to consciously choose where we put our attention and how we spend our time. Are we finding fault and tearing down or lifting and helping to heal? Once again, thank you for making us conscientious.

  7. Tiwari Bhaisab thanks for sharing your wonderful thoughts, very appropriate to the current environment of hate and muckraking specially when the elections are in process in India.

    Leaders change their parties or get fired and suddenly start finding faults and shortcomings of the organization they enjoyed for years. As it is said finding faults in others is easy but nobody look in to their own self. A deep introspection is required.

    The social media platforms and biased media are responsible in spreading the dirt to a greater extent.It can only be cleaned only when we start cleaning the dirt within us, the politicians get more mature and responsible. Highly grateful to you for sharing your thoughts.

  8. Thank you for a wonderful article on a very important topic. Muckraking wasn’t always a pejorative term, although President Theodore Roosevelt wanted it to be. Upset with what he saw as excessive zeal on the part of investigative reporters, the President likened them to the pitiful character in Pilgrim’s Progress who was doomed to rake muck day-end and day-out. Despite the President’s intent, muckraking became a badge of courage in the early twentieth century. But not anymore.

    As Mr James Lupino and Mr Sunil Kaul point out in comments, muckraking is now a tool for maligning and discrediting power by the political opponents and it is nothing to do with raising right issue. Today, the challenges to journalism are technological, financial, and personal; and the stake for society is monumental. Investigative journalism is the crown jewel of journalism but not the yellow journalism. How do we ensure that journalists in their zeal to write about government are better informed about critical issues of accessing today’s government records?

  9. Sir, Criticizing others and finding fault is the trend of our times, which you rightly described as “Age of Muck”. Blaming others seems to justify one’s own shortcomings and failures. Many leaders, after losing elections, and bureaucrats after retirement, start calling the “system” which they had enjoyed to the fullest suddenly “rotten” and “corrupt.”

    Your blog reminds me a Kabir’s doha:

    बुरा जो देखन मैं चला, बुरा न मिलिया कोय ।
    जो दिल खोजा आपना, मुझसे बुरा न कोय ।।

    In this election season, I am yet to find anything other than muckraking. Leaders are talking as if they are from some other world and once given control would set everything right forgetting their own tainted pasts and dismal records.

  10. A brilliant blog, Prof Tiwari! Mud raking, even as a productive and positive actvitiy (as in the case of journalists) has gone too far, and like you say, there’s too much cognitive surplus. What to say then, of the material aspect of it, where all of our lives are filled with a plethora of objects!

    ‘Hoarding’ reflects perhaps an inner emptiness — going beyond mere satiation of desires. Yet, excessive holding on to objects has failed to yield happiness, and the reason lies in your diagnosis that is also your prescription — that we now need to learn to live simple and instead look inwards, at our heartbeats, our inner pulsations and patterns, our blood flow, our thoughts flow.

    This watching and working on our inner mechanism is capable of very deeply relaxing and healing our bodies and indeed, our total being over time; I speak from my own experience. Spending time and accumulating surplus in this area is desirable and will never go waste or be regretted.

    Thank you for your rich writing, where your extensive quotes help provide us clarity and clinch ideas.

  11. From my understanding of the article, muck racking, in a physical sense, refers to hoarding and collecting rubbish rather than recycling.

    Mentally, much raking signifies how people focus only on what is wrong in their external environment, blaming others and technology for the current situation, rather than taking any responsibility for their actions.

    The solution is to begin making simple positive changes in ones own life in a way that you feel would benefit yourself and the world around you.

  12. Dear Prof. Tiwari, Muck was always there and so was the muck-raking. Only difference is that it gets more publicity now a days because of electronic media and social platforms. One has to learn to live with it. Don’t bother to change the world; change yourself. Do your duty, fulfil your obligations and have peace of mind. Let others do muck raking, if they wish to do so.

  13. Sir, a wonderful topic, and astute observations. Given my years of watching energy technologies, I could spot several warning signs on the hype of renewable energy – hydrogen fuel cells and bioethanol being the first red flags visible right away. Hydrogen fuel cells have been talked about for the last 20 years and I am yet to see a credible demonstration anywhere. Certainly not in India.

    Positing the biofuels policy as a technical solution to a multi-layered and complex set of energy and environmental problems is too good to be true. The government issuing executive orders—effective immediately—allowing sugar industry to produce biofuel smacks of being “dictated” rather than “derived” from facts. While media is busy with electoral politics and turned into a muckraking machine, no body is indeed examining other important issues.

  14. Dear Sir, A very interesting and a practical discussion the point which is happening day in day out. If we recall our lives about four or five decades back, though we had limited resources, yet the life was contended and we were having reasonably comfortable time. As suggested by you sir, if we limit our wants, we can definitely lead a good life. It is ultimately the wants that determine our approach.

    For me, the two important takeaways from the blog are 1) Let us give a pause to the thought machines inside our skulls and mind our physiology – our breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, sleep, bowels – and try to connect with the “life force,” the Immortal present inside. and 2)It is time to create self-reliant communities based on the principles of simple living, which maximize self-sufficiency, particularly in food production. Please find your livelihoods away from cities. Even if you make less money, it will suffice if your life is a little simpler.
    Mudslinging has become the order of the day. But one looks into his own self, he will get the correct answer and realisation that muck raising is futile effort.

    I would like to quote one more Rahat Indori couplet, which tells us to refrain from muck raising.

    उँगलियाँ यूँ न सब पर उठाया करो
    खर्च करने से पहले कमाया करो।

    Thank you once again for an excellent blog sir

  15. An interesting and timely topic Prof. Tiwari!

    I agree with commenter Sunil Kaul’s dual candy taste analysis. The amount of muck continues to increase at an ever increasing rate. The question is will it be sweet or sour. As commenter SG Prasad notes we are living in an age of AI which will create impact at all levels. If those algorithms are trained on sour muck, it can cause further harm than the sour muck already has caused. Biased media provides misinformation which further adds to the damage.

    Case in point is the three year debacle of ‘Russian collusion’ alleged against former President Trump – sour muck at its worst! The age of Singularity is a couple decades away. Based on the impact of sour muck of recent years, I am gravely concerned for the world and I more fully understand why great minds like Elon Musk fear Singularity may lead to the end of civilization as we know it!

  16. A very good assessment of the times we are living in and the way we are conducting ourselves. The serious question that needs to be asked here is if we are contributing further to the muck. We feel the muck is existent and we are managing our ways to live life in the muck, without realizing that we ourselves indulge in creating chaos. Starting from our lifestyle, to the use of technology, to the profession we are working at and so on… most of the answers are usually not ours. They are what the surroundings tell you to do, worse enough if we you do try to shut off from this noise, then you end being tagged, with the most misinterpreted word “success”.

    We are now living in a world where artificial intelligence is being the next big thing thats going to create an impact at all levels. However, if we realize that these algorithms are developed with inputs being given by us and if we do not validate the inputs periodically and filter out the unnecessary inputs(noise), then we will be adding to more muck for years to come. As an anology, our lifestyle today is also based on an artifical algorithm with inputs coming from the surroundings and very little to what we should be doing. The feedback loop is dysfunctional and gets overawed with appearnces around us. As Prof Tiwari Sir has mentioned, a good starting point would be to “want less” and start “giving more”. Giving more essentially means giving your time for yourslef and others well being and does not have to be linked to monetary benefits.

  17. Thank you Arun ji for a very interesting blog. Most of the the TV channels and the get together indulge and encourage muck raking only. You can avoid; otherwise you become negative and cynical.

  18. Dear Sir, Interesting read, IMHO, there are needs at different stages and everyone goes through. Wants, needs, accumulation, to liberation. Its cyclic and both have to exist to keep feeding into the system, else we will have an imbalance. Now how much is enough is left to the individual, and their appetite to keep keep chasing till they call it off.

    I just saw an article yesterday, Shri Subrato Bagchi and Shri Parthasarathy, donating donated IISC a first of its kind, not for profit multi specialty hospital and medical school , would this have been possible if they had not built a company from scratch , scaled and listed it…government alone cannot cater to the needs to their citizens . This needs an ecosystem, that’s able to feed continuously to support broader well being of every human being and living thing that exists today.

  19. Quite thought provoking

  20. Raking muck indeed is a candy with dual taste – sweet and sour.

    Sweet, if it is for the benefit of an individual, society, government and or the betterment of mankind itself. Raising a muck against a rape, murder, theft, corruption and allied will apprise, force and draw attention of the concerned to safeguard and take preventive measures. If no muck is raised and left unattended, uncared the event is bound to be repeated and be detrimental for us all.

    Sour, if raking muck is done for one’s own benefit at the risk and cost of the others. The easiest way to downgrade harass or be benefited financially, politically or socially by simply raising a hue and cry, mud raking or creating fire without a kindle so as to reap benefits by dubious means. Raking muck without a basis and walking benefited through the maze of chaos leaves a sour taste. Not forgetting though…. Some do relish a candy being both sweet and sour. These are the guys who simply enjoy tasting both. The fence sitters who lip smack the taste and reap their own harvest as sweet and sour burst together.

    I do agree with your thought process when you state mud raking has become a business in this modern era. All industrial houses, business conglomerates or even individuals indulge in mudslinging in their own ways. Naturally all basically have their own interest, their own axe to grind. It’s Darwin again – survival of the fittest, so mud raking has to be there. Your referring to Ramsay Brown claiming manipulation of human mind for behavioural patterns manipulated by others is really scary. What next? as we appear to be heading towards being a desire machine.

    There seems no end to it. No wonders then, the time machine has made a full circle, the urbanites are ready to abandon their concrete jungles of a city and head back to the open green environs of the villages. The change in food habits is finding it’s in roads and one is abandoning quick tasty bites to a simple wholesome grain food. The advent of technology for recreational purposes has also now been identified as the mother of several diseases….. the list is endless. But then there are infinite advantages and benefits derived out of the advancement of technology and fast paced modern changes which mankind is relishing. This debate…. for some other time.

    Still, there seems no better option than simple living. Desires are endless. Having a contended and satisfied mind is the key to unlock your healthy mind body and soul. Be at peace with yourself and your surroundings. Stay blessed.

  21. Its all cyclic. First we want more..buy more…then realize the futility. However, in my view muck racking is a must part of the democratic society we live in. But for historical reasons our present political dispensation does not believe in tolerating muck raking…it’s again cyclic.

  22. Examine your thoughts and feel your emotions and instead of being carried away by them, settle them down by sprinkling some water of contentment upon them.

    Love these lines sir.

  23. I think your assessment is way too pessimistic. There is nothing wrong with muckraking when it can be used to expose wrongdoing. We need more of it. There is nothing wrong with cities, which do not have to be concrete jungles. And there is nothing wrong with social media, as long as we do not let it take up too much of our time, which could be better spent on other pursuits. And the world was not helpless during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we invented vaccines in record time, making great medical progress.

    Finally, I don’t like your recommendation to lead a simple and local life. I think that is boring. Better to be, as Theodore Roosevelt stated, in the arena. As he said, “The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly…who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who have never known neither victory or defeat.”

  24. Dear Sir, I am afraid that opposite to the world peace we are moving fast towards another world war. After 3 days, I opened my TV to watch news and come to know about the Ukraine crisis. The whole world is running towards something very serious.

    People are giving more importance to things like what to wear than study and personal growth. Some student decided to avoid sitting in exam because the were not allowed to wear their hijab. Where we are moving actually? Something seriously going wring in the minds of majority of people and will lead to disaster sooner or later, Feeling hopeless today, I don’t know what the solution is..? Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  25. Good piece of inspiration, Prof!

    I was reminded of the hypocrisy humans live in this world when we are quick to take to muckraking. “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye”; so admonished one of the great spiritual leaders (Jesus Christ).

    We make the world a better place when we focus on cleansing our inner persons first…

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