I had chosen an unusual venue for this very private dinner. The southern coast of Tangalle in Sri Lanka (close to where my dear friend, Irfan Husain, once had a home), continues to attract me. I did not book a restaurant but chose to have the table set on the beach. The seafood dishes were to be prepared in their mouth-watering Sri Lankan style by Raman in his little shack on the beach. Lanterns and candles provided the minimum needed light. The sound of the waves crashing against the rocks threatened to drown out the conversation but it just meant the diners would just have to be a bit more attentive.
I must confess to being a tad selfish in choosing the location and menu. I loved both. I was munching on spicy cashew nuts when the sound of a speedboat alerted me to my guests’ arrival. They had used a seaplane from Colombo airport to reach a spot along the Tangalle coast from where my hired speedboat brought them to the dinner venue.
I hastily got up to greet the first guest who reached the table with long strides – Vance Packard, author of the acclaimed and critical (of advertising) book, The Hidden Persuaders. Ambling a little behind Packard was another famous purveyor of the media, Marshall McLuhan, who gained a cult status with The Medium is the Message and talk of a future “global village”. My third guest was our own media guru, Javed Jabbar, appearing both amused and disconcerted by my choice of guests.
Readers could be curious about my choice of company. Having spent time in both advertising and journalism, I am fascinated by the media – its past, present and future. My guests, in their own way and in their own time, had contributed significantly both to our knowledge of and our perception about the nature of the beast.
I sensed that Packard, McLuhan and JJ had got to know each other on the short journey from Colombo. If anyone needed to be introduced it was me, the host! JJ was gracious enough to do so and, as we waited for the first course to arrive, the conversation naturally veered towards the state of media today. With a tone of “I told you so!” Packard referred to The Naked Society (which he wrote in 1964) that foretold the age of surveillance. JJ remarked that it was the first book to demonstrate how technology could intrude into people’s privacy. I was surprised to know that both Packard and McLuhan were aware of the stealth of technology into our lives today. McLuhan noted that it made George Orwell’s 1984 rather prescient as well, turning it into a bestseller once again.
Before we could dissect the downside of modern technology further, our soup was served – mussel in coconut milk. These was silence as the soup was sipped or slurped and I spotted Raman anxiously watching to see how it went down. I noticed McLuhan had spilled some on his T-shirt. Partly to cover his embarrassment he began to talk of his own ground-breaking book, The Medium is the Message. The question he put to us was whether his hypothesis that the media is fragmenting societies still holds. JJ and I nodded in agreement, aware of how the use of digital media is mostly an isolationist experience. I told McLuhan that this was the case in spite of the kneejerk propensity to “share” on Facebook or WhatsApp.
By now our soup bowls had been replaced with salad – crabmeat in avocado. Packard began to question JJ on his role as a “hidden persuader”. I interjected to say that JJ has done much more than advertising. In fact, as a member of a commission on the media he made valuable recommendations on media ethics. “Media ethics?” chortled McLuhan. Before sarcasm could sour the mood, Raman arrived with the main course – devilled prawns (spicy as hell) and the famous Sri Lankan seer grilled to perfection. To provoke McLuhan I had the fish served in old newspaper – after all, the media is the message!
We walked to our hotel in silence, listening to the sound of the waves. Perhaps my guests were chewing on the conversation. Perhaps not.
Zohra Yusuf is Chief Creative Officer, Spectrum VMLY&R.