Sunday, February 26, 2012

The joy of being disconnected

A few nights ago, I woke up to the pressing call of nature, when in the dark, I noticed the red light of the BlackBerry flickering. It must have been close to 4am, I was in deep sleep, it was cold, and yet, much to my horror, my hand reached out to the phone to see if I had received an email, Facebook/Twitter alert, or a message. Whatever it was — I can’t remember exactly now — it caught my attention, and jolted me out of sleep like a jab of nicotine. Since then I have been pretty much distraught. Not so much the way technology has a hold of me, but off late I’ve begun to feel increasingly distracted and wired. I am beginning to also realise just how compulsive and compelled I am to stay connected all the time. To add to this, I also read in the Guardian recently that the internet is as addictive as cigarettes and alcohol. This is not to say I can’t survive being offline for long; of course I can, it’s that I don’t anymore.
My job is partly complicit. It requires me to stay plugged in and follow news and events that shape our world. My smartphone helps, which, when I am not on the computer, has apps that keep me posted with every possible breaking news. When it’s not news, it tells me what’s trending online. And when it’s not that either, it helps me keep track of my friends; besides being my anytime, easy access to random information. So, while all this helps me stay ahead of stories as the editor of this newspaper, it is also responsible for turning some of my colleagues and me into zombies, who now can be regularly seen walking with our eyes glued to the glow of our mobile phone screens. Yet, even with all this information that I can reach at the tap of my thumbs, I can only go so far as to claim that I may be a lot more informed than my father or my grandfather or my great grandfather. But to consider myself even slightly more intelligent than any of them would be foolish. Even with all this technology at hand, I feel I have not gained any superior wisdom. But, do I have a better understanding of who I am?
Maybe not. But perhaps the internet does.
Whether it’s the television or the Twitter timeline, tiny specks of information are bolting past us all the time, screaming for our attention. Our searches and profiles on the net is gradually shaping a reflection of our digital self. By now, the net has an idea of who you are; what you like and dislike; where you live and who your friends are. Somewhere in its universe, it has begun to also join the dots, and knows what information to stream your way, even before you look.
Interestingly, a few years ago, cartoonist Stuart McMillen drew an infographic from Neil Postman’s book to show a comparison between Aldous Huxley’s view of the future in the Brave New World and George Orwell’s fears and visions in the 1984. Depending on where you live, these are two books that have come dangerously close to describing the world we live in today. Orwell feared that those who control us will deprive us of information; Huxley feared that those who do will provide us with so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. While Orwell feared the truth will be concealed and censored from us; Huxley feared the truth will be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. While Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us; Huxley feared what we love will ruin us.
Perhaps in the larger sense, Huxley’s views ring truer with the way the deluge of information has swept us in the past decade. Orwell comes close when he said, in the future, the closest we’ll come truth will be bullshit.
Scientists now have reasons to believe that information is not random and can travel faster than the speed of light. For instance, the death of Steve Jobs last year showed a larger outpouring of grief across the world than, say, the death of Mother Teresa in 1997, simply because the medium to connect to the people has grown exponentially since. Research is presently scouring whether information that encircles us is actually waves of chemical particles floating in the air. And if it is, then can we access it, and tap into the so-called collective consciousness with sophisticated technology? And if we can, then perhaps we’re on the cusp of a spiritual breakthrough, or the end of the world as we know it.
While all this sounds terribly exciting as well intimidating. Writer Pico Iyer in his article for the New York Times, The Joy of Quiet, talks about an inverse trend on the rise in these hyper-connected times, where people are now finding ways and means to log out; so that they can have the time and space to think without being bogged down by information. While we have more and more ways to communicate today, the article notes, we will have less and less to say.
All this may sound pretty unbelievable to a country where only one in 10 of the 1.2 billion people has access to the net, yet it’s worth considering as it makes the third-biggest internet market after China and the US. Things are slowly about to get hectic with the number of net users expected to triple to 300 million users in the next three years. Yet, I often wonder, what if a new dynamic idea were to emerge now — says the likes of Darwin, Marx, Freud that gave birth to the 20th century thought — would it break on Twitter or Facebook?
To calm my nerves, and clear my head, I plan to head the hills next weekend. It is one of those few places where my phone loses network unless I stand under one particular tree for long, and I can read books in peace. For now, I’ll stop writing and put the damn phone away.
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