There is nothing wrong with technology — except when it begins to stand in the way of our essential humanity.
I remember I first bought a PC with the sole purpose of emailing my brother who was in India while I was in UK. Accessing the web was exciting, but also somewhat difficult. This was when one had to pay to have an email ID – AOL etc. charged heftily after the first trial month. And we changed email IDs every month, because we kept trying new service providers, cheap folks that we were. Even with all this, at that time, it seemed like a god sent, but I realized soon enough how much I missed the weekly long chats we used to have, which were replaced more and more with emails. Emails did not have the heart in it, the nuances which defined human interaction.
That was then. Now even email seems proper human communication.
Many years ago, still young and green behind the ears, we saw electronic booking for movie shows for the first time in Cambridge, UK. Not as we now see it, but it impressed us even in its nascent stage. As we lived in the outskirts of Cambridge, this was convenient as one did not have to make the trip to town to then realize no tickets were available. One of our close friends resented the idea and got into a protracted argument with me about how all of this technology was driving human interaction away from our lives. The 30 second conversation one had with the person on the other side of the counter, about the movie, about weather – anything, really, – and if you are in England in their very orderly queue, you also managed good conversations with others in the queue, – was thus being taken away from our lives. He was right, of course, to a degree. But we asked him to shut up and come watch the movie, which he grudgingly did. Then came the time when one could bark at the phone to make train bookings, without speaking to any human.
Today, at the center of a supremely dysfunctional family, where all one gets by way of interaction or conversation are grunts of different tones from somewhere deep in that round thing above the shoulders, – both the narrow and the broad one, – I can see the wisdom of Abirda’s point. Sometimes I feel even my dog might be able to surf the net if we taught him to. My son finished his GCSE’s last Friday, so it’s a complete free-for-all for him. He is either reading (thankfully he does that a lot) or is in front of some screen or the other. It’s 3.00 pm and he has just woken up after multiple prodding from me. When I went to check if he had really woken up, I saw him go through the immense hard labour of transporting himself a whole meter away to the computer table. That’s what happens in this house – people move positions from one screen to the next. It’s worth a celebration if you can get any male in this house to move their bottoms to go get a drink from the fridge. When my husband leaves the sitting room, having watched endless reruns of Star Trek (despite my impression that DS9 series stories are basically glorified Mills and Boons, just that the characters have foreheads looking like wantons), he gets to the bed room, lies down, plugs his phone to the charger and watches something in that screen now. To be honest, many days, I do that too, although I consciously try to read books and magazines or even play with the dog nowadays.
All electronic items in our house are perennially on – even Mukesh Ambani’s ugly house uses power more frugally. As soon as my husband comes home, even before he takes off his shoes, he switches on all the lights and fans of all the rooms, almost with a vengeance, with veiled insults about how my satisfaction with only a table lamp in the room is related to the abysmal darkness of my soul. All electronic devices are always on stand-by mode.
While my examples sound flippant, we can hardly deny that technology is a tool we are using to numb people to other people. My erstwhile boss had mentioned once to me how he would text or email his wife who would be in some other part of the house. At that time, 10 or more years back, I thought – with some degree of arrogance born of ignorance- this was the warped world of the IT-rich folks, completely bizarre in their bizarre large houses. Hah, never knew that mental snigger of mine would come to bite me in the butt and he would get his comeuppance. Now, some days, my husband and I exchange comments on Facebook, him some 6 meters away in the sitting room.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against technology per se. Technology is not all negative. It pays for my bread and bacon. As someone who frequently has to avail the benefits of medical technology, I can attest to the benefits. The Kindle means I don’t have to carry 7 books for a seven day vacation. Also, I really do appreciate cell phones. I took a while to warm up to the idea, but now I can accept their ubiquity in our lives. They give the husband and I a certain amount of freedom when we go to the mall. He can salivate over 52 inch TVs while I can do my own thing and we only need to call each other to know where and when to meet. But I have zero excitement for smartphones. I can see how whatsapp is a good thing to have but even that irks me now because it tells the person who’s written to me the time when I have read it. What if I want to lie low for a while? If it comes with the need to be online all the time, I can do without this technology too. I need to have the choice of reading my mails/messages. But, as with anything else, there is a point of diminishing returns when increasing our use of technology returns more negatives than positives.
My grudge with technology is not so much about its need as about its intrusive nature. I do not wish to be contacted by anyone and everyone, at any time they wish. Gone are the days of sitting in the lawn, hearing the phone ringing in the bedroom and not doing anything about it. Now, if you don’t pick up the phone, you actually get told off. I want to be able to not answer the phone and then pretend I was not around, without the residual guilt. And then there is this whole other side. You just need to get on a bus or on tube to know the insidious effect cell phones have brought on our morals. Of course I say this flippantly. The bus could be in Ballygunje, but the person would say, clearly and with no embarrassment that he/she is openly lying, that he/she is in Chowringhee Road. I hate the fact that this technology means you can be contacted any time anyone wishes and even if you keep your phone on mute or shut, you are made to feel morally obligated to answer the call at a later time. Gone are the days of ignoring phone calls because. Just because.
But with cell phones came texting. And with texting comes a less personal way of communicating. There was a picture I saw of a pub and a blackboard outside which said, “No wi-fi, talk”. That about sums it. Just the other day some friends had gone on a trip to several places in Europe and I was very amused, if a little irritated that they said that some hotel in Berlin did not have free wi-fi. Isn’t the point of holidays to be away from it all?
My son is very frustrated that his mother has not been able to text in sms lingo. I cannot write wd for would and gd for good and 2nyt for tonight. It taxes my decrepit brains more than I can handle. I know my intransigence is ridiculous but texting dilutes the affect we express and receive when conversing with others. This makes our conversations less personal, even less human. Why wd I blv sm1 lvs me if de cnt b bthrd 2 ryt d whl sntnce? I can understand the need during emergencies, but why otherwise? I have friends who come to my house or who invite me to theirs and just sit and text others or receive texts which somehow need immediate response or have long conversations. No emergencies, just general chit-chat. I live with a doctor so am used to the phone ringing all the time. Some day the proverbial straw is going to break off the proverbial camel and I am going to walk out of such a house. These cell phones leave people hanging in the air somewhere, not fully there with the people we are texting and certainly not fully there with the people we are physically with at the time. With texting, we exercise an absence while being present.
But not only does texting filter out our personal reactions, it limits the depth of sharing and the contents of our communications. In texting, communication tends to be brief and abbreviated. So not only does texting filter out our emotions, it sifts out depth and reduces the amount of content we can communicate and then handle.
And if the cell phone was not enough, there is whatever device we use to connect to the web. Yes, there are advantages to the web. We can reach out and touch more people from around the globe. But the web is similar to cell phones in that it too acts as a strainer that limits the feelings that can be expressed and decreases the amount of content that can be considered. In addition, people can hide behind avatars when meeting others. As a mother of a teenage boy, it scares me with the possibilities of misuse the web offers. The web, especially the social networking places, can become the world’s biggest disguise party where we, nor the people we meet, have to see what we prefer not to. So we meet new people and become attracted and attached to the costumes being worn rather than the real people wearing them.
I had read in my childhood that the Romans were effective soldiers because of their willingness to maim and kill. The theory being that most humans are naturally reluctant to seriously kill or hurt others, thus bringing into fashion long swords, spears or arrows, which destroyed the enemy from a distance. For most, their enemies might hesitate, whilst the less scrupulous Roman would stab ruthlessly with short swords designed for close contact. I am unsure about the truth of this theory, but it seems reasonable to suppose that.unless trained to kill (or pathological), most would be reluctant to kill another. Even less so, if we were familiar with the everyday sight of our victims. The distancing effect of technology probably does play an important role in enabling us to act in inhumane ways. Drones, missiles all come to mind. What we forget to realize is we don’t have to rely on an economic system that so heavily leans on competition. Or, to be more realistic, we don’t have to unless the desire for more has precedence over the humanity of others. And yet, not only are we worshipping our competitive economic system, we are allowing our business environment built on competition to metastasize into other spheres, like education.
Concerns about the dehumanizing effects of technology are not new. There have long been concerns about the effects that violent computer games may have on impressionable young men. The uses of a technology are determined by the structure of the technology (its function follows its form). Arguing that a technology would be great if it was just used in certain ways is futile. Once a technology is admitted to a culture, it plays its full hand with both good and bad consequences according to its design.
As technology has become more and more ingrained in our everyday life, what once would have seemed miraculous is now commonplace. Just as I was impressed with the characters of Avatar just moving their hands in the air and the transparent screen would be activated, my friend sent my son a device as his birthday gift – you just moved your hand in front of the computer screen, in the air, and the things on the screen moved the way you moved your hand. The video phone is not only here, but it is small and portable and, using GPS technology, can also tell you exactly where you are. It must seem to many people that there are no limits to the power of science and technology. Like Daedalus, we build labyrinths of such cunning complexity that we cannot find our own way out
There are no individuals, only abstract victims.