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Our 'always-on' lives

March 18, 2012

Most of us lead ‘plugged’ lives. As we check our mails in the middle of the night and send text messages in the middle of conversations, we have a sense of relevance and control. But, how is such pervasive connectivity shaping us? Are we becoming more creative, productive and sensitive? Maybe it is time to consider unplugging, for a change, suggests Subhajit Datta

I check my emails only till six in the evening. I turn off my cell phone at 9 pm. I always smother a ringing phone when I am talking to someone face to face. I read and reply to text messages only when I am alone.  I wish I did. 

Not only do I not do all of the above, I go several steps further. I check emails in bed, last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Sometimes I wake up at night, check my emails and — if there are several messages, mostly spam — go back to sleep with a vague sense of connection and control. Yesterday, no one had emailed me for about two hours in the afternoon; I was not particularly expecting any one to, but I felt rather forgotten. I have checked emails with one hand, while waving goodbyes to loved ones with the other, at railway stations and airports. At sit-down dinners, I engage in text messaging under the table, like footsie. It has only been two-and-a-half years since I came to possess a smart phone. It seems to have possessed me for a lifetime.


Pervasive connectivity is great. We are in closer touch with more people than at any point in human history. If Charlie Chaplin made a movie on the present, he would have most likely called it ‘Connected Times’. In our professional and personal lives we are wedded to the idea of networking. The more people we connect with, the more relevant we feel. Being old enough to remember that once upon a time phones remained dead most of the time in India, and the concomitant trauma of connecting to someone in a crisis, I think the current super-connectivity is a welcome perk of this digital age.

But often, the facility of connection is confused with the choice of connecting. The two are different, and we need to deal with them differently. A free market offers myriad goods and services on sale. But the intelligent buyer spends her money on something she wants, not merely “because it is there”. (The want may itself be contrived or manipulated, but that is a story for another day.) This maturity, with which we engage in our market transactions, is still missing from our informational interactions. 

Engagement vs disengagement

It is widely recognised that engaging with our fellow human beings can bring about companionship and collaboration, leading in turn to even deeper and better outcomes. Interesting things can also happen when we disengage. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden was born out of his two years as a recluse; not only is Walden a masterpiece of self-reflection, it is a manual for leading a minimalist life in any day and age. While Thoreau embraced solitude of his own volition, Jawaharlal Nehru was incarcerated in the Ahmednagar Fort from 1942-1946. Out of this isolation came The Discovery of India, one of the greatest books on Indian civilisation. Edsger W Dijkstra, a pioneer of the computing age, made a deeply perceptive observation, shortly before his death in 2002 — “...thanks to the greatly improved possibility of communication, we overrate its importance. Even stronger, we underrate the importance of isolation. ...Thanks to my isolation, I would do things differently than people subjected to the standard pressures of conformity. I was a free man.”

Conformity has an insidious link to connectivity, as has isolation to innovation. In a recent article, Neal Stephenson synthesises a provocative metaphor from the works of Tim Harford and Jaron Lanier. Charles Darwin’s discovery of a plethora of distinct species in the Galapagos Islands was no accident. Rather, it was deeply influenced by “Galapagan isolation”, in contrast to the situation in large continents where “evolutionary experiments tend to get pulled back toward a sort of ecological consensus by interbreeding”. Similarly, pervasive connectivity leads to constant interbreeding of experiences and ideas. Today, when we want to try out something new, we usually sound out our network. Almost always we find somebody has already tried it and succeeded, or tried and failed. Either way, there appears to be not much sense in pursuing that idea further. As we relentlessly know what’s on one another’s minds, we are subconsciously conforming to better fit our networks, to be in closer consensus with our contacts. Fearing isolation, we are losing connections to our most original contact, ourselves. This is one of the most serious unintended consequence of our connected lives. 

Good food is essential for good health. But, just as we recognise that too much of good food can be detrimental to health, it is time to watch what we consume from today’s pervasive connectivity. All transforming technologies ultimately need to be enabling ones; they should make producers out of consumers. To make the most out of the privilege of pervasive connectivity we have in our lives, conscious and controlled unplugging may have its value for our lives.

As you may have guessed by now, I preach before I practise.

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