The digital crutch

The digital crutch

Technologically speaking...

The digital crutch

The rapid growth and extensive reach of technology, and of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, has changed the way we communicate with one another. But, have all these networks improved our life the way they were supposed to? Well, that’s a question that’s open to debate, writes Sudarshan Purohit.

Irecently saw an interesting poster: under a photo of a man playing on a lawn with two children, the caption said, ‘The best thing you can do for your children is to spend time with them.’

Funnily enough, the poster was on Facebook. Half a dozen people, entirely unironically, had clicked the ‘like’ button under that poster, several others had shared it with their own friends. All these were people who had decided to spend their time focused on a computer or mobile phone screen, instead of interacting with the real people around them.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Social networking was the crowning glory in a long path of increasingly useful tools meant to give us more (face-to-face and virtual) time together, help with relationships, and make it easy to hear about everyone’s life. It started with the rise of personal computers and word processors in the 70s — that made it easier to compose letters. E-mail came in soon enough, along with basic dial-up internet, and webmail and chat programs followed as the net matured and became a popular platform in the 80s and 90s. Finally, social networking in the last decade, marking the first time a website became better known than an operating system. It was easy to use, interesting enough to draw in computer newbies, and had enough bells and whistles for users to discover something new all the time.
A connected world?

Social networking was so successful that it became a selling feature of smart phones as well. We were supposed to become hyper-connected, more in touch with friends and relatives, capable of sharing news with loved ones, and to interact with others over hobbies and news. The first such network that took off in India was Orkut, and then Facebook took over. Now we have various other supplemental networks with their own special quirk: Instagram, Whatsapp, FourSquare, and more coming out. The vast majority of Indian netizens, though, are still on Facebook. Normal websites now connect to Facebook to improve the user experience — you can like products on ecommerce sites on Facebook, for example, or use the same login to comment on news sites.

But, have all these networks improved our life the way they were supposed to? We certainly share things faster now, and hear news faster too. But, in terms of making our lives better, things seem to have gone in an entirely different direction. Social networking has become a means in itself, a platform that had its own rules and grammar. The aim is not to use social networking as an aid to existing relationships — rather, the Facebook connection is the primary one, and it relegates the real-world relationship to second place. Today, a regular user of the most popular social networks may have hundreds of ‘friends’ — out of which he may have met about half. The common wisdom is that, the more ‘friends’ you have on Facebook, the more influence you have, and the more popular you are. College and school age kids regularly compare their friend numbers with their classmates to see who has more ‘friends’.

With this kind of single-minded focus on virtual contacts, real-world relationships are bound to suffer. Parties and trips become occasions to take photos to share on Facebook, instead of enjoying the time with real people. When you meet your friends after a while, you’re likely to compliment them on the recent jokes they’ve uploaded, or the photos they shared last week. If your birthday is on a weekday (and consequently all your friends are online on Facebook), you’re likely to get many more greetings — Facebook reminds all your contacts about the occasion. If it is on a weekend, only close friends and family will remember to wish you. One of the more egregious trends lately has been taking photographs of your food and uploading it for others to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at.

When this sense of misplaced priorities is applied to close relationships as well, the results can be mildly horrifying. We have instances of parents finding out on Facebook that their daughter has gotten a divorce. It’s become more common to use Facebook messaging as a way to break up a relationship. A recent newspaper report talked of a child who was ignored and remained malnourished because its mother spent all her time online — the child was eventually rescued by neighbours and social agencies.
Befriending the ‘App’

What is worse, there is an ever-growing set of activities on Facebook and other social networks that aren’t even connected to the real world or other people at all. Take the game Farmville on Facebook for instance. Though its popularity has been dropping in recent times, at its peak, a majority of Facebook users played it. And what do you do in this game? You grow crops and do other mundane chores on a virtual farm, and your main communication with your friends is to give them virtual vegetables and show off your (imaginary) farming skills.

The latest game to take over Facebook is something called Criminal Case, where you play a detective and solve simple puzzles (jigsaw puzzles, number series, and so on) to crack virtual murder cases. Then you move up the virtual police force as you keep solving cases.

It is hard to see anything of value that can come out of such activities. The primary purpose of communicating was lost in the dust a long way back — now there is not even space for awareness of your friends’ activities. However, the fun factor in such games is addictive and brings people back for more. So you’re actually worse off than when you joined the social network — more lonely and more caught up in solitary activities, and more removed from day-to-day life.

This graph — technology that evolved to make life better, but instead turned into a dictator of life’s priorities — is unfortunately repeated many times, and in the case of many technological achievements.

Take the case of GPS (Global Positioning Systems). At their most basic, they are supposed to tell you where in the city you are, and guide you to the destination you specify. This helps in case you are passing through areas you don’t know well, or if there are roadblocks or jams you weren’t aware of.

But we now have this worrying piece of news: In the US, a majority of new drivers are losing the ability to even read maps. They are entirely reliant on GPS systems telling them where to go next. There was an episode of the detective serial Monk, a few years ago, where a murderer brings his victim to a secluded spot by tampering with his GPS system to lead him there. At the time, I would have wondered why the victim did not realise he was going the wrong way — but increasingly, even in India, GPS systems are becoming common, and it is possible to see the increasing reliance on this technology. Will we go the way of the early GPS adopters and lose our sense of direction?

Maybe not. Indian road conditions are not stable enough that the GPS systems get completely accurate, and this may keep us on our toes, looking out for problems that the system does not know about. This is temporary relief, of course — better GPS systems will be on us before we know it.
Short and sweet?

Here’s another easy example of another technology that has changed a fundamental aspect of our lives: mobile phones.

When mobile phones took the world by storm, what everyone marvelled over was being able to take and receive calls wherever they are. “My wife can call me even when I’m on the way home!” “My boss can call me back from my vacation! Oh, no!” But along with the call technology was an additional service no one paid much attention to: SMS. You could send a short message from one mobile phone to another, with a maximum of 140 characters. This was essentially free to the service provider, but charged at high rates to the users. SMS took some time to grow — why not talk instead? But today, some people prefer to talk over SMS instead of calling up.

And SMS isn’t used just for things like ‘Reached office! Love u, bye,’ now. SMS has become a platform on which other systems work: SMS to vote in reality shows, SMS to book gas cylinders, SMS notification of bank transactions, even browsing a limited section of the web using SMS. But beyond that, look at the effect it has had on language and culture. We have a dedicated SMS lingo now, which is spilling over into emails and spoken language: ‘LOL’, ‘c u @4’. We have a new genre of humour and literature, short enough to fit into SMSes — there are even ‘SMS joke books’ available, not to mention compilations of romantic and inspirational messages to send your significant other. Entire novels, composed entirely in the form of SMSes, have been published in Japan already. And who hasn’t received one of those ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Happy Diwali’ SMSes, with teddy bears or lamps made out of text characters, and forwarded by enthusiastic texters to everyone on their contact list?

And how has this affected us? SMSes supplant the more meaningful interactions that happened before them. Twenty years back, E-mails had already started reducing attention spans and the grammatical complexity of the older letter writing era. Try reading through the beautiful and expressive letters written by the great figures of a generation ago, then compare them with the terse emails today. Now it gets worse still with SMSes distilling conversation down to the bare bones, stripping out all context and literary merit. Depth in communication is closely tied to the beauty and lasting merit of its medium, and SMS lingo strikes right at the root of this.

The act of speaking goes way beyond the actual words said. It can be argued that the words are a minor component of the actual communication. Gestures, expressions, tone of voice, not to mention the circumstances leading to the conversation itself, all play a very important part. Think of how many jokes and funny stories work solely because of the way they are delivered. Think of why every word that Gabbar Singh says is imbued with menace. In the recent movie Lootera, see how many scenes are composed solely of gestures and expressions. Remember that look your parents gave you when you came home with the report card — it said more than any words.

Now we have SMSes and chat messages — all they do is to transfer the actual words, and that too with a character limit. How much of the actual intent goes with those words? No wonder it’s easier than ever to misinterpret sarcasm and lose nuance.

There’s an easy way to avoid this, of course: communicate at such a basic and simple level that there is no way you can be misunderstood. And hence the disappearance of informed debate from the social networking sites and the appearance of silly cartoons and dumbed-down explanations.

What can we do to prevent this kind of overdependence on technology? The thing to keep in mind is that the very purpose of technology was to make things easier. It’s probably effortless to proportionately reduce our own mental effort as well. After all, when it is possible to fill your day with chit-chat and simple-to-understand sound bites, why bother with straining ourselves to understand complex themes?

Making the most of it

But of course, it is not as straightforward as that. Taking the simple way out has never been beneficial in the long run. Whether we’re talking of maintaining health, getting ahead in our career, or learning languages, the impulse is to just do the easiest thing. There’s no doubt that technology helps us do things more easily. Applying for a job is a matter of clicking on a dozen postings in a job site. Everything from languages to exercise routines can be learnt using a host of options: DVDs, websites, software, discussion forums.

Actually achieving results, though, comes down to the same factors everywhere: dedication, discipline, and the use of the right tools. Technology can help enormously with the last of these, and to some extent with the first two. The rest is up to us. The language will be learnt only if we apply ourselves to it. The job offer will come only if we research the right companies and learn the required skill-set. And the relationship will be maintained if we put in the effort in the same old-fashioned way our parents did: paying attention, caring for the other, and trying to understand and empathise.

To appropriate a popular saying, ‘technology is a good servant, but a bad master.’ The wide range of tools around us allows us to live a more fulfilling and rewarding life. But, regardless of what means are available to you, the development of your life depends on your own mindset and attitude. Take charge of it, and use the tools available to you, and you could grow by leaps and bounds. Take the easy way, and the same tools will help you avoid work and responsibility for as long as you desire. The choice is yours.