Even if you haven’t read Andrew Sullivan’s longish article called “I Used to be a Human Being” in New York Magazine, chances are you might recognise his Internet addiction.
Sullivan, an author, editor and blogger, talks about his “personal crash” following years of what he calls a web obsessive lifestyle, publishing and updating blog posts multiple times, seven days a week.
The rewards were a profitable new media business, an audience of 100,000 people a day and a “niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation”. Yet, as his health began to suffer, as vacations became occasions for catching up with sleep, and as “the online clamor became louder”, he realised, “This new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.”
Most of us aren’t as deeply immersed in our online lives as Sullivan but it’s a difference of degree. A 2014 study by AT Kearney Global Research, for instance, found that 53% of Indian respondents said they were connected to the Internet every waking hour — higher than the global average of 51%.
Easier Wi-Fi access and the proliferation of affordable tablet and mobile devices, including Reliance Jio’s aggressive 4G plans that include free voice calls and rock bottom data price, has deepened this connection.
What does this mean to the way we live, communicate and interact?
The borders between the virtual and real world are now blurred. Look around you. That couple at dinner at a restaurant checking their mail. Holidays spent posting pictures on Snapchat and Instagram. The desperation for validation in the form of “likes” and retweets. At the doctor’s clinic, people swiping their phones rather than rifling through dog-eared back issues of Readers Digest.
The human race has never been better connected — earlier this year, I watched the coup in Turkey unfold in real time on my twitter feed — and yet, I find that my mails are increasingly perfunctory — send itinerary, read this story, free for dinner? — staccato bursts with no space for communicating ideas or even concern. Thumbs up emojis responding to reposts of articles I’ve not yet had the time to read. Facebook reminding you to send birthday greetings to “friends” you can’t remember.
Some call this an age of mass distraction. I pick up my phone to make a call and before I know it I’m swirling down the rabbit hole of pings and updates, phone call quickly forgotten only to be substituted by a hastily remembered text message much later. I struggle with information overload. That guy whose book I read and loved six months ago? I need to Google his name.
Even as we lose focus, it is useful to remind ourselves of the many gifts of the online world. Fund-raising for small causes, online petitions, the ability to interact one-on-one with politicians, democratisation of news. But this comes at a human cost. And here’s the irony, our increasing connectivity is making us less connected to those we still meet physically. How do you make eye contact with the dad at the bus stop dropping off his daughter, when he’s immersed in his phone? If you’re going to buy books online, how can you receive recommendations from the erudite bookshop owner who has, in fact, now gone out of business?
What we lose in the name of efficiency is an older, more relaxed way of life, a way of life where people mattered because they were humans not data in some complex algorithm.
Some talk of a weekly day off away from our smartphones. Others reserve family time with phones switched off, even if it’s just an hour a day. The idea is to recognise the need to inhale, the need to switch off but switch on elsewhere.
A friend once tried to explain the marvels of modern technology to his father. “Think of all the time you’re saving,” he exclaimed. The father remained unimpressed. “Time saved for what? To send another message?” There’s a lesson in there for all of us.
The views expressed are personal