Refusing to cell out

The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug,” wrote Pico Iyer of The New York Times. His article titled ‘The Joy Of Quiet’ almost sums up what many Indians these days are feeling — an aversion to rapidly developing and invasive mobile technology. Samar Khurshid reports.

business Updated: Apr 14, 2012 23:18 IST
Samar Khurshid
Samar Khurshid
Hindustan Times

The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug,” wrote Pico Iyer of The New York Times. His article titled ‘The Joy Of Quiet’ almost sums up what many Indians these days are feeling — an aversion to rapidly developing and invasive mobile technology.

Across the world, mushroomingcellphone usage has lead to addictive behavioural tendencies. This even led the UK Post Office in 2008 to coin the term ‘Nomophobia’ — the fear of being without a mobile phone — after commissioning a study on the anxieties suffered by mobile phone users. The study, conducted by UK-based research organisation YouGov, found that 53% of mobile phone users across Britain become anxious if they lose their mobile, run out of battery or have no network coverage. This is not surprising if you consider that almost each facility of modern life is available on mobiles — internet, banking, social networking, shopping, gaming, navigation and, of course, talking.

This problem is affecting Indians as well. In 2009, a study on mobile phone dependence published in the Indian Journal of Community Medicine showed that almost two of five students of MGM Medical College, Indore showed signs of mobile phone dependence. Recently released Census 2011 data revealed that nearly 54% of Indian households have a mobile phone, even outnumbering the number of households with a usable toilet. “People have developed a nightmarish addiction to technology,” says Rajiv Makhni, managing editor — technology, NDTV.

Perhaps then, people giving up cellphones, or simply not using one in the first place, is a positive trend. Across age groups, there are Indians who are making this choice. The reasons — concerns for privacy, for health, while some just enjoy the peace of not being constantly accessible.

Senior consultant psychiatrist, Dr Sanjay Chugh, says those who don’t use a cellphone at all are at the other extreme. “They’re plain stubborn. If you really don’t like technology, use a candle not electricity,” he muses. “These people put themselves on a pedestal and are proud that they don’t use cells. But anything excessive is unhealthy.” Retired professor from the School of Planning and Architecture, Malay Chatterjee, says “Mobiles are a boon for those, like construction workers, who have no access to landlines or even a fixed address. If Gandhi was alive today, he would be a great fan of mobile phones. This technology has liberated the aam aadmi. It’s just not for me, though.” A trend of giving up cellphones can even help improve an employee’s performance, shows a new study conducted by researchers at Harvard Business School. The three-year project under Professor Leslie Perlow showed that ‘predictable time off’ (PTO) — time when employees were banned from using their phones — once a week enhanced job satisfaction. It also increased productivity and bettered work-life balance. This held true for 59% of those who accepted PTO compared to 27% of those who rejected it.

So, switching off your phone, even temporarily, is a blessing for many. Media personality Cyrus Broacha probably feels the same. He doesn’t own or use a cellphone. Neither does our Union Minister for Health, Ghulam Nabi Azad.

Professor at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies Shiv Vishvanathan, says “Instant access is overrated. Most home telephones can now take messages and missed calls. So, cell phones are not as important. Let’s not confuse dependence with symptoms of addictive behaviour.”

In February this year, a BCA student Pushpak Nagaraj was run over by a train in Karnataka as he was crossing the tracks listening to music on his phone. This is just one of many such cases in the recent past and shows that being “plugged in” all the time cuts us off from the world around us.

In the US, efforts to disconnect from the digital were even made on March 23, the third consecutive “National Day of Unplugging” when people were encouraged to unplug themselves from digital devices and the internet. The solution to over-dependence seems to be ‘To Each His Own.’ Chugh agrees with the choice to either give up using a mobile or to not use it at all. But Makhni takes it further: “Dependence on technology depends on your own maturity. It isn’t a rebellious act to not own a cell. Don’t blame the tech itself.”

‘There are other ways to connect’

Ankur Bindal, 23
Online stock trader

For 23-year-old Ankur Bindal, the need for solitude and privacy is a greater priority than a need for connectivity. That’s why he refuses to use a cell phone. Bindal much rather prefers the ease of a landline, and availing of PCO facilities when he goes out.

The former Bachelor’s of commerce student has a different take about mobile technology. “Having a cell doesn’t necessarily mean you are moving with the world. There are enough ways of communicating with people. That’s what computers and email are for,” he says.

With a cellphone, says Bindal, comes the hassle of maintenance, expensive phone bills and unsolicited SMS advertising. “My friends even offered to buy me one but I don’t want a mobile,” he says.

Bindal’s time is divided between looking for a job and online stock trading — he recently completed a four-month course on the stock market from the International Institute of Financial Markets in Connaught Place. “I don’t go out too late and can manage with my email account,” he says. “I don’t even have a girlfriend who needs to constantly keep tabs on me,” he jokes.

But far from only being concerned about personal choice, Bindal says that obsessive mobile usage is a consumerist habit. “Even someone with a simple mobile would be teased by those who have more advanced fancy smartphones. It’s the manufacturers who create the hype. Each phone is pretty much the same with only minor differences.”

Bindal’s stand on cellphones is reinforced by the people around him. At times he has been applauded for not using one. He also finds that his friends who are “hooked” to their mobiles get agitated when denied access to their phones.

Although he admits phones allow one to stay connected and “information is always at hand,” he doesn’t feel that he is lagging behind.

“And I know it might not be that important to others but mobile towers also affect bird migratory patterns. Who knows how they affect us,” he says.

‘Phones give no time to be creative’

Dr SV Eswaran, 65
Professor, Delhi University

Dr SV Eswaran, 65, considers himself tech-savvy. The chemistry professor at St Stephen’s college says, many aspects of his life require him to use the internet — submission of papers, recommendations for students, etc. But, “It should not become an obsession”. He resists the use of a cellphone. Eswaran believes the decision to be connected, or unconnected, should be in one’s own hands. “When you take a walk, you shouldn’t be plugged in. You should take in the world around you.” Phones, he believes, give a person no time to reflect on creativity.

“I don’t subscribe to the belief that every moment is an emergency,” says the teacher of 44 years who believes email is a more useful and unobtrusive tool for communication. He does not deny the benefits of a cellphones. But Eswaran, in his career, has seen the misuse of mobile phones and that puts him off. “I have seen mobiles being used in confidential meetings. It disturbs the sanctity of a closed committee and decisions can be influenced by people not present there,” he says.

Social networks — now accessible through mobile broadband technology — are another bane of the digital era. “Privacy and personal information are openly available to people, and that is dangerous,” he says.

‘I am too lazy to use a cellphone’

Cyrus Broacha, 40
Media personality and political satirist

Broacha, 40, does not use a cellphone. Of course, he jokes about the reasons. “Financial constraints, radiation, indoor plumbing. It’s one of the three but I can’t seem to remember which one,” he says.

Broacha, who sarcastically and comically spoofs the week’s news developments on his show ‘The Week That Wasn’t,’ is by all standards a mainstream media man. But, he doesn’t feel compelled to stay perpetually connected — a wise choice considering how other media persons in the past have found their phones to be their weakness. But Broacha says he has a far nobler, far more mature reason to stay disconnected. “I’m lazy,” he says.

There have been situations where he both has regreted and felt relieved that he doesn’t have a mobile phone. “When people ask me for a number,” he says, “that’s the answer to both.”

But, he frankly believes that phones violate certain boundaries of proximity. “We randomly physically touch too many people everyday, mostly inadvertently. Let’s not violate electronic proximity as well,” he says.

Broacha does have reservations about his privacy, particularly over digital networks and prefers that his confidential information is in his own hands. The average of 107 minutes which other people spend on mindless talk, he muses, “I use in far more meaningful pursuits like scratching and… no just scratching.”

‘Haven’t had any motivation to use a cellphone’

KK Vivek Padmanabhan, 28
Engineering student

Bangalore resident KK Vivek Padmanabhan, 24, is in his final year of computer science engineering in Dayananda Sagar College of Engineering. He has never felt the pressure to use a mobile phone. “I have no grand philosophy behind it. Once I started living without a mobile, I began to like it.” He says he hasn’t faced any motivation to persuade him.In emergencies, Padmanabhan has a simple contingency plan — borrow a phone. “Everyone else has one and they are not reluctant to share considering how inexpensive communication is now. Strangers offer you their phone if they feel you need to use one urgently.” His mother isn’t happy though. “If I reach home late, she worries,” he says.

About staying in touch with friends, he says,“You’ll meet the people you want to with or without a mobile. You might not end up on that random date but you can do away with the people who only call on purpose. Staying true to my profession I am always connected through internet,” he says.

First Published: Apr 14, 2012 23:12 IST