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Better to switch off the phone than regret

I'm sitting in a bar across a young couple on a Friday night who look as though they are on a date with their mobile phones. Jairaj Singh writes.

india Updated: Aug 14, 2012 14:45 IST
Jairaj Singh

I'm sitting in a bar across a young couple on a Friday night who look as though they are on a date with their mobile phones. They're finding it hard to hold a conversation, or look into each other's eyes. They seem dazed and distracted, and can't help but stare at their screens, as if they are expecting news.

According to the random facts on internet, more than 79% of people pretend to text while being involved in awkward situations.

I look around the bar to see the couple were not the only ones engrossed in their phones while they talk. On every table, young men and women are openly having multiple conversations — one with people around them, and the other with invisible people — and no one seems to mind or find it weird.

This morning I met a tall, dusky, beautiful woman over breakfast at my friend's place. She tells me she works in a modeling agency, which hardly comes as a surprise given her long legs and sharp features. We start talking and she tells me she went to a fashion academy with my friend's younger sister, but our conversation is cut short. Her BlackBerry starts to ring and decimates my charm to crumbs. She gets up abruptly with her phone, walks to another room, and doesn't return.

Later in the day, I watch Gangs of Wasseypur 2, and I find it surprising how many blue screens light up during the more than two-hour film across the dark cinema hall. The person sitting in front is an unapologetic busy body who gets three phone calls, which he can neither put on hold nor silent.

This may sound as though only people around me are getting hooked on their phones — which no doubt are getting slicker, sophisticated, smarter and all-powerful change-your-life gadgets — but I too have been reeling under its influence. The other night my parents sat me down after dinner and said I am addicted to my phone. The last time there was such an intervention was when I was caught with contraband just after graduating from school.

Nowadays, before we attend family dos and social events, my mother makes it a point to warn me not to be seen with the phone. If I have to use it, I sneak out as I used to when I was a smoker. I do not deny my dependence, which is evidently getting complicated. My eyes are constantly dry, itchy and strained, but the enormity of the affliction hasn't fully dawned. Besides, I write all my columns on the phone.

The addiction to smart phones is not just being raised by researchers, recently The New York Times carried an article quoting top heads of Silicon Valley giants such as Google and Facebook who, while extolling the virtues of staying connected, flagged a warning that we must, every now and then, switch off our gadgets, and put it aside, because it is unhealthy.

"The concern, voiced in conferences and in recent interviews with many top executives of technology companies, is that the lure of constant stimulation — the pervasive demand of pings, rings and updates — is creating a profound physical craving that can hurt productivity and personal interactions," the article read.

This addictive quality of digital gadgets — smartphones, tablets, laptops and computers — may now be raising an alarm in the western world, but in countries like China, Taiwan and Korea they are already diagnosing it as serious mental disorders. Neuroscientists today not only link the craving effect of being online on our brains as the same as those produced by alcohol, nicotine and drugs, but Harvard professors go on to say that updating our status on Facebook to get 'likes', or 'retweets' on Twitter, is as gratifying as sex.

Most people today find simple games such as Angry Birds, downloaded more than 200 million times across the world, more rewarding to our senses than an ordinary human experience like taking a walk in the woods. Most people will take pictures of the food they eat, concerts they attend, a night out with friends, and even child birth, to see it shared, and reflected on social media first.

A friend and an introvert says sometimes even a witty update which gathers a lot of likes can be as stimulating an experience as cracking the punchline of a joke at a dinner party that makes you the lead character of your situation-comedy. In other words, social media allows us to be who we want to be with a perfect profile that doesn't make us socially awkward.

Similarly, when you get an alert on your phone for an email, chat, direct message, Facebook or Twitter notification, it doesn't matter if it's day or night, you're almost always expected to respond instantly. If you don't, it's considered rude and impolite like looking through a friend or a relative when they greet you. The alert has a strange way of beckoning an urgency that pulls you in, almost like a narcotic substance, and slowly numbs your inhibitions till you start to display compulsive behaviour.

In less than a lifetime, we have already come a full circle with the internet and its overwhelming ubiquity. From being a portal to access information, and stay connected, it has metamorphosed into a Pandora's box, which hasn't fully opened yet. Think of the generation which is growing up now in a world where being online is taken for granted, virtual gaming and theatre experience is breaking visual dimensions, chips can be lodged in human brains? Perhaps, an end of the world ‘as we know it' will soon not seem so improbable.