Living in a cellphone-regulated world

Living in a cellphone-regulated world

“We missed you,” said a friend to me referring to the recent wedding reception of his daughter.

"We missed you," said a friend to me referring to the recent wedding reception of his daughter. Having received no invitation to the event, I was a bit surprised, and said so too. "Aren't you on WhatsApp?" was the next query.

As a matter of fact, I am not. I am not on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter either. And this was not the only event I had missed on account of my aversion to be an active member of any of the social media. Until recently, I never gave the matter much serious thought.

But having gone through a few more such experiences with good friends and relatives, I am beginning to wonder whether it is such a good idea after all. In the incident referred to, my abstention came to my rescue. But the question is, at what cost? My friend missed me and I missed the wedding.

But, then, just think of the other side of the issue. These memberships demand substantial investments of time and energy. Even the limited indulgence I permitted myself, of using email, has become practically a bit of a crutch.

In short, no email, no communication with the outside world. And no access to goods and services. On the other hand, one has to pay a heavy price for accessing these advantages, especially if one is a sensitive person who values relationships and the importance of communication. I am really at the crossroads.

The choice appears to be between being cut off from contacts and isolated from the outside world or being swarmed by noise which drowns essential information - and spending most of my time extracting the latter from the former.

A choice, in other words, between enduring the travails and discomforts of membership, or facing literal social, economic and personal excommunication!

Quite another aspect of the advent of the social media is the entry of artificiality into daily events. Thanks to the somewhat recent obsession with transparency and accountability, one has seen legislators, in Parliament and the State Assemblies, turn solemn occasions into opportunities for posturing.

No longer does one hear the views of the honourable members. Thanks to the presence of the media members more or less feel forced to say and do what they believe their constituents expect. This attitude has, unfortunately, crept into our day-to-day lives too.

Every conversation has to be recorded and every meeting with friends videotaped, so that it can be posted on Facebook or WhatsApp and "shared" with scores of others who will then "post" their "likes!" Needless to say, facial expressions and gestures are put on, and words used which are not spontaneous but used in the hope that the "sharers" will like them.

One even hears of people travelling to faraway places and exotic destinations merely in order to capture the scenes on their cell phones and share them on the social media.

And, naturally, those who receive something feel obliged to respond. And thus, starts a vicious cycle of communication with the profoundest and the most mundane facts and feelings doing endless rounds.

I still recollect, with a feeling bordering on disbelief, the effort I had to put in to get a cell phone sanctioned for official use as a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, barely two decades ago.

Today every attender in that Ministry, the bearers who fetch snacks and drinks and the drivers of the cars, all have one. In fact, one would have to try very hard to find a person without a cell phone these days.

Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity teaches us that we all live in a space-time continuum. If you stand still at one place the space axis is frozen and time alone moves. We are all familiar with that feeling.

But what about stopping time? A weird feeling, isn't it? Time, after all, never stops. Time and tide wait for no man and all that. But then Einstein's theory tells us that, if you travel faster and faster, increasing your speed towards that of light, then time moves slower and slower, until, at least theoretically, it comes to a stop, when you reach the velocity of light.

Sorry about this short excursion into the realm of theoretical physics. The point is that I often feel that I continue to live in the same country in which I was born, the same city where I spent over six decades, the same Banjara Hills where we moved in a decade ago, and the same house for over five years, but the environment has undergone a tremendous transformation.

No longer does one see books, dictionaries, wall clocks, typewriters, radios, dictaphones or cameras. The ubiquitous and omnipotent cell phone and laptop have taken the place of all these gadgets not to mention even newspapers and calendars.

But back to the phenomenon of participating in the social media. No matter how hard I try, to balance the apparent advantages with the obvious drawbacks, I am unable to persuade myself to change my attitude.

Peace of mind, the luxury of choosing whom to communicate with, and when, is far more enticing than the risk of missing out on the occasional important intimations saying this has happened or that.

I am by no means a loner or a recluse. Still I do value my private space and insist on the right to choose when to be available for interaction. I am also not greatly enthused by the idea of being overwhelmed with messages I am unable to respond to and feel guilty about the lapse.

The point I am trying to make is that the digital revolution undoubtedly has brought with it enormous advantages. And the cell phone, with its versatility, offers a range of spectaculars services.

You can take photographs, record music and play it back, make quick and accurate calculations, dictate error- free notes and use it also an alarm clock or a drawing board. But, in the ultimate analysis, it is only a tool and should remain one.

Dependence on its assistance should never reach the point where one cannot do without it. One should also guard against the danger of being unable to perform essential functions, should the cell phone be unavailable, out of the coverage area, without charge, or in need of repair.

An instrument to serve the purpose of being called in which one feels the need for speed or accuracy, but not as a routine substitute for the human element.

I quite realise that this attitude makes me a bit of a misfit. I must be giving the impression of a person who is stuck in a time warp and unable to keep abreast of developments, especially in communication technology. Still, I am content with being what I am.

For some time during my service in the government of India, my good friend and one of the most distinguished sons of India, Gopal Gandhi was posted in the Rashtrapati Bhavan as Secretary to the President of India.

"Nadakarade", was his reply in Tamil when I asked him how things were. "Chalti ka naam gaadi", as one would put it in Hindi, meaning that things were neither very good, nor was there anything to complain about.

More or less the situation in which I find myself today, vis-a-vis digital and electronic appliances. To those who would change me my heartfelt plea would be to let things be. As Edward Gibbon said, "I am never less alone then when I am alone."

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)

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