Technology is advancing by the nanosecond, sweeping us into the tide of change. New gizmos and gadgets are radically transforming our lives. Electronic devices are our closest companions today. Wherever we go, the network follows. Social networks in the virtual world are overshadowing reality. We have no time to look at or speak to each other, though we tweet and text eternally. Recent research in Birmingham Business School (UK) shows that frequent posters of selfie photos or self-portraits on social networks alienate those close to them, thus weakening supportive human bonds. Is interaction between people and lifeless gadgets becoming more important than connections between human beings? Are we placing more value on technology and prepared to offer less to each other?
Rapid strides in technology improves our lives and offers hope for a better tomorrow. While scientific advances can have a backlash, technology can also help us find new remedies. Infections resistant to antibiotics, for example, are a matter of growing concern. But a new gene-editing system developed by scientists in MIT promises to selectively kill bacteria carrying harmful genes that cause antibiotic resistance and disease. Human technology interferes with fragile ecosystems. This can trigger floods, landslides and other disasters. But technology is also helping concerned people join hands and volunteer for rescue work. It’s up to us to choose how to use technology.
In the good or bad old days, people cared and looked out for each other. Everyone cultivated their neighbours, colleagues and members of their communities. These people were a priceless social support network; sharing information and lending a sympathetic hand in times of need. Apartment dwellers in our metros now give murderous looks if you smile at them. Run out of sugar? Why disturb dragons next-door, when you can order grocery on-line and get doorstep delivery? Searching for an unfamiliar address? Locals can send you on wild goose chases. Why bother for random oafs, when the magical technology of Google maps lies in the palm of your hand? Jobs are no longer places where people grow roots, and colleagues become lifelong friends. The rat-race is everything, and our hunger to acquire expensive gadgets drives us.
High-tech playthings are radically altering our perceptions. They create the illusion of being connected, while isolating us. We all have thousands of ‘friends’ on social networking sites. But how many do we actually know beyond fleeting virtual contacts? Would we really bother to do more than click a mouse for each-other? When my father passed away last year, members of a local internet-based network of women professionals sent their condolences via sms and e-mails. Though we have met many times in real life also, only one of them personally met me. Social media is a delightfully convenient way to make us feel righteous and uplifted, without getting involved. All we have to do to demonstrate our concern is click the ‘like’ button or forward some e-mail, before we move on to the next cause of the moment. Meanwhile, one wonders about all those dazzling social lives on Facebook. If they really were enjoying life eternally, would they have so much time for Facebook?
Technology is a neutral tool in itself. What we can get from it, depends upon how we choose to use it. Social media can make us indifferent and even dehumanize us. As a wise person said, people are meant to be loved, and things are meant to be used. Much of today’s troubles arise because we love things and use people. But weren’t enough people callous and self-absorbed even in the technology-free past? If we want to, we can also use technology to draw people closer and increase intimacy. That’s what my school friend did, when she made a long internet phone call from the other side of the planet. Those words of solace from a friend who genuinely cared, compensated for the many who had only beeps and pings to spare.
Thanks to technology, you don’t have to be consistently helpful, caring or jovial any more to have a social life. Witty and enlightened conversation? It’s simpler to post selfies with your tongue sticking out and attract hundreds of appreciative ‘likes’ from virtual ‘friends’. Cocooned in an illusion of popularity, we are busy clicking, tweeting, pinging and beeping. We won’t notice if the man walking next to us on the street gets mugged or mowed down by a bus. People have been known to get run over by trains and cars, while they were busy on their cell phones. We have never been so constantly connected, and never so alone.
The virtual world is distorting our lives in the most surprising ways. Before we jump to blame corrupting western influences and praise our own culture, let’s make a reality check. According to recent news reports, a Bareilly college student decided that a woman from Kerala whom he met on Facebook, was better suited than his real parents to be his ‘mother’. The lady electronically transferred Rs22,000 into his account, and the young man used it to go and stay with her.
If you think this is a crazy isolated incident, think again. Indian marriages are routinely made not in heaven, but in matrimonial portals. Educated young Indians are too busy checking WhatsApp and Viber to compose an attractive and relevant profile. If they don’t care to write a few meaningful sentences about themselves, one can only imagine how they will treat their future partners and marriages. Everyone knows that Indian men lag behind orang-utans in the behaviour and intellect departments. Today’s tech-savvy Indian ladies are striving to outshine men in every way. Here are a few exact quotes (including bad grammar etc.) from actual profiles of professionally qualified young Indian women on marriage websites:
“Hi. am a v. simple gal doing M. A in English. I love 2 hv spicy foods, spending tym with frends&family, lstng music, dancing etc.”
Brevity is the soul of wit for this 24-year-old woman doctor, whose complete bio note reads; ”i like France. I like saudi arabia.i like to watch movies”.
The woman who writes this one-liner, is refreshingly honest: “I am a Fun Loving Person who don't prefer to think much before doing anything.”
Another emancipated young lady writes this sparkling one-liner to define her personality: “I love to do shopping, gossiping, eating, watching latest movies.” Such profiles are a dime-a-dozen, making one wonder how many understand the importance of marriage in fulfilling the human need for intimacy and emotional support. A healthy marriage can beat the stresses of today’s hectic lifestyle by binding two equal partners in a caring and nurturing relationship. But can such technology-dazed young people spare the effort and attention needed to build a healthy understanding with others? Relationships today are being made and trashed with sms, tweets and Facebook status updates. Can such a shallow approach enable people to seriously deal with life’s problems?
Will future generations be able to strike the right balance between isolation and connectivity? Many toddlers in middle class Indian families are hooked on to shiny, noisy gadgets. Parents boast how kids can operate laptops before learning to speak sentences. Even underprivileged domestic helpers use cell phones to amuse their children, while going about their chores. Such children tend to mimic the behaviour of characters in cartoons and video games, and confuse the imaginary world of electronic sounds and flashing images with reality. Children are spending more time viewing screens, than interacting with other children. This hampers the growth of their human relationships, and affects their development into responsible adults. Busy making money and keeping up with the twitterati, parents have little time to draw their children close and find out what is going on in their lives.
News today travels at the speed of light. Images of bomb blasts, beheadings, epidemics and war are served every morning with our breakfast. Technology thus interweaves violence into our daily lives. Are violent TV programmes and video games behind today’s culture of blood and mayhem? Or is the issue more complex? Electronic images aren’t monsters empowered to corrupt normal humans into killing machines. Well-produced TV programmes can educate and spread positive values while entertaining children. Video games can develop children’s motor skills and alertness, prevent them from feeling bored and lonely, and falling into bad company. Violence on screens is only part of a larger problem which makes children today more aggressive. Rather than policing children, adults can proactively guide them to make the right choices. And leading by example is the best way. As parents, we can try to spend more quality time understanding and engaging our children, instead of posting selfies and status updates.
We don’t yet live in a world of unfeeling robots. Even when we surf the net or watch TV, the content has been created by humans, and is meant to interest other humans. We may connect with electronic signals to social networking sites in cyberspace. But we exchange texts and images with real people, even if they are not physically before us. Die-hard technology freaks haven’t yet completely forsaken human connections. Those cell phone calls and messages are made to other humans. On-line game players may spend hours in imaginary worlds. But they interact with fellow gamers there, and together they influence those worlds. Most LAN, WAN, and internet activity still needs human inputs although signals are transmitted by machines.
The future may change with advances in automation and artificial intelligence. Intelligent machines are already learning to pilot planes and cars, babysit children and prepare food. Someday, machines may fuel the main thrust to our progress. Robots could replace human friends, bosses, children and lovers. Robots could program themselves to evolve intelligence and abilities superior to humans, rendering humanity useless and powerless. They could turn into monsters out to exterminate their original human creators.
Such terrifying scenarios could, but need not necessarily translate into reality. Humanity can stay on the right track if we do not forsake our morals and principles in order to get ahead. Progress and ethics do not have to be mutually exclusive. Moral people need not be impractical dreamers. And crooked means need not be the only path to solid achievements. Striking the right balance and showing concern for our fellow human beings can be one route to improving our lives.
We have every right to try to fill our brief lives with joy. Technology opens up multiple worlds, adding fun and excitement to our existence. These worlds can be closely linked to reality, such as groups of former school and college mates. These worlds may be imaginary and fantastic, such as gaming and TV shows. Whichever options we choose to explore, we can gain new information and perspectives, and also simply enjoy ourselves. Learning, being productive and having fun need not be contradictory. Technology can broaden our perceptions in countless ways, helping unleash our creative potential. The best ideas and innovations are most likely to thrive when we have some liberty to explore and play with new concepts and experiences.
Today’s technology constantly swamps us with information. The noise and confusion can overwhelm us. We need to think clearly and choose how to best use our time and resources. When faced with conflicting options, we need to evade loud but misguiding voices vying for our attention. We must cultivate healthy scepticism and not believe everything we see and hear in cyberspace. Once we do that, technology can offer wonderful rewards.
By overcoming our self-centeredness, we can use technology to understand others, their lives and thought processes. Understanding others is about listening carefully to what they have to say, and analysing its significance. This helps us to be better parents, employees, bosses and spouses. We will also know how to persuade others to our way of thinking. This isn’t only about goody-goody altruism. If we can learn how other people think, the world can be ours. Ad and marketing men are already using social media to identify markets, and figure out the most appealing and convincing approach to sell Mt Everest. Terrorists are using social media to coordinate and plan attacks, and spread fear among the populace. Who do we want to be?
Technology can help us understand others and be more innovative and effective in whatever we choose to do. It’s up to us to sustain our own principles. As Isaac Asimov rightly said, technology is but a neutral tool at our command. If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.
This is published in Sunday Herald