Virtual is the new real

MAR 20 – A few days back, no sooner had I stepped inside a microbus in the evening, a picture of a brain displayed on a mobile phone caught my eye. From where my head was positioned, caught in between the arm of a woman in the front and a man at the back, the screen was unmissable. The brain which seemed to be a post in a stranger’s Facebook timeline resembled the insides of a walnut. The phone’s  owner, a young woman, was seated across a young man equally engrossed with this white-coloured phone.

Right above his head, a sticker pasted alongside Mahila/Apanga/Asakta 1, 2, 3 asked: Billions of rupees for leaders, what for the people? Smartphones, perhaps, I thought to myself.

It was an uneventful ride until it was time for the white-phone owner to get off.  As soon as he stepped out, he got into a verbal altercation with the conductor. Apparently, the latter pissed the man off by making a snide remark about his fiddling with the phone.

Kaslai hepeko?

Hepchas?

As is the case with such fights, it was difficult for me to establish who had actually disrespected whom. By then the passengers had already begun to take sides. “Why should a passenger engrossed with his phone be a problem unless he does not pay the fare?” one asked. “People need to kill time on a public vehicle some way or the other,” a woman added.

The man for whom the arguments were being made had long gone. At that very instant, it felt as though we (the people in the vehicle) had moved on too–to join our global tribe which, if need be, will fight tooth and nail for the right to stare at our screens as and when we wish to. It reminded me of something I binge-watched about a month or so ago and which has been bothering me ever since.

Black Mirror, a three-season British TV series which first aired in December 2011, tells unrelated stories in seven episodes. But unlike the TV shows we are used to, which absorb us into them and help us forget everything at least for a while, Black Mirror has no intention of helping viewers relax or unwind after a long day of staring at another screen–computers.  Even the act of watching the show can at times feel ironical.

The lives of the people in Black Mirror–which implies the blank screens that have become an indispensible part of our lives–like ours, is chained to the screen. In its third episode, The Entire History of You, humans have a ‘grain’ implanted in their heads that records just about everything that happens in their lives. People can replay their memories of past relationships, job interviews, stay at a hotel with a frayed carpet in widescreens and dissect each and everything to their heart’s content. The consequences are disastrous. There is a scene where the protagonist is having sex with his wife and both of their eyes are grayed out as they are remembering steamier times. All the episodes are set in the future. But each one is relatable, even plausible.

Black-Mirror-In-Memoriam-1

Two weeks back, The Economist did a cover feature on smartphones. Ten percent of the people who use smartphones, it mentions, admit to having used their device while having sex. Around 80 percent turn on their gadgets within 15 minutes of waking up to check messages, read news or for other purposes. Since the past five years, ever since I got my first smartphone, which was a Nokia E63, the first thing I do in the morning is reach out for my phone too. I religiously check my Twitter timeline. Most days, I favourite tweets, which is my way of bookmarking links for future reading.

Yet, each day, at some point or the other, I wonder: What is the point of it all? Of Being overloaded with information about events the world over as they happen or getting all riled up because some people disagree with you online? Why do I need to know if a friend is feeling happy (insert smiley) with her husband on Facebook or not? Of course there is an option to unfollow people on Facebook and mute tweets these days. But the very act and need to be on social-media platforms comes with a lot of baggage that cannot be blocked from one’s view. Information that was supposed to empower us is hard to find. There is simply too much chaff that needs separating from the wheat. The message has gotten lost in the medium.

In admitting it, however, I do not romanticise or long for life in the pre-technological era. Today, even the most basic models of smartphones have more number-crunching capacity than NASA did when men first landed on the Moon in 1969. This makes me value the screen on my hand even more. Going by the flurry of activities on Twitter, minute-by-minute live updates on Facebook, the Viber message tones we often hear on public vehicles and the growing presence and popularity of young people on Youtube, most Nepalis perhaps appreciate their screens too. We are a nation whose screen-obsession is on the rise.

This fixation, nonetheless, could benefit from some scrutiny. For the walnut-like brains on our Facebook timelines are real. Whether they actually need to stay fixated on a screen at all times is debatable.

Is everything around us, the sights and sounds of people, indeed unbearable?

Sometimes, it just makes me sad to note that we have neither the patience to stand nor to stare at anything but our black mirrors.

(The Kathmandu Post, On Saturday, March 21, 2015)

 

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