Digital Sabbath

Greater Kashmir

As if a fate worse than death, during the ‘digital Sabbath’, of days upon days, and months upon months, life was simply challenging. As the authorities completely pulled the plug on telephone and mobile services, minds that had over the years developed certain expectations about distractions and entertainments were suddenly disrupted. The first few days of digital disruption were surprisingly hard and dehumanizing. It was difficult to fight the urges to check technologies you’re not allowed to check. People reached compulsively to pull out their phones to discover/remember that the once-roaring gadgets were dead and gone. Addictive habits were revealed in a striking clarity—-moments of waiting in line, moments between activities, moments of boredom, moments people ached to check in on the favourite people, moments people wanted an escape from, moments people just wanted to ‘look something up’, moments people just needed some diversion from.

As time wore on, the detox symptoms wore off. People began to forget about their phones. Nevertheless, at the slight hint of boredom, some surreptitiously glanced at apps like photo/video albums, camera, clock and time and games. As if a Godsend opportunity to spark a permanent transformation of one’s digital life—-one in which technology serves only a supporting role for more meaningful life—- during the ‘declutter’, people discovered what was important and what they enjoyed outside the world of the always-on shiny digital. They’re surprised to learn the degree to which their digital lives had become cluttered with reflexive behaviors and compulsive tics. Those that successfully cultivated high-quality alternative analog activities (reading books, painting, gardening, visiting relatives/friends, playing outdoor games etc.), eased distraction that the intrusive technology/digital tools enforced.

Phones have become woven into a fraught sense of obligation in friendship. Being a friend means, being on call, tethered to your phone, ready to be attentive, online. During the ‘digital Sabbath’, face-to-face conversation came to be the most human-and humanizing. Fully present to one another we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard/of being understood. That Facebook Messenger/WhatsApp are the easiest way to keep up with friends is true but the lightweight contact with friends during the ‘digital Sabbath’ helped clarify which of these friendships were real in the first place. The value generated by a Facebook comment/Instagram ‘like’, although real, is minor compared to the value generated by an analog conversation or shared-real world activity. As Facebook was barred during the digital gag, the communities evaporated and failed to regroup and fight back. Physical communities with a depth that virtual communities can’t match, if I lie sick in Kashmir my online friend in Mumbai can’t bring me a cup of tea. Imagine how surreal it can feel to invest your newfound time and attention in your family, far less rushed and distracted, with no ear-buds in ears or skipping buttons to tap, when antsy.

The rise of cell phone as a vital appendage is supported by the explanations. But then people born before mid-eighties have strong memories of life without cell phones. They’d use payphones; sometimes the particular persons were there or else they’d leave messages and hoped they got it. Imagine waiting at the phone-booth in the queue of aspirants waiting to use the phone call. Before I finish with my call the person in line behind me slips into the phone booth and I’m still not finished with my call. There was a time and place when such things happened. No phone, no telex, no cell phone, no internet, no nothing. Getting lost in a new city wasn’t a big deal. Parents were comfortable with the idea that when they’re out the babysitter had no easy way to reach them in the case of an emergency.  It won’t be a false sense of nostalgia for the pre-cell phone times.

In 90% of our daily life, mobile phone doesn’t matter (makes things only slightly more convenient). They’re useful but it’s hyperbolic to believe its ubiquitous presence is vital. Life without cell phone is occasionally annoying but it’s much less debilitating as we experienced it during the digital gag. ‘It didn’t hurt us’. Maybe it slightly increased complexity of talking with our family, which we did over Skype; annoyances like one was stuck in the traffic, running late for meeting, or sending an email but the experience was less drastic than we feared. Who knows better than us that the urgency we feel to always have a phone with us is exaggerated? To live permanently without digital devices would be needlessly annoying, but to regularly spend hours on the shiny gizmos is nothing but addictive. Imagine, staring into LED-powered smartphones each night, sometimes for hours together, often with these devices just feet or even inches away from our retinas, and that too minutes before bedtime, leading to an impact on melatonin release and thus ability to time onset of sleep.

As a matter of fact humans have bodies. Technology has been distracting us from our bodies. We’ve been losing our ability to pay attention to what we smell and taste. As we remain absorbed in our smartphones, we’re more interested in what’s happening in the cyberspace than what’s happening down the street. It’s easier than ever to talk people abroad but harder to talk to our children/spouses over breakfast because they’re constantly glued to their smartphones. Unlike our forager ancestors who were always alert and attentive in cherry-picking their foods we do wander supermarket aisles while texting messages and might end up eating our foods in haste in front of screen, checking emails/texting WhatsApp while hardly paying attention to the actual taste. As the days of ‘gag’ are over and people race back to Facebook, to WhatsApp, to their old blogs, they may look up to think why they’re doing it. The months-long digital declutter may soon help us realize that these technologies weren’t actually adding much to our life.