Never have we been as connected as we are today. From the age of snail mail to the age of email, from the world of trunk calls to the world of Skype and FaceTime, from having a handful of close friends to having thousands of followers … we've certainly come a long way.
But at what cost ?
A cursory look at the news each day paints a frightening picture. Devastating acts of violence and savagery seem to be the new normal. The causes espoused by the perpetrators are many but the destruction they leave behind the same. A desire to hurt and cause pain to the largest number seems to be the driving force behind these acts. And while the fig leaf of ideology provides a good smoke screen, dig a little deeper and a different picture emerges … a sense of alienation seems to be the common underpinning for these acts of violence.
In our rapidly changing world many feel invisible despite the barrage of photographs they post, unheard despite the tweets they send out, isolated despite the crowds they chat with. Is anybody really listening to the other, seeing the other? Have emojis and icons replaced face-to-face conversation? Does anybody see beyond the glossy facade of the online persona to the real person beneath.
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Lost in this impersonal world, it's easy for people seeking some form of personal connection and identity to fall prey to groups that give them a false sense of belonging. Easier still to manipulate these vulnerable and lonely outsiders into committing acts of horror. A profile of recent perpetrators of mass killings show most as being social misfits and loners led astray by their sense of alienation from the communities they live in rather than by any ideological persuasion.
Then, of course, there are the others for whom the concept of empathy is nonexistent. Subsisting on a diet of violence, pornography and other depravity, these desensitized denizens of the virtual world see no great leap in translating the violence and gore glorified on their screens to the streets around them. A life lived online seems to have blunted their ability to see the people around them as more than just animated figures in an online game on whom they can act out their perversions.
And while we may like to dismiss these cases as extremes, we cannot deny that in our own homes and lives we are seeing the intrusion of the long arm of technology.
Families seated around a dining table are more often than not in conversation with their devices than with each other. Young people spending an evening together seem to be more involved in communicating with those not around than those present. Little children watching their parents glued to their phones seem destined to do as they see and not as they're told. The result of this absorption with the virtual world can be seen in the loosening of our bonds with our families, neighborhoods and communities.And so what, if anything, is to be done? Eschewing technology and turning into Luddites would of course be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. For we cannot deny that technology has been a boon in many facets of our life. But surely some form of moderation and self-regulation are required before we turn into automatons with our hands and eyes permanently glued to our screens.
Perhaps like the periodic detoxes we undergo to improve our physical well-being, a daily digital detox … time away from all our devices, is the answer. Perhaps it's time to shut down, time to go offline, time to disconnect so that we can connect better with each other.
(The author is a writer based in Kochi. This column will appear every alternate Wednesday)