"Ahem! Attention please"
said Mrs. Swarup in a feeble voice. But the class fell silent. She was one of those teachers that commanded fear and respect. She never had to shout to get attention.
She called out my name, and said, "Will you please stand up?"
I hesitantly stood up, wondering what I had done this time. I was used to this. There had been times when I was asked to sit next to the teacher so that I would not distract the class too much. This time surely can't be worse than those days.
As I stood up, the teacher started, "I asked you to write an essay on pollution in the mid-term exams."
My brain started whirring, "Oh no, this is about that. Why did I write all those silly things?"
The teacher continued, "Almost all of you wrote about air pollution, water pollution, sound and light pollution during Diwali. But he wrote about hoardings that are springing up all over the city. It's a form of visual pollution. He saw something contemporary and inserted it in the essay, bringing in a fresh perspective."
Public praise was as embarrassing as public shaming. Maybe, I turned red. How would I know? But I was happy that she noticed what I wrote in all that illegible mess.
I had read about the billboards in the newspaper a few days before the test and thought to include it in the essay. Some trees had to be chopped off so that they didn't block the view of the billboards. And reading about it made the 14-year-old me more than a little angry. How come something that benefits everyone is cut down to make room for something that distracts everyone?
The underlying assumption of allowing billboards next to highways, is that we don’t need our full attention while driving. It’s like a statement from the government that goes,
“Hey! Have a look at this photoshopped image of a 21-year-old. Keep her in mind, while making your next purchase decision. What? Focus on the road? Nah, it’s okay. You don’t need to give a hundred percent attention to the road.”
But I am not talking about driving here. We are moving towards a paradigm, where our attention is being drawn away to our phone, every free second that we have. We have notifications that pop-up throughout the day. Then there’s our own tendency to seek instant gratification by scrolling through the Instagram feed, or the "Explore" section. Magellan, Vasco Da Gama and Marco Polo were explorers. The Explore section of any social media should be called - “Distract to the point we go numb”.
And here’s the point where I am going to enter a speculative mode, and let my thoughts run a bit wild. If I have food, clothing, shelter, social comfort, and social security, then why do I yearn for a distraction? Why am I willing to let someone draw away my attention?
It’s possibly because we too are trying to seek a little attention to ourselves through all the social media app. And if we don’t give the attention back to the internet community, how can we expect to receive it? Quid pro quo. But then the question is why are we seeking the attention of the internet community?
Are the moments I experience joyful, only when others approve of it? The taste and feel of a frozen dessert on my tongue cannot be captured by the camera. So, why is it important to share those images on social media? The love I have for my partner can’t be captured in a video. So, why must everyone else know where I am celebrating my fifth anniversary?
Let’s go back four thousand years to Egypt. Ancient Egyptian art style is so unique that if I were to show you an Egyptian painting, you would instinctively know it comes from that era. I like to think they were the first comics, and also the first memes. Documenting human lives are intricately linked to the growth of a civilization. Documenting in conformity to the rules of the era ensures the preservation of the document.
The quest for immortality and afterlife – the notion that we can outlive our mortal body, appealed to the Pharaohs of Egypt. The greatest monuments and art were built in pursuit of this immortality. Hundreds of thousands of slaves toiled so that a few kings could become immortal. Of course, we got the grand pyramids as a result. But I wonder if the workers who toiled ever dreamed of becoming immortalized themselves.
I wonder if that is what we are seeking for ourselves, by documenting everyday moments of our lives. Is social media democratizing this “immortality”? Each one of us can be Pharaohs. As long as Facebook servers live, so shall a part of us, a memory of us.
The price of the immortality of the Pharaohs was paid for by the workers who actually spent time toiling in the Egyptian sun. The cost of our own immortality, however, comes out of our own time. It’s ironic that we are being encouraged to live in the moment, on a platform designed to ensure we are distracted from the moment. And maybe, it is all so that a part of us can live long after our bodies are dust.
If there’s one thing that’s common for every single individual ever born, it is the number of hours we have in a day. That much is common between a Pharaoh and an ordinary fellow like me and you. Almost all of us spend a part of our day tending to the basic necessities, like eating food, drinking water and pooping poop. Then there’re activities that help us feel secure in the long term, like working to save resources for the future. And lastly, we need leisure and entertainment to escape from the pain, that is intrinsic to humanity.
For most of history, a time of the day has been clearly demarcated for each of these three types of activities. But over the last decade it has all fused together. We can receive work calls at any time of the day. We can enjoy entertainment on phone at any time of the day. And I don’t know about you, but I take my phone to the loo, and it is right next to my bed when I go to sleep. So, even my daily routine is intermingled with work and entertainment.
Social media and cell phones have, of course, been beneficial to us in so many ways. It has brought you and me together. It helps me connect to an idea originating on the other side of the globe and see how I can adapt it to my life. It helps us focus on our niche interests, rather than do what everyone else is doing in our physical neighbourhood.
My point isn’t that social media or cell phones are bad. But we need to make rules and etiquettes for something that is so ubiquitous. The Pharaohs or any of the kings that followed never had to deal with any device as ubiquitous as a cell phone. So, the burden of making such rules fall upon us. Here’s a few starting points I would like to list down for the benefit of society.
- We need to make a me-time. For some time in the day, the phone must be switched off. Or maybe, for the entire weekend! I can feel you groan, just at the thought of it.
- When a group of friends meet after a long time, the first one to take out their cell phone should be given birthday bumps. People physically present in front of you – friends, family, partner, girlfriend, boyfriend, children, parents – should take precedence over those who are not physically present.
- If a person checks their phone more than 20 times a day, then an emergency contact should be automatically notified that they need help.
To sum up, pay attention to yourself, your personal growth and the growth of your loved ones. Make some rules around phone usage that helps you benefit from it, without it taking a toll on your mental health and growth.
Thank you for giving me your attention!
The next letter would be out on 19th June. Hope you get sufficient me-time by then.
- Big Boo
P.S. - I read all the comments you wrote under the last post. Unfortunately, I am unable to reply to the comments here. Maybe, I will move the blog to a different system, where it is easier for you to share your views and for me to respond as well.