Lawrence Liang reflects on the world’s love affair with the Smartphone.
On a recent trip to Tokyo, I was struck by the number of people travelling on the subway who were glued to their phones and it was difficult to identify more than a handful who were not looking at a screen of some form or the other. While this is not entirely surprising given how technologically determined Japan is, it is an experience that is not entirely alien to us in India either.
A trip on the Delhi Metro also reveals a similar pattern and there are now a number of studies that speculate on the average time that people spend looking at their phones (which range from a conservative three hours to a scary eight hours). What are we to make of the rapid proliferation of screen cultures in our lives which are very different from the classical screens of television or cinema.
Unlike classical screens which were based on there appeal to a wider audience, mobile phones and tablets are primarily personal devices which serve as the new interface through which you connect to the world, and as personal devices they are also our archives of personal memory, desires and anxieties. It is not uncommon to find people extremely anxious if they have misplaced their phones or even forgotten it at home. We find ourselves getting anxious if someone does not immediately reply to a message we have sent them and in that sense a phone is more than a tool of communication, it is an intimate interface which powerfully alters our experience of time, of relationships and our sense of the world.
It is now increasingly difficult to imagine romance before the world of SMS and the idea of a love letter seems alien to an entire generation accustomed to an intimate immediacy. The philosopher Donna Haraway had provocatively suggested that it may make more sense to think of ourselves as cyborgs – a formulation that prophesied a post-human world in which there was no idea of a pure human which was not mediated by some form of technology or the other.
Imagine for instance, a person who depends on spectacles to see properly. Would this person be the same without their glasses or does their subjectivity and their experience of the world change without the prosthetic extension of their eyes? Extending this analogy to the phone as intimate interface, how do we think of our dependence on the phone as the new collective security blanket of our times? Often the desire to look at a phone while waiting in a public place may not even have a functional purpose, but merely because it is what we use to shield ourselves from boredom or from the gaze of the world.
But what happens to our imagination of strangers and of the public sphere if we stop looking at other? Do we, as it seems to be the case in Japan, run the risk of creating a society in which every gaze of a stranger is potentially a hostile or rude one. Richard Sennett famously argued that cities are where strangers meet, a cosmopolitan ideal that runs the risk of being lost in our immersion in screens.
This article was originally published on Daily O
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