What Technology Takes Away

I left my phone in hostel the other day and on the way to college, my heart stopped and panic took over. One day without a phone! Could I really manage without it? Missed calls, important messages beeping away in an empty room. I cannot live without it, I thought, so I skipped breakfast to get to my pet gadget. The same feeling took my friend over when her Internet subscription expired and she fretted about her dying FarmVille crops and all the updates on Facebook she was missing. “The world is going on without me”, she said. And watching two classmates message each other at a dinner table, just because they had the free messages, I thought: “My God, we can’t live without our gadgets”.

There was once a clear divide between the virtual world and the real world, but that line is getting blurrier everyday. Where social networking once involved meeting up over a cup of coffee or lunch, now we have it online, with virtual coffee and lunch.  Facebook is an addiction, and I have observed students in the same hostel, sometimes even in the same room messaging each other for the lack of anything better to do. One step further is an actual virtual world, where you can be what you aren’t, or what you always wanted to be – cool. So step into a new identity and give yourself an ‘avatar’ and interact with people who think you are what you aren’t. The lines between the virtual world and reality merge together and it becomes difficult for an addict to withdraw from the former and get into the latter.

Still even the virtual world required a computer- until they put the Internet on a gadget that we were addicted to in the first place, the mobile phones. Today, in any given public place, almost everyone is either talking on the phone, texting or simply  fiddling with buttons, even while having a conversation.It gets worse. Pranav Mistry, a PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology is creating technology we can only dream of. Called SixthSense, it is supposed to bridge the gap between the digital and physical world by allowing an individual to project digital information on any physical surface and interact with it using natural hand gestures. All this, using only a projector and tiny camera on a pendant like device. He is also developing ThirdEye technology, which allows the different users to view a screen wearing special glasses and see different images on it. The possibilities are amazing. With SixthSense, imagine being able to pick up information from a book and transfer it to a screen using only a pinching gesture. With ThirdEye, imagine entire families watching the programme of their choice wearing special goggles to see different shows on the same screen, while in the same room.Then imagine this: Two strangers sitting in a train compartment, each concerned only with watching a movie projected on the wall opposite them. No eye contact and no conversation. No curiosity or small talk. Nothing. Imagine an entire family sitting together, bonded only by their physical presence in the room, each smiling or grimacing at their own programme, oblivious to everything around them. The rift between us grows wider even as social networking claims to bring us closer together. SixthSense will only cost about $350 to produce and make it accessible for a wide population. Each owner will be able to project movies on walls, take photos with simple clicking motions and play virtual games on any flat surface. If we thought SMSing prevented prolonged eye contact, here comes another technology which will deflect our attention altogether. People are so fascinated by the concept of interactive technology, that once it spreads like wildfire, there will be hundreds of people clicking away with their fingers and transferring information between different media while forgetting to interact with each other.

Why is it so easy to find and maintain relationships online, at the cost of relationships in real life? Is it because we can’t go offline or erase something we were going to say?  Relationships may go digital, but emotions cannot. Smiley emoticons can’t actually express a smile of joy. It’s just sad to see what we are becoming : humans who talk on the phone for hours, but cannot maintain a face-to-face conversation for more than five minutes. In fact, privacy is vanishing as all conversations go public online. A recent piece in the Hindu explained how an engaged couple fought online with each other, changed their statuses from ‘in a relationship’ to ‘it’s complicated’ and generally embarrassed themselves in front of their circle of friends by airing their dirty laundry in public. Ironically, the friends of the couple were more ashamed than the couple themselves, who believe that it’s all in good humour. However, this strain in a relationship, when taken public seems to indicate deeper problems which could surface later.

Scientists are now trying harder and harder to bring the digital world into the physical world and are even trying to stimulate the five senses in the virtual world to allow us to be completely human there. Will there remain any incentive to face reality any more? I doubt it. Not if a person who has a poor social standing in life can enjoy a cool ‘avatar’ in a website which lets him see, taste, smell and feel a new lifestyle, leading to addiction.  At the other end of the spectrum, Internet-addiction rehab centres are being set up to integrate addicts back into reality and teach them how to connect to real people and situation which don’t go away once they logout of the system.

I think we need that divide between the real and the virtual, so that we can switch off the computer, disconnect the Internet and go outside to face the sunshine, the breeze and the smiles on human faces. As long as it stays intact, so does our ability to actually connect to each other.

Vrinda Manocha

[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rutty/503238148/]