Where will we go from here?

Managing our multiple selves and their social lives takes time. {{name}}
01 January, 2010

WHEN MY GRANDFATHER was a young man in Bengal, life still revolved around agriculture—for him, and for most other people. His time was reckoned by the seasons, not office deadlines. He owned land and ponds and a big house. But it had no television, telephone, computer, or electricity. He didn’t own a car; they had been a recent invention and were extremely rare in South Asia. He never took a flight in his life.

My father saw the arrival of these technologies, but he never really took to them. He barely uses the mobile phone, and doesn’t use the computer or Internet. He stuck to the same job his entire life, in the same town. My days are completely different from my grandfather’s, and substantially different from my father’s. I am less rooted, less patient. Better informed? Yes, but perhaps not any wiser.

According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, the entire history of human civilisation is about 10,000 years, or 400 generations. I suspect the changes in everyday lives in the past three generations rival the combined total of the previous 300. The rate of change goes up every passing year.

Looking back to a decade ago, I realise that I did not have many of the things indispensable to my life today. It was the turn of the millennium. The world had just recovered from its biggest hangover in a thousand years. The New Year of 2000 had arrived rather less spectacularly than we expected so most of us made up for it with a few extra drinks. All the media scare about the fearsome Y2K bug and other agents of millennial destruction had proved unfounded. No ATMs spewed out money of their own accord, the computers worked just fine, and no giant wave crashed in from the sea. The last would happen, as suddenly as life and death, years later.

Back in 1999, not everyone had mobile phones. The ones who did, at least in South Asia, were seen as rich show-offs. They flaunted models that looked like police walkie-talkies. These were made like bricks, and could be used to knock people out. The Internet was still new and exciting; almost no one I knew had a home connection. But if you did? Guaranteed cool. There was no Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. No Blackberry either. Blogs had just arrived but no one I knew then had one.

Laptops were rare, too. Young people hung out at cybercafés (and pool parlours), where chat sites were the hot new thing. People would enter virtual chat rooms under assumed names, and pop an “a/s/l” at a stranger who might be anywhere in the world—or in the next cubicle. Sometimes that person in the next cubicle would be a friend pretending to be someone exciting from the other end of the world, and much fun was had at the victim’s expense.

Through the intervening decade, hardware and software have been hard at work disseminating information and connecting people. The inventions of the last decade affected a huge mass of people in a way few previous technologies did. We’re only beginning to fathom some of the unintended consequences of these technologies that affect us at the level of relationships, emotion and thought.

To me, the ghostly presence of unseen others is the most important consequence. With a mobile phone or an internet connection at hand, we are never alone. This aspect of technology is as useful for beating loneliness as it is an impediment to togetherness. Until a few years ago, we could share our thoughts with only one friend at a time, on the phone or in person. Now two people lying next to each other might be together only physically, engaged in conversations with many other people through the many devices of communication, turning all those people into an indiscriminate mass. We’re all becoming split personalities, present in more than one place at the same time, distributing versions of us to Facebook, Twitter, blogs and so on. Managing those multiple selves and their social lives takes time. The time that might otherwise have lain fallow, allowing us to experience true leisure. We are either busy or bored.  Even our leisure is full of activity. A growing restlessness is within us, which manifests itself in shrinking attention spans and an increasing superficiality in all things. In our hyperlinked world, we are forever jumping from site to site, both literally and metaphorically. We flip TV channels, browse through posts, updates, articles and videos on the Internet and constantly check our mobile phones—often all simultaneously.

I wonder where it’ll go from here. Back in 1989 or 90 I had read a powerful book called Necromancer by a man I had not heard of at the time, William Gibson, who talked of strange things. His book’s main character, Case, gets his ‘brain-computer interface’ damaged as punishment for stealing so he can’t access the matrix of cyberspace. I had never heard those words before. Most people hadn’t. The Internet as we know it didn’t exist. The Matrix film series was still ten years away.

2009 saw the birth of a technology that reminded me of William Gibson’s cyberpunk vision—Sixth Sense. Invented by an Indian named Pranav Mistry, it integrates real and virtual worlds more closely than ever before. Using Sixth Sense, you can make a call without a phone, or access the Internet without a computer or Blackberry. You project keyboards using light wherever you please and use that as a phone or a computer. You can, say, use your palm to make a call by projecting a phone keypad on it. Or look up Google. You can also take photos and videos using your hands, or drag and drop text and images from paper straight onto a computer. It sounds like magic, and it is.

I can imagine some of the consequences of this Sixth Sense. It will integrate the physical and digital worlds just as Mistry intends. It will also integrate the real and virtual worlds. Our selves may get more deeply split in the process. It may seem rather obvious, but existence in the real world is not optional if one is to remain alive. However, when the virtual world acquires a more ‘real’ physical existence, the ‘me’ who is a robot soldier in an online role playing game, or a farmer in Farmville, or a hooker in Second Life, will also become, correspondingly, more real. When that happens, I may not know who I really am anymore.