SADHVI BHAGAWATI SARASWATI, from Parmarth Ashram, Rishikesh

It’s time to log off, writes SADHVI BHAGAWATI SARASWATI, from Parmarth Ashram, Rishikesh, referring to our increasing dependence and addiction to the virtual world

Iwas speaking at an event recently in the hall of an upscale hotel. On both sides of the stage were the large LED screens that have become ubiquitous at programmes these days.While giving my lecture, I kept looking out into the front rows of the audience to make eye contact. However, as I looked out I could not find a pair of eyes with which to connect. Almost everyone was looking to their left or right,at my projection upon one of the LED screens. There is something so magnetic about these screens that they automatically hijack our attention. We have become programmed and habituated to look to our screens rather than to the real world; it now barely occurs to us to turn our attention to the actual, live person in front of us rather than her magnified projection on an LED.

For Whom The Beep Tolls

Even when we are engaged in another task, not interacting with our phones, not expecting an important call or text, even then, a significant amount of our brain energy is dedicated to anticipating the next beep or buzz from our phones. The McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin,conducted an experiment in which participants had to perform a series of tasks on a computer, tasks that took full concentration. The study showed that those whose phones were in another room performed significantly better than those whose phones were face down on their desks. Simply having their phones within arm’s reach, even upside down and on silent mode, diminished the available cognitive power of the participants.

Given that most of us live, eat and sleep with our phones within arm’s distance, how much of actual life are we missing due to being unconsciously distracted by the mere presence of the device, even when we are not looking at it? And looking at it, of course, actually interacting with it, is even worse…. Our phones have become inherent, and dangerous I believe, aspects of our very identity. We craft and create online identities that project not who we really are but who we would like the world to think we are. Having to curate one identity is hard enough. However, having to curate two identities — a real one and a screen one — is the stuff that daily stress and depression is made of.

It’s now not only ‘Who am I?’ but it’s also become ‘Who should I be online?’ We compare and contrast our real lives with others’ screen lives. We forget that just as we carefully curate our online personas,so do they. Everywhere we look online, others are exuberant. A buttery croissant or cappuccino with a heart drawn in the foam accompanies our friend’s smiling face and her status of ‘very happy.’ Whether she is truly happy and also enjoying a croissant or whether she is sad or tired or bored or confused and using the buttery croissant to numb her emotions — the subtlety is glossed over and what we see is her status of ‘very happy.’ We then, experiencing a deep and pervasive sense of not-good-enoughness, post a picture of ourselves, with perhaps a Monet landscape in our triple soy latte (anything to beat the heart in a cappuccino) and check in as ‘awesome.’ Except that,we are not.

At least not until we get enough likes and comments on our post. Then, a friend or acquaintance who is also struggling,sees our post of unbridled exuberance and feels the same anguish — why is everyone so happy except her? And so the dominoes continue to fall, with each of us projecting that which is not, in order to cover up our insecurity over that which is, and in our simple effort to make ourselves feel better, we all end up perpetuating the very myth that haunted us in the first place: everyone else is happier than we are. The chasm between the real world and the screen world deepens, and we begin to compare ourselves unfavourably not only to our neighbours, friends and co-workers as our parents and grandparents did, but also to our own online identities. We don’t only have to keep up with the Jones or Kardashians. We have to keep up with the very roles we’ve created for ourselves online.

The Innernet & Intranet

As soon as the internet reached mainstream India,my guru began cautioning people,“please remember to stay connected also to the innernet.” And of course we can’t forget the intranet — our real-time, real life connections that are actually much better face-to-face than face-to-screen. Staring at a picture of a sumptuous feast for hours will do nothing to satiate my hunger. In order to be nourished by that food, I must reach through the screen, take it in my hands and carry it to my mouth. In the same way, we may have a lot more screen friends than real friends, and our screen identity may be a lot more exciting than our real identify. But it is those real, tangible connections and real, three-dimensional experiences that deepen our existence. Let’s try, at least every once in a while, to look straight ahead at the full people in front of us rather than let our attention, and lives, be hijacked by our screens.

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