Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Puppet On A String!

Another day of closely watching the impact of technology on human behavior.

As I walked into the eye clinic, I saw the place quite crowded with close to a hundred people, ladies in the left wing of the waiting section and men on the right.

I got myself registered after a long wait. In between registering the patients, the clerk was busy with his smart phone, answering his "whatsapp" messages and sharing the messages with his colleague sitting next to him and both having a laugh. 

As I took a seat after registering, I noticed that the place was absolutely quiet. No one was talking to anybody. The only sound I could hear was that of technology.

A couple of ladies in wheel chair seemed to be just staring into space.Few older men were looking at the program on TV. One man was dabbing his eyes and waiting perhaps for the eye dilation. Everyone else seemed to be hunched over their smart phones or note pads or tabs, some poking with their index finger, some with both their thumbs and some just swiping the index finger left, right, up & down.

Now and then I could hear the sound of the default whistle notification ring tone. There was a time when whistling was considered to be an act of indecency, even a crime. Even pursing the lips in the shape of whistling was considered as a sin. By mistake if you are caught whistling, then you had it. But how times have changed! The whistle ring tone does not bother anyone these days. It is cool! A definite sign that you are using a smart phone!

There were two girls smartly dressed in some kind of a uniform, must be in the security services, intently hunched over a "tab". The one holding the "tab" was vigorously swiping across the screen, as if she was playing some game (maybe “candy crush saga”!). The other girl was having a tough time containing herself from having a go at the screen. The girl playing the game paused just for a moment, then the other girl could not resist anymore, she swiped across the screen. It was so amusing to see the two enjoying themselves!

Three adults, two men and a woman, sat huddled close together. No prize for guessing what they were doing! Each was bent over, busy with their smart phones. They reminded me of a famous three-some!

An old man sat by himself with a small phone held close to his eyes. He seemed to be playing some kind of a game, I could hear the "plop, plop" sound. After some time, as of his hands were tired, he hunched over, almost doubling himself up, with the phone on his lap. Finally, the game ended or he got tired, he put his phone in his pocket, then he looked at the TV, squinted, put one hand across the left eye, then the right, then put his head on one arm and heaved a long tired breath.

The whole scenario looked quite unnatural especially for a place from these parts where people have been known for their social and civil behavior. There were hundred odd people in the room and yet during the whole time I sat there, no one was aware of or even cared to know who was sitting next to them! No one greeted anybody. Maybe, it is a good thing that everybody was minding their own business not prying into others business. But then, whatever happened to the good old “civil or social human interaction”! I realized how chill the place was, not because of the air conditioning, but because of the deafening "sound of silence"!

From time immemorial, inventions and technological developments have played a big role in our lives, bringing personal comfort and economic and social development. There is no doubt that if used properly, technology will continue to serve humanity. 

But it is the misuse or improper use or the addiction that is really scary! The scariest of them all is how our social behavior has gone through such a drastic change since the invention of "personal devices"! 

Years ago, I had the good fortune of working with a Plastic Surgeon as one of the co-consultants for a hospital project. We hired his services to strengthen our experience in the "medical domain". When I went to receive him at the airport, I saw him standing outside the arrival lounge totally tilted to one side. He looked as if he was in some kind of pain or discomfort. As I walked closer, I noticed that he had a laptop hanging on his left shoulder. Those days, the laptops were quite heavy, weighing few kilos. His left shirt pocket was sagging under the weight of his PDA, which was again a very heavy thing. He was tilting to his right side, desperately trying to balance the load of the gadgets on his left shoulder and his left shirt pocket.

I felt very sad for this man, standing there sweating and looking very tired and obviously in pain. It made me wonder, do we really have to carry a yoke around our necks, however exciting and fantastic the gadgets may be!

With the advent of smart phones and online social networking, social interaction has moved from the "one-on-one personal domain" to the "virtual domain" and how it has moved, it is quite sad! The elders cannot give any advise anymore on how to behave in this virtual domain. They used to advice "not to talk to strangers"! But that advise does not matter anymore! It is all about having more and more "friends" in your network, does not matter even if it is a stranger. You cannot even be sure that the person is really who he or she claims to be. Anything goes in the name of "networking"!

Popularity is based on the number of people you have in your network and how many of these friends are following you. According to a study released late last year, about one in five users were willing to add a complete stranger as a friend on social networks. 

There is no doubt that the Internet and social networking has more good than bad! The speed at which communication takes place is incredible! We can instantly get in touch with our friends and loved ones, communicating and sharing unforgettable moments through text and pictures. But it is the obsessive nature and how it has altered our social behavior that is attaining scary proportions!

Today's technology is so compulsive, so pervasive, so invasive and so intrusive, we seem to have lost total control over ourselves. One blogger compares people's addiction to social web sites to "Pavlovian Dog Response". The very sight of the smart phone makes us want to check our status on the social web site, just as a dog starts drooling at the sight of the food bowl or any other such stimulus. This response seems to be affecting people at work quite adversely.

Fred Stutzman, a software developer, created an application called "Anti-Social" to combat his "time wasting" habit. He realized that every time he wanted to check something on Wikipedia, one page turned into two to five to 10, and then end up spending hours learning about things but not necessarily getting his work done. When he came to know that many like him were suffering from the "time wasting disorder" and were desperately looking for help, he made "Anti-Social" software into a successful commercial product.

Some people seem to be endlessly obsessed with themselves by posting pictures of self. Psychiatrists and mental health workers are linking excessive addiction to posting of photographs of self and addiction to "selfies" to mental health conditions related to narcissism (excessive obsession with one's looks). Some experts are linking such behavior to "Body Dysmorphic Disorder". According to an expert,  “selfie-ing” is a sure sign of how lonely the person is!

Some social web sites and other experts provide tips and guidelines on safe and ethical usage of internet and social web sites. But they will not tell you anything that would affect their business. After all, their business thrives on the number of users subscribing and getting “hooked” to their technology and applications. They cannot afford to scare away the users talking about bad things that could happen.

In one of her recent talks, a "User Experience Master" of one of the social media companies, says that one of the things required to design applications for the Internet is the "audacity" to believe that the thing being designed is what the entire world wants and needs, to live better lives! Simply, amazing! How can someone sitting in some corner of the world, know what the entire world needs? The plain truth is, most of today's corporations just churn out stuff to get maximum number of people hooked to their applications and they grow and grow. There is no need to attribute any philosophical justification behind it!

Our social behavior seems to be determined and controlled by few handful corporations. It is very sad, but with their so called "smart devices" and "cool apps" these companies have got us by the scruff of our necks, dangling like a "Puppet on a String"! They pull the strings, we dance!

These are our new masters, the modern pied pipers. They play the tune, we follow them like hordes of mice. They tell us that it is cool to behave the way they design the applications and we accept them, we feed and gorge on their hype.

A new idea has been brewing since few years to connect "everything" to the Internet. It seems to be quite close to becoming a reality. As if it is not enough that they got us by our throats by giving us the smart-phone, perhaps now they want to get their hands on our television, our refrigerators, the coolers, the cooker and everything else in the house, may be even the combination to the door and the "safe". The day may not be very far when we will have a "numbered micro chip" embedded in our bodies to be part of the "things" connected to the Internet!

During the eighties, I watched a science fiction movie called "blade runner". The story was about few "mega corporations" manufacturing genetically engineered "replicants" endowed with extraordinary powers. These "replicants" were so close to humans, it was difficult to distinguish them from humans. Only special police operatives known as "Blade Runners" could identify them through special interrogation techniques by monitoring retinal movements in response to questions.

While the very concept of that movie sounded quite dark and scary, today's situation looks much more scary! The way they have been successful in altering the human behavior, could it be a grand plan of some mega corporations to turn humans into "submissive robot-like things"!! Considering the way we are ceasing to exercise our wisdom and our individuality and becoming slaves of technology, it looks quite a possibility.

From time to time the world has experienced and survived behavioral changes, some fascinating, some crazy, some abnormal and some outright scary. The world survived the hippies, their concept of "free love" and their LSDs, the long hair, the tight pants, the pointed shoes, the pedestal shoes, and the bell bottoms (I shudder when I see some of my old photographs! How did we wear those things!).

Can the world survive this so called "social" menace? Only time will tell....or will it!


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