It is difficult reading newspapers these days or watching the news on TV. News is disproportionately full of stories of terror, wars, and of people killing each other. Between these stories are those of people dying in road accidents, children falling into borewells, or drunken rich kids driving over people instead of on the road.
These events seem to be happening outside us, but we are an integral part of this continuous mayhem through our common use of technology. Almost all the gadgets we use as part of our everyday ‘peaceful’ life have some relationship to violence and war. Today’s wars (and there is a war being fought every minute of the day somewhere or the other in the world) are not only fought on the ground, with lumbering tanks and infantry soldiers. They are fought through communication and digital technologies. As the Gulf War showed, soldiers participated in wars as if they were playing video games.
The gadgets we use everyday — mobiles, laptops and tablets, for example — have all benefitted from research that has been, in one way or the other, linked to military technology. More importantly, it is the impersonal character of technology that makes modern-day war so detached, much like a game being played on a screen, and it is the same impersonal character that is greatly influencing our children and the younger generation.
Sense of alienation
Our fascination for technological gadgets does not seem to be constrained in any sense. I have seen doting parents and grandparents who are proud of two- and three-year-olds who know how to notionally operate their iPads even before they can speak properly. Children in better-off schools are more comfortable with their laptops than with their textbooks. This, in itself, is not a problem but what is a problem is the unthinking use of technology, as if every technological product is a great boon for humankind.
The real problem with these new technologies is the alienation and individualisation that they create in their users. As most middle-class parents would attest, it is becoming more and more difficult for them to conduct conversations with their own children since the kids are either on their phones or on some fancy digital gadget. When children meet each other today, it is not to sit around and talk, or physically play with each other. Rather, it is often a collective sitting around one of their phones or watching a video site.
Being immersed in the world of gadgets, children tend to grow up without knowing how it is to relate to other people without the mediation of such gadgets. A child, and increasingly adults, now relates to another person only if there are common technological markers between them. We are increasingly losing the skill and practice of being with others, just sitting with another, laughing at a joke or even talking about something without it having to be exhibited in a handheld machine. Now kids play cricket and football lounging on their beds without ever knowing what it is to smell dust or get their skin grazed on the ground.
The latest craze of the Pokémon Go game is another illustration of the danger of the unthinking consumption of technology. When you look at hordes of people running around with their phones in their hands, literally searching for ghosts around them, you have to wonder at the state we have come to. Ironically, there are many articles on the positive effects of this obsession. One player claimed that he now goes for walks thanks to this game; another noted that she has discovered the park near her house because of this game. Others argue that this game not only makes people physically active but also makes them more social — as if we need these gadgets to perform these basic human actions.
So what really is the problem in this immersion in the technological world? The first problem is that of autonomy. Scholars have for long argued that one of the central tenets of modern society is the legitimisation of individual autonomy. This autonomy is merely the right of each one of us to reason for ourselves, to decide what we want to do, and to recognise that we are the final judge of our decisions. The greatest danger about technology is the danger to this sense of human autonomy. Those who say that the Pokémon Go game makes them go for walks are basically saying that they cannot on their own decide to go for a walk. One would have thought that deciding to go for a walk is a simple example of autonomous action. But now it is the game that functions as the agency for this decision.
Present-day mental health
Do we really choose our technology in any sense? We, as common people, do not. We have very little choice in creating the technologies that we want. Not only that, personal technologies are so designed so as to make them addictive. Those who believe that technologies are created for the good of humankind must realise that almost no technological product appears in our world today without the motive of profit. We close our eyes to the addictive nature by saying how functional technology is, but our use of technology always transcends the functional. Today, addiction to email, Facebook, the Internet, cell phones and digital gadgets are medical conditions which afflict an increasing number of people leading to new challenges for mental health. And those who are not afflicted as yet are not really too far behind — just imagine how we will respond if our phones, TV and computers stop working as of this moment!
Technologies are a seduction that take us away from dealing with the messiness of relating with other people, that allow us to indulge in our desires without any mediation or control, that give us a sense of power which transcends limitations. In desiring these, in allowing ourselves to be seduced by gadgets that increase the power at our fingertips, we are not asserting our autonomy but merely acting without a sense of responsibility.
Sundar Sarukkai is a philosopher based in Bengaluru.
We close our eyes to the addictive nature by saying how functional technology is, but our use of it always transcends the functional