This article was written before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world.
Before I got totally hooked, unable to stay lucid without three or four hits a day, the main draw was how it made me feel: #smooth, #woke, rather #cool. But then, within just a year, I needed stronger, more frequent shots and Instant Nescafe never satisfied me properly again. I moved to Davidoff and soon afterwards became a regular at my neighbourhood Costa, where I’d buy a short mocha everyday. #notinstantcoffee #instacoffee
When too many Costas in Delhi began to close down, I became uneasy. I decided I had to have the next best thing. So, amid searches for exotic Peruvian dishes and protein shakes that claimed to grow muscles with minimal physical effort, I got Googling for substitute options. And there were so many. In addition to the old Café Coffee Day and Barista, there was Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Blue Tokai and Sleepy Owl.
And, of course, there was Starbucks. Even though it’s not my first choice, it’s where I’m now, standing in line between a guy flipping through Tinder profiles and a girl furiously WhatsApping, while I myself scroll down my Facebook News feed: each one of us scratching the surface of our most recently acquired appendage in this present state of human advance.
There’s an anti-Donald Trump article in the New York Times and another one about our government’s accomplishments in the Economic Times. (Information, opinion, misinformation, there is so much of it all these days and it’s hard to tell which is which, particularly when you can’t even bother to click on a headline.) Then a round of pouty selfies of a boy flexing his gym-fresh muscles. And then an article linked by my mother on the powers of Pranic Healing.
It’s all pretty standard, expected, not exceptional, but nevertheless I carry on scrolling.
Ah! Finally, something interesting: a video on Dan Dan noodles. What deft blade strokes! The sizzle of garlic frying in a wok, the on-point delivery. I am rapt.
You see, I’m food obsessed. So much so that if you were to ask my friends they’d tell you, “He takes pictures of all his meals.” (Not true! I take one only every couple of days.) And can you really blame me given that my phone, which knows things about me better than I myself do, is always on hand? Like it knows I can’t stop myself from clicking on food related thingies (reviews, pictures, recipes) and so it fills my virtual space with them, all the time. And I think I’m quite normal in this regard, too. Seriously. Because nowadays everybody has a ‘thing’ and it just so happens that mine is food.
It’s my turn and I look up. “Sir, would you like Tall or Grande?”
They never suggest the smallest option. “The smallest, please.”
“Do you have a Starbucks card?”
“If you get a Starbucks card…”
I’ve been through this routine hundreds of times before and I hold up my phone. “Look! I have Zomato and I collect points at Nando’s. I’m a member of EatTreat, Food Talk India and two other groups. I think that’s enough.”
I don’t mention that I also follow Buzzfeed and Gobble on Facebook, Foodwishes and Maangchi on Youtube, and get glimpses of Nigella and Gary Mehigan on my Instagram feed. And since I saw Chef’s Table on Netflix, of Ivan Orkin too.
The server laughs and I go back to tapping my computerised limb. “Sir, your name?”
But before I can answer, I have a flash of truth – it is the kind that can come only in my present state, overpowered as I am by the smell of coffee and perfume, my eyes and ears brimming with electronic chatter – and it is that we, we urbanite millennials, all want the exact same things in life.
And they aren’t contentment, tranquility or inner peace.
Oh, no. We want frothy cappuccinos, sharp beard-cuts and the smartest phones.
I exhale. Then I do something peculiar and with no apparent reason: I lie. I make up a false name for Starbucks. And as I’m doing this, I wonder: Is this a latent emotion rising up, resisting the quotidian banalities pervading my world? Or is it just an eccentric streak born out of some new anxiety? I don’t know. What I do know is that sometimes it gets too much: this all-overtaking virtual reality. Our corporate-run, technology-driven, increasingly standardised world.
I had a discussion with a friend about it recently; the state of these weird, transitional times. (It was one of those heady late-night conversations which on reflection reveal something deep. Perhaps.) I said that our generation, the eighties-and-afterwards-born, are special (and by special, I mean screwed) because we’re at this never-seen-before precipice. We’re perilously close to losing what makes us, us.
This super Apped-up age? It’s a game-changer in much the same way the arrival of gun-wielding colonisers was for indigenous peoples. Maybe even more so. Because although we know more about the imminent dangers looming before us, we’re lulled into complacency. We’re more informed, but we’re less cognisant. We’ve become self-absorbed, more arrogant. (Climate Change. We say, but when? The rise of AI. But how big a rise?)
The main counterpoint was that we are no different to how our parents were in their youth; that what’s merely changed is the outward form of expression, the mode of outlet. We didn’t have the internet before, sure, but we’ve always had obsessions and celebrities, if not television then magazines. That hipster beards are as in vogue now as Dev Anand-hairstyles were back then; that fads and addictions are as old as humanity itself. And that even though we’re transitioning to a more uniform global culture (A flat white with a side of wifi, please!) from a local one (chai or lassi?), people remain people.
This is true. But the difference now is that our outer environment has changed so fundamentally – and is primed to change ever-more still – that it is changing us in unexpected ways, too. And as we zoom irrevocably down this track, it would be quite unfortunate, wouldn’t it, if we saw only doors to technological illumination, remaining blind all the while to the growing voids and disquietudes lurking in our wake?
Take for instance this present moment. I’m at a chain which can be found from Taiwan to Buenos Aires, at an outlet I found through Google Maps and then got to by Uber, and once here I buy a gimmicky drink – pumpkin-spice-latte – simply because it’s being promoted. I feel cosmopolitan. But even as I get a sugar rush, I’m blind to another truth: my food choices are being dictated to me. No. It’s more. This world order? It’s redesigning me, it’s re-engineering society.
And if this is not an Inception – a Hollywood film about implanting an idea into a person’s subconscious – of the mind, then what is? Crucially, if this is happening today, then is it really preposterous to conceive a reality in which multinationals and their technologies will have become so powerful that my individuality would get downgraded to a level tending towards redundancy?
I admit I’ve watched all of Black Mirror – a Netflix series that envisages a future in which the virtual and the real have become virtually indistinguishable – so you might say I’m a touch hyperbolic. But, in fact, analysts like Yuval Harrari have prophesised a world not far from this. Indeed, Harrari thinks that in times to come, algorithms might take away many exclusively human jobs. When that happens, not if, States may have to give Universal Basic Incomes to their citizens. (Perhaps one day, the concept of the Nation State itself might become obsolete, so global are the problems we’re facing today.)
Already on social media, videos autoplay themselves (The ‘play’ button? Gone.) while ads, including ones, absurdly, on how to meditate, bombard us persistently, more pointedly. I make bookings and Google knows where I’m vacationing before my mother does.
But yet, I’m unfailingly reminded of my value because everybody wants my opinion, my rating. Restaurants want it, Uber wants it. Even WhatsApp wants it after every phone call. Meanwhile, the server at this Starbucks doesn’t remember my face and it’s my fourth day in a row here. At least I don’t think he does. Because he talks like an automaton and wants me on yet another network. And I can’t blame him, either. Really. I’m pretty damn bad myself. Not only have I bought his pitch, I’m already contemplating whether to post an image on Instagram.
#weirddrink. There. Insta-story, done. I do feel better.
So, where was I? Yes. My virtual stories are snappier, click-baitier, but all my speedy connectivity has come at the cost of my attention. My brain, too used to hooks, is fried. I find I’m frequently distracted, in need of perpetual hits, whether sugary or electronic. When a conversation is less than stimulating, my mind naturally wanders. Within minutes, my hand goes into my pocket and I move vacuously from app to app. I’m scratching an itch that only grows, but never goes away.
Then, when I make eye-contact again, I’m thinking that I’d rather be watching Breaking Bad at home than engage with this meaningless talk. And when I do, for the third time, I can’t even do it with focus because Netflix is continually suggesting newer, more exciting series to watch, to binge. And if I don’t watch them, then how can I keep up with my peers and my times? (Never mind the side windows I have open: Skype, Gmail, Booking.com, Restaurant-Week deals. Porn.)
Once, when I lost my phone I went into panic mode. It has my pictures, my videos, my voice notes, my typed notes, you see. It has my life and it wasn’t backed up online! When I found it, mercifully, sleeping between the pages of a novel, I sighed with relief.
But it was in that moment that it also came to me. My electronic bookmark? It had grabbed me more powerfully than the protagonist in the novel had. If I had to define ‘friendship’ solely by how bored I got of somebody, my phone was already my best friend. And if this was the case, then is it long before it becomes my lover, as shown in the movie Her? Might people one day have romantic relationships with humanoids as they do in the futuristic Swedish show Real Humans? I believe neither of these two scenarios are in the realm of fantasy – in France, Zora, a robot, is at the centre of an experiment to provide care to the elderly (Carers noticed that patients developed an emotional attachment to the thing, treating it like a baby, giving it kisses on the head.) and in China, the first AI news anchor went live in November 2018.
So how do we – always making selfie poses for a space which paradoxically prizes #nofilter pictures – stop from becoming crass simulations of our real selves? How can we bridge the widening chasm between our joyful projections and hollow inner realities? It’s quite sad, isn’t it, the way we edit and chop ourselves, uploading only our finest versions, our best smiles? We end up looking so perfect that we manage to appear just wrong to everybody else. And yet, yet we continue to race untrammelled down this road lined with dopamine hits because the more we like, the more “likes” we get. Because we keep vanity scorecards. Because we track our followers and detractors. Because we need constant validation in a culture in which everybody, every network, craves our attention.
In one Black Mirror episode, we see a place in which our social-media obsession is taken to a-not-illogical extreme: a place where everybody can rate everybody else on a scale from 1 to 5, based even on a single interaction. And your image, it affects real-life. You want to rent a car? The car-rental can see the rating your ‘friends’ gave you. You want a plane seat with leg-room? The airline can reject your request based on how brightly you smile to strangers.
Creepy? Certainly. But is such a reality beyond the realm of the plausible, considering that China is in the process of putting in place a form of mass surveillance that uses big data analysis technology? Is it too incredible to picture an India in which your Aadhaar details might be linked to your social media handles?
I have another sip of my latte and click on Amazon. Having watched three separate videos for Dan Dan noodles, a dish I’ve never had before, I’m now trying to source Yai Cai, Chinese fermented veggies. See, we inhabit a radically different world from our parents, never mind theirs. Even if our essence is the same, our wants and supplies have multiplied mind-bogglingly. Unlike my mother, who had no idea what pasta was until she was 45 and remains content with just daal-roti, and my father, who despite enjoying MasterChef, has no taste for any cheese other than Amul, my tastes are massively wider; my choices as unbounded as the internet.
But still I want more. I want better. And though on the one hand my materialistic pursuits fill me with exhilaration, on the other I sometimes feel like I’m approaching a point of never-satiation.
Isn’t it weird I feel this way in a time of instant gratification?
Even though my inter-webbed zeitgeist has imbued me with tastes for foreign movies, not least given me transnational friendships I’d never have made in a smaller, less-connected world, I often experience a background hum of anxiety. A creeping isolation. At times, it feels as though I’m staring into a deepening kaleidoscope of superficial infinities, approaching a zero end-game. And the funny thing is I’m not even sure if these fleeting sensations amount to anything real. Because although I’m quick to type, my range of insight has shrunk. My breadth of language has narrowed. I guess one could say, but languages aren’t static things. They’re continually evolving creatures that take on the colour of the atmosphere in which they breathe. And that’s fine.
But isn’t it worth examining the possibility that our world itself might be making us numb? Maybe I dwell in a dystopia in which our techno-global paradigm has expunged deeper shades of expression in favour of an expanding horde of ‘textspeak’? Maybe this new dialect is choking incipient ideas from finding their fuller expression, a deeper meaning? Lingering, thoughtful moments with their stray strands, the seed of understanding, have been lost to eyeball-grabbing captions. A drift of a cloud, staring at it, marvelling at its shape, its shadow… it’s all going, going, gone, reduced now to the abbreviation #cloudporn. I guess it’s only a matter of time before the eye-roll emoticon enter the dictionary, too?
Don’t get me wrong. For all my vigorous lamentation, I’m glad to live now than at any time in the past. Truly. All I’m saying is that if our existential questions are unchanging – particularly so – isn’t it all the more vital that we fight to preserve our humanness in this era in which computers impinge on everything, from what to watch (What’s on Netflix? is already the new what-movie-is-out?), to how to date (Download. Use. Delete. Then repeat.)?
I know what you’ll say. I do. You’ll say there’s an obvious way out. I could exercise self-restraint. I could unplug, go to the Himalayas, do a Vipassanā course. And I know this would help. Of course. When I cut off from social media for just two months, I found my time off, or rather my time ‘here’, both edifying and enlightening. I became more productive, more sociable. I needed less caffeine.
But then, what happened? I got told off for ignoring messages, missing events. And so I came back. (Now in hindsight I can honestly say I returned because I couldn’t deal with the FOMO. I couldn’t be that solo wayward fish. I had to rejoin my shoal. There is comfort in knowing that if I’m alienated, so are you; that we’re all swimming into the abyss, together.)
Another time, on a two-day trip to the hills when I had no wifi, I experienced that rare thing called a connection with nature. A lake of mist rolled out above in the morning and chevrons of birds flitted across a crimson sky in the evening. I felt uplifted in some curious, lasting way. I was rooted. I was inside a movie. But then, by the afternoon of the second day, the story got old and my phone photo-full. The hills stirred alive with the sound of unread notifications. I had anxiety. And it didn’t help that the instant Bru at the lodge sucked. When I got 3G, for minutes, I was restless because my pictures were taking too long to upload.
Really, how long can one be spellbound by just the sky and earth? I needed a bloody hit!
A new song wafts over the speakers. It’s catchy and I Shazam it (‘Instant Crush’, by Daft Punk), then save it to my playlist. When I exit the cafe, ears-blocked, pollution mask on, a new place meets my eye. Where once I saw lots of men playing cards in the park, through a haze of smoke, I now see a collection of screens. (Screens being scratched by their human attachments! The woke peeps phone-walking to zombieland!) In Tokyo, some years ago, I saw commuters immersed in their gadgets, their faces masked, and I laughed. But now I see the same sight here: in the Metro, on the street, everywhere. More games, less cards. More noise, less real conversation.
The article on Pranic Healing has received many comments. One person is interested in learning about meditation techniques and another chimes in with the benefits of Reiki. The two political pieces, too, in the NYT and ET respectively, have received many reactions. In the US, there’s a war of words between Trump critics and supporters. At home, there’s the same thing happening between pro and anti-government internet warriors. And I wonder, perhaps I’m overreacting? Conceivably our need to engage, to fight, is but a kind of silver-lining to this burgeoning app-cloud? Because even though technology might sprint on at its own pace from above, on the ground below we’ll remain primal beings.
No matter how international we strive to be, we can’t resist the pull of tribal loyalties, tastes. I can get everything from Italian to Thai, but there’s nothing like the pure taste of masala. (Even if I sometimes pretend to enjoy it with jasmine rice.)
Also read: Why Do Our Brains Love Instagram?
No matter how many facts one throws around, it’s the tug of emotion that ultimately sways my decision. Is it really bizarre then that in this age of instant texts hoaxes have triggered riots and lynchings? We think, how odd that fake news spreads like fire when verifiable information abounds. But is it odd, really?
Maybe at our core, we’re just as impulse-driven as our grandparents. Maybe, I haven’t lost anything at all. Just as they had to adjust to a world changed by the spread of television and radio, one in which the National rapidly turned into ‘your local’, I’ve to grapple with one in which the lines between the external and the internal are constantly interacting, blurring, clashing. Transforming. Perhaps the question – how do I cope – is actually an eternal one?
I switch on my car and sync my updated playlist to Bluetooth, then flick the gear. (I’ve not gone automatic, yet.) Still, I’m pretty sure, previous generations didn’t dine at places because they wanted to take pictures of their meals more than they wanted to actually enjoy them. They didn’t feed their eyes images as they simultaneously feasted on nouvelle foods, and they certainly didn’t instinctively reach for their phone before they did for their pant-zipper the first thing when they got into the toilet. They just didn’t have these choices.
They didn’t need air-purifiers!
We’ll still figure something out, though. I mean, I hope we will. Because we’ve always found a way out, I guess we’ll find one again. Even if algorithms take charge and my brain goes defunct, and even if I grow obese wanting more, never mind the fact that the Maldives have gone into the sea, I’ll adapt.
Yes, I know what. I’ll reimagine a fresh soul charged with my old blood but it will be one that is better suited to a domain governed by artifice. Yes, exactly… And in the meanwhile, until that day comes and I have no choice but to reinvent my core, or to crush it, I should get used to upgrading my device and selling myself on Instagram.
Siddharth Kapila is a lawyer turned writer working on a travel memoir on Hindu pilgrimage sites.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty