Are we living lives dominated by technology? Does it rob us of our people skills?

It was a week of truly longish, unplanned blackouts. The pillar box was hit by a truck, and power went off in a block of buildings. Our world plunged into non-connectivity during the day and total darkness at night.

Ever notice how when there is a blackout, everyone goes outside? We flatmates met and introduced ourselves, though we’ve lived a few feet away from one another for months. In that break from our frenetic schedules involving mobiles, Internet, video games and TV, we connected with people. We had no idea when we’d see “light”, so we talked about “coping” and soon realised we all sounded happy.

We talked of a time when grandma didn’t depend so much on electricity, dad remained supremely efficient without a cellphone, our aunts brought all the local gossip from temple visits and weddings, and not from websites. We talked of buildings without ugly power grids or cellphone towers, of fewer road accidents, riding bicycles, of clean ponds and parks.
A teacher from a digitally modern school told us this story. “A computer techie messed up our server system,” she said. “It was near-disaster! Our computerised attendance register was gone, and so were LAN, mark sheets, teachers’ notes, question papers, classroom material, presentations and a lot of the students’ work.” But that lasted only for a day, she said. The teachers woke up to the challenge and roped in kids to do the “paper work”. Together they prepared the teaching aids, kept the attendance record straight and wrote lesson plans for the coming week. “The kids said they were very happy to do the work,” she said. “I felt I got closer to a lot of them.”

What neurologists say

Neurologists already talk of how our brains are shaping to respond to a “gadgetised” life. A micro-chip induced life could blur our view of the line between living and non-living machines, they warn. We already see an example of this when we try to give directions on the phone. Somehow even simple directions have become rocket science, the caller half following what’s said and calling a dozen times till he reaches the door. Is it because constantly interrupted by digital intrusions, we’ve lost the capacity to analyse, plan, remember and execute work? Does gadget dependence take away our confidence in our abilities?

“Electronic devices, like pharmaceutical drugs, have an impact on the micro-cellular structure and complex biochemistry of our brains. And that, in turn, affects our personality, our behaviour and our characteristics,” says Professor Susan Greenfield in her book. “It’s pretty clear that the screen-based, two-dimensional world that so many teenagers — and a growing number of adults — choose to inhabit is producing changes in behaviour. Attention spans are shorter, personal communication skills are reduced and there’s a marked reduction in the ability to think abstractly.” The games-driven generation interprets the world through screen-shaped eyes, she insists. It’s almost as if something hasn’t really happened until it’s been posted on Facebook or YouTube.

Psychologists tell us that we could be raising kids who live only for the thrill of the computer-generated moment. They are in danger of detaching themselves from what the rest of us would consider the real world, they say. As for us, we live in a world so technologically dependent that even a computer crash gives us many anxious moments. . Question is: Should pleasure be defined by the endless hours spent in front of a computer console? Should it be defined by our giggles at online comics?

Connecting with people

In a business-centred existence, there is probably no going back to a pre-computer age. That age will demand that we do more of our work ourselves; information won’t travel so quickly, and medical science may get frozen. But consider this theory: If all modern technology shut down and we were forced to live without e-appliances and gadgets, we’d adapt. It might signal more face-to-face time with people instead of emails and texting, might mean more walking and knowing what goes on in our neighbourhood. We might come out of the “lonesome boundary of life” that teleworking creates, and stop to smile at our neighbour, rather than at a shadow appearing on a pixellated screen. Some of us might even start a campaign for the rights of pedestrians.

Maybe it’s time we cut down the computer/cellphone/television-coloured hours and step out to look at the moon. Or go to one of those lovely resorts in the Mudumalai forest which are not “connected”, and spend time fishing, swimming, taking pictures of animals or simply gazing at spotted deer.