A black hole called mobile phone

Self-help books suggest that to gain control over ourselves, we must first clear our environment of distractions. But we now live a life where we depend on these distracting devices. If I earn my livelihood by being mediated through a laptop, what do I do? It’s some sort of Pavlov’s dog principle in action. We are so accustomed to servicing through the device that we stop noticing when we begin to serve the device itself. ‘Just say no’, won’t work. Simplistic solutions like these often don’t work.

A physically non-remarkable flat surface (and we have gone to great lengths to make it unremarkable. The portal itself shouldn’t distract from what it portals to!) has become the focal point of all our attention – work triumphs, work anxieties, deadlines, cat videos, video calls, meetings, movies, songs, news, friends, memories, sex, commiseration, plans… all through a screen. The screen is a singularity around which our every action, concern, decision, and of course attention converge.
Our brains were not made to work with such transparent magic. We think in spaces, distances, physical efforts, causes & effects. But everything collapses at the edge of these modern-day black holes. The singularity FEELS endless, of indeterminate consequence, immediate yet all-encompassing. And indeed, the compression is in our feelings, not the actual world of consequences. Our thoughts and feelings are separated from reality and focused in this singularity. And how does this singularity feel? A whirlwind that rifles through many nerves one after another – Neurotic. Anxious. Elated. Aroused. Bored. Excited. Jealous. Sad. Potentially, all at once.

This is somewhat similar to the Uncertainty inherent in the quantum realm, isn’t it? A state of a particle is always potentially something and it manifests a certainty only when influenced by an observer. When no one’s looking, it could be anything (the cat being potentially dead and alive.) Perhaps something similar is at play here too. The feelings we feel depends on the observer in this panopticon. So, the question is, who is the observer?

The observer is the one whose attention we are considering – it could be ourselves or an imagined someone else. Our, imaged outside-in view.
We potentially feel everything, the actual feeling manifest depends on the observer we are imaging doing the observing.

So, in a sense, the device turns us into an actor, forever performing for this variable observer. At times the observer is the idealized us, at times the imagined judgemental gaze of friends, our colleagues, our partner, or an imagined stranger who somehow holds a string tied to our life.

We are actors for an imagined audience playing variable parts not knowing when the spotlight is on us and when the curtains are down. In this uncertainty, we keep acting. That’s the real transformation engineered by our mediated-ness.

The quality of our attention is not without judgment, not without displacement. In a mediated world, our attention has that actor’s quality to it. It is once removed – hedged for the observer, enacting an idealized version of ourselves, looking in from outside – wondering how may we look, wondering what is expected of us.

Since that other ‘looks’ at us through mediated devices – phones, laptops, surveillance cameras… the gaze that matters to us is not our own, but the one that emanates from these devices. We perform for our devices, not the other way around.
We were not made for this. But this is our Sisyphean boulder now – performing forever for the screens. There’s no easy escape from it.

So how can a modern person, carrying this Sisyphean boulder all the time, even begin to think about reclaiming her agency, regaining control over her own attention? How can she make sense of the world, fight against powers trying to steal her attention?

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This text is part of the draft of a book I am writing. Don’t know when (and if) I will finish it.
I have started a new blog relevant to this topic – rewiringchaos.com Do check it out.

What good are Google glasses? OR How tech companies can choose not to be evil.

Why invent Google glasses?
Here’s Sergey Brin trying to answer that question.

Doesn’t his argument seem a little unconvincing – a weak reason to deploy the best of the brains on the planet and 3 years worth of efforts.
The primary pivot of his argument is the glass’ ability to improve social posture (?). He talks about how when interacting with your cell phone, you look down, away from the rest of the world. How when nervous, one fiddles with cell phone to escape the real world.
So how is Glass a solution? It is an even more ‘evolved’ tool to keep the outside world ‘out’!

Ok, so Glass frees your hands. for what? for better documentation of our narcissism? These series of innovations (social media, smart phones, glass) are answering the most base yearnings of our narcissistic behavior.

When you look down, at least there’s that bit of honesty – ‘yes, I am looking away from you. Sorry for my awkward inability to be social.’ With Glass, how honest are you with your interactions in the real world, if you are constantly mindful of the online world at the corner of your eye. (Social media is the magical mirror for the narcissists. Google glass makes the narcissism even more intimate.) Obsessive Facebook users know the urge to check notifications. Imagine that with Glass.

Watch ‘Black Mirror’s this episode for another perspective of how this tech might evolve. (Must see the whole series. work of genius.)

More importantly, I feel that technology giants like Google and Apple can’t really prioritise well. The world has stepped back and given the mantle of technological progress to these few companies it seems. There is this unfortunate tendency where excellence in one aspect is taken to mean a general quality of excellence – cricketers as politicians, businessmen as policymakers… wrong wrong assumption.

Human ingenuity can certainly do much better than what Google or Apple have done. Well, to begin with, we need to get our priorities right.

The starting point should not be ‘what can technology do?‘. Because, it is with questions like these that Google Glass gets created and one has to see Sergey Brin trying to force fit a weak reason for its creation after the product idea had already been thought of.
Perhaps, the starting point should be ‘what do we really need right now and how can technology help us get it?’

We don’t need more ways to shut off people, we need more ways to be confident in our social interactions.
We need to be able to protect what is sacred & personal to us. (Hence always opt-in as default, not opt-out option as default.)
We need control over what we say, do, hear, see.
We need a better understanding of what we consume and how it affects the world.
We need technology that doesn’t eliminate another human being from interaction/ work/ jobs.
We need technology that  doesn’t increase the gulf between the haves and have-nots.

We need a non-Luddite, but a realist, humanist manifesto for technology companies to follow. To not be evil means eternal vigilance of the effect of one’s own actions.
Companies are eager to ‘lead the change’, ‘make a dent in the universe’, but with what effect? with what cost?
Apples and Oranges of the world need to think not only of the superior interface designs, but also about how the ones who cannot afford these elitist fruits would react to this new exclusion? How is it making obsession about trivial material issues fashionable and what does it mean to our ecology, social interactions, our economy?
If you do not want to be evil, be a little more circumspect.

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Originally published here.