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?

***

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.

Chasing the abyss

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A political spokesperson cites a meme to target his opponent. The point isn’t about the meme or the target. The point is the callousness, the sheer intellectual ‘fuck you’ of getting away with nonsense on prime time TV. The anchor, the guest intellectual and presumably the audience react with stiff lips, a manufactured performance of seriousness. Either everyone’s in on the con (more likely) or they have lost the faculty of reason.

This is merely the most recent ‘fuck you’ in prime time media. Consider the Bollywood award shows where the performers obviously don’t care enough to prepare their acts. Consider the banal conspiracies in TV serials. Consider the high-decibel browbeating on entertainment channels masquerading as news channels. Consider the politicians who get away with blatant lies and malicious propaganda that is visibly based on falsehood but sustains on the power of cult.

It feels as if there has been a mass realization of the absurd and there’s a race on now to the bottom of abyss, of trying to figure out what one can get away with.

Reality has lost its bearings. Meaning has come unhinged. The god is dead and the world is in free fall.

The idea in the past (modernity) used to be that One Big Lie holds the world together.But reality of today (post-modernity) is that many lies gives the bottom away.

Now no one cares. Or rather, now no one is capable of caring even if they want to. To care is to hold onto an ideal and salvaging that ideal. People now instead use ideals as stepping stones to climb up. Everyone’s tasted the absurd. And there’s a tumultuous race to the bottom to discover just how low we can go, how much can we get away with.

Travel Travel, Adopt a Camel

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Travel as a personal narrative

There are two things that give sense to our lives. One is the ‘anchor’ and the other is ‘change’. These two are the yin-yang of our personal narratives. ‘Anchor’ is things/ people/ places that gives you a sense of solidity about your identity. You perhaps are a Delhite. You perhaps are from the family of proud fishermen. You perhaps are child of very kind parents who have always been there for you. All these things ‘anchor’ us, about our sense of self.

And then you become a teenager. And you must ‘find’ an unique identity.  In an age when you can be anything, often we remain paralysed unable to let go of the possibilities. We are simply unable to kill all the rest of possibilities by choosing one direction. Instead we stay poised at that frozen moment in our personal narrative. We seek change, but are unable to make up our minds. And that is the ‘post-modern’ we. Modernity of 2oth century was about optimistic ideas of future and our roles in it. Post-modern 21st century is about a profound confusion and skepticism about our future and our role in it.

Hence we travel.

The avid travelers of today travels either because he/she needs an escape or because of the promise of bountiful enjoyment or  for its potential for changing ‘something’ in him/her. The first kind of traveler – the escapist – is at least acknowledging the reality that he/ she is escaping from. The second variety – is a sheep following herd, content with the ritualistic excess he forces on himself. It is a sad existence, but wedded to a ritualized fetish, it is anchored in some measure. The third variety – people who call themselves travelers and wanderers – they are the ones I am talking about now. I am talking about the people like me and you, who travel in search of meaning, in search of profound happiness, in search of a direction that is chosen for us. And if facebook walls and instagram feeds are to be believed, everyone today is this very traveler.

“It changed my life”

“It changed my life”, says your friend after his latest trip. And perhaps you should wonder how. Instead you are excited along with him. “Oh, I must do this trip”, you decide. You consult him and online blogs to chart out a pilgrimage taken up by hundreds of others before you. Like you would, they too took selfies with hills in the background. Like you would, they too obsessed over certain dish in a certain restaurant. Like you would, they too perhaps felt somewhat empty when sitting somewhere – thinking.. “this was supposed to be profound. Is this (stinging loneliness/ confusion/ ‘disappointment at the ordinariness of the supposed greatness of the scene before your eyes’)  it?” And before you could complete your train of thought, you take out your DSLR/ cell phone and take a ‘profound’ picture. Your friends on facebook get to know instantaneously about your nirvana. #nirvanaunlocked.

Superego says you must profoundly enjoy

The gaping void that you feel while traveling is not ‘your fault’. The trip was not supposed to be profoundly enjoyable/ transformative/ epiphany inducing/ crazy etc. Though you did think it would be. You thought so because, you are a product of 21st century upper class. If you were a Bangladeshi cattle smuggler, trying to enter India, you aren’t exactly wondering if ‘this journey is supposed to mean something’. The Bangladeshi cattle smuggler entering Assam knows exactly what the trip means – a certain sum of money if the trade goes through, humiliation and beating if Gau rakshak idiots find him.

You, a product of today’s society have been trained to seek enjoyment and happiness at all times. There is an ‘injunction to enjoy’ on you. Your superego, informed by the incessantly glowing and moving online feeds and walls, wants you to enjoy, be successful, be somebody.

Space-time v/s Bildungsroman

Human journey is not in space or time. Simply moving around through different places doesn’t give one intelligence or perspectives or contentment. Neither simply getting old will help one in getting wiser or feeling at peace.

We need definitive change once or twice in life. And at least one of it needs to be positive to be anchored and content in life. Traditionally one was initiated into key changes through rituals – manhood/ womanhood, marriage, birth of child, death. The only ritual guaranteed to a modern person is that of (and about) death. We have no rituals to inform us when we turn from boys to men. We might choose not to wed or have children. Even when we do, we tend to live life of another person – the ideal younger version of oneself. It is as if life for 21st century human is a rewinding spool, going back and burnishing the youth over and over again, until you snap and are forced to reckon with the reality of life. We could very possibly go through life without any real profound change to ourselves that we acknowledge and anchor ourselves with. So, a post-modern person remains in some measure – adrift – not completely being able to comprehend his/her course of life.

One of the most important skill-set that a person should be taught is about building his/her bildungsroman narrative of life.
Bildungsroman – in this context is this – Identity being built through experience one goes through while being among others. It is not the unhealthy narcissism, but a healthy self-awareness that guides one in anchoring the right things and changing the right things for one’s own well-being and growth as a human.

So what would help in building a healthy personal narrative, if not travel?

We come back to the yin-yang of ‘anchor’ and ‘change’ for the answer.

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What gives us an anchor through what we do? Routines do. Routines are essential to create solidity of time, to make life predictable and stable. To anchor life in your own control.

But routines must change every once in a while. We must have routines, but we must have new ones every few years. The solidity shouldn’t lead to stagnation. The routine shouldn’t imprison us. The routine is supposed to form the basis on which the life can take a flight from. The solidity of time, that a routine provides turns into a slowly accumulating cancer that works against your mental well-being if not refreshed every few years.

So if your routine is ‘not’ about planning, desiring, reading about – travels, then travel can be an immensely enriching experience. But what if travel is your routine? Not just the actual traveling part, but the whole mental state – from dreaming to doing to validating it online. The digital lifecycle of travel is now longer. and if you are living from one travel life-cycle to next, i doubt ‘travel’ can then produce moments of ‘epiphany’ for you.

To identify the right changes you need in yourself, then you need to head to everyday normality of other people. That’s where your change, your insight will come from.

What about travel that is indeed a ‘change’?

Change is about braving uncertainties. If your travel is ‘packaged’ to keep you in a bubble of comfort and expected experiences, then you are merely experiencing an amusement park experience. It’s not travel.

For travel to have an effect on you at a fundamental level, you must allow travel to be an unregulated experience. You must then step out of your bubble.

To truly travel, one must be ready for disappointments. You must be ready for uncertainty.

If you chronicle, validate your travel online, you often end up training your brain into thinking in a third person mode. While experiencing something, you train yourself to see it from the perspective of the future self – posting, applying filers, thinking of clever captions when posting… you never are traveling. you are only extending facebook/ instagram bubble that you are completely plugged into.
You can’t live in the present (or contemplative past/ future) if you live through a gadget/screen.

Must disconnect to travel. Must be willing to brave uncertainties for travel to have any meaning.