Since its election season, it is but fitting to bring up a political reference to the smartphone juggernaut. So, let’s begin with Congress chief strategist Sam Pitroda likening Indians with a smartphone to monkeys. In these outrage-friendly times, the comment did the rounds on TV as well as social media. Maybe Pitroda offered a clarification, but I didn’t track it. However, the off-the-cuff observation provided an insight into one of the most powerful accomplishments of the smartphone, and that is the democratisation of discourse and amplification of voices once consigned to the margins. In a vast and diverse country like ours, where discourse was once controlled, elitist backlash is but one confirmation of how valuable the smartphone and the access it provides to the larger world is. I should end the article here, but there is more to offer in defence of this new tool.
Now for the latest controversy with a smartphone and a monkey. Yes, a real monkey. A few weeks ago, a young chimpanzee was seen on a smartphone scrolling through Instagram. He paused at the videos of other chimps and clicked, watching them with a quiet intensity, reminiscent of a self-absorbed millennial. The video went viral and travelled around the world, drawing sharp criticism from world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall. She believes and rightly so, I paraphrase, that to humanise chimps to this extent would perpetuate trafficking of the endangered species.
Human-like in their qualities and with complex emotions like ours, this sort of “exposure’ of the animal by the influencer, who shared the video, was seen as self-promotion by critics.
Of course, unlike our closest relatives the chimps, humans aren’t on the verge of extinction (at least we hope so), hence doomsday predictions about the use of smartphones can be ignored.
Besides, Goodall isn’t being elitist, just protective, but when it comes to Indians and smartphones, the criticism exhibits a bit of post-colonial angst. We are almost always complaining about how others are using the smartphone, very rarely about ourselves. Think about it. Have you been around people who switch to English around the “help” so that they won’t understand? That help is now on Facebook and using Google Translate. A driver I know who dropped out after Class 8 is on Twitter and routinely engages in debates with eminent intellectuals and politicians. He doesn’t ever hear back from them, he told me as he used Google Maps to navigate us to a new destination. But, he gets to convey his thoughts to the people he only ever sees on TV. Elsewhere in the country, a phone pings, alerting about a direct benefit transfer, cutting out the middle man and putting money directly in the hands of those entitled to the benefit. Yes, the smartphone has borne entitlement—to thought, speech and rights, and for now, it’s a good kind of entitlement.
It has also highlighted a growing public health issue: loneliness. While some may blame the smartphone, I think it’s a case of addressing the symptom and not the cause. The breakdown of family structures, migration, stress and demands of living in our competitive times are more to blame for urban longing and loneliness in particular.
The smartphone has increased our ability to stay connected but has in some ways reduced our motivation to do so. We are reading more, engaging with people we like and don’t like, as well as being drawn into silos of existence. Our evenings at the park are spent browsing Twitter or Facebook, looking at others’ lives and then comparing them to ours. But it’s not like humans who existed before the smartphone didn’t compare themselves with others—they just didn’t have so many points of comparison. On the other hand, the smartphone has also connected us to people who we would have never encountered.
I became connected with a district in Kerala called Kannur, far removed from the Kerala of beaches and Ayurveda that I knew. I have been able to harness the technology to raise funds for causes.
As a single woman, the smartphone has been my companion on umpteen solo travel expeditions and also been my “pepper spray” in vulnerable moments. It has, however, made me a more frequent shopper, but I’m not sure if it should be blamed on the smartphone or digital payments. Which brings me to the final benefit: it is also a good excuse to distract us from personal fragilities; even if the tool most often employed is not the smartphone but schadenfreude.
But hey, you got to accept some of the bad with the whole lot of good it brings.
(Advaita Kala is a bestselling novelist and an award-winning screenwriter)
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