Shiva had to find Kailasa, Jesus had to spend 40 days without food or water in the desert, Shankaracharya had to climb Kodachadri without a jeep. The things Gods and men have done to find a peaceful place (and then, find themselves) has been quite remarkable. The basic premise of the ascetic way of life is that reduction of sensory inputs helps us focus on ‘inner reality’, and help us to ‘realise’ ourselves.
But if any of the above mentioned are looking down at today’s world, they would feel somewhat short-changed at the options they had to isolate themselves from the rest of the universe. Our extremely innovative generation has revolutionised the concept of asceticism by turning its basic premise on its head. The Generation of the Walkman (or Generation ‘W’ in my terminology) has completely rethought the way to isolation by realising that an overload of sensory inputs helps us break away from the world, rather than the other way round.
For most of human existence, sound and light have been media for communication between individuals: language, smoke signals, and so on. It seems that using sound and light to achieve the complete opposite — a breakdown of communication — is quite a recent achievement. If one must attribute this to any one artefact, it must be the Walkman. Leisure and entertainment had until then been largely a non-individual activity: you could not play a tape/radio without everyone else listening, and TV time was also a family affair. The earliest form of personal entertainment was probably the boom box:
not very personal, and not very convenient either. Sound and light still played the role evolution had anointed them to play — bringing like minded people together.
With the advent of the enormously successful Walkman and other portable devices like small TVs and ‘transistors’, all this changed. Leisure and entertainment has now become a highly personalised activity. However, Generation ‘W’ has truly matured only in the past half a decade or so. The near universal penetration of the mobile phone and the near universal conversion of mobile phones into miniature boom boxes of the sort above has created a profusion of sound everywhere you go: those who spoke about cacophony and the Tower of Babel ten years ago had no idea what they were talking about. Travel by a night bus or train or sit in a movie theatre, and you will see what a profusion of light means: the advent of super-bright LCD displays has obviated the need to install lighting in most places Gen W frequents.
The sensory load due to listening to four songs and five heated conversations in six languages and the glare from your neighbour’s gigantic LCD display is simply too much for our primitive minds to bear, and they promptly start blocking everything and trying to focus on something inward. And voila, instant nirvana! Whether you want it or not, you will be as disconnected from the rest of the people as they are from you. Of course, then you have the more refined members of Gen W who keep everyone out by using superbly crafted earphones. It removes the necessity of wearing a ‘Don’t disturb’ sign around your neck (or wearing a stern look on your face) while serving the same purpose and informing you about the latest Bollywood hits. And you still have your fingers and eyes to play Angry Birds! The possibility of any sort of conversation with co-travellers who cannot SMS you is gone, and you are in a world of your own. Take that, ascetics who had to struggle in forests without Lays and popcorn!
The most innovative use of this sensory overload, however, is to use them to create virtual islands within larger public spaces. The idea is simple: In the days before the Walkman, if you wanted to have a discreet conversation, you needed to speak into someone’e ear or signal using a predefined code or use Pig Latin. Now, each boom box creates a radius beyond which you are not heard (or so you think), and there seems to be no need to be discreet anymore. You will see this everywhere: Go into the nearest Coffee Day and people seem to be speaking as freely as they would at their homes and, wonder of wonders, you cannot hear a thing. The back seats in a bus are occupied by students who play loud music (how long do their batteries last, really!) and hold even louder conversations, while whispering sweet nothings via SMS to their girlfriends sitting in the front of the same bus. This creation of private spaces amidst increasingly overcrowded public spaces seems to be a very interesting achievement of today’s technology.
The technology of today not only serves the purpose of ‘Disconnecting People’ from each other, but also from the social and natural environment they are a part of. With generous phone makers deciding to throw in a camera along with a phone (and a music player and a video game console and a …), and cameras which make it possible for complete ignoramuses (like yours truly) to take fantastic pictures, nature is no longer something to be savored and enjoyed but something to be pursued and captured in a JPG file. We seem to be taking every small pleasure in our lives and converting them to neuroses. This, of course, perfectly suits those selling these items of desire, but what does it say about us as a society and a culture?