I first met Rituparna Mahapatra some years ago and got to know her better through her writing which has now found a new home on her blog. Since then, I have been waiting to get her to write for ‘Frankly Speaking’. Rituparna is at present, editor-at -large for Kitaab.org. Her features have been published in India America Today, The Deccan Herald, The Telegraph, Borderless Journal and Odisha bytes amongst others. She taught English literature at Sambalpur and Delhi Universities before she became a full time writer; today she continues to teach writing in her free time. Rituparna lives in Dubai, with her husband, two kids and her golden retriever Hiro.
On checking the data for my phone’s screen time usage, it says 8 hours (in the last week?). I am perplexed as to how this can be; I hardly get time to breathe these days. But my phone clears all the dark clouds and shows me the time I have spent on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, chatting, reading, writing and browsing online. The data is out there, broken down to its tiniest measure of time and everything is crystal clear. I stare at the screen for a while – this is a revelation to me ‘about me’.
I have never known the insides of my mind, as well as my phone, does. It’s as if this 6 by 2.5 inch piece of living metal knows what I am looking at, what my desires are, the people I dislike, the ones I love, my happiest place, my darkest fears; all of it. It knows about the diseases I suffer from, my ovulation cycle and my mood swings. Eerie.
It seems like we have forgotten to feel our emotions without documenting them. Our date nights are spent clicking pictures of the flowers on the table to the food on our plates and sending it out there. Yes, we hold hands and smile but only to keep a record. Memories are not made anymore, we just store them to never visit again; unless Facebook reminds us. Imagine everything ‘about us’ being out there, whirring in the universe of a never-forgetting web. Everything that we have ever done virtually is archived somewhere. Our private chats, our photos, our google searches, our 4:00 am calls, our food preferences, our favourite celebrities, our secret accounts, who we have muted, who we have blocked, who we are stalking…Every. Single. Thing.
I secretly envisage the threat this carries – of exposing us, our real selves. This unravelling of our lives, layer by layer, stripping it of any vanity that we may have proclaimed, bringing our perfect lives to dust. To make matters worse, as I was thinking this, my Instagram flashed pictures of ‘Electric Kettles ‘ directing me towards stores selling them. How did ‘they’ know I needed one? Then I remembered that when my kettle crashed yesterday I searched frantically for a replacement on Google. I forgot about it soon after, but my phone remembered.
Maybe this is a millennial delusion, a picture of a dystopian world, all of which is a result of living in continuous surveillance of the ‘web’. I type ‘how’ and the search engine throws up ‘how to speak with more confidence’; mocking me, showing me my deepest fears; which I have guarded diligently and prefer to battle on my own through dark, sleepless nights. I don’t want to be reminded of it now; when I am with my friends sipping iced tea at the cafe and planning on our next trip to the organic store that sells the best ‘truffles’. By the way, I was searching for ‘how to cook with truffles’ too.
I cannot touch my teenager’s phone anymore; the biometrics inform him every time it is touched by anyone other than him. Since then, I have added another prayer-point to my list, ‘to keep him protected from the web always’. I worry for my younger one too so now I insist on surveying the faces and lives of her virtual friends. I feel guilty about stalking them, but I do it nevertheless. The fear of ‘the unknown’ that our children are exposed to and what they are becoming is far greater than everything else.
Our parents are not safe either. There are stories I read every day of senior citizens being robbed of their hard-earned savings. I call my mother hurriedly and ask her to wait till she can go in person to the bank. She tells me, our small town is tense with an underlying threat of simmering mob violence, between two religious sects. I ask how will they know ‘who’ is ‘who’? She reminds me of the details they had filled up on the digital voter card; they know exactly ‘who’ is ‘who’. They know how many people live in each house, how much they earn and how much they spend, which places they visit, thanks to the online check-ins. My belief that God controls everything is shaken, our lives are flow charts for programming codes, in the end, we are just data to an algorithm.
This Pandemic has been a wake-up call for us on many fronts. It has brought out the lies, deceits, greed, the corruption of governments, the breakdown of societies, the evils of systems. It has shown us the fragility of the human mind; how it can crumble despite our best efforts and how relationships can break at the slightest provocation. It has taught us that there is always a possibility of hiding behind ‘Incognito’ mode, and pretend that all is well
Maybe the internet emerged as a coping tool for all this chaos; a safe place for each one of us, initially. One that seemed non-judgmental, comforting and sensitive. You could speak more freely here, explore fearlessly; unmindful that it was using every byte of your mind to build its kingdom. Spinning its web. What began with awe and allure of a simple ‘Mario’ or ‘Temple run’ game, has taken demonic proportions. Have we given too much of ourselves to this internet by clicking on too many ‘ I agree’ buttons without reading? Have we offloaded too much personal data into it.? We live a different life online. Is it only a matter of time before we are forced to bear the brunt of living in this binary existence?
As I write this, my ‘Healthify’ app reminds me that I am just one cup away from consuming my optimal ‘water intake’ for the day. It gives me the option of drinking chamomile tea instead of water, promising a good night’s sleep. I click on the teacup image and google for the best organic chamomile tea even though I know I should delete that app and go out for a walk, to get a goodnight’s sleep.
Soon, hopefully very soon.