By Mohammad Asif
Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Social Sciences and the founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self, has expertise in human-technology interface and explores how it is greatly unmaking us as human beings. Turkle’s 2011 book, Alone Together, was followed by yet another American writer, Thomas Friedman’s 2017 magnum opus, Thank You for Being Late – both concerned by obsessive technological outpacing of humans. The title of Friedman’s book itself came from unscheduled waiting slots he productively experienced for self-reflection and introspection. Friedmann argues that we are living in the age of Accelerations, the greatest inflection points of history dominated by technology as never before. He uses the metaphor of a horse-rider who is worried by slow pace of horse, so he feeds the horse with a steroid to put him on the highway of progress, but the problem gets worse when he finds that the horse has become uncontrollably ferocious. To mitigate the problem, the horse-rider himself takes steroid to sync with the pace of the horse. The horse signifies the socio-natural forces, and the steroid represents the technology and its corollary artificial intelligence. The steroid that the horse-rider feeds himself is, what Friedmann calls Intelligent Assistance, to make use of the horse for common good. Turkle and Friedman warn that excessive dependency on technology is eroding the organic connectivity by undoing us as humans, which we are precisely experiencing in our post-COVID-19 socialisations.
COVID-19 or the ‘Corona Virus’ has been the greatest catastrophe to befall mankind this century. The invisible threat still lurks in the corner. As the scientist community believes in the possibility of next COVID-19 wave, the previous one has more catastrophic aftereffects than one could imagine. There is no denying the fact that technology helped us as a coping mechanism during COVID. The post-COVID milieu makes it evident that a radical transformation has taken place in human attitudes and behaviours. We are now facing challenges to develop adaptive behaviours to become appropriately sociable. This is because we are not independent of digital shadows which is overwhelmingly impacting our communications. The confidence of being social or people’s social sensibilities are morbidly invisible or are least visible on the public front. Since educational and other public institutions began to function in offline mode, the situations make it visible to the naked eye that we are somewhere ‘phygital’ – i.e., we are somewhere caught between virtual and physical simultaneously and, hence, confused about our actuality.
Any socio-biological catastrophe carries a message. Let’s take Albert Camus’ historical novel The Plague, which makes the case that any natural catastrophe comes with a message to awaken mankind from its deep social slumber so as not to end or cause death of a social being. Camus makes an argument that epidemics like the plague comes to liberate people, as he demonstrates with respect to the citizens of Oran, the Algerian city, who were selfishly obsessed with individuality and personal suffering. As a result, they accepted the plague as a collective disaster. By joining the anti-plague effort, they confronted their social responsibility at collective level and thereby become diligent social beings. Where the personal becomes social and the social becomes personal, COVID-19 conveyed the same set of messages. Now the question arises: did we receive the ‘actual’ message or has the message got stuck somewhere in the thin air? And this ‘somewhere’ could be a commutative gap, of getting caught between being social and being digital?
When the government decided to make the public institutions to return in offline mode, it was quite unlike the pre-pandemic times, as students were hesitant, making it clear that the pandemic has made us psycho-social broke and sociability phobic. Pre-pandemic social fabric of consumerism and obsessively privatised culture has been ripped off and we are tasked afresh to build it on more humane values. After COVID-19, functioning of educational campuses made everyone afresh of social tastes. As every human being carries a different social taste and takes time in exploring human settings, this makes the process of any socialised human setting an interesting process to observe because of varied symbols deployed during the process of that socialisation. Those symbols would be there for newcomers to follow, thereby becoming the founding pillars of culture.
One of the most important aspects of social life is social interaction, which may be defined as the ways in which individuals engage with one another and respond to the behaviours of others. Interactions among people are the bedrock upon which societies and civilizations are built. People create the societies they want to live in by creating the norms, institutions, and the order they need. One way in which a society’s norms and values are communicated to youngsters or newcomers is by the usage of symbols or what Hannah Arendt calls ‘banisters’, such as those of kindness, love and compassion or indifference and obsessively privatised and consumerised individualism. The centrality of social contact in this grand scheme of social evolution is purely a human construct. So, the onus always lies collectively on us to construct social contact meaningfully.
Being a humanities or social science doctoral scholar at a university campus, I observe things quite diligently, be that any social setting I am a part of, outside libraries or at dhabas. Even in the examination halls which I share with some of my colleagues or at times with faculty as an invigilator, I continue to observe things with an inquisitive mind. Recently I shared an invigilating space with a professor of the faculty of humanities. While preventing a student from cheating, the professor snatched his paper and then returned the answer book as a token of kindness with a warning. The student said, “Thank You, chacha.” The professor looked at me and smiled. My friend said that he was accompanying his professor for tea just outside the department. There were few students who were swaggering around and were indifferent to the professor’s seniority. The professor saved herself from disrespect by letting them exit the concourse first. The students turned back and said, “Thank You, aunty.” These are not the problems per se but rather the symptoms of much a bigger problem. The words symptomize that these academic spaces – which are supposed to be the spaces of enlightened humane values – are not turning out to be what they should be. It symptomatically suggests that we have not left the online mode completely and we are brutally caught somewhere in between. That somewhere could be obsessive individualism possessed by technology because technology facilitated us during the pandemic. From online classes to online exams, everything was mediated by the screen. The students and teachers carried out their academic transactions from home with guaranteed safety and did not include anyone outside the household or approved bubble. Now our interpersonal and intrapersonal behaviour is completely changed, as explicated by above mentioned examples.
In case of dhabas and other gathering spaces for students at any university, these attract crowd as per the idiosyncratic tastes these spaces represent. These places are the parameters to check the quality of sociability or nature of social interactions in what is called ‘campus culture’. Social interaction at campuses is important since it contributes to the making or unmaking of academic and enlightened humane values and culture, which act as banisters for us and the newcomers to follow.
I have found that these spaces hardly cater to further academic and humane values, as academic discussions take place only rarely. There is no paradigmatic change but a quantitative difference across these spaces. I met one of my friends from B.A. whom I happen to teach few classes in a subsidiary course in the department. We frequent the dhabas on campus for a tea. He looked disturbed because of some personal issues. Once I started talking to him, he burst into tears and said, “Sir, my roommates won’t understand. I can’t even weep there. If I do, I would be objectified and made fun of.” In another incident, while we were sitting in the department library with my colleagues, we learnt that another B.A. student was falling through the cracks. We were hesitant in approaching her. When I enquired after her batch-mate, who I often talk to, she said, “Asif bhai, the whole campus is weeping; even I am weeping.” Following Hannah Arendt, we can say that we are setting wrong banisters of obsessive individualism by being indifferent to humane values. When we meet one another – many of whom we don’t know yet – at these spaces, we land ourselves in a forest of wild gestures.
At a qualitative level, these spaces symbolically or metaphorically represent, what Jacques Rancière in his book, Disagreement, calls, ‘voices’. This he defines, quoting Aristotle, as what non-human living beings have and use to not only feel the pleasure and pain but also communicate it with their fellows. What is unique about human species is that they have a ‘speech’ category, that enables the feeling both pleasure and pain meaningfully at a collective level. We need to aspire to have ‘speech’ as a banister for a meaningful sense of community.
As suggested by Thomas Friedmann, nothing is to be feared but everything is to be understood. We need to understand our reality beyond the reel relationship with technology. Sherry Turkle said, “I want live deliberately and that we need to live deliberately with technology.” We are seriously in dire need to unyoke our online communication and make our connectivity organic, while making judicious and productive use of technology to keep us going. Intelligent Assistance should make us feel interconnected, instead of a feeling of separateness in togetherness.
Mohammad Asif is a doctoral candidate at the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His interest areas include post-modern and classical literature, philosophy of history and sacred geography. He has pursued master’s from the University of Kashmir. Currently, he is actively involved in engaging with intellectual ideas on socio-cultural issues.
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