Op-Ed: The Ultimate Fantasy: A World Without Smart Phones

While vacationing with family and friends in the North East last April, I had an experience that surely deserves a place in the list of ‘height of obsession with smart phone’ jokes (many of them eminently believable, I must add) that keep doing the rounds in WhatsApp groups.

We had gone to see the well-endowed and wonderfully maintained Air Force museum on the outskirts of Shillong city. As was only to be expected, the security was tight, though not exactly obtrusive. There was a counter by the side of the main gate where one had to present his citizenship credentials before being allowed in. Since I was sitting on my favourite seat on the front by the side of the driver, I got off to get the permission. Having completed the required formalities and obtained the ‘pass’, I was returning to the car, immersed in browsing my smart phone. As I opened the door and got into the car, there was a collective shriek from inside the vehicle. It was only then that I realised that I had got into the wrong car!!

This incident is symptomatic of the new, widespread malady known as ‘obsession with smart phone’ that most of us (the ones likely to read this piece) are afflicted with. Whether walking on the streets, climbing up or alighting from stairs, dining in a restaurant, attending a meeting or even watching a movie, we just can’t seem to stop ourselves from fishing out our smart phones after every beep (sometimes even without any beeps too!) every few minutes to check out the notification. I can count at least three incidents from recent memory in Bhubaneswar itself where youths have been run over by speeding trains while walking on the tracks, merrily browsing away on their smart phones or listening to music on their phones with earplugs stuffed into their ears, completely oblivious of the approaching train. While these may be extreme cases, they do exemplify our seemingly never-ending affair with our phones to the exclusion of everything else; friends, colleagues and even family. I remember a cartoon that did the rounds of WhatsApp groups around Raja time two years ago that summed up this phenomenon aptly. There was a Raja swing hanging from a tree around which some young ones crowded. But no one was paying any attention to the swing or talking to each other; everyone was busy with his/her phone! (A more recent version of the same theme was one where a group of kids vacationing at their grandmother’s place are all busy with their phones as the grandma looks on despondently.)

Of course, part of the reason for the obsession is the fact that a phone is not just a phone, meant for talking to someone, these days; it is a watch-cum camera-cum-audio/video recorder-cum-audio/video viewer-cum music system-cum torch light-cum road map guide-cum you name it. But the reason the smart phone has become more of a nuisance than a normal phone is the fact that it’s your window to the limitless World Wide Web. It allows you to connect with your friends; play games; book a cab, a movie, a railway or airline ticket; to do banking transactions; to pay your bills and so on. But the most important reason for the smart phone virtually becoming a part of our body and mind is that it gives us access to the big, bad world of social media where all the action is. More people get smart phones for themselves for this reason than all the other reasons mentioned above.

Time was when the first thing one did on getting up in the morning was to soak in the atmosphere outside; watching the crimson fireball slowly turn into a smaller ball of yellowish hue and feeling the enlivening effect of the first, tender ray on your skin as the sun rose in the distant sky; breathing in the fresh, soothing morning air and listening to the ear-pleasing chirping of birds. We have obviously come a long way since then. These days, we check out our phones to see the overnight notifications first thing in the morning, even before we get up from bed. Morning, as they say, shows the day. The phone is never too far from us all through the day. Instead of saying prayers to the almighty, we check our phones before going to bed.

If you are a journalist, getting over this obsession is even more difficult because you never know what you might miss out on if you stay away from your phone for a while. If I don’t open WhatsApp for an hour, there would be a few hundred messages waiting for him when I opened it. (A confession here: I carry my mobile into the loo too!) Staying update and ‘on top of the news’ is a requirement few scribes can do away with in this age of 24X7 news cycle without seriously jeopardising their careers. If something goes wrong with your phone, you instinctively rush to the nearest mobile service centre to get it fixed keeping all other work pending; generally after putting your SIM into a spare set, if you have one or into the phone of someone in the family who needs the phone less than you do, if you don’t. Remaining glued to your smart phone thus is a professional hazard that just can’t be wished away, whether you like it or not.

In the event, just about the only time when you are yanked off your phone is when you stay into the interiors of the state where there is no network. Suddenly, the phone that does so much for you back home turns into nothing more than a watch with an alarm facility.

How I wish such occasions came more often!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).