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Tech it or leave it

Abhiviraj Bangari is the rare 18-year-old who does not own a personal cellphone. Instead, he “phone pools” with one landline and a cellphone with his parents and younger brother. “The mobile remains with whoever is on the move or is travelling late,” says the first-year engineering student.

It’s not that Abhiviraj is intimidated by technology. Far from it: the Bangalore boy can dissemble computers and refit them again. But he belongs to a growing breed of people who are willingly switching off — phones, televisions, the Internet, and even from work.

“We don’t want our children to live in a virtual world and miss out on actual socialising,” says Lt Col Ravi Bangari, Abhiviraj’s father who leads by example. Having left the army after an injury, Bangari, an alumnus of IIM, Bangalore, is now vice-president at Edumentry, a knowledge process outsourcing that he runs for overseas clients. Bangari expects his clients to reach him on a fixed line or via email, and doesn’t carry a mobile when he is not travelling. The Bangari household is devoid of a TV set — the family prefers the outdoors.

Amidst the sea of 845 million Facebook members, the 24/7 BBMers (BlackBerry messaging users) and the Frequent Flyer miles-clocking executives, some intrepid navigators are finding ways to escape the gridlock of being connected and on call constantly. Wikipedia states that Facebook lost 7 million users in Canada and the US in May 2011.

Their intentions and methods vary. Some have devised ways to keep a working day limited to specific hours while others find methods to bypass the ease of technology. Some do it to have uninterrupted personal downtime and others yearn for a past of handwritten mail and actual, rather than virtual, meetings. There are even those who cite a desire for a private life where emails are not scanned for keywords used to target ads to them.

Many, like the Bangaris, are seeking to reclaim their life from the technology whirlpool. Shruti Pathak, a 40-something homemaker, deleted her Facebook account after five years. Sumati Satish, who works with an NGO, cut down on her “Googling” and is resisting Skype as she prefers to chat over tea. Freshly minted lawyer Nadir Aslam shuns social media, BlackBerrys and professional online networking organisations — he’d rather meet people or read. The Vaideeswarans and the Balasubramaniams got rid of their idiot boxes to avoid their “dulling effect” on children.

And now we are told that even Bengali actor Saswata Chatterjee — the mobile-toting Bob Biswas of the runaway Hindi hit Kahaani — despises cellphones and doesn’t own one. A mobile phone would take over his life and dent his concentration, he said in a recent interview.

Chennai-based environment consultant S. Vaideeswaran palmed off his TV set to his parents in 2007 when his daughters Sanjula and Sanan were six and three. “At a parent-teacher meeting at Sanjula’s school, which uses alternative methods of education, the teacher suggested we try removing the TV. There was no issue really with our child but it was just one of the implications on a child and we wanted the best for her,” he narrates.

Within two months of the TV’s exit, Sanjula began to draw, read and play more. She was no longer passive and her energy levels shot up.

Similarly, in 2010 marketing consultant R. Balasubramaniam cut cable TV in his house. His TV-addicted children, Anjali (9) and Kaushik (7) were hyperactive and kept erratic bedtime. The ban was met with initial grumpiness but soon the children were playing in the garden and doing artwork.

Cable television has now returned to their Chennai house. “But it is no longer central to their life,” Balasubramaniam remarks with satisfaction.

Abhiviraj cannot say if he is missing out on life without a phone-on-the-go. “It’s hard to say because I never had one. I think most of my peers are constantly distracted because they keep getting calls and are always texting.” To hang out with his friends after college, they meet at pre-decided places and times. Abhiviraj also cycles to college or to his squash game. It is a way to exercise and lead a simpler life, feel father and son.

The desire to retain a technology-free approach to life has prompted another irony. The Waldorf School chain in the US hit the headlines recently when The New York Times reported that the children of senior executives with technology giants such as Google, Apple and Yahoo were enrolled with Waldorf’s Los Altos branch. The Waldorf Schools favour no-tech, creative and imaginative approaches to learning. Instead of computers there are blackboards, fractions are taught using apples and oranges, maths through knitting, and creative techniques and experience are used to teach logic and analysis. In the Los Altos branch, over 75 per cent of students came from Silicon Valley families shelling out robust annual fees of $17,000-24,000.

Scientists fear that the constant supply of information and responses leaves little room to reflect, learn or analyse. “Experience is the most valuable way of learning but is devalued in the current education system. Learning from experience is being completely short-circuited because there is no time for reflection when you are constantly being bombarded with information,” rues behavioural scientist Rosemary Viswanath. “There is enough evidence to show that overreliance on computers can reduce social skills.”

Not surprisingly, even companies are now disengaging from the constantly-connected loop. Last year, Reuters reported that the German office of carmaker Volkswagen would implement a BlackBerry email embargo for its workers after office hours to give them a break from 24-hour connectivity.

“Everyone understands the value of a Saturday-Sunday,” says Kris Laxmikanth, CEO, Headhunters India, Bangalore. “A five-day week is seen as soft perks given by highly competitive sectors such as consulting and recruitment that would otherwise lose people to companies offering a shorter week.”

He points to Chinese IT consulting company Huawei which does not allow employees to carry work home. Laptops are left behind in the office not just for reasons of security — undisrupted time off is also valued. Closer home, the nearly 2 lakh software professionals of Infosys are not tapped on the weekends.

Email communications have their downsides too. An angry email is prone to elicit more aggressive responses via email than if in actual interaction. “Matters tend to escalate more with email communications. Virtual communications are not the right way to resolve conflicts and tensions. Monologues get angrier and angrier,” notes Viswanath, who runs advocacy and research organisation Equations and has consulted with software firms in the past.

The constant focus on networking via social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, or constantly using email to communicate, induces a lack of “reality orientation” and a diminishing ability to judge based on interpersonal skills. “Our self-concept is not tested by actual emotion,” she warns. The lines are blurred between self-perception and reality.

“If you are going ‘Yo! All’s well!’ all the time, there is a tendency to not develop intimate relationships or be vulnerable,” she says. The overreliance on technology as a method of communication, for instance, implies people don’t talk to the person next to them, she points out.

For Bangari, lack of talk is never an issue. And the joy of a morning walk uninterrupted by incessant phone calls can’t be overestimated. “When I see six-year-olds handling iPads comfortably and their parents proudly showing them off, I feel very sad. They don’t know textures and nature and the joys of discovery through games.” For them A still stands for an apple — but not the kind that falls off trees.