The country is on the mobile

During the Emergency in the 1970s, a slogan appeared on the rear of cars and elsewhere proclaiming, "The country is on the move." One jester - or did he commit a Freudian slip? - wrote instead, "The country is on the movie." Today we can suitably modify this adage into "The country is on the mobile".

By Martin Kämpchen
  • Published 19.07.17

During the Emergency in the 1970s, a slogan appeared on the rear of cars and elsewhere proclaiming, "The country is on the move." One jester - or did he commit a Freudian slip? - wrote instead, "The country is on the movie." Today we can suitably modify this adage into "The country is on the mobile". After the introduction of television no other innovation in social life has changed the Indian behavioral pattern as drastically as the mobile and, lately, the smartphone.

Let's face it, the mobile has been a boon to this country. This is so not only because of the obvious advantages of the mobile phone. Anyone is easily accessible, dangers can be avoided, time-consuming delays and searches are a thing of the past, and so on - I need not elaborate. Let us realize that, in addition, the mobile phone eminently suits the Indian temperament. I see this temperament as being spontaneous and therefore unwilling to engage in long-time planning. It is direct in approach and driven by emotions. It is unwilling to be caged in by a certain social consensus as, for example, to be naturally punctual and naturally remembering a promise or commitment, unless reminded or unless that commitment benefits oneself.

People plan the next step or perhaps two steps ahead, and improvise as they go along. The gift of improvisation is immense. Results do get achieved as long as one has the flexibility, energy and willingness to adjust and accept the hardships that this flexibility implies. Here the mobile is the perfect little gadget to structure one's own life as one goes along and to keep one's balance of give and take.

Besides, what a wonderful feeling to be located anywhere and yet be 'in touch' with everyone everywhere... It is the fulfilment, I sense, of a primeval Indian desire of 'being connected' any time - with one's family, community and neighbourhood, one's friends and also with nature and the divine. Never to be alone. The fear to be, at any time, left alone is an existential one which the mobile can disperse. With the push of a few buttons I hear somebody close to my ear who is also close to my heart. It is akin to the advaitic experience of an endless expanse of consciousness unfettered by the limitations of time and space. What a serious spiritual adept experiences in the fecund moments of meditation the mobile user can, in another way, realize in his daily business dealings. No destination is too distant, no phone call too early or too late. The mobile levels the sense of time and the sense of distance. The night-and-day-rhythms cannot stop us because we can have our message recorded or we tap it onto our WhatsApp or Twitter or Facebook account for the other person to read it whenever s/he is ready (which never will be long). No need to wait, we do everything right now!

This desire to be available - every day, all day - to everyone, and the need to know that others are equally available to oneself, is, I believe, connected with the joint family system. In a large household, many family members live together, often only in a few rooms, and untiringly interact with one another. Privacy, which modern nuclear family life demands, is extremely limited in a joint family household, and the need for it is also not strongly felt. Adjustments are constantly made with one another, and, ideally, the consciousness that everybody is available to everyone else anytime is the basic sentiment which holds the family together. Putting it differently, the requirement for a large family to stay together in relative harmony is unconditional love to the younger family members and unconditional obedience and respect to the older ones. This is the absoluteness which makes this organism called family work.

The electronic mode of being in touch is an extension of that absolute family feeling. That is why I see all around a deep intuitive acceptance of internet and mobile connectedness. It goes beyond family and neighbours, it is a worldwide connectedness and that makes it intoxicating. Formerly, to be available was felt to be a responsibility to family, friends and society. Now that sense of responsibility reaches across the globe: "I am needed everywhere, I am loved everywhere. I, too, must love everyone. I must never exclude myself because that would be selfish."

Here begin the drawbacks of such an attitude, admirable though it might be. The unrestricted use of the mobile phone creates dissonances and ruptures in social life which will, if not checked, become severe and create tensions quite in contradiction to the original intention. Let me cite a few examples. At the university I have witnessed meetings where the chairperson used his/her mobile liberally, each time interrupting the meeting for all its members. The mobile phone call of that one person grabbed the attention of the chairperson while all persons - who physically sat in front of him or her - had to wait. What makes the caller more important than the people around? Why did the caller get priority? The answer is: only because he or she used the mobile. Could the chairperson not put the mobile on silent mode and reply later? Are all electronic communications nowadays emergencies? Indeed, one could have replied later, but the feeling prevailed that one's responsibility was to remain instantly available. It is a magnetic pull even not many educated people can resist.

I have witnessed transgressions which were embarrassing as well as frustrating. Once I gave a lecture at a university hall, and while I was talking the chairman, a professor, answered the phone behind me. I felt like interrupting myself and sitting down. Even persons of high social standing commit the insensitivity of stopping a conversation in order to read the messages on their smartphone. There is little understanding that such behaviour is insulting to those who have to simply wait and look on.

The value of direct - face-to-face - conversation which cannot be substituted by any mediated communication, not by the mobile, not by video-conferencing or video-telephony, begins to deteriorate in the public as well as in the private domain. In India, darshan, the coming into direct visual contact with the deity, with the guru or with a respected human being, is of great spiritual and ritual importance. India realized that by coming in close physical proximity with another person, we absorb and benefit from his or her personality, strength, and moral status. There is an exchange of spirit which is a precious realization. It is therefore all the more unfortunate that the sanctity of direct physical togetherness is being corroded and, instead, electronic immediacy is given preference.