THE GOD MACHINE - The digital revolution has made our lives less tactile

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 8.11.07

Till roughly fifteen years ago, the most complex electronic gadget Indian consumers had to handle was the video cassette recorder. Programming the VCR to start recording a favourite programme when you weren’t at home was a complex business, made harder by instruction manuals that seemed to have been translated from the original Japanese into Esperanto.

But apart from the VCR, electronic gadgets were appliances, machines that performed simple, dedicated functions via controls an idiot could use. The transistor radio was the definitive example of the appliance: you switched it on and twiddled the tuning dial. There was a volume control and an aerial. Extending and collapsing the aerial was a curiously satisfying act. The cassette player, when it turned up, merged itself with the radio to produce the two-in-one, but this twinned device wasn’t significantly more complicated. There were piano keys to fast forward and rewind clearly indicated by arrows, and the most complicated action you performed with the cassette player was to depress the start and record key (helpfully coloured red) simultaneously to tape something.

Similarly, refrigerators just worked, and so did primitive washing machines. The only controls they had were mechanical knobs that raised and lowered temperature or speed, and every change was clearly signalled by a click. Indian television sets were particularly satisfying from the point of view of simplicity because till the Nineties there was just the one channel (or two). Remote controls were widely regarded by desis as a laughable form of American decadence. The standard television set had a brightness slider and a contrast slider and a colour slider, all of which were self-explanatory. The only thing remotely electronic in a good camera used to be the little flat battery that powered the exposure meter inside.

Life was simple (if clunky) till the time appliances replaced their controls — dials, knobs, sliders, keys, buttons — with something I learnt to call an interface. I can still recall the awe I felt when I saw that my NRI brother’s SLR camera had a little screen close to where the shutter speed dial used to be, written over with crude numbers and letters composed of hyphen-like dashes.

From that day on, my relationship with electronic things changed. No longer were they slave appliances with physical controls that made them perform the one function they were designed to perform; now they were electronic entities which had to be first understood and then made to work via complicated action sequences. Where once they had been things to use, now they had to be programmed. Take the brightness control on a television set: once upon a time there was a button to make the image brighter or dimmer. Now you have to get into a screen menu and then manipulate arrow keys to get to the sub-menu that does the job, which is so tiresome that I never change the default settings of my television screen.

Now everything I use (air conditioners, televisions, radios, DVD/CD players, watches, washing machines, cameras) has a screen, an interface, multiple functions and the ability to explain its current condition to me by way of read-outs. But the catch is that the read-outs, the messages on those screens, are cryptic. Where once transistor radios had a dial with clearly marked positions for AM, FM, SW, now my thrillingly versatile car whatsit makes me first press a button enigmatically named Mode. To choose between the radio and the CD player I have to stab a mystical button called Source. Throw in a couple of buttons for Being and Nothingness, and playing a song in my car would become a properly metaphysical business.

This is my cue to say that I’m not a Luddite. My most cherished possession is my laptop. It is a miracle of modern design and, being a Macintosh, it is as simple and intuitive to use as a computer can be. It has made me a better correspondent, an obsessive reader of newspapers, and a devotee of Google’s giant Mind. It hasn’t made me more productive as a writer, but that’s not its fault. I spend more time looking at its screen than doing any other single thing. It has become indispensable to my sense of well-being and yet, I can’t help thinking that this über-machine, even as it delivers to our door an empire of information, diminishes our lives.

Having converted music and print and photographs and film into bytes, having liberated them from the physical media that used to deliver songs, books and movies to their consumers, the digital revolution had made our lives less tactile. Collecting vinyl albums was a kind of fetish: the elaborate album art, the large black platters, the exaggerated care with which they were removed from their sleeves and restored to them were crucial elements in our consumption of music. CDs, being smaller (and invisible when played), didn’t excite quite the same joy of possession, but they still filled racks nicely, and extracting the disc and snapping the case shut was a nice preliminary to playing music. But music ripped from CDs to a computer or downloaded from the iTunes store, has no physical presence. It’s hugely convenient to carry around in an iPod and play, but there’s no special business attached to it: to listen to a song, you now do the same things you do to watch a video clip or read a file: you choose a menu item on an iPod or launch a programme on your computer.

Our lives are now uploaded. Our transactions, our pleasures, our letters are all online. We are possessed not by a machine but a network so elaborate that even nerds have a hard time imagining it. Our window to this world, though, is the monitor, and inevitably, we spend more and more of our time looking through it. Not to do so would amount to being disenfranchized. This is a curious relationship to have with a machine. Where once a machine was a specialized appliance that made toast or played music, now it’s a proxy for an off-stage world to which our this-worldly life is mortgaged.

One depressing result of this change is that the racks of records and the shelves of books that gave us such a sense of ownership and well-being, now begin to seem clumsy, obsolescent ways of listening to music or reading novels. Unlike songs, no one downloads books, but it’s a matter of time. Think of what happened to the ultimate library book, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. As a book it’s virtually extinct. It now lives as a cheap DVD that you can rip in its entirety on to your machine’s hard drive. Now this is a good thing, but the Britannica’s bound-and-embossed bourgeois sex appeal is gone forever. It’ll happen to novels next: we won’t have first editions any more, just early downloads. Walter de la Mare had a prescient take on our present alienation:

Something has gone and bytes
and files
Will never bring it back
I long for those knobs again
I’m tired of screens, said Jack.