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August 15, 2019

State of disconnection

Opinion

August 15, 2019

An eerie, almost surreal installation put up in Amsterdam in 2018 as part of the city’s Light Festival cannot help but draw attention. The sculpture shows three figures lit up with the white light of the mobile phones they clutch sitting on a bench and staring into their screens. This sculpture is significant because it forces us to face the realities of modern life. While we are constantly connected at all times to others through our phones, there is also a growing disconnect with reality, with real-life interaction and with the humanity that exists around us.

The chilling sculpture forces us to face a reality in which people are increasingly dependent on devices such as mobile phones and rely less and less on ancient arts like conversation, the sharing of stories and experiences or simple conversation. Will these arts die in time? With younger and younger children granted access to increasingly sophisticated mobile technology, this is a possibility.

The sculptor, Gali May Lucas, asks us to consider the impact technology is having on our society and to study in greater depth what it would mean for all of us in the near future. This of course is as relevant in Pakistan with its 151 million mobile phone users. Everywhere in our cities, and even in those hillside resorts which were once a place of calm and quiet and an escape from modernity, as evening calls we see the bright light of mobile phones light up faces, glow in the hands of people or glimmer atop the tables where they sit like giant glowworms. Without mobile phones, many of us feel lost; disconnected, without a purpose in life. Of course mobile phones have their uses, of course they have brought us benefits, but every picture has two sides. In fact it has many different sides, many different dimensions.

The now constant use of phones, notably amongst the younger generation, has brought a disconnect from true emotion or true sense of empathy and compassion. It is easy to type out words; the art of actually talking, of sharing ideas, of comforting others, of listening to their accounts and hearing their emotions, cannot come through on technology as well as it can in real life. There are cafes around the world, notably in smaller European towns, which ban the use of of mobile phones and advise customers to talk to each other.

Certainly, there is a possibility that talking will become a lost art. There is much in human speech which cannot be replicated in time or in images. This includes the nuances that determine what lies behind the choice of a particular word or the feelings that an individual may be expressing, sometimes in words that do not quite say it, while engaged in conversation. It is close interaction, intimate talks, face to face, and the picking up of non-verbal signs such as gestures and facial expressions which make humans what they are today. When this is lost, so is a great deal else. The basic facts may come across in those balloons of text and the pings which accompany them; a part of reality may be lost.

Has it been lost forever? Can we still empathise as well as we once could? Have our younger people lost this quality or are they in danger of losing it? In a world of technology, man himself is in constant danger of moving closer and closer to the world dominated by machines in which he lives. We certainly need to consider the situation.

The few studies that have been conducted point out that the age of interaction to neighbours who live on the same street, no matter where they exist in the world, seems to be disappearing. Women do not come out onto their doorsteps with young children on their laps to share a cup of tea with a neighbour or to discuss the maintained but important matters of life. Most often, they will text from inside their homes, inside the safety of their kitchens, and as such never notice their loneliness or need of other humans who may be seeking simply a few words of comfort, a few words of reassurance, a short exchange with another human being.

Yes, we are constantly connected. But we are also more disconnected than ever before. The state of Colorado in the US has proposed a law which would ban mobile phone use for under-13s, essentially on the basis that children need to learn social skills and how to deal with peers, parents and teachers without the use of technology. Campaigners in the state also warn that mobile phones can be dangerous and inhibit the development of the skills people need in adult and working life. France has already completely banned the use of mobile phones for children of all ages in schools, and other European countries are suggesting they could follow citing social and human relation skills as key factors. Movements such as the Forest School movement, which teaches children in woodland situations and was begun in Sweden and Denmark but has spread to other parts of the world encourages the connections children are losing with the outdoors.

Mobile phones do not appear in these forests where children in Scandinavian countries enthusiastically enjoy classes and are taught both about nature and a range of other topics in environments which educational experts in countries that have driven education several centuries forward say helps minds develop and learned to experience whole new worlds far quicker than would be possible within the four walls of traditional classrooms.

The issue of language and its rapid decline through the use of mobile phones is a different matter. It is also a concern as more and more people turn away from books and adopt the curious shorthand of instant communication, but a somewhat different one. Even video exchanges over apps such as FaceTime cannot compensate for real-life interactions. People touch less than was ever the case before and nothing can feel quite like a friend’s hand on the arm while walking along a path or sitting at a coffee table. Physical intimacy brings people closer. We are becoming something other than human, unable to pick up on feelings, unable to interact without the interface of a screen and awkward when it comes to sitting around at dinner tables with family or close friends. Technology has already changed the world. The small patches of white light are visible everywhere. We should be asking what dangers this presents and if there are more benefits in remaining connected at all times as we switch on our phones or in switching them off for long enough to hold ordinary conversations with those around us, developing the skills that have made humans human for so many centuries.

The writer is a freelancecolumnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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