I used to enjoy sitting at cafés, restaurants, airport lounges the occasional ferry port and, although I don’t enjoy going there, even the dentist’s waiting room. But at some point during the last decade, I’ve noticed a tremendous decrease in social interaction between people at such venues; and it’s becoming plainly evident that the antisocial trend is spreading to every part of the globe.
Not even the dimly lit café strip of lakeside Pokhara — the cradle of the Nepalese paragliding community — has managed to escape the ravages of this modern virus. Luckily though, the afflicted are quite easy to spot — you only have to venture out in the evening light to witness the bluish-white glow of their faces while their eyes focus intently on the screen of their Laptop, Netbook, SmartPhone, iPad, Galaxy Tab or Xoom. Some even resort to covering their ears with huge cup-size headphones which completely isolate any outside sounds.
How does one spark up a conversation in such surroundings? Should one resort to throwing a stone in the general direction? At least when people were still carrying books instead of eBooks, you could glance at the cover and ask a question: “Wow, I haven’t read that – is it good?” It also gave you a quick insight into the language the person is likely to speak and hence their nationality. But that was then and this is now, and of course, there are many shades of grey and not every homo-techno will strive to reach such extremes as to completely isolate themselves from the rest of the world.
There are the lone wolves, the road warriors, with gadgets that makes it possible to stay connected simultaneously to as many virtual people as is technically possible. They jump from phone, to iPad to laptop to iPod and back again — not sure who’s competing for who’s attention.
There are those that sit in groups, attentively watching the array of SmartPhones neatly arranged in front of them. One could argue that this is social behaviour on some basic level, but the interaction is sadly banal because their attention is consumed by the uncertain anticipation of the next ring or beep or vibration — an anxious social feast with zero calorific intake.
But my favourite subjects are the couple tables, they tend to exist in a category all of their own. A couple will sit at a table, typically facing each other to maintain some semblance of interaction, with matching laptops and the associated bluish-white facial glow, absorbed in their individual (anti)social activities and status updates. Occasionally, they will glance at each other, perhaps even smile or giggle while spinning around the laptop to share the good cheer, latest post or incoming comment.
You have to question the motives for wanting to escape to such remote locations if the only thing these people want to do is to desperately hold onto the world they’ve left behind. Is this what the kids of today are calling travel and immersion in the culture of an ancient society? Why bother surrounding yourself in the beauty and magnificence of the mountain ranges, when every spare moment of your time is spent glued to the little glowing screen?
In a Web 2.0 world, where social media is at the heart of every App, where Facebook and Twitter and MySpace and G+ battle it out for first claim to your status update, isn’t it strange that we’re evermore removed from those we’re trying to stay in touch with? There are exceptions to the rule, but unfortunately not too many.
Truthfully, as much as technology makes it easy to stay in touch with every one of your 6,251 friends, you’re never going to be in two places at the same time — it’s physically impossible. And I would argue further by saying that if you do so desperately try to live in both worlds simultaneously, you will inevitably miss the entire experience by a huge order of magnitude — just like in the physical world, we also need to detach psychologically.
I grew up in a world where mobile phones were a distant fantasy, where a computer was something that sat on (and took up) the second floor of a university building instead of sitting comfortably in your shirt pocket. Where calling someone meant that you’d prearranged a time and made yourself available and that any time outside of this reserved slice was your own. In today’s world people want instant everything: gratification, success, communication, money and even kudos. I guess everyone must decide for themselves, if something is so easy to obtain, is it of any real value?
The technology has changed, as has the way we communicate and reach out to those around us, but the important thing to remember is that the basics of human interaction will always remain the same. No matter how much we hide behind those electronic gizmos, there is nothing quite as rewarding as getting out into the real world and experiencing things firsthand.
So switch off those iPads, take off those headphones, silence the vibrating alert, fold down the screen, unplug yourself from the ever-present Wi-Fi signal, stop living in a virtual land of LOL’s, BRB and ROFL and take a look around you. Chances are that there are people all around who want to interact with human beings capable of real empathy, emotions and of unique character.
It might be hard at first, but believe me, your facial muscles will know how to smile and your tongue hasn’t forgotten how to speak — although I can’t be sure that your on-screen wit will make the transition to the real world completely unscathed. It won’t be perfect, but it will be a hell of a lot more rewarding.