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The 'third person in the room': Taming technology

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: November 11, 2019 21:18:03


Julia Hobsbawm proposes a 'blended self' in her book, Fully Connected: Social Health in an Age of Overload.

How often these days do we hear a parent say, "My son/daughter will be a Scientist, Engineer, Computer specialist, or a Business graduate in the best university"? Pushing the point, how often do we find the typical university student not holding or consulting his/her mobile/cellular? Or clicking the Google or some other icon on that mobile/cell right in the middle of a class lecture or discussion? In fact, how often do students briefly leave the classroom just to 'text' back an answer, or personally answer the phone, when before, even a generation back, only a bathroom call would interrupt a classroom lecture?

If it is not these one-on-one personal anecdotes, then it is the media; and, heavens, quite a team that has grown into! Before it was the radio, television, or newspaper, or all of them together over time, whereas today we have Internet feeding us all that is, or could not be, printed or published before, Whatsapp, and YouTube, among so many others to give us a 'live' feeling simultaneously. We get to know what is happening in any part of the world, listen to any music, or watch our favourite once wish-listed movie only by clicking a finger, and if that fails, to add more Facebook (FB) friends until all four corners of the world come crawling to our own finger-tips, literally. To top it all off, we can get to do all of these even before the regular channels can bring them to us, for instance, remember how we got to know the gory details of the Holey Artisan tragedy online before the media could lay hands on the inner story.

What kind of a teenager would let go of such an opportunity, to be able to chit-chat with more people globally in just one lifetime than all his/her ancestors could put together? Would not that be far more exciting than an Engineering course, or Marketing mid-term examination? Even if that course and examination have to be taken, would not enough of the mind still be on FB possibilities as to distract from the course/exam substance? Are we delivering below our intellectual potential because of a social bug?

Comparing the swift journey to this mindset from the still more homely teenager a decade ago, we can imagine how matters will stand ten-years hence, even wildly speculate mid-21st century society. At stake is, and increasingly will be so, human relations, how we used to communicate with our lips, not our fingers clicking, and with eye-to-eye contact, making oculesics, an important part of our communication, which only generic symbols can so poorly replicate online today. That personal exchange would give us so many more insights on each other that we would not always scroll someone's 'homepage' until we find some 'dirt' to salivate a dry day. Our growing reams of personal knowledge would easily subordinate any Engineering 101 or Marketing 101 textbook's relevance: remember how the heart pitter-patters faster and more robustly than mind-matters (whether for liking or disliking). We live in an age of inserting our own-coined terms, like 'selfie' into the dictionary, rather than imbibe what has been in it for scores of years. This is a 'modernising' sign, in our mind, reflecting noting but our own times.

With 'technology' as the 'third person' about and around us all the time for the rest of our lives, we can draw both glee and agony. Yet, losing the human touch may be the priciest of our losses: when 'bad' turns to 'worse', or the 'worse' flips over, no technology can do what the human can, embrace the bereaved, for example, or lift the downtrodden, or lend a handkerchief when emotions overflow. We tell ourselves, in part because we have been told by others, how artificial intelligence (AI) is coming, and it is theoretically possible to tailor our children before birth, or even have sexual engagements with contraptions, thus avoiding the typically complex dating game to get married, and so forth. If these await us, why bother with the human input when clicking fingers constitute all we need. On the first occasion of any technological 'betrayal', we swallow, forcing ourselves more aggressively to do something quick to overcome this loss. But one betrayal after another leaves us so desperate, we jump to the extreme. Climbing suicide rates today may have multiple other causes, but the hard-landing from a technological betrayal stands out because the human emotion is completely absent to attend that fall.

We have come full circle with that 'third person' peril. How do we begin to unmake a zombie country-in-the-making? Julia Hobsbawm proposes a 'blended self' in her book, Fully Connected: Social Health in an Age of Overload. She finds that though the biggest social media narrative is about robots, the second, third, and fourth directly involves human capacities and concerns: surveillance, privacy, and data manipulation. So we would be hitting it right on the head if we begin the long overdue task of mending broken social circles in full earnestness, especially with those people victimised or threatened by technological submission. She goes on to tell us over and over again how one poll after another increasingly shows this is fast-growing audience. How that audience has been implicitly silenced by the spreading technological tentacles is amazing: it seems many stranded people need help urgently.

One way to start is to return to the basics: education, and as earlier in the stream as possible, although eventually at every level, that is, at the primary, secondary, and tertiary educational thresholds. The approach is re-enacting, how we actually began public education three-odd centuries ago: through face-to-face interaction. For example, if one day in every week, at the least, is mandated to be technology-free within each school, we can restore some of the social juice currently eroding in the technological glare. Such a step would strengthen those who would want to take a stand against technological surrender, but end up succumbing to fear. It would offer an alternative to desperately captured technological victims, opening up an alternative to grasp. It would dampen the technological die-hard's dependence on those contraptions, and if even for a day, it would permit a social alternative that can also be ramped up with its own inducements in the same way as technological attraction also profits from.

This must be essential in primary school, eased somewhat at the secondary level, and calibrated far more idiosyncratically at the tertiary level. Perhaps the bottom line may be to use examinations as the ace-card to extract the vanishing social connections. Faculty members would have to go out of the box to deliver these tasks successfully, because unless a rabbit comes out of every hat at all times, any exercise weakness would show and tarnish the glow. Keeping the faculty well-fed, so to speak, may be the price society must pay to keep its denizens hinged to each other and glued to non-technological attractions at any given time.

A tall task that may be, but Hobsbawm inspires us to not refrain from utilising two inherent homo sapiens features: our physiological and psychological constitution. If technology becomes the third and most uninvited guest in this framework, the other two may begin to wilt, and ultimately wither. We cannot be the last generation to notice a social-cancer cure and not do anything about it. Indeed, the lesser the country's development, the greater the threat since it is inhabitants of such a society whose revolution of rising expectations runs far faster than in the more developed or undeveloped country. To wit, Bangladesh is such a country demanding the right lesson be learned and the proper social balance be restored.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd

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