Saturday, August 28, 2010

Talk to the phone!

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 26 August 2010.

  Smart phone

Those who know me will also know this: I don’t like talking on the phone and sometimes I even forget to bring my mobile phone with me. They will also know that I own a Sony Ericsson W705 but would happily settle for an older W205 model which costs only RM300, if not for the latter’s short battery lifespan.

A truly functional phone to me is one which allows me to make and receive calls, to send and receive text messages and, of course, to help me identify the caller before I answer the call. Other than these, most other applications are just superfluous.

With this trivia in mind, it’s not surprising if I tell you why I think the Blackberry and iPhone are overrated and, sometimes, diabolical inventions. Ultimately, the only time when I would truly appreciate them is when the whole world has gone mute, deaf or both.

If Jose Saramago had had the chance to write a book called “Mutism”, I hope he would make them his main protagonists. However, here’s the scary thing. These fourth-generation phones have not been invented to aid the mute nor the deaf. Ultimately if it is ever possible at all, they will be THE invention that will cause people to go mute and deaf voluntarily.

Trust me. There will come a time when we won’t even hear our own voices anymore, much less that of others.

When I first started my job in Malaysia eight months ago, I didn’t even know how to operate the office photocopier. This was me after spending several years in under-developed countries where Internet connection and mobile networks were privileges. Once, possession of a hand-held radio set (or what most people know as a walkie-talkie) was a security necessity; something to be used for security checks and during times of distress.

For many years, I lived around people who did not carry their mobile phones as if their lives depended on them. Nobody checked their mobile phones every few minutes to see whether there were any incoming messages or emails which could potentially shout out, “EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY. HELP ME!”

Nobody felt the compulsion to report to anyone what they were doing lest the whole world thought they might be dead due to the eerie silence of their Facebook or Tweeter status profile.

I used to live in a world where people looked each other in the eyes and listened when others talked. It was an uninterrupted world where we lived for that moment and gave ourselves completely to the presence of the other; whether it was to the person sitting in front of you, or to the sound of silence but for the regular swoosh of fan blades cutting through air, the cooing of pigeons by the window ledge or to the child calling out for your attention.

Now, I live in a world where I’m surrounded by colleagues and friends who just can’t get enough of their Blackberry or iPhone. I was in Alor Star with a group of colleagues recently. We travelled in a convoy of cars. As I stared outside our chartered mini-bus window, another convoy passed by our side. My impulse was to wave at my colleagues on the other side but what I saw shocked me. They all had the same silhouettes; chins tilted downwards with eyes wide open. I felt deflated and defeated.

It finally dawned on me that I no longer belonged to a time or space where people notice each other or their surroundings. The pleasure of having good and meaningful conversations is already threatened by people who care more about posting their thoughts and opinions on cyberspace rather than sharing them with those who are breathing the same air as them.

One of my friends (who, thankfully, has not succumbed to this madness yet) joked to another who’s an avid twitterer, “You’ve been staring at your Blackberry for ages! It better be porn on the screen.”

To be fair, I shouldn’t blame this social handicap on the invention. In essence, most inventions are supposed to serve humanity; to bring us closer to comfort, relief, convenience and increased productivity. These fourth-generation phones are handy for those who travel a lot but would like to put their time into good use. It gives people access to real-time news and can also serve as an instant encyclopaedia.

What’s really troubling me though is when human beings become slaves to the invention rather than the other way round. Instead of allowing the invention to serve our needs, we have abandoned ourselves and others to eventually serve the inventors’ needs to sell their products.

The mobile phones of today are akin to televisions of yesterday. (Mind you, have you noticed how some parents use the iPhone as a quick fix to keep their children entertained and occupied?) When the television was invented, it had singularly changed the social landscape of humanity. As it became more and more affordable, people became less and less interested in each other. I could never understand why my father hated the television with all his guts.

Now, I do.

PS: If you don’t hear from me again, you’ll know that my friends have killed me after reading this piece. That, or someone has bribed me with a brand new Whiteberry.

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