x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The zombie-like trance that smartphones induce in us all

The first thing I do after I wake up is to check my phone and the last thing I do before I go to bed is to, well, check my phone.

TI wish I were in Berlin right now. I know that first line reads like a Julie Andrews song, but it actually refers to the state of mind of most tech-geeks and smartphone users all over the world. You see, there is a battle of the titans going on there right now between Samsung, Sony and Apple at the International Conference of Consumer Electronics.  

Like much of the rest of the world, I am waiting to see if Apple one day releases a smartwatch. I am also enamoured with the new Sony Xperia phone with its clip-on lens attachment that was a product waiting to be created. I have friends who have switched to Samsung, but so far, I have resisted. In moments of delusion, I have actually contemplated buying and using all three phones - the Sony, Apple and Samsung. However, their respective price tags have prevented this particular experiment from happening but not for want of dreaming.

What's your poison? Is it the Galaxy Note with its easy access to information? Is it the Apple that is struggling to remain avant-garde amid rivals nipping at its feet? Is it the phone-camera that combines two urgent needs in the Sony Xperia?

I use an iPhone 4S to run my life. I wake up, brush my teeth, and do some fitness exercises: Lumosity and FitBrains to sharpen my memory and concentration. I tell myself that it is a way to improve my working memory - the first thing that fails when middle age sets in. I speak out my tasks to three productivity apps; my favourite is Swipes. I check email and respond to it. I send messages to my mother. And then I do the thing that I used to do first thing in the morning: drink my coffee. How my life has changed.

I am a smartphone addict. I used to be one of those people who walked into the house speaking into a phone; who used the index finger to signal "just a minute" to my spouse or child as I finished the phone call that could wait until after dinner and indeed, need not have been taken in the first place.  

I am that annoying person who surreptitiously glanced at my phone while having lunch with a long-lost friend just to check if any message or emails had arrived.

I still compulsively carry my phone around, rationalising it as exercise, particularly after I have downloaded Moves, the fitness app, into it. This app records how many steps I have taken during the time I hold on to the phone, increasing an already high usage into an addiction.  

The first thing I do after I wake up is to check my phone and the last thing I do before I go to bed is to, well, check my phone.

This has turned into a fraught, guilt-ridden exercise. You see, these tiny machines that hold our universes in their square depths are like vampires. They suck our engagement with the world and turn us into zombies staring at brightly-lit screens.

As Sherry Turkle eloquently describes in her book, they make us "alone together". Today, most of us talk to our spouses and children using WhatsApp or other messaging applications. This eliminates the nuances of tone and voice that speech entails.  

My teenage daughter prefers to communicate by text. She knows that I will suss out her emotional state when we speak and prefers to text, "Everything is fine here at the party", instead of having me phone her and figure out if her voice is joyous, worried or panic-stricken. As a mother, I always assume that my child is panic-stricken and hold my flight-or-fight hormone in standby mode every time I let my child out of the house.

My husband hates messages. He is old school. He would much rather pick up the phone and talk to me rather than have me message him. This is a problem for me, because it prevents me from telling white lies.  

When he calls to check where I am, it is harder to tell him that I am still getting ready and will only reach the event in half an hour's time. I prefer to text, "On my way," which could mean anything.  

So I have reached the perfect compromise: I call my daughter who doesn't want to speak to me and text my husband who does.

Shoba Narayan reads her memoir, Return to India on her smartphone