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From Star Gazers to Navel Gazers

Alakananda Mookerjee Mar 30

Had Nicholas Copernicus owned an iPad, or Tycho Brahe, an iPhone, they would never have discovered, respectively, that the Earth revolved around the sun, or that comets were not a meteorological phenomenon.They would have been too busy looking down to look up at the heavens, let alone ruminate about our position in the cosmos.

Human thinking has traditionally been geocentric and anthropocentric. One might have imagined that the advent of modern technology would have catapulted us to higher planes. Au contraire, it has made us more egocentric than ever. Where we once believed our bluish rock to be at the center of the universe, we now rejoice each one of us are individual axes at the centers of our own universes.

After all, the very ukase of the Digital Age is, “What are you up to?” It pleases us to think that the 140-word twaddle we issue carries the weight of an emperor’s edict. It inflates our ego to know that we command the loyalty — however fickle — of a flock of devotees.

The world comes to us filtered through pieces of software called apps. Indeed, who looks up at the sky anymore, even if it is to see roiling storm clouds gathering to pour rain? “There’s an app for that.”

The immaterial universe, as tech folks know it to be, is expanding with eyeball-popping alacrity. The volume of all digital content has skyrocketed from 800,000 petabytes in 2009 to more than 1.2 zettabytes, which is equal to 1021 bytes – a one followed by 21 zeros. An astronomical figure, fuelled by our compulsive need to generate more bits, will only grow bigger, faster.

By comparison, the strides we have made in space exploration have been miniscule. According to a recent report in the New York Times, “If the Earth were in Orlando, and the closest star system, Alpha Centauri, were in Los Angeles,NASA’s two Voyager spacecraft, the most distant manmade objects, have traveled just one mile.”

The cramming of a galaxy of both worthwhile and worthless information into our portable doodads, has ironically, collapsed our mind’s horizons to a size no bigger than the touchscreens we wipe, because everything we need is inside them.

Ever since Alexander Graham Bell gave us the gift of the curmudgeonly charming telephone, telecommunication gadgets have progressively shrank in size. Miniaturization, doubtless, is the trend of the future.

But, it was not until smart phones, tablets, and e-readers appeared that technology got so addictive, holding us in its shiny thrall as if it were a beguiling sea nymph.

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, cited, in a post, that the world had squandered 200,000 years playing the popular iPhone game, “Angry Birds.” In May 2011 alone, Facebook gobbled up 53 billion minutes of Americans’ time.

In the past, one owned a robust, sedentary, rotary-dial telephone. It granted us cranial freedom. They draw us in with the force of a narcotic undertow, and once in, they entrap with the sweet cunning of a Venus flytrap. Petite and peripatetic as they are, they possess us, with a hold so tenacious that we have lost a very innate desire: to look around us.

We seem to relish nothing that is not mediated by either a lens, or a Web service, or an app. Updating our statuses has become the central activity, which alters, nay diminishes, our appreciation of the moment.

Our hand-held gadgets certify the very reality of our sensory experiences.

Humankind has evolved from stooping and trudging with a lumbering gait, to being erect, with necks and spines held vertical. Now, with sloped necks, we walk distractedly along sidewalks, ride up elevators, shuffle through grocery store aisles. We go through our daily grind, in essence, cut off from the outside environment.

We have a voluptuous admiration for technology. Yet, who knows? The makers of our hand-held fixtures may have triggered a devolutionary cycle that will bend us lower and lower until we crawl on all fours again.