Technically Speaking

I’ve read at least five different articles in the last six months about how technology is making us lonely. The latest is a short op-ed that was adapted from a commencement address given at Middlebury College this year. While it offers zero new information on the topic the piece encourages you to be more aware, attentive and empathetic toward the people around you. It’s a very quick and quotable read – “We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich.”

The piece made me reflect on the communication styles that I’ve encountered in India – mostly email, text messages, WhatsApp and Facebook messages (Caveat: I’m living in a bit of a bubble in that the people that I hang out with all have some form of smart phone(s) and regular internet access which isn’t representative of the population at large.)

I very quickly noticed that the shorthand used by everyone here (males and females alike), in all of the above listed forms of written communication, looks as if it belongs to a teenage girl. An example text message sent to me from my thirty-five year old cousin.

“Hw r thgs wid u. M free on fri n sat. Let’s c v cn catch up. Do call to mk a plan.”

It took me at least a full minute to decode that. The abbreviations, misspellings and disregard for vowels are most likely a function of two things: 1. Because it was most economical, SMS was/is the primary way of communicating with one another (part of the reason India was one of Blackberry’s largest markets was due to BBM), 2. The initial phones that were used when SMS took off didn’t have QWERTY keyboards or autocorrect. And thus, however annoying it may be to read, a new texting language was born.

The NYT article poses the question of what to do when you see a person clearly in distress. Do you bury your face in your phone and walk away or do you stop and try to comfort and help? The answer to that question is much more nuanced in Mumbai given the areas of poverty embedded in every nice community. The point however is well taken and to that end I feel that people in this country with devices, who have the resources to be constantly connected, have done so in ways that keep them just as close if not closer families, friends and even acquaintances. I’ve written previously about the familial culture and giving nature in India. It’s those culture values that drive “how not to be alone.” Of what I’ve experienced in this country so far, Mumbai has struck that right balance between online and offline.

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