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The digital fence | Book excerpt – The Art of Bitfulness: Keeping Calm in the Digital World by Nandan Nilekani & Tanuj Bhojwani

The Art of Bitfulness: Keeping Calm in the Digital World by Nandan Nilekani & Tanuj Bhojwani

What this means is that if you landed there in 2017, as Prabhkiran had, you'd switch on your phone to find that you didn't have any cellular data or Wi-Fi and, consequently, no access to the internet.
What this means is that if you landed there in 2017, as Prabhkiran had, you'd switch on your phone to find that you didn't have any cellular data or Wi-Fi and, consequently, no access to the internet.

These excerpts initiate the reader into a book that is a call to make the most of our devices and their optimum use instead of a blanket digital detox

About eight hours before his flight, Prabhkiran Singh got a text from his friend that he was backing out of their vacation.

As the CEO of a growing start-up, Bewakoof, Prabhkiran often felt like he could never switch off from work. He had made plans with a friend to take a week-long vacation to Port Blair. He had booked flight tickets but had not done much else to plan the vacation. Prabhkiran decided he still needed the break, so he set an alarm and texted his friend to say he was still going to go.

Port Blair is the capital city of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, located in the Bay of Bengal, about 1400 kilometres away from the Indian mainland. In August 2020, the Indian government finished laying an optical fibre between the islands and the mainland. This optical fibre finally enabled 4G services and wired broadband on the islands. What this means is that if you landed there in 2017, as Prabhkiran had, you’d switch on your phone to find that you didn’t have any cellular data or Wi-Fi and, consequently, no access to the internet.

Landing in a new place without the internet was strange and made Prabhkiran slightly nervous. He couldn’t look up hotels or make reservations online. He couldn’t look up a map to decide where to go or book a taxi to go there. He hadn’t even saved any music on his phone because he was used to the idea of streaming music on demand. Prabhkiran admits that when he first realized there was no internet, he slightly regretted his decision to fly unprepared. But, over the next seven days, he had the best vacation he has ever had.

Instead of looking things up on his phone, Prabhkiran had to talk to people to make his way around. When bored, he couldn’t scroll social media or sneak a peek at his email. Once he reached the resort, not only was there no internet, there was no cellular reception either. 

Most days, he didn’t even carry his phone with him. The best part was that everyone else on the island was disconnected too. He found that people were more sociable and friendly. Strangers would join him for dinner and share stories from their travels. Prabhkiran carried a book every time he’d go on vacation, but this was the first time he actually finished reading it. After a very long time, he felt present in the moment and at peace.

By the end of his vacation to the islands, Prabhkiran realized that being unplugged wasn’t as scary as he had first imagined. He vowed to spend less time on his phone and more time amidst nature or in the company of friends. He deleted social media apps from his phone. After his return to Mumbai, every day, at 5.30 p.m. sharp, he would leave his phone on his desk and walk with a friend to Powai Lake to soak in the sunset. He found himself less stressed and more in control of his day.

If this were a movie, this is where the story would have ended.

You probably know what happened next. For a few weeks, Prabhkiran still caught the sunset every day, but he started taking his phone with him. Eventually, he stopped going. First one, then another; soon, all the social media apps came back. Work slowly started eating into his personal life, and Prabhkiran found himself exactly where he began— feeling overworked, overwhelmed and always connected.

We all know this conflict. Our devices make our lives incredibly convenient, but at the same time, they take something away from the quality of our lives. Yet, it is impractical to disconnect. Prabhkiran, for instance, would be unable to run his company without his smartphone. Even cutting down screen time is very hard. We may be able to do it for a few days or weeks, but, eventually, we all slip up and get back to where we started.

In an ideal world, our technology would be less distracting, and we’d be less easily distracted. We, however, do not live in an ideal world. Our technology is addictive by design, and we’re easily addicted by nature. Focusing on only one side of this problematic equation will tell an incomplete story. This book is an attempt at fixing the relationship we have with our digital tools, by looking at both sides of the equation.

We must begin by understanding how we shaped our tools and how they, in turn, are shaping us.

OUR EXTENDED MINDS

Most tools and technologies we’ve invented for a major part of human existence involved manipulating atoms and energy, amplifying the work our bodies could do. The steam engine, the fundamental invention of the industrial revolution, allowed us to convert heat into mechanical work. The information revolution had a different aim. Computers could manipulate bits of information, amplifying what our brains could do.

Over forty years ago, in 1980, Steve Jobs called the personal computer the ‘bicycle of the mind’. Compared with the technology of 1980, today we have the equivalent of personal Formula 1 race cars and 16-lane ‘broadband’ highways to connect the whole world. There has been a ridiculous increase in the capacity, capability and velocity of information technologies. They remain, however, a vehicle for our minds to augment how we think and sense. In their purpose, therefore, not much has changed.

Instead of viewing information technology as something outside of ourselves, we want to look at all aspects related to information technology—our computers, smartphones, smart devices, the apps on them and the data we access through them—as being prosthetics for our brain. Every time we use these technologies-searching for something online, clicking a like button, paying on an e-commerce site, sending a text to a friend or taking any other action—we generate a data trail. This data trail is the electronic manifestation of a thought that originated in our minds. Our data fuels these information technologies, but it is not any new oil—it is our naked selves.

Our devices, all the software that runs them and the data that powers them, are an extension of our mind.

Our extended minds support the way we think, talk and engage with the world. In the obvious sense, we connect with our friends over social media, instant messages or phone calls. In the less obvious sense, what we talk about offline is shaped by what we see online. Even in offline, face-to-face interactions, we pull out our phones to share pictures, videos or texts. Our extended minds help us share what we see and experience, enriching our connection with others.

Even if we don’t call technology an extension of the mind, we can still feel it. Most of us would hesitate to hand over our unlocked smartphones to others. The loss of privacy online makes us feel violated in real life. Simply running out of charge on their smartphones gives most people anxiety. If you’ve lost a phone or a hard disk with personal data you hadn’t backed up, you know what you felt is genuine grief.

Over the last two decades, digital technologies have integrated into all parts of our lives. Our extended minds are now an essential part of how we live, love, learn, and earn. There is a good reason for the growing influence of digital technology in our lives—they can often feel like superpowers.

Do you remember the first time you booked a taxi using a ride sharing app? For those of us old enough to remember the uncertainty of finding a taxi on the streets, apps like Meru, Uber or Ola were nothing less than magic. There’s every reason to believe the future will have more inventions that make our lives better. Therefore, we are not advocating ways to disconnect or detox, only to go back to the same problems in a few weeks as Prabhkiran did.

We don’t want to avoid these superpowers. We want to avoid the kryptonite that comes along with them. This book does not look at technology as something outside of ourselves that we need to minimize. Instead, we want to integrate technology into our lives to help us achieve what we want. The idea behind this book is not to spend less time on our devices.

The goal is to spend our time on our devices better.

Excerpted from The Art of Bitfulness: Keeping Calm in the Digital World by Nandan Nilekani & Tanuj Bhojwani, by permission of Penguin Random House

The Art of Bitfulness: Keeping Calm in the Digital World
Nandan Nilekani & Tanuj Bhojwani
Penguin Random House
Pp 236, Rs 799

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