The post-Google generation might watch Attenborough’s Gandhi while downloading three better films
The New Yorker had a cartoon some years ago I quite liked. A man on his cellphone tells his caller: “I’m hanging up now. I am getting a better call.” Apart from being ludicrously funny, it essentially summed up the way we live.
Nowadays, I can concentrate for maybe 11 seconds when I’m writing, before I start thinking, gosh, there has to be a Facebook message or a Tweet or an email or an SMS better than this. When I search for something on the Internet, I’m not paying attention to what I’m reading, I’m constantly thinking of all the other Internet links I’m missing out on and expecting something, anything, to distract me. It’s as if one’s whole life is waiting for a better call.
To misquote John Lennon for the iPad generation, reading is what happens to you when you’re making other plans.
“Our mind now works like those traders you see on CNBC during a financial news story. They are looking at five screens intently with squiggly stuff scrolling quickly. You have no idea what they’re looking at. Neither do they,” explained a banker friend. “But you have to be seen seeing five different things. The age of seeing one thing is over.”
Twenty years ago, I was perfectly fine watching a four-hour swearing-in ceremony of former President Zail Singh or singing along to a whole song by Wham, and it didn’t strike me once that what I was doing was totally insane (OK, maybe I apologise a little for that second thing).
“In the last three years, I’ve read maybe half an article and I’d say half an email,” said a journalist friend who explained to me, accurately, how we essentially now just skim information rather than focus on it. “Can you imagine that you’d be sitting in India and every morning you could decide between reading The Guardian, The New York Times or The Financial Times? And yet, I can’t read any of them because, by the time I decide, it’s too late. There’s a better article, and then another, or someone’s tweeted a link to a blog post, then the day is over.”
Many articles have been written on how the Internet age has essentially created distraction — but I think we’re way beyond it. Today, distraction is the new concentration. If you’re in a movie or a play, try and observe those around you in the audience while the thing is going on. (Do this subtly, it can look creepy.) The LCD screens of their phones light up every minute or so. If you’re able to observe an audience from above, you’ll see a thousand blue bowls of light in black, making it look like a Nokia showroom in space.
YouTube will eventually replace television not only because it gives you the best bits of entertainment in three-minute capsules but literally places other stuff that may be better on the right hand side of what you’re watching, as if saying, “I know you’re concentrating for a good four minutes for this clip, you poor thing, but here are four other, better, things you could be watching.”
And while our generation could say, “Look at us, we concentrated and did differential equations without needing to see a video of a cat waltzing with a panda every three minutes”, it certainly hasn’t made us any smarter. The post-Google generation might watch Attenborough’s Gandhi while downloading three better films and responding to nine texts that say, “sup?”, but they’ll still end up with as much insight as we did. I have no idea why or how this happens, and it’s unfair. They say insect brains are always hopping around for better options because they’re constantly thinking of not dying. Maybe young people’s brains work like that. It’s as if their brain is also getting a better thought.
Two years ago, I remember being at the Tolstoy museum in Russia and someone said Tolstoy wrote 10,000 words a day to finish War and Peace (560,000 words in English translation). Russian winters being long and cold, he just drank vodka and wrote six hours straight. Two things struck me then. The first, never has vodka been put to such judicious use. Second, this man could churn out new-age Indian paperback fiction (Chetan Bhagat et al), at the rate of about one every 5 days.
“Life Is Elsewhere” was a Milan Kundera quote at the Tolstoy museum. Not for Tolstoy, I thought, especially if elsewhere was Russia outside his home at minus 40 degrees with nothing to do except get frostbite. Today, however, our lives are Kundera’s quote the other way round, with elsewhere being within our homes. Filled with what satellites and wi-fi bring. While writing War and Peace, Tolstoy could have learnt how to cook suckling pig online, put up photos of his beard on Instagram, seen a live street view of downtown Johannesburg traffic and chatted with a Texan prison inmate pretending to be a 23-year-old woman. Elsewhere is life.
Anuvab Pal is an author. His next book, Chaos Theory, is out this December.