Does digital spell dystopia?

Whether it is Uber's plan to roll out driver-less taxis or robots replacing workers in factories across the world, human beings are being made dispensable by technology. Photograph:( AFP )

WION Delhi, India Sep 21, 2016, 11.01 AM (IST) Nishtha Gautam
Island City, a recent Hindi movie, makes an interesting statement about the technology-driven world we inhabit. Winner of the FEDORA prize for the Best Young Director at the Venice Film Festival 2015, the film gives a sly nod to the greater-than-ever influx of technology in our lives and its ramifications.

Director Ruchika Oberoi has managed to capture the changing dynamics of human relationships and isolation vis-a-vis advanced interaction with digital products and services. The contrived mirth in the automated alerts from the ‘Fun and Frolic Committee’ is grim and farcical at the same time.
Whether it is Uber's plan to roll out driver-less taxis or robots replacing workers in factories across the world, human beings are being made dispensable by technology. With the launch of Apple Nike + watch last fortnight, human beings are not needed even for nagging. "The Nike+ Run Club app offers daily motivation through smart run reminders, challenges from friends and even alerts informing when the weather is right to get outside", reads the description on Apple’s website.  If you miss a run, you get nagged by your wrist-watch instead of a running partner, physician or a family member. A recent article on the internet called the device a "dystopian nagging machine". Does digital really spell dystopia?

Ashwin Mushran, Mumbai-based actor who was part of Island City, has an interesting take on this. "The film engages with technology at a subliminal level. It is more about the isolation. Technology is what we make of it. There are apps and services that make lives much easier. On the other hand, there may be unhealthy dependence. The good thing is that users can control their level of engagement with technology. I can easily tweak my Facebook settings as per my privacy requirements," he says.

In the first story of the film, Mushran plays a boss straight out of a nightmare whose insistence on structure and organisation eventually leads to a catastrophic climax. The actor says, "The first story could be set anywhere in the world. It is about how we are conditioned to be from anywhere. Technology brings us together but it also flattens individualism, local character. It is also about our unthinking response to technology which becomes tyrannical."

Technology aids in organisation but how far? Mushran says, "I use an app to track my monthly expenditure. It is a great help to my accountant and I can manage my money better. The voracious reader in me has found salvation in Kindle. The catch lies in questioning the technology and not taking orders mindlessly. The latter comes close to living in the Nazi Germany. It will certainly spell disaster eventually. The future belongs to technology, the earlier we understand and adapt to it the better. There is no getting away and we shall all be forced to go digital without understanding it. Why not prepare ourselves for it then and use technology on our own terms?"

"My fitness apps don't nag me. I've become fitter because of them. Digital becomes dystopic only when you want to make it so," he stresses.
Abhishek Aggarwal, the CEO of Bold Kiln - a solution provider for startups - is a deep consumer of technology. "Technology is an enabler. It amplifies the latent behaviour within an individual. If you are a recluse, it allows you to do activities on your own. It is an exaggeration to say that certain behaviours emerge only due to consumption of technology. Technology facilitates these behaviours but rarely causes them," says Aggarwal, who graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), New Delhi.

On technology replacing human interaction, Aggarwal says, "Technology does not take away from relationships. A skype chat can be more intense than a physical one. Maybe the dynamics of relationships undergo a change because of digital intervention. But look around, we are able to stay in touch with our school friends through networking sites. Families spread across continents connect through communication technology."

"When we speak of the hazards of overexposure, we must realise that it is our own inability to prioritise. Digital platforms play on our insecurities and attention deficit. It is easier to blame technology than take responsibility of our own excesses. Technology does offer an easy escape. But so do newspapers and books! How much you want to remove yourself from your surroundings is up to you," he adds.

However, Shilesh Chandra, a businessman from the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is still sceptical about most things digital. He carries a basic mobile phone and uses it only to make or receive calls. He endearingly squabbles with his seven-year-old granddaughter over phone lock passwords. “It is just cumbersome. I do not have the patience to deal with so much happening inside my phone. I love my afternoon nap and that’s when I switch even this phone off. I find the alarms and reminders quite inconvenient and obtrusive,” he shares.
Convenience has a different definition for everyone, and so does dependence on technology.