I am, in many ways, the incorrigible news-junkie. It is probably because I am from Bongaigaon and if you are from Bongaigaon, you have to know things to make sure that you are still a part of a world, any world. So I became a news-junkie. The compulsion to have read up on everything from Elvis’ meeting with Nixon to the Bodyline series to knowing about every Yung-1 sneaker silhouette ever released is something that I cannot stop myself from feeding my brain. Data, you see, is my drug. It has not always been an easy relationship. But mostly, it has been something I have been able to channel: for instance, collating stories on the anti-CAA protests in India and then the violence that followed was something that definitely kept me sane during a very difficult period of 2019 where I felt nothing but helplessness.
Given this background, this coronavirus induced self-quarantine has been something that has given most of us a chance to reflect. For many of us who live away from home it is also the time we have spent anxiously holding on to live-tickers; one in Europe and one that is elsewhere. This has been a source of the kind of anxiety I have never known in my life. Being the anxious person I am, at some point I was staring at the Deutsche Welle site having read the same ticker that refused to update at 4 am; this is when it clicked: I have to change something.
On being Data Conscious
It is not something that I am declaring that is new. I have always maintained that we have to change our relationship to data because, as more and more data goes out, the more vulnerable we become to the technology that is supposed to make us more social. This is where we have to do the hard work because staying away from the Facebooks and the Instagrams of the world means that you have to find your own ways of dealing with something that is not just philosophical (as Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism points out, quite rightly) but also something deeply ethical. It has to do with how much you enable a tech-giant like Facebook and Google to use your data. Even as Facebook and Google tell you about the “local” businesses you should be supporting, we are still at the mercy of their data algorithms. Recently, due to technical issues, a lot of links connected to the coronavirus outbreak suddenly became “against community rules”. It was later attributed to a bug. Even if we take this up as something of an “honest mistake”, I do feel terribly insecure about depending on the Zuckerbergs of the world to read news, or not to have access to them because of a bug. Hence, I find this to be the right time to re-evaluate my own relationship to Facebook and its products (Instagram and Whatsapp, of course).
Social media, in general, has contributed to a lot of grief but I am also worried about what it means to live outside it for a while to understand how I can use it in a manner that actually makes sense. Staring down the infinite scroll when you are away from home and are worried is probably one of the most awkward silences one can find oneself in. And in the last few months, given all that has happened, for better or worse, this has been a constant emotion that I have felt. So, after going through half of Newport’s book, I have decided to become boring.
What does that mean?
For one, I don’t think I ever want to have another open-ended conversation on a long thread with a stranger trying to convince them that maybe lynching people is not a good thing. As for a more general principle, I want to fundamentally change the way I am consuming things. This means, having more time to actually meet and stay in touch with people by having conversations. I am in disagreement with Newport here who is, by all accounts, underestimating how much a long email works like a letter in the digital age. He does seem to be against all texts and wants people to have analogue conversations. I am a little more deliberate than that when I write people and hope to maintain contact with a few friends by writing mails.
The biggest problems that I can imagine would be simply knowing far less than anyone in real-time. I would also miss a few events because of the fact that the events page on Facebook is, for all purposes, one of the most crowded ones. I do want to think that Cal Newport’s practice idea that we can always bookmark that page and then use it once a week is something I would eventually end up doing—once this whole coronavirus thing is over.
Additionally, there would be all the information about people graduating, getting married, getting jobs etc. that I would also miss out on. But I guess that would mean that I would simply write people and reach out individually. Which is really not a bad thing.
As of now, I plan to not do anything else on my Facebook. Or Instagram. Now is the time to be boring and calm. I cannot wait for it.
P.S. I am not a digital minimalist. Not yet, in any case. But I was very glad to have found an audiobook version of the book Digital Minimalism on Libby, which is an app by Rakuten. If you are someone who has access to a public library, you probably also have access to Libby. It is simply one of the best apps I have ever come across. Libraries are the best things in the world. They represent the very best of what we have on this planet.
Photo credit: Hunter Harritt on Unsplash
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