In a bookstore in Scotland is a trophy displayed like an animal head. The label describes it best. Amazon Kindle. Shot by Shaun Bythell. 22ndAugust 2014. Near Newton Street. It is almost poetic; Tolstoy might have written a whole novel from that description. Bythell, the owner of the bookstore, was making a point.
Sometimes I feel the same urge. To shoot a mobile phone and display it on a wall in my study. I am no Luddite, mind you, and enjoy modern technological conveniences. And yet. Let me tell you about my friend — we’ll call him John — so you will understand.
When I visited him recently, he forced me to hang on till sunset. The conversation was banal, the tea tepid. And then it happened. His garden burst into light. His household gadgets were connected to his mobile phone, and he could turn lights on and off from anywhere in the world. More importantly, he didn’t need to walk the three feet to the light switch in the room.
Our progress can be measured in two ways. By how far we get to travel — outer space, the moon, Mars, and so on — and by how little we need to in order to get things done. Movement and stillness both mean progress.
Sitting in a corner of a house using the phone to cook, bake and separate the garbage while the furniture tries to hide a giggle is hardly fun, but apparently that is where we are all headed. I mean, I am as lazy as the next guy, but even I have no objection to walking towards a light switch or a dripping tap.
I see a time soon when learning to walk will become a major high school course. I suspect our so-called labour-saving devices are meant to help not people but the inanimate objects around them. I smart under all this smart stuff.
It may be wonderful to have a smart house, with your phone speaking to your television and your bed speaking to your refrigerator and all that. But what do we do when the phone begins to freshen up the flowers on the table as the doorbell rings? A doorbell, mind you, that is rung by someone sitting in Papua New Guinea (and thus eliminating the need to run away when the deed is done) just to play a joke.
What happens when smart phones begin talking to one another, eliminating the middle men? The thought of these discussing weather patterns and floor-space-indices and thus depriving us of conversation openers is terrifying.
I am tempted to go in the opposite direction in protest. I will invite my friend John home and insist he leaves before dark because lighting candles takes time. Or sabotage his phone so when he thinks he is setting off his garden sprinklers, he is actually rearranging the climax of one of the Avenger movies. But first, I will have to shoot my phone for the sheer symbolism. After all, someone has to.
(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)