Look Up

“Look up,” “Take it easy,” and “Keep it real.” What do these phrases mean? Their literal meaning is easy enough to grasp. But they are never used in the literal sense. They are touted as cures to our collective ills; metaphors for the actual processes which would make everyone less cynical and more attentive. I heard these phrases in the coda of an inane Hindi movie recently. The movie contained generic drivel about young people: the improbably rich MBA graduate in her 20s, the extremely hardworking gym trainer that luck does not favor, and the stand-up comedian who appears to be happy-go-lucky but is in fact hiding a dark part of his past. These characters are “finding their way” in the world; the typical plot of a “coming-of-age” movie. The lesson of this movie was to convince everyone to put their phone in a (stupid and futile) bowl, “look up,” and take notice of the world around them. One of the characters is told to stop stalking her ex-boyfriend on Instagram; “I don’t know [why]; I can’t stop.” It is ironic that it is this same character, a few minutes later in the movie, who recommends “keeping it real.” What was the great revelation?

Much has been said about social media. This much we know: It makes everyone feel worse about themselves; consume more; buy things they don’t need; idolize people they don’t know; envy those that they do; and follow things that no one should spend any time on. Yet, Instagram and TikTok remain popular (an understatement). 10 people sitting around a table in a restaurant, each staring at their phones, is neither unfamiliar nor jarring. Every free moment is spent that way anyway. Why?

I am not interested in the generational answer. The one that begins with “Hamare zamane mein, …“ (“In our time, …”) There was never a time when everyone did not complain about the young people of their time. It is bad form to appreciate change, after all. Writing, telegraph, radio, television, the Internet, email, and Whatsapp: Each brought a revolution that some adopted, most ignored, and everyone had to live with. The time one waits for a response has changed; the person waiting still remains unchanged. Do you agree?

Many potential answers are left to consider. One of them is that the boredom and boundaries of ordinary life are much to strict, and that is what everyone is escaping in the digital worlds that they inhabit all day. These tools provide access to facts that were never before assigned so much value. What was once scoffed at as caprice is now applauded in the comments-sections as spontaneity.

The viewer’s insecurity is monetized by the “influencer.” In the ultimate portrayal of irony, the selfsame Hindi movie which triggered this line of thought in me, has this prize line of dialogue in response to the statement “She is an influencer.”

And who is she influencing?

A cursory look at the advertising industry suggests that advertising on the Internet is completely ineffective and that the continued investment of actual money is a product of group think.

This effort to jump the fence is further reinforced by innovations that keep us inside a larger, encompassing fence. One where limitations are enforced by the service providers. The professional reviewers have portrayed this as a willing trade-off of freedom for convenience. “Stay in the walled garden, obey the platform’s guidelines, and everything will be great.” Have you heard that before?

Someone said this long ago: “The current iteration of technology has solutions for problems which were created by the previous iteration.” The quest to build that single super-app is essentially eternal.

Own your devices; find your own (open-source) tools; build your own process; do not depend on the whims of large companies;

Contributing influences: