Henry David Thoreau, the nineteenth century American thinker, is a person I am really fascinated with. America of the mid- nineteenth century was going through a great transformation in the field of technology because of two new inventions namely; the rail road and the telegraph. As a result of this transformation, the lives of people became faster and busier. It was at this point of time that Thoreau decided to go into ‘hiding' or as William Powers puts in his book ‘ Hamlet’s Blackberry’; “ at a time of rapidly growing connectedness, Thoreau disconnected”. Thoreau built a small wooden house in the woods near a river bank and lived in that house for more than two years with minimum contact with the outside world. He wrote the thought-provoking book ‘Walden’ during his stay there, in which he recounted his personal experiences of and reflections on his ‘disconnected life'.
We live in a culture that exhorts us to ‘get connected’. The fact that there are more than two billion smartphone users in this world and via these smart devices they access social media which includes Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat etc proves it. The need to get connected is a human need because we humans are basically social beings. But is the need to ‘connect digitally' a basic need? Answers differ. And I doubt. I have seen many people who could have easily afforded a smartphone having decided against using either it or social media. One interesting thing I have noticed in most of them is that though they do not have any virtual friends, the interpersonal relationships that they have are very deep. One great example of such a person is Fr Jerry Rosario SJ, a Jesuit priest from TamilNadu, popularly known as ‘barefoot Jerry'. He does not own even a pair of slippers let alone mobile phone. Though he does not own a mobile phone, his mobility in reaching out to people in need and his work towards the uplift of the downtrodden, remain unaffected. His relationship with others, I feel, are ‘heart to heart' rather than ‘screen to screen’. Hardly ever I have seen a person who can empathize with others as he does.
I am neither a stringent critic of all digital devices nor somebody who endorses ‘anything digital is good' point of view. But a believer in the wise saying, “virtue stands in the middle”.
Yes, social media and other digital devices do help their users in various ways. One of the best examples and a recent one too would be that of how the character ‘Sheroo' got to know about his ‘family roots’ through an app in the 2016 film entitled Lion by Garth Davies (as we all know the film is based on true events). In addition, the social media provides a platform for the users to voice their opinions, to protest ‘virtually' against anything they find displeasing to them, to connect with their near and dear ones, to share information and so on. They do wonderful things for us. But at the same time, to quote William powers again, “(they) also impose an enormous burden, making it harder for us to focus, do our best work, build strong relationships, and find the depth and fulfillment we crave”.
Now the question is how to remain disconnected, at least for some time every day, in this connected world. The need to remain disconnected has always been there in the hearts of us humans; and many people, down the centuries, have tried and some of them even succeeded in forming different ways of disconnecting effectively and constructively. One example is that of Henry Thoreau that I have already mentioned. Another one that I found quite interesting comes from the ancient Greece. In ‘ Phaedrus', one of the greatest dialogues of Plato; Phaedrus, a young man heads out of the city walls following the advice of a doctor named Acumenus that “ it’s more refreshing to walk along country roads than city streets” to spend time with himself and his own thoughts. We may wonder how come in the ancient Greece, a place absolutely devoid of any digital devices that we talk about, a person would have found it difficult to find solitude. The answer is simple: nowadays it is the digital devices that are causing distractions, whereas in the Greece of Plato’s time it was the ‘oral connectedness’. Ancient Greece was known for its great orators and their fiery speeches and debates in the streets. The streets of Greece would be quite noisy throughout the day because of all this. So Phaedrus felt the need to disconnect from the ‘ orally connected' city and to take a stroll through the country roads of Greece ; only to come back to the city with new ideas ,thoughts, a refreshed mind and a quieter heart.
I think the method adopted by Phaedrus is something that can be well adopted in our lives too in this twenty first century. We must be able to say good bye to the digital devices that are very close to us at least for a few hours every day. And use that time to think or read deeply or to engage in the sort of activities that would help us to know ourselves and others better. I think that only when we are ‘disconnected’, our mind really works. The best of human creativity happens only when we have the time and the mental space to take a new thought and follow it wherever it leads. In ‘Hamlet’s BlackBerry’, the author comes up with a very thoughtful observation; “William James once contrasted “the sustained attention of the genius, sticking to his subject for hours together”, with the “commonplace mind” that flits from place to place. Geniuses are rare, but by using screens as we do now, constantly jumping around, we’re ensuring that all of us have fewer ingenious moments and ….lesser creativity…” If we go on jumping from one digital device to another and give no time for serious thinking and reflection, we will end up in a world where people cease to think originally and critically. That would be a catastrophe for us human beings the ‘thinking animals’.
Before concluding let me go back to Henry Thoreau once again. In ‘Walden', he says: “ I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life , and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not , when I came to die, discover that I had not lived….I wanted to live deep and suck out the marrow of life”. For him being ‘disconnected’ was not just an exercise to ignite his creativity. He looked at it as something deeper. He saw it as ‘an opportunity' for him to live his life at its fullest. All most all of us who are reading this certainly would not take a step as radical as that of Thoreau and I do not think there is any need either. But would it not have been great if all of us were human beings capable of deep self- reflectivity. Socrates put this idea in the best way possible when he said, “an unreflected life is not worth living”. Let us understand that digital connectedness serves us best when it’s balanced by its opposite, disconnectedness.