~ Lost in the Virtual World ~
It was sometime when I was sixteen years old that I came to school one day and found everyone shifted to a strange new state of existence. There they all were: heads down to their hands, totally absorbed by whatever it was they were holding in them. I walked closer to see what it was that was causing them to permanently reconfigure the skeletal structure of their necks. I reached the circle and saw them all clutching their precious new possessions. It was the arrival of the smartphone – a small device, no bigger than a notepad, which sat in your hand and connected you to the entire world. Clearly a new age was upon us. We had lived in trees; we had lived in caves; we have lived in farms and towns and cities. Now we were living in hyperspace – connected and communicating with each other via satellite signals and apps. I looked at the transfixed faces of my fellow classmates and knew something had changed for good; seeing just how much this device yielded a sort of otherworldly power over the person it belonged to meant humanity was in for a wild new trip.
I resisted the urge to get a smart-phone for years and, as a result, I became an alienated member of society. At first, there were still a few of my kind left – those people using those heavy Nokias and old flip-phones – but quickly they were becoming a breed on the brink of extinction. There were many times where I sat left out in social circles as people exchanged things over their phones and sent Vines and Snapchats. Soon Instagram was taking over the world as selfie-taking spread like a contagious virus – evidenced by the fact that the word itself even made it into the Oxford English dictionary. I watched curiously as my species became possessed by the need to pose, take and post pictures of themselves whenever they could. Even their cats and dinners weren’t safe. Apparently, whatever meal was on their plate somehow needed to be shared with all the random people in hyperspace, desperate to see one more time what a mediocre plate of spaghetti bolognese looked like.
It was a confusing time altogether and I tried to get by in modern society without owning this new organ of the human body. It was something that quickly left me out of touch with many people. I recalled a girl in a bar asking me what my Instagram and Snapchat was. When I told her I didn’t have them, I was met with a look of shock and horror – as if I were a time-traveller from a prehistoric age. Another time I was laughed at for not being able to get directions somewhere on my phone. Soon the alienation of not having a smartphone continued to grow at a sharp rate. So often I sat in a circle of friends, unable to speak to any of them as it seemed social media had overtaken real social interaction. There was a certain irony to it all and I wondered what exactly this shift in human behaviour was leading to. Perhaps soon we’d just sit at home and control virtual versions of ourselves? Perhaps we’d be able to ‘like’ people on the spot and our value in society would be judged on how many followers we had?
It was a scary thought and one that kept me from joining in on the madness, but eventually it got to the point where I could no longer get by in society without having a smartphone. It seemed that everything was geared to this one device that now ran the world. I couldn’t even get a taxi with my friends without being seen as tight for not paying anything toward the fare they shared over the Uber app. I couldn’t even purchase a goddamn bus ticket in some cases. Getting by in the world had become too difficult, and reluctantly I went and got a smartphone to join the masses in this strange new era of human behaviour.
At first, I was quite good with it; never using data or the internet while out of the house, not downloading any apps, but just using it absolutely when I needed to while enjoying the camera that came with it. It wasn’t long however before I found myself getting sucked into the vacuum of hyperspace. After getting relentlessly asked for my WhatsApp, I downloaded the app and quickly found myself part of numerous groups and conversations. There I sat staring at the screen as the notifications flooded in throughout the day. After a year or so, I found myself part of a bunch of chats that made that phone constantly ping. It was easy to see how so many people got sucked into that vacuum and spent hours of their day in a hypnotic trance as they stared at whatever it was that was on the screen. It was either you ignored everyone trying to contact you, or spent hours of your day replying. Like a baby that wailed, the phone was always there commanding your attention and it was easy to cave into its incessant demands.
One day I realised I would have to join the thing I despise the most: Instagram. On the most part, this photo-sharing application was the great tragedy of our generation, creating millions of narcissistic and self-absorbed millennials whose sense of self-worth was dependent on likes and followers and emoji comments. This constant need for social gratification off random people on the internet had led to a mass of people who dressed up their lives with masks and makeup and filters. It had led to people who made out that their lives were constantly amazing, when really they were anxious and stressed and getting by on antidepressant medication. Often, I wept for the state of my generation who had now become so fake that being real was sure to leave you as an outcast. However, like everything else in the world, there was still some good out there, and Instagram gave a platform for genuine artists, singers, writers, dancers and whatever to share their work. My Facebook blog had crashed as Facebook was experiencing a mass exodus of users, and I realised I would have to post my work on Instagram if I actually wanted a decent amount of people to read it.
The problem I had found immediately was what I wrote was typically longer than twenty words. One of the byproducts of the age of the smartphone was that people now had the attention span of a newborn puppy on cocaine. Relentlessly, they finger flicked and scrolled away at the neverending content that filled their screen. If something was going to take more than thirty seconds to read, then the odds were that it would be swiftly dismissed. This meant my longer pieces of writing didn’t really have much of a chance of being read by the entranced thumb-twitchers of the world, so I focused on turning some extracts of my writing into succinct, easy-to-digest quotes and memes. It worked to an extent I guess, although it made me feel limited into what I could share, and it was definitely going to take a miracle to become popular on a platform where ‘instapoets’ had amassed millions of followers for posting things like ‘true love never quits’ in sleek and stylish memes.
Still, I got on with it and tried to find my place in the modern world where this device had completely changed the way we behaved forever, and most definitely not for the better. Sure, things were easier in many ways, but people’s mental health was suffering as it became a socially-accepted form of addiction. People’s minds were like overcharged computers, saturated and frazzled by relentlessly checking their phones and notifications throughout the day. Some days I found myself with a headache after allowing myself to get sucked into numerous Whatsapp chats. Other times I found myself getting anxious about what some stranger in America was commenting on my posts on Instagram. It was a device which had the power to completely take over your life and it appeared that no one was safe from its tyranny. Even my parents – who had always been slightly ‘technologically challenged’ – had conformed to this new state of existence. One day I walked in the front room to find my mom with her head also embracing that permanent shape of facing down at her hands. She had gotten a new tablet for herself and now spent hours of the day scrolling through tabloid news stories and looking at holiday packages on travel agent websites. It appeared that even the older generation were getting sucked into this smartphone vacuum, even going as far as overtaking the youth as the core user base of Facebook. Yes, you could now find your grandparents sharing Daily Mail articles to the social media world. And let’s not forget about the new members of human society. Now you could find kids as young as three years old with their faces glued to those tablets and phones. Many parents had discovered they could keep them transfixed by those devices and thus spare themselves the hassle of actually having to entertain them themselves. There on Instagram you’d find Timothy, just four years and three quarters, posting selfies with his latest toy or comic.
All things considered, it’s a surreal time to be alive and who knows what the state of human interaction and behaviour will look like with the technologies of the future. Right now, you’ve got people like Elon Musk trying to connect AI to the human brain. You’ve got the sex robots being developed by horny tech gurus. There also are bio cells that could lead to people becoming ‘amortal’ – meaning they will live indefinitely without being the victim of a car accident or fire. Smartphones will soon be able to control everything in your house as well as provide a database for everything you’ve ever done or said. It’s a strange and scary time to be a human-being. No doubt some of you may even be reading this right now on a smartphone or tablet or whatever other device is now out there to keep you transfixed. Well, if you’ve made it this far at least you had the patience to read more than an Instagram meme. Thanks for that. Oh, and please remember to follow my blog on social media: @thethoughtsfromthewild. A part of me would really ‘like’ that. Cheers.