From Star Gazers To Navel Gazers

The Indypendent, March 21-April 17, 2012.

Had Nicholaus Copernicus owned an iPad, or Tycho Brahe, an iPhone, I believe they’d never have discovered, respectively, that the Earth revolved around the Sun, or that comets weren’t a meteorological phenomenon (as was the long-held belief since Aristotle.)

They’d have been too happily engrossed, looking down, to even consider looking up at the heavens, let alone ruminate about the ponderous question of our position in the cosmos.

Human thinking has traditionally tended to be geocentric and anthropocentric. One would’ve imagined the advent of modern technology to have catapulted us to higher planes. Au contraire, it’s made us more egocentric than ever before.

Where we once believed our rocky blue marble to be at the center of the universe, we now rejoice in the perception that we, each one of us, are individual axes around which all matter spins.

After all, the very ukase of the Digital Age is: “What are you up to?”

We thrive on naval-gazing, striving to be the cynosure of all eyes. It pleases us to think that the 140 characters we issue carries the weight of an emperor’s edict. It inflates our ego to know that we command the loyalty—however fickle—of a flock of devotees.

The world comes to us filtered through pieces of software called apps. Indeed, who looks up at the sky anymore, even if it is to see roiling storm clouds gathering to pour rain? “There is an app for that,” to borrow the ubiquitously-used and now-patented tag line of the Apple iPhone commercial.

The immaterial universe, as tech folks know it to be, is expanding with eyeball-popping alacrity. The volume of digital content is expected to hit the 1.8 zettabytes mark, this year, which is equal to 1021 bytes—a 1 followed by 21 zeros. An astronomical figure, fueled by our compulsive need to generate more bits, will only grow bigger, faster.

By comparison, the strides we’ve made in space exploration have been ludicrously infinitesimal.

A recent report in The New York Times put that in perspective with marvelous clarity:

If Earth were in Orlando and the closest star system, Alpha Centauri, were in Los Angeles, then NASA’s two Voyager spacecraft, the most distant man-made objects, have traveled just one mile.

Another way of looking at the challenge is that in 10,000 years, the speed of humans has jumped by a factor of about 10,000, from a stroll (2.6 m.p.h.) to the Apollo astronauts’ return from the Moon (26,000 m.p.h.). Reaching the nearest stars in reasonable time— decades, not centuries—would require a velocity jump of another factor of 10,000.

Has our progress not been shockingly skewed?

I have a hypothesis—a belief backed without adequate evidence—that the more we hunch over our palm-held hyperconnectivity, the more it contracts our spirits, enfeebles our imagination, and inflates our pretentiousness. It makes us petty, parochial, selfish, and narrow-minded.

The 17th century painting, “The Geographer” by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, depicts a geographer, dressed in a flowing, midnight-blue robe. On the cupboard behind him are a globe and a stack of books.

Arrayed on the table, in front of him, is a sheet of paper. As he works with a divider—a tool of his trade—he gazes out the window.

“The Geographer” by Johannes Vermeer, created in the mid-17th century.

In the contemplative figure of this young man, converges the chaotic, untamed energy of Mother Nature and the cool contemplation of scientific inquiry, as embodied by his cartographic instruments.

It’s this facile confluence of the outside and the inside that his mind becomes, a state, which we, app-fanatics, are denied.

The cramming of a galaxy (Google’s flagship phone is even named “Nexus Galaxy” as is the “Samsung Galaxy” tablet) of both worthwhile and worthless information into our portable doodads, has ironically, collapsed our mind’s horizons to a size no bigger than the touchscreens we wipe because everything we need is inside them.

Why? Ever since Alexander Graham Bell gave us the gift of the curmudgeonly charming telephone, telecommunication gadgets have progressively shrunk in size. Miniaturization, doubtless, is the trend of the future.

But it wasn’t until the Web 2.0-spawned smartphones, tablets, and e-readers appeared on the scene that technology got so addictive, holding us in its shiny thrall as if it were a beguiling sea nymph. Never before has it grabbed so much of our attention, for so long.

The statistics make one’s lower jaw hang in midair. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, cited, in a post, that the world had squandered 200,000 years playing the popular iPhone game, “Angry Birds.” In May 2011 alone, Facebook gobbled up 53 billion minutes of Americans’ time.

In the past, one owned a robust, sedentary, rotary-dial telephone. It may have been a clunky contraption and produced a somewhat crackly sound, but, it did grant us the cranial freedom, which our 21st century devices have robbed us of.

They draw us in with the force of a narcotic undertow and once in, they entrap with the sweet cunning of a Venus flytrap. Petite and peripatetic as they are, they possess us with a hold so tenacious that we’ve lost a very innate desire: to look around us.

Imagine standing across an immaculately polished glass window that looks out on a breathtaking vista of a glittering skyline. I’m certain, I’m not the only one, who’s been gripped by what feels like an inexorable desire to whip out a smartphone, snap a photo, and release it immediately into the social networks.

“Updating” becomes the central activity and soaking up the sight, in itself, a peripheral one. And that, alters, nay diminishes, our appreciation of it.

We seem to relish nothing that isn’t mediated by either a lens, a Web service, or a mobile app. We have surrendered joy (and belief) in the evidence of our senses. Our hand-held gadgets certify the very reality of our sensory experiences.

The evolution of humankind over the last 3 million years or so, has been marked by a gradual change in our appearance, from being stooped and trudging, a lumbering gait, to being erect, with necks and spines held vertical.

But now—it’s a different story.

Necks sloped at a gradient of 30 degrees to the perpendicular, our heads in a posture of supplication, we walk distractedly along sidewalks, ride up elevators, shuffle through grocery store aisles.

With eyes focused on whatever we have in our hands, ears plugged with headphones, we go through our daily grind, in essence, cut off from the outside environment.

We have a voluptuous admiration for technology.

Yet, who knows? The makers of our hand-held fixtures—yes, fixtures—may have inadvertently triggered the beginnings of a devolutionary cycle that’ll make us bend lower and lower till we start crawling on all fours again—back to where we began.

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