The plane lands in Delhi, all conversation stops and hundreds of people simultaneously reach for one or more devices, searching for a signal, determined to figure out what earth-shattering news has come across via text or email during the flight from Mumbai.
Every reader will recognize this scene. In the US—now that Wi-Fi is set to become ubiquitous in the air—the last hours of device-free bliss are soon to be relegated to the dustbin of progress. In offices in India and around the world, people interrupt meetings to look at inbound text messages, send emails to someone sitting in the cube next to them and send 140-word tweets that substitute for thoughtful analysis and in-depth communication.
We live in a device-driven world where the tsunami of information and communication through multiple channels is dictating the way we live our lives, absorb information and communicate with others.
Two well-written and thoughtful books released this fall address us and our world—one a work of fiction and the other of non-fiction.
Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, which followed his original and widely discussed article, Does Google Make Us Stupid?, in The Atlantic, takes a scientific approach and studies the impact of new media on the human brain. Carr’s core thesis, as he writes, is that “our ability to learn suffers and our understanding remains shallow” as our brains are slowly changed by the constant and ever-increasing impulses hitting us.
Super Sad True Love Story: Random House, 331 pages, Rs899. The Shallows: Norton, 276 pages, $26.95 95 (around Rs1,210).
Gary Shteyngart, one of America’s young literary bright lights and the author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, has taken on this same phenomenon in his terrific new work of fiction, Super Sad True Love Story.
Shteyngart’s narrator Lenny Abramov, is, like Shteyngart, a Russian immigrant to the US. He is a middle-aged lover of his piles of old and musty books in his apartment which Eunice Park, his on and off girlfriend in the novel, refers to as “doorstops”. Lenny is nearing 40, Eunice, a Korean immigrant whose every aspect of life is online, is in her early 20s. In Shteyngart’s dystopian world, this age and technology gap is something that many of us—who hover around or above Lenny’s age and deal daily with more tech-savvy colleagues and children—can relate to.
Eunice’s every interaction and communication with friends, Lenny and the world is via a gadget called an apparat, presumably a several generation later version of the iPad. Talking to people directly, which seldom happens in Lenny and Eunice’s world, is known as “verballing” and emailing is known as “teening” as all email is now controlled by Global Teens. Lenny, with his love of old books and old authors such as Leo Tolstoy, figures large in this and much of Shteyngart’s work struggles to keep up with Eunice on all fronts after she tells him during their first night together in Rome, “You’re old, Len.”
Much of Carr’s work is based on a study at the UCLA Memory and Aging Research Center by Dr Gary Small which concluded that the structure of the brain has been changed by new media; specifically that the brains of those of a younger generation are more wired now to receive multiple impulses from various streams of information and data and have difficulty sitting down and reading, say, for Shteyngart’s benefit, Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
To those of us who have children who play Webkinz on the iPad while listening to music while streaming iCarly on You Tube while sending emails while texting on their parent’s phone, all simultaneously, this is not big news. But the larger point is important, in the world that Carr describes and in which we live, those of us raised on long-form journalism and books (reviewer disclaimer: I am the son of an English teacher who from an early age made us read one book a week, a habit I continue to this day) have an increasingly tougher time concentrating and digging in to one form of media given the multiple distractions in our lives.
Post their one-night stand in Rome, Lenny is successful in convincing Eunice to move in with him in his Lower East Side apartment-cum-library upon her return to New York and they begin a dysfunctional romance told in an alternating narrative. Appropriately, Lenny’s chapters are recorded from his old school handwritten diary while Eunice’s chapters come from her GlobalTeens online postings. Events in New York soon thereafter, specifically a violent uprising between veterans of the Venezuelan War and the low networth individuals force Lenny and Eunice to take shelter in his apartment where Eunice is forced to endure “The Rupture”, a complete electronic information blackout rendering the apparat useless. During this tense time, Eunice finally picks up an actual book, a copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “her fingers massaging the book’s back, maybe even enjoying its thickness and unusual weight, its relative quiet and meekness.” The book trial ends when Lenny tries to read to her, and she finds the thread incomprehensible. Lenny, at that point, is as Shteyngart describes him earlier in the book, indeed “the last reader on earth”.
Our reality today, whether in Mumbai or any other place where people are reading newspapers this morning, is that those of us in our 30s and 40s have a bit of Lenny and a bit of Eunice in our DNA. We are indeed the crossover generation, our brains confused and afflicted by the yearning to focus all of our concentration on a new launch by one of our favourite novelists on one hand and to check the latest news, text, Facebook update or tweet on our iPad the next. For the generations following us, as Carr shows in The Shallows, this will not be an issue as their brains will be wired differently with the ability to absorb multiple streams of information while showing little interest in the singular focus of reading a book.
My suggestion for a remedy to this conundrum: Read Carr and then Shteyngart back to back, disciplining yourself to only checking your device of choice every few chapters.
Brooks Entwistle is country head of a major financial services firm and has been living in Mumbai for five years.
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