Nishant Shah’s column in the Indian Express
Is it time to start talking about the right to disconnect? There is so much expectation and focus on being connected to the internet, that it seems like we don't have a choice. We hear a lot about how the internet should be considered as one of the basic human rights. As more of the world gets connected through the World Wide Web, and information becomes the new capital, there is a digital divide that emerges between those who can surf the web with ease, and those who struggle to boot their computers.
It is assumed that the digital natives are wired and connected, with their fingers constantly swooping on gadgets and their eyes glued to the interfaces at their disposal. They communicate with each other but also with the world around them through their tech tools, with the world just a click away. It is also assumed that for most digital natives, this existence in a surfeit of information and action is a default mode of being -that even when they are asleep, their digital selves are interacting in social networking systems, their gadgets are harvesting information from the Web, and their personal communication tools are bombarded with messages that are queued up for them to read when they wake up.
This constantly connected future is fuelled by governments and markets who are offering greater access to the young, both for education and consumption. Projects like the US-based One Laptop Per Child and mobile phones targeted at a "tweenage" demography are testimonies to how the younger generation is at the centre of this digital matrix of information communication.
In her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle, professor at MIT, talks about how readers who are bombarded by snippets of information from a multitude of connections feel lost when disconnected from their smartphones and laptops. One of her key findings is that "these days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time".
In light of all this, the digital natives in our research group started debating about the right to disconnect. They proposed that there is so much expectation and focus on being connected, that it seems like they don't have a choice. This was a new way of looking at the relationships that digital natives have with technology. Paola, one of our 20-something discussants from Latin America, told the story of the tyranny of BlackBerries. One of her friends recently applied for an internship as a part of her graduation programme. He cleared the interviews and got a six-month internship position with a large media house in Brazil. On the first day of work, as a part of his orientation, he was offered a BlackBerry. He wasn't particularly fond of the device and preferred to use his own smartphone. His reasoning was, "The BlackBerry never allows you to disconnect. When I am not at work, I want to be not at work." It came as a rude shock to him when the company said that he had to use the BlackBerry because they wanted him be connected 24X7 to the media flows online. When he insisted, he was told that he would lose his internship if he did not accept the BlackBerry.
It is a story that found resonance with many other digital natives. They agreed that the internet is an incredible space for information consumption, and that they were very keen on the digital tools of communication and mobilisation. However, there seems to be an increased pressure on them to be wired all the time -no unplugging the cable, no downtime on the computer, no turning off of the cellphone. "If I have to go offline, I actually have to put it on Facebook and Twitter so that my friends don't get anxious," said another one. "I get messages from followers asking me if I am alright, if I don't tweet for more than a few hours", agreed another. These pressures come from peers as well as the external world. And maybe, it is time to start talk ing about, along with the right to access, the right to disconnect.
The world might be shrinking and time might be ac celerating, but there is a value in being all alone and not necessarily together. As Paola says, "The next time you don't get a reply to your message from me in five minutes, it doesn't mean I am dead. It means that I choose not to. That I am digitally disconnected." email@example.com
(The writer is director, research, at the Bangalore based Centre for Internet and Society)