We're All Cyborgs

"Has social media broken my brain?"

That's the question I found myself asking last night, when it suddenly hit me that I was seeing the Instagram highlights of a social media influencer at 12 am on a Wednesday. I don't suffer from insomnia and I had a long, tiring day. But somehow it felt urgent to me that I tap my luminescent phone screen one more time. Why? I couldn't possibly give you a rational explanation. Enter: bubbling panic that social media — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to be specific — have short-circuitted my brain.

I read a lot of books. But unlike earlier where I could read for three hours straight in one pose without even looking up, now I fidget about 100 pages in. I look around for my phone. Usually I continue reading uninterrupted and the itch for my phone doesn't return; more so if it's a gripping book. But I'm always left with an uneasy feeling. A physcial itch...for my phone?

The last time I encountered this question, I turned to Donna Haraway. In my Masters, I was writing a thesis on young women watching Hindi films on their mobile phones and so many of my respondents had spoken about feeling "incomplete" without their phones. Physically incomplete. My supervisor asked me to read an essay called "A Cyborg Manifesto" by Donna Haraway. In the essay, Haraway argues that technology and human life have become so intertwined & we're so intimately connected, that it's not possible to make conventional distinctions between the human body and the technology we use.

So, when my respondents reported that they feel incomplete without their phones — a "phantom limb" is a common anecdote in those undergoing treatment for mobile phone addictions — they were not wrong. They were expressing a modern reality. We're all cyborgs. Our mobile phones are not just a technology we use, it's how we construct ourselves in the world. It's a part of us. And it's foolish to wish otherwise.

Which is why most attempts at giving up social media cold-turkey don't work. As much as you wish to go back to a Nokia-phone existence, you can't. As much as I wish to give up Twitter, I can't quit that hellsite. We have to live in a world changed by filters, stories which disappear, retweets and likes. Even the Khyber Pakhtunwa government in Pakistan is using cat filters to broadcast their press conference. (If you haven't seen this, you MUST. I laughed loudly enough to startle my desk-mate at work.)

So, how do I save my brain?

Well, indifference.

I was not on Instagram for nearly two years and it was surprisingly easy to forget about once I started acknowledging that I don't need to know minute life-details of my 5th standard classmate. (I got back on the app in May 2019, specifically after the election results. Did existential despair and sudden free time have something to do with it? Maybe.) Recently on a holiday in Andaman, I was mostly off all social media for a week. Initially, there were frustrated face-offs with the hotel reception over there being no Wi-Fi. But then, I stopped caring. Pristine blue waters and beaches helped, but the point was once I reconciled myself to being off-grid for a while and realised that I didn't care too much about Twitter, I could rest easy.

Why do we need to care about other people's lives or every small little thing which has happened in the world? Why can't I just post/tweet what I want, respond to people talking to me, and log off? Virat Kohli in an interview on "Breakfast with Champions" said that's exactly his social media strategy. He used to get bothered by negative comments earlier, until Anushka Sharma said, "why don't you just post what you want? And don't look at what people have to say?"

To me, it seems like a solution which can work. Most of my time spent on Instagram is tapping through Stories. On Twitter, I scroll for the fear of missing out on breaking news. (Which has less to do with me being a journalist, since most breaking news is blared on a TV kept next to my desk anyway. Who am I kidding?) And Facebook is where again, I scroll mindlessly when I have nothing to do.

The thing is if I look at the time I'm on social media and subtract time spent on just scrolling, it's barely ten minutes a day. For Facebook, Instagram AND Twitter. Surely, my brain can withstand ten minutes a day, right?

So, that's my strategy from today. I'll still be sharing things and be 'active,' but no mindless scrolling. After all, there are only so many wedding photos my cyborg brain can take.

Do you think social media is short-circuitting your brain too? What are your hacks? Did you come across something on this topic? Tell me!

LINKS THAT MADE ME LAUGH/CRY/RAGE

1. Over the last few weeks, I have been seeking wisdom in words to help understand the chaos of the world. It's called #WordWisdom and yes, I know I am terrible at naming things. Looking forward to the day when my daughter is called Beti. Today's wisdom is from a poem called 'What's in It?' by Vikram Seth; for you who've loved, lost or are now in eternal longing.

I heard your name the other day
Mentioned by someone in a casual way.
She said she thought that you were looking great.
A waiter passed by with a plate.
She reached out for a sandwich, and your name
Went back from where it came.

But like a serious owlet I stood there,
Staring in mid-air.
I frowned, then followed her around
To hear, just once more, that sirenic sound -
Those consonants, those vowels - what a fool!
I show more circumspection as a rule.

I love you more than I can say.
Try as I do, it hasn't gone away.
I hoped it would once, and I hope so still.
Someday, I'm sure, it will.
No glimpse, no news, no name will stir me then.
But when? But when?

2. Again, on love. I'm an incurable romantic and this excellent story had me swooning. Also, quite informative on lesbian culture in the US, made me think of a similar cruise in India? An excerpt:

"I would get frustrated talking to her on WhatsApp, both of us trying to decipher each other’s intentions and senses of humo(u)r through the complexities of cultural differences and intergenerational differences and plain old personal differences. I would lose my head completely and, a couple weeks after disembarking, buy a last-minute ticket to England. I wouldn’t be able to wait. I’d be tired of waiting. I would write in my journal, the night before leaving: “There’s something so deliriously pleasurable in the idea of trusting myself enough to know exactly what I want.”


3. Sharda Ugra has been the best sports-writer in India for a while now and this Jasprit Bumrah profile just proves why. I know very little about cricket and this piece had me gripped from the first word. I will be rooting for Bumrah in every match now, not that he needs it, seeing as he is the best bowler in the world right now.

"In airports, Bumrah is not the one making the dash to check out new gadgets or sunglasses, but rather wandering through bookstores with a soberness underlined by those low-power glasses, once worn as a disguise, looking for reading material, sports biographies all the better. The one book everyone has seen him read, so there's no counting how many times he has gone through it: I Am Football, by Ibrahimovic."

As you probably would have noticed, this newsletter comes to you after a gap. I am reviving it now, and am still figuring out what this will be (existential questions everywhere, waah) so if you have any suggestions, like more links, topics I can write about etc, please reply to this email! And tell your friends to susbscribe.

I will write soon.

Maanvi