Thursday, November 06, 2014

How iPhone met my mother (and turned her into Darth Vader)

[Did this piece for the Daily O website]

A few years ago I bought my mom a computer and made her say hello to the internet. This was long-overdue and I had been feeling guilty about putting it off for so long. Naturally, there were teething troubles: I had to keep an eye on things, tell her not to get hysterical each time a notification appeared on the screen, or when a new window popped up and hid an earlier one. Being in a position to provide reassurances, to supervise these baby steps, made me feel smug and in control – which is not something I often experience when it comes to technology. (Even today, after switching on my laptop, I sometimes reflexively look for the little “VSNL dial-up” icon that made getting online – via a medley of shrieking bell sounds – such an adventure back in 1998.)

My new role as improbable tech-guru didn’t last long though. While I stayed safely atop my Luddite plateau – using my computer mainly for writing and for basic net use, congratulating myself if I managed to pull off something as complicated as taking a screen grab – my mother was scaling new peaks just because they were there. And because she had now been gifted an iPhone by a cousin, following which the laptop was relegated to its bag. Later, an iPad or some similar tablet-like thing arrived and conversations in the house began to pivot around the word “Apps”. The realisation that Skype could be accessed on a small device, easily carried about the house, came with a roar of
triumph akin to that of the primitive ape-man in 2001: A Space Odyssey discovering that a large bone could be used to smash in enemies’ heads and thence lay the road to civilisation.

Watching a parent learn to stand on her feet – to probe the marvels of the world for herself without constantly pointing at things and asking questions (“What is a Cloud?”) – was poignant in its way, though I felt I could do without this bratty business of having a phone thrust at my face (“Look look, Jai has just come in – isn’t that an ugly beard?”) so my maasi could glare at me all the way from Chandigarh.

As this sort of thing continued, I became increasingly self-conscious about the bulkiness of my own laptop. Feeling like the Jedi masters must have felt on learning that their precocious student Anakin had not only surpassed their skills but was now also a bad-ass in a shiny black suit, dispensing storm-troopers across the galaxies, I tried suggesting to mum that she use her computer once in a while because, well, all those Engelbert Humperdinck and Pat Boone music videos look better on a big screen. But she had moved well out of my ether. Worse, having grown up much too fast, she was becoming faintly parent-like again. “Jai, you aren’t on WhatsApp?” was no longer said hesitantly (as if wondering if I were using something more sophisticated that she didn’t know about) – instead it had the sharp, accusatory timbre of those cold 1982 pre-school mornings: “You haven’t finished your milk?”

Much of this could still be shrugged off, but when I began eavesdropping on her video conversations I was mystified. Smart-phone and tablet technology is so empowering for people of a certain age – people who spent decades being in touch with loved ones only via snail mail and expensive long-distance phone calls – you’d think it would lead to actual talk: gossip about the good old days, the childhood and college years in Ludhiana and Bombay, the problematic parents and spouses.

Instead, all the conversation now is about the very gizmos they are using.

It began simply enough (“Neelu, the Wi-fi doesn’t seem to be working, let me use the phone connection instead” and “Yes I can hear you fine, but I can’t see anything... why have you kept your phone facing down?!”), but then progressed to:

“What? Viber? V-I-B-E-R? Okay, wait, I’ll just download it. I heard Tango was better?”

“It says downloading.”

“It still says downloading. Now it is asking if I want to upgrade the App. Should I upgrade the App?”

“Of course I sent you a photo of the new iPad. I sent it through MMS. Should I email it too? Where’s the attachment?”

“I don’t have FaceTime on my phone – this is an old phone – so I’ll move to the tablet, give me a minute, okay?”

Few of these conversations are decipherable to me, stuck as I am with my old machine. But why be surprised? In a post-modernist age where literature is mainly about literature and cinema is mainly about cinema – and where the done thing is to ruminate constantly about the medium one is operating in rather than supply fresh content – perhaps it's natural for new technology to facilitate the sort of communication where all you’re doing is talking about the new technology.

Or maybe she needs a little more time to outgrow the teen-slang.

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