By Ooi Kee Beng
The Edge Malaysia Weekly (June 26-July 02, 2017).
You know that you are living in the 21st century when you wake up in the morning and the first thing you do is reach across the bed — not to caress your spouse, but to embrace your smartphone. After all, it has been the ignored party all night.
Both spouse and smartphone have no doubt been recharging, but while the spouse was logged out of the world, the smartphone had been fully connected to it. Anyway, we are not talking about a threesome. We are talking about a foursome. Your spouse does the same thing when he or she wakes up a minute later, woken up by your infidelity, lustily reaching out for his or her smartphone as well.
And so the morning starts, with two happy couples in the bedroom thumbing their partner. Perhaps I should not say “happy”. Maybe “hapless” is a better word here.
In this little episode enacted every morning in bedrooms across the world today, we are witnessing mankind’s new stage of literacy. We also see a new level of social interaction that borders on being social infidelity. It is now accepted in many contexts that social exchanges may be disrupted unpunished.
I am one of those people who hate answering the phone. This probably stems from my healthy dislike in early childhood of phone calls, of the impunity of the phone sharply ringing and daring to interrupt any activity in the living room.
Things have only got worse since then — and exponentially. We now take interruptions as the norm. In classic Orwellian fashion, the more interrupted we are, the more attached to the world we now think ourselves to be. It is now the immediate physical circumstance that must excuse itself for intruding. Have you noticed what “in real time” now means? In a heretical reversal of Einsteinian logic, space has shrunk into nothing in order to allow time to be immediate. Where space once decided what time it was and in that way kept the seasons in place and guaranteed order in the universe, time now dismisses space to penetrate our heart-mind and to colonise our lives.
Real time brings a new meaning to “real”. Time is real because space is banished — by Instagram, by YouTube, by WhatsApp. We can experience things from anywhere in immediate time without moving our butt.
Zen’s exhortation for us to live in the “here and now” has to contest with humans living more and more in the “now” than “here”. To complete the logic, I suppose living in the “here” but not in the “now” is what we do when we sleep. Following the story that I began with, we live in the “now but not here” when asleep, and when we wake, we step into a “here but not now” existence.
“In real time” now means “in spaceless time”. Not only does the immediate whereabouts of the person reading or looking at the smartphone not matter, so does the distance between emitter and receiver — there is obliviousness on both ends.
For every commuter you see every morning on the bus or train continuing his morning love ritual with the smartphone happily ignoring events around him, there is probably another person somewhere else escaping with him in “real time”.
But here, I am probably wrong. Most of our time on the smartphone is not spent communicating with another person. In fact, we use the device more often than not to access pictures, films, articles and what-have-you. This is our new literacy — more visual than textual, more digital than analogue, and more truncated than continuous. More electronic than emotional.
We are no longer talking about phones here. A smartphone is hardly a phone. It is our saviour from the repetitiveness of the here and now, from the repetitiveness of ourselves. And it is our nemesis, it is the ultimate prison warden who gives us what we really need — the ability to be autistic. Without space, all we have left is time.
So be cautioned. The next time your smartphone sends you a disruptive (and, sorry to say, probably welcomed) electronic signal and you nod “excuse me, not now” to your spouse and she reflexively excuses herself, know that you might be saying “never”.
Not here and not now. Then where, then when? A challenging question indeed for our age. As the century progresses, is there any chance of us reconquering the final frontier and recolonising both time and space. Can we move ahead towards a retro lifestyle in the space-time continuum?
Knowing how things tend to develop, the answer will come in the form of holographic phone calls where I wake up, reach for my “super smart I-me-mine phone”, message my wife across the bed, and send her a hologram of me to hug.
I hope that hologram of me won’t be holding a smartphone.
Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His latest book is Yusof Ishak: A Man of Many Firsts (ISEAS 2017).