Memoirs of a life lived online
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
WHAT MIGHT it mean to lead a life wholly, or nearly so, online? A generation ago, the question would have seemed quite unlikely, even bizarre, to most people; two generations ago, it would have been all but inconceivable. And, yet, living online is upon us—and it has happened with terrific speed. Some find the idea exhilarating, others terrifying: in either case, it is dizzying and we have not quite thought through what its implications might be.
Nearly 115 years ago, a brown-skinned lawyer, whose name was yet to resonate around the world, captured something of the possibility of an online existence, though ‘online’ and perforce ‘offline’ were far removed from the vocabulary of the time. He had written a quirky little book exploring the prospects for the freedom of India and the ways in which Western civilisation had encroached upon the lives of Indians. Western civilisation seemed set upon an inexorable course of improvement: if one, the lesser recognised, plank of progress rested upon the notion that the West was uniquely capable of auto-correction, deriving over the passage of time better principles for the social and political organisation of life, the other plank of progress was predicated on the idea that technology had no limits. Whatever problems might be introduced by a certain technology, the solutions to those problems could equally be found within technology. The advocates of technology were brimming with confidence, and it is their worldview and the aura of a technological future that this lawyer captured in these words: “It has been stated that, as men progress, they shall be able to travel in airships and reach any part of the world in a few hours. Men will not need the use of their hands and feet. They will press a button, and they will have their clothing by their side. They will press another button, and they will have their newspaper. A third, and a motor-car will be in waiting for them. They will have a variety of delicately dished up food. Everything will be done by machinery.”
The lawyer in question was MK Gandhi and the text a tract, which many dismissed as the work of a lunatic, called Hind Swaraj (1909). In December 1903, the Wright brothers had made a breakthrough with the first sustained, powered flight and established how an aircraft could be controlled from the air. If a plane could be made to fly at 852 feet with an airspeed of 34mph, it was only a matter of time before more powerful aircraft would be able to traverse continents in a manner of some hours. That Gandhi foresaw the development of long-haul planes is consequently less interesting than what he has to say about what are today called “apps” or phone applications. When he wrote about pressing a button and having clothing by one’s side, he might well have been talking about “Amazon” or hundreds of similar and many lesser-known apps; when he spoke about newspapers becoming accessible through mere touch, he might well have been speaking about the apps for The Hindu, The Indian Express, Navbharat Times, The Guardian, or countless other newspapers. The invocation of the motor-car that is waiting at the door should remind readers of Uber and other ride-sharing services.
That technological future to which Gandhi adverted is with us. Some people are living in it, and since they disproportionately drive the news and motor the world’s economy, it is not surprising that they should be keen to universalise their technological vision and bring everyone under the orbit of what, for want of a better phrase, we can simply call life online. Some aspects of a life online have now become part of everyday discourse, and not necessarily only in metropolises or among middle and upper-class communities where internet connectivity may be more easily available or reliable. Online shopping, for instance, had been in the making for some years and had dented sales of retail brick-and-mortar stores. In the US and in parts of Europe, the obituary of the glittering shopping mall, some opened but a decade ago, is already being written and malls are being repurposed for other business or social activity; in India, and elsewhere in the Global South, the mall may survive longer, if only as an air-conditioned refuge from brutal summers or as a sanitised site where the middle class might indulge in consumption in comfort. Everywhere, however, the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic contributed hugely to increased sales of online merchants. The global e-commerce market in 2020 accounted for 17.8 per cent of sales; by 2023, online purchases are expected to increase to 20.8 per cent. It would be superfluous to cite data that show how online shopping continues to make inroads, in the Global North as much as in the Global South, and in India, one of the top five fastest growing e-commerce markets in the world, online shopping in 2022 grew by 25.5 per cent.
Online shopping and similarly online work have elicited some predictable, if necessary, sets of questions. We may jettison questions that inspire—if that is the word—those who work in marketing and public policy; questions, in other words, about what places are likely to require more attention from merchants and vendors, what markets are already saturated, or what kind of policies inhibit or promote online shopping. There are other questions and considerations in a similar vein: online shopping is a dream come true for political leaders and economists who are desirous of achieving cashless economies. However, most such considerations, on further reflection, are not exclusive to a life online: a business might mandate, as some have done, only payments by card even among customers who walk into the store, and likewise questions about marketing are, of course, by no means unique to online shopping. Madison Avenue was birthed a century ago by the idea that, in toying with emotions, human wants can be rendered limitless.
Still, even if it is possible to exaggerate the differences between offline and online shopping, such differences should not be minimised; moreover, there are more compelling political, ethical, and behavioural considerations that come to the fore in thinking of online shopping. It is sometimes thought that colonialism served no purpose other than to facilitate the rise of free-market ideology and create new markets for the colonial powers, but 18th-century mercantilism and late 19th-century colonialism were rather different phenomena. While the exploitative and extractive nature of colonialism can scarcely be questioned, the ‘underdevelopment’ of India, Africa, and colonies elsewhere meant that a consuming class barely developed in the colonies. Online shopping is the natural and signal outcome of the free-market ideology: it recognises no borders, limits, or restraints, except to the extent that the oversight of some states hinders the movement of goods, and it permits the fulfilment of the American Dream of being able to push the frontier still farther away. For this very reason, online shopping, it could be said, is the ultimate expression of neocolonialism, elevating consumption not to an art but to an end in itself. It should come as no surprise that, in the increasingly difficult times that mark the present, including the two years of the coronavirus pandemic that a great many people have written off from their lives as “lost” or “wasted”, the wealth of the billionaires—nearly all of whom are also heavily invested in online shopping—has grown exponentially while economic inequalities have grown. E-commerce appears to necessitate a partial revision of Lenin’s thesis on imperialism as the last stage of capitalism.
From an ecological standpoint, Jeff Bezos, with whose name “Amazon” and the entire phenomenon of online shopping is indelibly linked, might reasonably be charged with crimes against humanity if only because he could conceivably be held responsible for having done more to increase levels of consumption than anyone else in history. Enhanced and constantly growing levels of consumption, needless to say, can only worsen the already intractable problem of global warming. Let us, however, put aside the debates that might be expected to ensue in the wake of these arguments, and reflect on consumption, choice, and such matters as the place of the tactile or the olfactory in human experience. It is instructive that Bezos started his enterprise as an online marketplace for books, and that soon his marketing representatives were peddling the claim that amazon.com would revive the dwindling business of used bookdealers by opening up new markets to them. Once again, let us ignore the received parameters of the debate that might follow, and consider instead what we mean by a book. It is doubtful, and certainly there is no record to suggest otherwise, that Bezos—and I use his name only as a cipher, as a stand-in for a certain worldview—ever gave any thought to this question. To the bibliophile, the book historian, the book designer, the antiquarian bookseller, and the librarian the book is not merely an object like any other, just another marketable commodity. The smell of freshly printed pages, or, contrariwise, the musty odour that emanates from used bookstores: paeans have been written to the book’s peculiar relationship to the olfactory. Similarly, the book has a specific relationship to the tactile: its ‘value’, to adduce only one argument, may reside not only in the quality of the production, its provenance, the reputation of the author, and the worthiness of its subject matter, but in the fact that it has been passed on from one hand to another. The single-volume Collected Shakespeare that went from the hands of one prisoner to another on Robben Island, on which Ashwin Desai has written with elegance and admirable insight, can in no manner be likened to a Google Document on which 20 or more people may add their ‘trackable’ comments.
A visit to a good bookstore or a decent library is nothing if not an experience of serendipity. Most genuine learning, as many writers and educators will admit, takes place outside the classroom: if the advocate of online learning should crow upon reading this, it is sufficient to point out that the online classroom is still a ‘classroom’, even if the classroom is dispersed
THE TACTILE AND the olfactory are but only two of the many features that are eviscerated from the experience of e-commerce in books. A visit to a good bookstore or a decent library is nothing if not an experience of serendipity. Most genuine learning, as many writers and educators will admit, takes place outside the classroom: if the advocate of online learning should crow upon reading this, it is sufficient to point out that the online classroom is still a ‘classroom’, even if the classroom is dispersed. What I have in mind is something quite different, namely the experience of rummaging through the stacks of libraries or bookstores and stumbling upon books that one scarcely knew existed. The serendipitous discovery of a book can set a mind on fire, though the students who these days graduate even from alleged world-class universities without having once set foot in their university library seem blissfully unaware of the pleasures of such finds. The advocate of online shopping and online learning may object that hyperlinks in documents serve the same purpose, taking one into new and often uncharted terrain, but it is computer algorithms and marketing assessments that direct one to other online sites rather than the accidental discovery or the chance encounter that characterises the visit to the bookstore or library.
There are a great many other objections to online learning, not least of them being the fact that educational institutions, the bulk of which have very little to do with anything that can be described as learning—much less the love of learning, or what used to be called the passionate quest for knowledge—and are operated as business propositions, have found online learning immensely profitable and seem increasingly loath to invest in permanent faculty. Questions of political economy aside, a huge number of studies from around the world, many conducted after remote or online learning became widely accepted in the wake of the school closures necessitated by the pandemic, have firmly established that there has been a massive and global “loss of learning” among school children. Some educational administrators will likely tabulate the pros and cons of online learning, and parents who have to supervise children at home or compete with them for computer and network access may be at loggerheads with those who might be moved by the lowered expenses of online learning, but the limitations of online learning are all too obvious. Even if the teacher-student relationship has been significantly compromised both by the business model and by the massive democratisation of the university and the opening of the door to masses of students for whom education is nothing more than a passport to a job, no one doubts that the traditional classroom still permits a kind of intimacy. The reading of facial gestures and ‘body knowledge’ is itself a part of education, and the playground and the café, in the school and university, respectively, are the sites of encounters that long linger in the memory.
Nevertheless, online shopping and online learning are, to use a colloquialism, here to stay. In fact, they are rigorously defended on the grounds that they facilitate choice and treat the consumer as king. What does it mean to go online and, say, order French fig jam, Belgian truffles, spicy Italian dry sausage, Dutch cheddar, a Haldiram namkeen mixture, a jar of Korean kimchi, and Japanese rice crackers? Does one feel vastly superior to most people, perhaps a tad bit sorry for the person who must subsist on the daily dal and roti, revelling in the fact that one is swimming in choices and that the world is at one’s fingertips? It is one thing to be at home in the world, capable of absorbing Hindustani, Carnatic, and Western classical music as much as blues, jazz, calypso, klezmer, and popular Hindi music, or to be conversant in the arts and literatures of Europe, Asia, and Africa and be ecumenical in one’s appreciation of some of the world’s finer cuisines, and quite another thing to be the anodyne kind of ‘world citizen’ who is a consumer of everything. Cosmopolitanism is obviously not to be derived merely from travel around the world: like much else, it has been cheapened and diminished by the clichéd idea that the world is shrinking and that we are all ‘connected’, and equally by the fiction of ‘choice’. The political and ethical choice that we make in giving our support to one ideology or another, or our choice of friends and enemies alike, is obviously quite different from choosing between Pepsi and Coke, or between 30 different brands and flavours of cereals. Indeed, even when we think we are exercising a choice that might make a fundamental difference, that choice may be illusory: by way of illustration, consider Paul Goodman’s (in)famous declaration that the point of an American election has ever been to help the electorate choose between indistinguishable candidates. But perhaps the point may be put more poignantly: the choice is between illusory choice and the fact that, under a totalitarian system, one may not have any choice in most matters—except the choice, not an easy one, of deciding not to collude with the regime at all.
IN THE LIFE around us, nearly every phenomenon can be apprehended in the vortex of spatiality and temporality. In our ‘offline’ existence, the only existence we had until a few years ago, we interact with space at every turn: there is the office workspace, public spaces that we navigate as we travel and shop, and that space that we domesticate so that it becomes the most intimate place: home. There may be many other cityscapes and landscapes that constitute our spatial world. Some of these spatial configurations are part of the national imaginary: it could be the corner shop in England, the paanwallah in India, or the pachinko parlour in Japan. England without the corner shop, Dickens and Orwell alike would have declared, is no England: writing in 1836, Dickens lamented that “quiet, dusty old shops” were being replaced by newer, larger, and glittering shopping establishments. The institution of the corner shop was being transformed in other ways in the late 1950s and 1960s, as South Asian immigrants began to take over many of them, and then Tescos began to replace corner shops: there are myriad ways in which Englishness has been under assault. Online shopping has given the corner shop another fierce though not decisive body blow. To think of England as a country of red-letter boxes, also largely diminished in numbers, and rapidly disappearing corner shops may be nothing more than nostalgia, but why should one overlook nostalgia as a critically important component of human experience and emotions? If life were to become largely online, what would become of nostalgia? Would there be any more place for it? It isn’t at all clear that the philosophers of modernity have begun to probe such questions.
Nearly 115 years ago, a brown-skinned lawyer, whose name was yet to resonate around the world, captured something of the possibility of an online existence, though ‘online’ and ‘offline’ were far removed from the vocabulary of the time. The lawyer was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the text, which many dismissed as the work of a lunatic, was called Hind Swaraj
E-commerce has brought home the impending evisceration of the corner shop in Britain and some reflections on the demise of the independent shopkeeper. If nostalgia for the corner shop persists, it is also because the corner shop facilitated a sense of <communitas>. It is at the corner shop that news was shared, gossip exchanged, the cuckold ridiculed, and innuendoes hurled at the femme fatale next door. There is comfort in seeing the same faces again, as there is comfort in not having to negotiate new terrains; and, similarly, if the corner shop promises cosiness, there is something reassuring about communities that are built to human scale. The online enthusiast whose life is built around social media—Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, LinkedIn, Discord, WeChat, WhatsApp, and more—will at once come forth with the rejoinder that online communities are flourishing and that the internet permits associations and relationships that were previously unthinkable. Surely, communities come in all sizes and shapes, but there is a commonsense understanding of community as an association that permits reasonable degree of proximity, conviviality, shared goals, and so on. How does one speak of a community on Facebook when one has 5,000 ‘friends’? What is intrinsic to the meaning of ‘community’ is some shared notion of responsibility, but what responsibility can one possibly have to that many friends, or even to one-tenth of that number, and what does it mean to call them friends in the first instance? How does one exercise responsibility when, at the flick of a button, one can opt out of the community—permanently? Real-life communities often entail not only responsibility but risk, but where is the risk in subscribing to an online community—even one which encourages online trolls, and where threats and obscenities are commonplace?
The protocols for a life online are yet to be developed just as its contours are yet to be fully comprehended. Might living online, rendering superfluous runs to the grocery store and entailing closures of physical workspaces, worsen what is already an obesity pandemic? Will it make us even more obsessive about speed—the speed with which we move from one activity to another, the ever-shortening time in which we expect others to respond to email, and the speed with which we multitask online? The coronavirus pandemic introduced the online funeral service. In the West, especially, the endeavour over the course of the last century, since advancements in hygiene, sanitation, and then in medical care and surgery greatly increased the life span, has been to distance humans from the unpleasant fact of death. Will the newfound interest in moving funeral ceremonies online have the consequence of pushing death farther into the cavernous hole of forgetting and alienate man from the one and only ineluctable fact of life—namely that of the certain mortality of each and every human? I have not sought to offer a complete inventory of life online, intending this essay only as a prolegomenon—and as a set of reflections which may lead inescapably to the conclusion that, as with everything else, the move to a life online seems apposite for a species that has always, indeed unfailingly, looked for ways to escape the scorching reality of life.