For much of his captaincy and career as an international cricketer, Mahendra Singh Dhoni aka Captain Cool, did not carry a mobile phone. Or if he had one, few had his number. Ravi Shastri, who was the Indian cricket team’s manager and head coach for a significant part of MS’s tenure as captain, speaking to India Today, says, “Till today, I don’t have his number. I have never asked for his number. I know he doesn’t carry his phone with him. When you want to get in touch with him, you know how to get in touch with him. He is that kind of a person.”
Now, I have at various points in my life envied MS. When he was younger, for his helicopter shot, and as I grew older, his calm temperament. But when I read Shastri’s comments on him not being glued to a mobile phone, I was amazed. How had MS escaped the invasion of his mind by technology — in this case, the mobile phone?
Today, mobile phones are used to take calls, answer emails, watch movies, check social media, shop online, use messaging apps like WhatsApp or Signal and take pictures with the built-in camera. It’s common to see a couple out for dinner in a nice restaurant, glued to their phones. Or lawyers like me running between the 16 courtrooms of the Supreme Court, while checking our phones. It’s the lawyer version of a high-speed Olympic discipline.
Technology has made the virtual world easily accessible and so engaging that doctors now worry about the addictive nature of our activities there. In 2018, Jessica Brown, writing for the BBC, reported that around 3 billion people or 40 per cent of the world’s population, use online social media. Importantly, we spend on average two hours a day “sharing, liking, tweeting and updating on platforms”. This is roughly half a million tweets and Snapchat photos every minute. She says that a study published in the journal “Computers and Human Behaviour” found that people who report using seven or more social media platforms were three times more likely as people using 0-2 platforms, to have higher levels of general anxiety symptoms.
But it’s not just that our daytime hours are being consumed by tech’s virtual world. It is also that our nighttime routines are being disrupted in ways that evolution never intended for our species. Human beings evolved to coordinate their sleep with darkness and waking with sunlight. Sleep is critical to our health and longevity.
Matthew Walker in his extraordinarily well researched book “Why We Sleep” notes that over 17,000 studies link good sleep to longer life — it enhances memory, makes one more creative, lowers food cravings, protects against cancer and dementia. It wards off cold and flus, lowers risks of heart attacks and strokes and makes one feel happier and less depressed. Walker reminds us that Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth in 1611 in Act Two, Scene Two, “sleep is the chief nourisher in life’s feast”.
But our sleep is being disrupted, knowingly or unknowingly, by the tech we hold so dear — our brightly lit deeply seductive devices. Walker writes of a study when healthy adults for two weeks lived in a tightly controlled laboratory environment. Half were asked to read on an iPad for several hours before they slept, five nights a week — iPads are electronic devices enriched with blue LED light. The other half were asked to read printed paper books in the same manner. The group reading on the iPad had “suppressed melatonin release by over 50 per cent at night”. Melatonin, an enzyme that the body produces, is critical for sleep. The blue LED light confuses the body into thinking that it’s not nighttime, but daytime, and hence melatonin production is diminished resulting in loss of sleep.
The issue is not simply that technology deprives us of sleep. Clearly, much in modern life has caused a diminished sleep pandemic — the stress of longer working hours, laborious commutes, noise pollution and technology, each plays a role. A global sleep survey (across 12 countries) conducted by Philips and KJT Group in 2019 found that 62 per cent of adults don’t feel that they get enough sleep. Doctors recommend that we sleep eight hours each night. The survey showed that adults logged an average of 6.8 hours of sleep on weekdays, while on weekends it was 7.8 hours. Some of this is also due to our inability to “switch off” as technology makes us accessible 24/7.
With work from home now meaning that our kitchens are our new offices and the first thing that most people do when they wake up is check email, the real question is: What are we losing in the process? What we are losing are the qualities that are most special to our species — our ability to reflect, to observe and to look within. All activities that necessitate having full control of one’s mind. Importantly, we are losing the ability to live in the present moment, amid the email checking, iPad viewing and smartphone-picture-taking.
And the present is full of magical moments. Last Sunday, as I walked around Delhi’s beautiful Sunder Nursery with my family, we spotted a dragonfly. The dragonfly was fluttering its wings, and briefly, a sliver of pale earlyish morning sunshine fell on its wings. A peacock walked by in the distance. We all grew quiet, and the adults had their various devices switched off. I understood then what Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist master, meant when he said, “the present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” The greatest challenge of this era will be the ability to pay attention to the present, given the technology that draws our attention away to everything that is not in the present. MS Dhoni is on to something.
Menaka Guruswamy is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court