Sunday, April 20, 2014

What has God Wrought?

“Evolution teaches us the original purpose of language was to ritualize men's threats and curses, his spells to compel the gods; communication came later.” – Gene Wolfe

This post has been on the backburner for a really long time (9 months to be precise) and is the result of a series of events triggered over time. Quite unfortunate that Mr. Mandela & Messrs Khushwant Singh lost their patience waiting for me to publish this one. And as the last few icons of my generation fade away, I can only be thankful for being part of a special timeline in the evolution of mankind. From television to telepresence, the intensity & acceptance of change has been unbelievable.
In the midst of last week, my cousin sent me three text messages in the space of 60 seconds (At 160 characters, the Short message service is so long). Each message contained not more than a couple of words. And I wondered, if communication is still a premium service shackled by cost & time.
On July 14, 2013, I witnessed two important aspects of my life fade away. My grandmother, who’s always been a large source of inspiration, passed away. Within 5 minutes, I received the communication in various forms. A call, few texts and Whatsapp messages. Ironically, 14th July 2013 marked the end of the telegram service in India. A service that had accounted for large scale communications over the last 163 years shrunk into oblivion. One that represented a lot more value than any tweet can possibly ever hold. My dad still recounts that moment from Oct 16, 1981 receiving the telegram when my brother was born.
As a kid, I loved writing letters. I would write to my grandmother and friends who had left Oman to continue their schooling in Kerala. The letters would be long, descriptive accounts of our lives over a few months. Instinctive, yet measured those sheets held our friendships together. Through the year, posting greeting cards to friends & relatives on account of birthdays, anniversaries & festivals ensured the relationships were warm and consistent.
We didn’t have a telephone in our house till March ’98. And I remember the first time it rang. A long distance call to inform us that one of my close relatives had passed away. A few months later, my cousin called me when Brazil lost to France in the World Cup Finals. Every call held a special significance and was made with an eye on the clock. As the second hand closed in on the minute, there would be hurried activity around to ensure that we didn’t exceed the cost for the calls.
I received my first cell phone in 2003. Incoming calls had just been made free in India and text messaging packages were introduced. The coverage was so poor in our area that the phone spent most of its time next to the window and every waft of wind would bring a text message. Since the monthly quota for text messages were limited, we learned to use them wisely and make the most of it. But yet, I always typed out the entire text (grammar and punctuation included) to make it sound personalized.
I had a whiff of the internet in the late 90’s tracking scores on cricinfo and communicating over email on msn. But the true impact came half a decade later with the advent of Gmail & Orkut. It opened avenues to connect with people from our past who had drifted away. A sense of excitement prevailed in hearing from the people who had had significant roles in our formative years. Emails were considered as replacement for letters in every sense. A response wasn’t always guaranteed since many of us couldn’t get to checking mails on a constant basis. I remember one funny incident where a friend had requested for another one’s address to send out a wedding invite. The marriage was done and dusted by a few months before the information came through.
I owned my first smart phone in 2008 (Nokia N82), one that supported 2G data transmission. I no longer had to wait for windy days to transmit or receive messages but nevertheless the online chat options were delayed. It introduced me to Google, a couple of strokes from a wealth of knowledge at my finger tips. Call rates dropped drastically and we ensured that we called our friends and spoke to them for hours together. Our favorite activity included waking up friends after drinking binges in the early hours of weekends and public holidays. The size of cell phones shrunk considerably and I eyed every new model with a sense of awe & excitement.
The applications for chatting were limited and weren’t exactly instant messaging. In our courting period, my wife and I spent an entire night chatting with each other over one of these apps. We would send a message and then wait for eternity to get a response. The sentences were long and measured in order to get as much information through as much possible. It probably transformed our relationship in more than one dimension.
Time flew by and methods of communication have improved vastly. I wake up and realize that there are 100 unread messages from various contacts. Most of these messages are forwarded quotes & jokes. Hardly a few are personal and consequential. We have access to every single person who has touched our life, briefly or broadly. And unsurprisingly, most of the relationships seem to have waned with the bursts of constant & overloaded information. Sometimes, at a rate where important news gets overshadowed by large volumes of trivial data.
I am literally confused between communicating over Whatsapp, Skype or Viber with people across barriers of distance and time. Unsure, whether my message gets across in its completeness & intended form.  Sometimes wondering if we can retrace to those days were communication was so limited, yet so meaningful. Those letters that narrated a story over the blink-and-you-miss Whatsapp messages. We are not far from the day when a virtual embodiment appears in front of us to enable better communication.

“When language is used without true significance, it loses its purpose as a means of communication and becomes an end in itself.” – Karl Jaspers

P.S - What has God Wrought was the first telegram sent out by Samuel Morse


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