Can Any of Us Afford to Live Offline?


Can Any of Us Afford to Live Offline?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“Put your phone away. It’s not like the company will shut down without you. You’re sick, act it,” scolded my mother, as I lay in bed after a particularly bad bout of viral fever. “I’m not checking work maa,” I lied while slyly closing the Gmail app and the office WhatsApp groups that I had been scanning. Of course maa wouldn’t understand that work did not stop just because I called in sick. I was, after all, just a quick email-WhatsApp message away if anyone needed me. And was I expected to reply? Of course.  

The truth is that in 2018, as long as you aren’t dying or already dead, you are expected to be a text-email away. If that sounds drastic, well, it is. Let’s face it, “Never go offline”, is actually a diktat most young working professionals like me truly believe in and are wholly complicit in perpetuating. People think that millennials are simply addicted to their phones. I present another argument: We have no choice.

Our love affair with the internet and the idea of the everything digital started like any other. We were enamoured by the “online life”, and like most love affairs, we fell too fast, too soon, and did not bother to watch out for any danger signs. My relationship with the online world was immersive – it was all or nothing. However, in the excitement of a new relationship, it seemed like everyone forgot that something this perfect, open, accepting, and available to us, could have its own failures. But we didn’t care. We were in love after all.

For someone like me, born in the late ’90s, the internet was a medium I was not only born with but one I learned to live on while teaching those older than me how to navigate it. Today, in India, millennials, people between the age of 18 to 35, account for 34 per cent of the country’s total population. Out of that, an astounding 84 per cent are already reliant on mobile broadband, spending an average of 17 hours a week online. From food and clothing to relationships and even sex, everything the Indian millennial needs is available online. For a generation that was born almost alongside it, the internet has become one of the biggest crutches we depend on. But the question is: Can we get away from it? Here I present you, with the profound lyrics of the ’90s, some food for thought: “Bin tere sanam mar mitenge hum, aa meri zindagi…”

Ask any person between the age of 12 to 35, if they can live without the internet, and you’ll get a resounding yes. Challenge them to do it, and many might take it up. Ask them if they can afford to do it, and you’d see dumbfound faces, as they realise that life without the internet is not just tough, it’s something that perhaps most people living in major cities, working in MNCs, cannot afford. For a 22-year-old with a job, offline is not an option. The work culture today demands that you are available at your boss’s beck and call – over the phone, on WhatsApp, and email. Slack and the 10 others who a ready to fill your shoes and be forever connected. Unavailability usually comes with drawback – you either lose out on opportunities, or worse still, are seen as “irresponsible”. Checking mails while commuting to and from work, fielding calls on your vacation is now a routine part.

Unplugging is strictly for the brave, not for the needy or the insecure or anyone whose life might look worryingly empty once stripped to the bare essentials

If you are not doing any of that, you are either putting up a Facebook post, outraging on Twitter, or checking Instagram. You can’t walk into a meeting the next morning and risk to be ridiculed because you did not read @wokeboyhimtoo’s outrageous tweet on #MeToo. Or even catch up with friends if you haven’t watched the latest episode of BoJack. “What do you mean you’ve not been online for two days? What detox? Jeez, you are too entitled for your age,” a friend, who decided to go offline for a few days, was told once.

In 2016, France gave its citizens a “right to disconnect” which meant that French companies were required to guarantee their employees a “right to disconnect” from technology in a bid to tackle the modern-day scourge of compulsive out-of-hours email checking. But in India right now, a person’s position in terms of the right and ability to live offline is a privilege. Unplugging and refusing to be ceaselessly on-call and deciding your own availability are looked at as signs that you are entitled and powerful. Being disconnected is turned into a commodity that few can afford. Luxury resorts that offer to hold and monitor smartphones for guests are just the tip of the iceberg.

A Guardian essay titled “How living offline became the new status symbol” says, “Unplugging is strictly for the brave, not for the needy or the insecure or anyone whose life might look worryingly empty once stripped to the bare essentials. And that’s why most of us find a technological crash diet dismayingly hard to stick to; why a simpler life remains just a fantasy.”

This need of total disconnection is atypical of a generation that is trying to find a quick way out of the bind they find themselves in, but this old Ross and Rachel method of “taking a break”, undergoing a complete digital detox has become the latest answer to Keto or a juice cleanse. Everyone wants it, and it seems to be affecting no one in the manner they want. And everyone knows, that just like Ross and Rachel, this break isn’t really going to work out.  

The answer may lie, as it usually does, in the middle. I’m going to try and switch off between 9 pm and 9 am, for starters, and if the world doesn’t stop rotating on its axis, maybe it’s a sign that we can one day find a solution that’s more sustainable than a detox.