Like most people those days, I developed a fascination for computers and took to very basic software programming in the early nineties. Those were times when corporates fancily named Microsoft and Infosys had introduced filling of job applications online and never bothered to send an acknowledgement card to the applicants. Some upscale colleges had started conducting shady online exams and no one knew how these tests were evaluated and who evaluated them. And then, while the world was in the throes of scams, the Indian govt. unleashed an online stock-exchange where there were no share certificates, delivery notes or payment receipts. Anyone who could punch a few keys and had acquired a pedestrian computer diploma was headed for US.
I too tried my hand at a very rudimentary programming language (dBase IV) and did not go very far. C and C++ had started to creep in already, and my flight to software literacy was aborted. However, I did get to see those fishy machines up close and quite enjoyed the new digital lingo. Words such as default, Master, Slave, Smart, Dumb, Floppy etc. had acquired entirely different meanings in this new world. Our programming classes had a computer called ‘Master’, that our instructor operated, while we punched our gibberish in ‘Slaves’. What it meant was that a ‘Smart’ machine dictated while we were left to work on ‘Dumb’ machines whose output was disdainfully erased later. The ‘Smart’ would supervise, read and correct the ‘Dumb’ and programming errors were instantly detected and rectified. Only then could one proceed to the next level.
Pagers came and left without a trace, swiftly replaced by mobile telephony. My late father was old school and took to a mobile phone with great reluctance and cynicism. We managed to convince him to use a basic Nokia 3310 but he was skeptical and still maintained his hand-written telephone directory. He could never comprehend the annoying complexity of saving his contacts and retrieving them in time of need. He entirely depended on his enviable memory and looked at the ringing numbers to identify most callers easily (barring the unfamiliar ones, of course). Since he could not retrieve from the contact-list he remembered the mobile numbers of all his children, their spouses, his grandchildren and his friends and would effortlessly dial them correctly without ever making an error. He was smart as a smartphone; he would boast.
There arose an occasion when he had to request me to type a message to his friend from his phone since he was not conversant with the process. I dutifully accepted the request and began typing a message for the first time on a feature (not smart) phone.
Let me assure you that in times of smart phones and auto correct, this is a Hannibalian challenge. Those sniggering at my plight must try to type an intelligible sentence that includes ‘Committee’ or ‘Responsibilities’ or ‘Arbitrarily’ or ‘Maintenance’ and emerge free of ‘Embarrassing’ mistakes. In a feature phone one must retract letter by letter and only then can you delete the offending alphabet. And after you have painstakingly concluded the word that you realise that ‘Sorroundings’ are ‘Surroundings’ and what one always thought was ‘Maintainance’ had deviously been changed to ‘Maintenance’. Much to his mirth, I managed to complete the message after seventeen minutes of labour and realized, how ‘Smart’ and user-friendly the smartphones indeed were. Misery never departs easily and he politely asked me to include my mobile no. in the message for the recipient’s reference.
This was even worse. I just could not remember my own phone number and after many shoddy attempts had no choice but to refer to my smartphone. Phones had indeed become indispensably ‘Smart’, but did that also mean that ‘we’ the users had come to be ‘less smart’? I tried to convince myself that this was not the case, and it was just being habituated to a convenience but evidence against my hypothesis was overwhelming.
I remembered my programming days when the one who read, assessed and corrected was the ‘smart’ terminal and the one that made mistakes was labelled ‘dumb’. If the phones are indeed ‘smart’, then what are we users? Dumb?
Dr Rakesh Maggon is a specialist ophthalmologist with an interest in literature