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WHO’S IN YOUR PHONE?

WHO’S IN YOUR PHONE?

A PERSPECTIVE ON HOW INCREASINGLY COMPLEX MOBILE PHONE TECHNOLOGY CAN MAKE US THINK THERE’S A GHOST IN THE MACHINE.


My mother’s hand-held has a hold on her heart. Recently, she realised that not only does she speak through her phone, it actually speaks to her. Each time she picks it up, the phone shows her a special time. Though this communication is in a shorthand even seasoned texters may find abrupt, to her it has a telling significance. Without probing the probabilities of chancing only upon combinations like 05:55 or 21:12 on a 24-hour clock display, she accepts it as oracular even if this Delhi avatar is as abstruse as the Delphi one.

Because she accepts it, she needs to have it be accepted as well; that’s just human nature. To this end, she records and registers every recurring correspond­ence. In a tactical, show-don’t-tell tale that novelists can only aspire to, I was presented on maybe 20 or so separate instances, evidence of symbolic sequences. Some at rather inconvenient hours, others moments af­ter the moment has passed, but by and large at seemingly significant or special times. I was persuaded, or at least exhausted enough to concede my conviction.

Empirical data is the mother of superstition. All good ghost stories insist upon a liminal number of finely ob­served facts, data points with which to spring load our weighted convictions and catapult them to a supernatu­ral sphere. Before that can happen though a critical mass has to build, a detritus of details to shore up a belief in what we don’t see or cannot explain. Which is why the relatively recent incursion and deep penetration of the mobile phone make it the touchstone for translat­ing the transcendental into technology.

That my mother does not hold an aberrant belief is easily substantiated through lifestyle media’s documented fascination with dying, death, and the undead. The “dial these digits for death” story has seen multiple iterations but perhaps few as effectively headlined as Hindi newspaper Nayi Duniya’s: 09415817683. Though the story ran in April 2006, online comment forums still show, perversely, a live interest. I can spare you the compulsion: the number no longer exists and I still do.

Earlier this year, the Telecom Regulation Authority of India estimated that our mobile phone subscriber base is approaching 900 million. Digging into that projection may yield some garden variety Indian ghosts; the spirits of dual SIMs, the dead souls of defunct users, the spectres of double counting. It’s a ghost story to prop the great Indian growth story. Despite those shape-shifting statistics, it’s undeniable that our mobile phones are multiplying at an astronomical rate. When the global population hit the seven billion population mark, there were rumours about the present living outnum­bering the past dead. Arthur C Clarke’s 1968 figures were nearer the mark, “Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts,” though with population booms since, our ghostly garrison has dwindled to approximately 15 per person.

The wider technological accessibility has, if anything, increased an interest in the inexplicable. In a culture where ancient mythologies are alive and accepted, and local and tribal practices are assiduously assimilated, the para­normal is pretty normal. A statistical study to separate supernatural from religious beliefs in India would have to account for a staggering number of variables to achieve any interval of confidence. The phone is both the token totem, imbued with significance that is not entirely understood and the fetish object, wanted not for its own value but one ascribed to it.

Herbert Spencer, in Chapter XXI: Idol-Worship and Fetich-Worship of The Principles of Sociology, Volume 1 (1876) defines: “Thus the unusualness which makes an object a fetich, is supposed to imply an indwelling ghost – an agent without which deviation from the ordinary would be inexplicable. There is no tendency gratuitously to ascribe duality of nature; but only when there is an unfamiliar appearance, or motion, or sound, or change, in a thing, does there arise this idea of a possessing spirit.”

I have an old cell phone that has possibly outlived its expiration date. It will not work, even with its new (okay, resuscitated) battery bought at the seconds electronics market at Nehru Place in New Delhi. “You tap it hard, three times,” says Subhash, all-round fixer-upper, when consulted. If my technical advice has attained over­ tones of the psychical, it may be because many of the goods obtainable here are in various stages of reincarna­tion. Still, I’m inclined to disregard this “rap the table to summon the spirit” answer, but he presents an incontrovertible argument; three rounds in the school of hard knocks and the battery bars begin to climb.

“Not magic, science,” asserts Subhash. The bromide he tosses in the air though, lacks gravitas. His opinion is based in faith and personal experience rather than any scientific rationale he can elucidate. Subhash is savvy about his work. On a neatly printed business card, he has even replaced his last name with phone digits, to better build a brand with. But, “This is how it happens,” is the most I’m able to elicit when I lean on him to draw on a claimed 12 years of experience. Apprenticed, but not schooled, Subhash’s understanding extends only as far as it needs to.

Instead, his is the blanket belief about how coils and chips work that exists in most lay minds. Aided along by some mental elision, it suffices as expla­nation. Wires – blank blank – tapping… dot dot dot… working. A kind of linger­ing guilt about not paying more attention in science class closes the circuit. Though there is more happening than meets the eye, there is no impulse to attribute this prosaic tapping procedure to paranormal activity.

Vis-à-vis my mother, an accumulated corpus of putative proof, if it doesn’t result quite in a corpse like Nayi Duniya’s claim, are at least attributable to a spirit. Reason, science, and technology can sometimes collude to banish such banshees; no, actually, as seen on the call log, you did pick up the phone at a banal 12:07 as well. As per Subhash, no gloss is necessary since what is, is. Technology as a vast, gray, amorphous blob that sops up many superstitions can’t seep into spaces clearly demar­cated and defined like Subhash’s work. There is, as Spen­cer said, “no tendency gratuitously to ascribe duality of nature.” The two anecdotes, my mother’s and Subhash’s, fly in the face of that established, inversely proportional relationship between education and superstition, which anthropologists of the previous century had such a predilection for documenting. That sort of missionary-propagated scientism claimed that with the message of the enlightenment, the ethers of the netherworld would dispel. They failed to acknowledge that our superstitions can only occupy the space we allow them.

Some will recall their first close encounter of the third kind via the chain letter; those lovingly, labori­ously hand-copied missives mailed with instructions to re-send and threats of dire consequences. The once in a while postal dispatch became a daily deal with the advent of e-mail. Surprising chinks in the armours of sceptics were revealed, with declarations of “this happened to me” appended to stories of haunted houses, ee­rie effigies, poltergeists in paintings. SMS monetised the fad, though an earlier flurry of auras visible on blurry phone clicked photos seems to have flagged. The things your phone can now do seem otherworldly indeed. Even as it competes in this sphere of the supernatu­ral, it becomes Spencer’s “agent, without which deviation from the ordinary would be inexplicable.” The technology enclosed within the phone becomes the convenient catch-all for those phenomena. Technology, in this glossed version, is a teleology with an explanation of its causes in nature. The mobile phone is just a prop in the ghost stories that connect us all.

The worship of oddly shaped stones and pots and pans (mundane objects imbued with ritual significance) was an atavistic bulwark against death. Popular tales feature objects that are difficult to put a utilitarian value to, but easily anthropomorphised, like dolls and paintings. The morphology of these relies on animat­ing, ancestral spirits but what keeps them compelling is that they are allegorical. The tropes, quite consistently from ancient to modern times, are couched cautionary catechisms. From the doll that moves in the night (spot the misplaced feminine virtue) or the dead guy hitching a ride on a deserted road (strangers, bad, bad, bad), ghost stories adapt to changing social orders and the anxieties they create. There’s definitely one about Gurgaon malls in the making now.

As society evolves, Spencer’s change, in “unfamiliar appearance, or motion, or sound” is also much manifest. The expectation that our phones will do unexpected things has gotten fairly entrenched. If India were the Wild West, Upkar Singh, a 23-year-old chauffeur, would be the fastest gun in town. He can change the double-SIM cards on his device sooner than most folks can locate the button to release the cover. Attuned to his phone like a new mother is to a crying infant, he answers calls before it shivers with the first vibration. When I talk about the technology, he rattles off the name and relative merits of each of the service providers but looks lost when I men­tion satellite signals. “Like cable [TV]?” he shrugs. Asked if his phone ever acts weird, Upkar says it sometimes does, but that just means it’s time for an upgrade. Preferably to a model that will “change the world.”

While he may have gotten that line off an ad cam­paign, Upkar’s world has certainly changed. His phone is the medium that manages the spectral shift. Quick Response codes are a case in point, small squares of printed ink that can be scanned and decoded by a phone to link to an online experience. Flatly rendered on paper they’re as comprehensible as hieroglyphs but via a phone they offer access to an altered world of virtual reality. A world as envisioned by McDonald’s, or the makers of Ford, or the manufacturers of Cotton World, all of whom have incorporated them as a means to push products. It’s as interesting an exercise in perspective as blotting the moon with your thumb. That little square of bits and bytes opens up to reveal a three-dimensional model of a car, or grabs you discounts on your garb. Other platforms and applications have impacted everything from the way a Punjabi farmer tills his soil to how a Tamilian fisherman gets market price for his mackerel. The radii for the intersecting circles of want and need are drawing closer. The compact, cellular phone has expanded to fill the converging centre.

Chronicles of the afterlife have to emerge from this life – it is all we know. On a mundane level, our lay, everyday engagement with our phones generally seals them from the supernatural. But within the realm of discourse, the mobile phone really begins to assume the entire spectrum of its identity – as a touchstone of this world, as a fetish for the worldly, as a totem of the other-worldly. It is not the first appearance of a ghost in the machine, which has in assorted aspects endured over time. The phrase, first coined by mid-20th century Brit­ish philosopher Gilbert Ryle, was popularised by Arthur Koestler’s book of the same name, published in 1967. It is a treatise on how the human brain interprets inputs and operates on multiple levels, gathering a sort of spirit of its own with its layered interactions. The premise was the forerunner for many apocalyptic artificial intelligence stories. Do the machinations of our phones parallel the animations of our brain? In the grip they have on our lives and their perplexing workings, mobile phones can claim a similar status.

It would be a tall claim if technological innovation hadn’t already been transposed onto the language of biological evolution. Since the late 1800s, when Ameri­can anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan in his work,Ancient Society, matched the pace of technology to the steps of evolution – “With the production of inventions and discoveries, and with the growth of institutions, the human mind necessarily grew and expanded; and we are led to recognize a gradual enlargement of the brain itself, particularly of the cerebral portion” – this analogy has held. It’s a startling formulation. Our tools are not evolv­ing with us, they are evolving us. “Smart” is something we may be, but our phones definitely are.

Regenerating with slightly modified traits of earlier forms (iPhone 4 to 4s), vying for gigantisation (larger screens, more memory) and miniaturisation (smaller chips, lighter weights), and creating memes of utility (ap­plications), terms like diversification, path dependence and extinction are now bandied in both spheres. The ghosts of ancestors may have lived in stones but our more rational, advanced spirits need the phone.

As long as we have possessions, we’ll stay possessed.

Byline: Aditi Saxton


Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

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