English-Video.net comment policy

The comment field is common to all languages

Let's write in your language and use "Google Translate" together

Please refer to informative community guidelines on TED.com

TEDGlobal 2013

Abha Dawesar: Life in the "digital now"

Filmed
Views 1,253,602

One year ago, Abha Dawesar was living in blacked-out Manhattan post-Sandy, scrounging for power to connect. As a novelist, she was struck by this metaphor: Have our lives now become fixated on the drive to digitally connect, while we miss out on what's real?

- Novelist
Abha Dawesar writes to make sense of the world -- herself included. Full bio

I was in New York during Hurricane Sandy,
00:12
and this little white dog called Maui
00:14
was staying with me.
00:17
Half the city was dark because of a power cut,
00:18
and I was living on the dark side.
00:21
Now, Maui was terrified of the dark,
00:23
so I had to carry him up the stairs,
00:25
actually down the stairs first, for his walk,
00:27
and then bring him back up.
00:30
I was also hauling gallons of bottles of water
00:32
up to the seventh floor every day.
00:35
And through all of this,
00:37
I had to hold a torch between my teeth.
00:39
The stores nearby were out of flashlights
00:41
and batteries and bread.
00:44
For a shower, I walked 40 blocks
00:47
to a branch of my gym.
00:50
But these were not the major preoccupations of my day.
00:51
It was just as critical for me to be the first person in
00:55
at a cafe nearby with extension cords and chargers
00:58
to juice my multiple devices.
01:01
I started to prospect under the benches of bakeries
01:03
and the entrances of pastry shops for plug points.
01:06
I wasn't the only one.
01:09
Even in the rain, people stood between Madison and 5th Avenue
01:11
under their umbrellas charging their cell phones
01:15
from outlets on the street.
01:17
Nature had just reminded us
01:19
that it was stronger than all our technology,
01:21
and yet here we were, obsessed about being wired.
01:24
I think there's nothing like a crisis
01:27
to tell you what's really important and what's not,
01:29
and Sandy made me realize that our devices
01:32
and their connectivity matter to us
01:36
right up there with food and shelter.
01:38
The self as we once knew it no longer exists,
01:42
and I think that an abstract, digital universe
01:46
has become a part of our identity,
01:48
and I want to talk to you about what I think that means.
01:51
I'm a novelist, and I'm interested in the self
01:55
because the self and fiction have a lot in common.
01:58
They're both stories, interpretations.
02:00
You and I can experience things without a story.
02:04
We might run up the stairs too quickly
02:06
and we might get breathless.
02:08
But the larger sense that we have of our lives,
02:10
the slightly more abstract one, is indirect.
02:12
Our story of our life is based on direct experience,
02:16
but it's embellished.
02:19
A novel needs scene after scene to build,
02:21
and the story of our life needs an arc as well.
02:24
It needs months and years.
02:27
Discrete moments from our lives are its chapters.
02:29
But the story is not about these chapters.
02:32
It's the whole book.
02:35
It's not only about the heartbreak and the happiness,
02:37
the victories and the disappointments,
02:40
but it's because how because of these,
02:43
and sometimes, more importantly, in spite of these,
02:45
we find our place in the world
02:48
and we change it and we change ourselves.
02:50
Our story, therefore, needs two dimensions of time:
02:53
a long arc of time that is our lifespan,
02:56
and the timeframe of direct experience
02:59
that is the moment.
03:02
Now the self that experiences directly
03:03
can only exist in the moment,
03:06
but the one that narrates needs several moments,
03:07
a whole sequence of them,
03:10
and that's why our full sense of self
03:12
needs both immersive experience
03:15
and the flow of time.
03:18
Now, the flow of time is embedded in everything,
03:20
in the erosion of a grain of sand,
03:23
in the budding of a little bud into a rose.
03:26
Without it, we would have no music.
03:29
Our own emotions and state of mind
03:32
often encode time,
03:34
regret or nostalgia about the past,
03:36
hope or dread about the future.
03:39
I think that technology has altered that flow of time.
03:42
The overall time that we have for our narrative,
03:46
our lifespan, has been increasing,
03:49
but the smallest measure, the moment, has shrunk.
03:51
It has shrunk because our instruments enable us
03:54
in part to measure smaller and smaller units of time,
03:56
and this in turn has given us a more granular understanding
04:00
of the material world,
04:03
and this granular understanding
04:05
has generated reams of data
04:06
that our brains can no longer comprehend
04:08
and for which we need more and more complicated computers.
04:11
All of this to say that the gap
04:14
between what we can perceive and what we can measure
04:17
is only going to widen.
04:19
Science can do things with and in a picosecond,
04:21
but you and I are never going to have the inner experience
04:24
of a millionth of a millionth of a second.
04:27
You and I answer only to nature's rhythm and flow,
04:30
to the sun, the moon and the seasons,
04:34
and this is why we need that long arc of time
04:37
with the past, the present and the future
04:40
to see things for what they are,
04:42
to separate signal from noise
04:44
and the self from sensations.
04:46
We need time's arrow to understand cause and effect,
04:48
not just in the material world,
04:52
but in our own intentions and our motivations.
04:53
What happens when that arrow goes awry?
04:57
What happens when time warps?
05:01
So many of us today have the sensation
05:04
that time's arrow is pointing everywhere
05:06
and nowhere at once.
05:08
This is because time doesn't flow in the digital world
05:11
in the same way that it does in the natural one.
05:13
We all know that the Internet has shrunk space
05:17
as well as time.
05:20
Far away over there is now here.
05:21
News from India is a stream on my smartphone app
05:24
whether I'm in New York or New Delhi.
05:26
And that's not all.
05:29
Your last job, your dinner reservations from last year,
05:31
your former friends, lie on a flat plain with today's friends,
05:33
because the Internet also archives,
05:36
and it warps the past.
05:38
With no distinction left between the past,
05:40
the present and the future, and the here or there,
05:42
we are left with this moment everywhere,
05:46
this moment that I'll call the digital now.
05:50
Just how can we prioritize
05:52
in the landscape of the digital now?
05:54
This digital now is not the present,
05:56
because it's always a few seconds ahead,
05:58
with Twitter streams that are already trending
06:00
and news from other time zones.
06:02
This isn't the now of a shooting pain in your foot
06:04
or the second that you bite into a pastry
06:07
or the three hours that you lose yourself in a great book.
06:09
This now bears very little physical
06:13
or psychological reference to our own state.
06:15
Its focus, instead, is to distract us
06:18
at every turn on the road.
06:20
Every digital landmark is an invitation
06:22
to leave what you are doing now to go somewhere else
06:24
and do something else.
06:26
Are you reading an interview by an author?
06:28
Why not buy his book? Tweet it. Share it.
06:30
Like it. Find other books exactly like his.
06:33
Find other people reading those books.
06:35
Travel can be liberating,
06:38
but when it is incessant, we become
06:40
permanent exiles without repose.
06:42
Choice is freedom, but not when it's constantly
06:44
for its own sake.
06:47
Not just is the digital now far from the present,
06:49
but it's in direct competition with it,
06:52
and this is because not just am I absent from it,
06:54
but so are you.
06:57
Not just are we absent from it, but so is everyone else.
06:58
And therein lies its greatest convenience and horror.
07:01
I can order foreign language books in the middle of the night,
07:04
shop for Parisian macarons,
07:07
and leave video messages that get picked up later.
07:09
At all times, I can operate
07:11
at a different rhythm and pace from you,
07:13
while I sustain the illusion
07:16
that I'm tapped into you in real time.
07:17
Sandy was a reminder
07:21
of how such an illusion can shatter.
07:23
There were those with power and water,
07:25
and those without.
07:27
There are those who went back to their lives,
07:28
and those who are still displaced
07:30
after so many months.
07:32
For some reason, technology seems to perpetuate
07:35
the illusion for those who have it that everyone does,
07:37
and then, like an ironic slap in the face,
07:41
it makes it true.
07:44
For example, it's said that there are more people
07:46
in India with access to cell phones than toilets.
07:47
Now if this rift, which is already so great
07:50
in many parts of the world,
07:53
between the lack of infrastructure and the spread of technology,
07:54
isn't somehow bridged,
07:58
there will be ruptures between the digital
07:59
and the real.
08:01
For us as individuals who live in the digital now
08:04
and spend most of our waking moments in it,
08:07
the challenge is to live in two streams of time
08:10
that are parallel and almost simultaneous.
08:12
How does one live inside distraction?
08:15
We might think that those younger than us,
08:19
those who are born into this, will adapt more naturally.
08:21
Possibly, but I remember my childhood.
08:24
I remember my grandfather revising
08:28
the capitals of the world with me.
08:29
Buda and Pest were separated by the Danube,
08:32
and Vienna had a Spanish riding school.
08:34
If I were a child today, I could easily learn this information
08:37
with apps and hyperlinks,
08:40
but it really wouldn't be the same,
08:42
because much later, I went to Vienna,
08:44
and I went to the Spanish riding school,
08:46
and I could feel my grandfather right beside me.
08:48
Night after night, he took me up on the terrace,
08:52
on his shoulders, and pointed out Jupiter
08:54
and Saturn and the Great Bear to me.
08:57
And even here, when I look at the Great Bear,
09:00
I get back that feeling of being a child,
09:03
hanging onto his head and trying to balance myself
09:06
on his shoulder,
09:08
and I can get back that feeling of being a child again.
09:10
What I had with my grandfather was wrapped
09:13
so often in information and knowledge and fact,
09:16
but it was about so much more
09:19
than information or knowledge or fact.
09:21
Time-warping technology challenges
09:25
our deepest core,
09:27
because we are able to archive the past
09:29
and some of it becomes hard to forget,
09:33
even as the current moment
09:36
is increasingly unmemorable.
09:39
We want to clutch, and we are left instead
09:41
clutching at a series of static moments.
09:44
They're like soap bubbles that disappear when we touch them.
09:47
By archiving everything, we think that we can store it,
09:49
but time is not data.
09:52
It cannot be stored.
09:54
You and I know exactly what it means like
09:56
to be truly present in a moment.
09:58
It might have happened while we were
10:00
playing an instrument,
10:01
or looking into the eyes of someone we've known
10:03
for a very long time.
10:05
At such moments, our selves are complete.
10:07
The self that lives in the long narrative arc
10:10
and the self that experiences the moment
10:12
become one.
10:14
The present encapsulates the past
10:16
and a promise for the future.
10:18
The present joins a flow of time
10:20
from before and after.
10:22
I first experienced these feelings with my grandmother.
10:24
I wanted to learn to skip, and she found an old rope
10:28
and she tucked up her sari
10:30
and she jumped over it.
10:31
I wanted to learn to cook, and she kept me in the kitchen,
10:33
cutting, cubing and chopping for a whole month.
10:36
My grandmother taught me that things happen
10:40
in the time they take, that time can't be fought,
10:42
and because it will pass and it will move,
10:46
we owe the present moment our full attention.
10:48
Attention is time.
10:51
One of my yoga instructors once said
10:54
that love is attention,
10:56
and definitely from my grandmother,
10:58
love and attention were one and the same thing.
11:00
The digital world cannibalizes time,
11:04
and in doing so, I want to suggest
11:07
that what it threatens
11:10
is the completeness of ourselves.
11:12
It threatens the flow of love.
11:14
But we don't need to let it.
11:17
We can choose otherwise.
11:19
We've seen again and again
11:20
just how creative technology can be,
11:22
and in our lives and in our actions,
11:24
we can choose those solutions and those innovations
11:27
and those moments that restore the flow of time
11:31
instead of fragmenting it.
11:34
We can slow down and we can tune in
11:37
to the ebb and flow of time.
11:40
We can choose to take time back.
11:43
Thank you.
11:47
(Applause)
11:49

▲Back to top

About the speaker:

Abha Dawesar - Novelist
Abha Dawesar writes to make sense of the world -- herself included.

Why you should listen

Abha Dawesar began her writing career as an attempt to understand herself -- at age 7. It’s a goal that remains at the center of her work: Sensorium, her most recent novel, explores the nature of time, self, and uncertainty, using Hindu mythology and modern science as prisms. “At a very basic level, writing was always my way of apprehending the world,” she has said.

Dawesar moved from India to the United States to study at Harvard, and Delhi appears at the center of her novels Family Values and Babyji. But the oversimplified genres of immigrant fiction or ethnic fiction do not appeal to her. “Those looking for a constant South Asian theme or Diaspora theme or immigrant theme will just be disappointed in the long run from my work,” she has said. “The only label I can put up with is that of a writer. And my ideas come from everywhere.”

More profile about the speaker
Abha Dawesar | Speaker | TED.com