By Dr Kofi Ansah
As the courteous gutter cleaner tries to persuade me to part with a few Cedis so he can buy his first meal of the day, he quickly reaches for his pocket to check the text message that can't wait and then takes a call on another mobile phone. He tells the caller he will call back. I stand next to him a little bemused and wondering how he can maintain two mobile phones and afford "units", but can't afford lunch. He's probably got his priorities right.
This unlikely tech-head I met in Accra is among a rapidly growing number of people in Ghana-rich, comfortable, poor-who keep two or more mobile phones at a time. It's hard to fault the reasons for this; among them, the unreliability of some networks. What amazes me about these people is their near-pathological obsession with their new electronic toys; their mobile. But this shouldn't be surprising because it is happening in a nation where the majority of its people have leapfrogged conventional telephony-from having no access to landline to owning hi-tech mobile phones and other portable electronic devices. Not a bad outcome for a developing nation like ours.
Not being much of a phone person, I didn't bother to take one along on my last visit to Ghana. I was very much looking forward to catching up with my brother and sisters, just like in the good old days and, more important, spending time with my mother who was ill. Little did I realise the ubiquitous mobile phone was going to get in the way. As it turned out, my folks had moved on from the good old days in an era of mobile-mania in Ghana, while I was still living in the past.
Face-to-face conversations quickly degenerated into "face-to-screen" chats. With their fingers ceaselessly playing with their e-toys, the eye contact of my conversation partners would alternate between me and their mobile phone screens. Worse, I couldn't have a decent conversation without interruption from a phone call or text message alert, which would trigger a seemingly uncontrollable need on their part to check and respond to the messages.
That is not to say Ghanaians' "twinkle, twinkle little star" fascination with electronic devices is unique. Much of the world is in the grip of electronic fever and no amount of medicine can cure it; nor is a remedy necessary. But, don't you think medicine itself is becoming a casualty of the electronic revolution?
Before you stretch your imagination too far, spare a moment to ponder over this: What do you say to a sick child who wants to know "why kids drink their medicine, but big people eat theirs"? To get my head around this perplexing question, I posed my own question: "You want to know why you take liquid medicine, but mummy and daddy take tablets when they are not well?"
What happened next took my breath away; it was more than I had bargained for. "Taa-blet? You mean you can eat, like, mummy's iPad? That is disgusting!" was the reaction from my five-year-old who had picked up the word "disgusting" at her day care centre and thinks anything she doesn't like fits that description.
Yes, "tablet" as I know it has lost its meaning in my lifetime and taken on a new meaning I can barely associate with. It reminds me of my early days in Australia when I first became aware that the word "gay" meant something other than what I thought it was. Having heard my mother use "gay colours" a million times for all things bright and beautiful, I was ill-prepared for the new meaning. Now her granddaughter tells me "tablet" means something else; the same granddaughter who, brushing aside my word of caution not to jump off the top of a table else she would break her neck, retorted that she could buy a new neck from the shops. The generation gap can't be more stark. Indeed, I feel I belong to the Stone Age.
The tablet conversation with my daughter was a rather poignant reminder that my generation was cruising past its use-by date. My worldview and the worldview of digital-age children like her are poles apart; so is our language, and the reality that it expresses. In a little over two decades, information and communication technology has taken the world by storm and, as it speeds along the information superhighway, has left many casualties in its wake; language being among the first to be run over in the fast lane.
Mouse, window, cloud, hardware, desktop, bite and boot are all struggling to retain their once-dominant meanings in the cut-throat world of cyber language. In a place like Canberra where it takes some effort to find a mouse, I can see a future where the only real mouse for the residents of Australia's national capital is the computer mouse, with Mr Rodent Mouse consigned to nursery rhymes.
Paradoxically, the one bright spot on the horizon for Rodent Mouse is ICT's speed. The lightning speed with which ICT continues to change the world has also become ICT's own undoing. With the increasing wide application and use of touchscreen (and voice) technology, the computer mouse is becoming seriously endangered, allowing Rodent Mouse to reclaim its birth right.
The touchscreen is in a class of its own. It has corralled the human species into a single profession-fingerprint experts-as we finger our way through thousands of digital text and pages every second. It might be a good idea to watch your neck and eyes also-they are potential casualties of the e-tablet, unless you can buy replacements from the shops. The e-tablet has succeeded where others like the PC have failed. Portable, wireless and sleek, it has turned humanity into screen worshipers and dictates how we spend our time at home, work and recreation.
Walk into any public space and you will appreciate what I'm talking about. Most heads are bowed-towards all types of screen: iPhone, iPad, iPod, Samsung Galaxy, Asus Nexus, Sony VAIO and a host of e-readers. If that is not screen worship, what else is? On the bus, train or aircraft, the synchronised bending of necks that have been called to worship by the almighty screen is unmistakeable. At a church service, you are treated to a contest between God worship and screen worship, as worshipers divide their attention between checking their text messages and listening to their pastors' sermons conducted from e-bibles.
At kids' sporting activities, parents are not talking to each other anymore or cheering their kids as much as they used to because the smartphone or iPad beckons. In the lift, the touchscreen serves as a smokescreen. Within those few seconds of ascent or descent, heads are bowed-as people who don't want to be forced into talking to or smiling at strangers in that confined space take sanctuary in their android screens, pretending to be immersed in some urgent or exciting text message.
Screen staring is now a daily ritual for almost everyone in the developed world and, increasingly, for many people in developing countries. In their subtle agenda to dominate our lives completely, the smartphone and e-tablet have other partners in crime. At home, it is the plasma screen, as well as the PC, laptop, phone (landline), video intercom, exercise bike, camera and many other screen appliances. In the car, it is the GPS navigation screen. On your way to work, huge digital billboards stare at you as you drive past. If you are heading to the airport or train station, the timetable display or check-in screens will not escape your attention. The PC and telephone screens rear their ugly heads again when you arrive at your workplace, along with many other screens depending on the nature of your work.
At the hospital (and other service centres), you are greeted by heart monitor screens and only-God-knows what else, in addition to the usual TV and message display screens. One of the messages tells you to switch off your mobile phone and any other electronic devices you may have on you because they could interfere with hospital equipment. But that didn't stop a surgeon from checking his text messages when I once visited a very busy operating theatre at a major hospital in Canberra.
The one constant in all this is the smartphone, along with its twin-sister, the e-tablet. Their ever-present nature means they have become the most intrusive devices in our lives.
Back in Ghana, having experienced disappointment at my failure to have a decent conversation with my relatives, I banked my hopes on meeting my friends and classmates, whose company I had enjoyed during a previous visit. Needless to say my hopes were dashed. How could I be so naïve in thinking that the e-toys wouldn't get in the way again?
You will understand why I see interpersonal communication-unmediated interpersonal communication-as the biggest casualty of the mobile phone and e-tablet revolution. But, again, my daughter may one day give me a reality check: "Daddy, get real. You can get more friends on Facebook and you can text them, Skype with them or leave them a tweet. You can even buy new siblings online."
It's a bitter pill, but one that I can't help but swallow. Reality today is, indeed, electronic reality.
I dedicate this piece to the memory of my dear mother, who passed away shortly after I completed writing. Her granddaughter wants to know why I tell people that I have LOST my mother. "Can't you search for her because she's only gone missing?" Indeed, I wish I could do a Google search to find her.
Dr Kofi Ansah
Australian Capital Territory
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