Abha Dawesar: Life in the “digital now”


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

100 thoughts on “Abha Dawesar: Life in the “digital now”

  1. "What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain." "Have you ever had a dream, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world, and the real world?" -Morpheus-

  2. Hmm, I'm glad this talk can be archived (that someone was recording it and not just experiencing it). Also, I wonder if someone watches this 5 years from now, will they have a good idea of when (IRL) it was made without looking at the About?

  3. The concert thing is a perfect example. I like to take a handful of pictures and maybe one video. Mostly because I'm really close or have the opportunity for a couple of really good pictures.

  4. I wish I could take the 12 minutes back that I wasted watching this pointless video lol, first Ted talk in 3 years that I didn't like

  5. I find it ironic that she's trying to flatten the human experience into something she thinks she can articulate. The other comments got it right – its "fear mongering" and needs "relatable examples" and evidence that supports her claims would have helped.

  6. my neighbor's sister makes $78 an hour on the computer. She has been without a job for 10 months but last month her paycheck was $20556 just working on the computer for a few hours. visite site…
    w­w­w.D­u­b­3­0.ℂ­ℴ­m
    after all I try it Its realy True……

  7. ❤ ☆ ☂ ❤ ☆ ☂ Its unbelievable HOW easily my divorced friend is making $86 just working for 4-5 hours daily on their computer after being fired from job… Llast month his income was $21869 just working on the internet . He Cоոviոcеd mе tо try atleast as he is earning from LAST 11 months from this source. So I JOINED HIM. I am much happier than earlier. Know what to do ••►►►► BAM80.COM◄◄•••
    ♎☀ ♎☀ ♎☀ ♎Poverty has its advantages. When you're that poor what would you have that anyone would want?

  8. I dont miss anything because of the internet, much because im am a self learner. It was always only me and the books. When I got my degree, I took lessons, and there is no difference from watching the teacher in loco than watching it from the internet, the diference is the teacher, not the if his atoms are present on same room. Exception, perhaps is if you have any question, but then you just use text or go to school only for that. Also, writing is a good way to organize your ideas.

  9. "Have our lives now become fixated on the drive to digitally connect, while we miss out on what's real?"
    Gee what a novel and unique statement I never noticed that FOR THE PAST 20 YEARS does being very ugly destroy any brilliance or intelligent thought processes
    I think your from the NO TOILET NATION CALLED INDIA WHY NOT WRITE ABOUT
    that how can a billion people take a dump out in the open everyday and those same people are thought of as better than US college grads by greedy Silicon Valley

  10. ☂ ☂ ☂ ☂ ☂ I am amazed that HOW easily my divorced friend is making $86 just working for 4-5 hours daily on their computer after being fired from job… Llast month his income was $21869 just working on the internet . He Cоոviոcеd mе tо try atleast as he is earning from LAST 11 months from this source. So I JOINED HIM. I am much happier than earlier. Know what to do ••►►►► BAM80.COM◄◄•••
    ♎☀ ♎☀ ♎☀ ♎Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.

  11. I don't need to be connected unless it is required for my job, socially, I couldn't give a shit. the iPhone zombie pop culture that has swamped us for years is cringe-worthy

  12. Your statement is the essence of this talk. What made you deside to waist more of your precious time to write the comment? Approx 12 mins of your life can't qualify as waist of time, it's more like loosing an dime out of a hole in your pocket. Unless you are 105 years old and can count the days you have left in you life based on statistics.

  13. I'm glad you took the wrist of watching this video so that I could write this comment. I wonder what the breast way to practice my puns would be. The body of this talk is just a metaphor, a valuable tool to a novelist. Not all talks can be handy.

  14. I believe what she is really pointing out that OUR OWN INTERNET our memories can transport us back to an exact time where we can even smell the season just by looking, smelling or feeling an object,that reminds us of that time and know it IS in the past. On the internet "digital now" people believe that it is the present but it is not, only to ourselves. how long ago was this the present to me?

  15. her talk is mostly anecdotal. She's a novelist and that's how she conveys her point. Research isn't and shouldn't be the prime focus for what she talks about, and "the influence of internet in our lives" isn't even the focal point of her talk.

  16. She's a novelist – Basically, she's sharing the thought as a philosopher, not a scientist.
    Just like a good novel, she's giving us a thought, and it's our choice to follow it or not according to our own logic.

  17. I disagree only with her words about how education is diminished by the presence of the internet. Your child wants to know about the constellations? Look it up together, look at some pictures, watch a little video, and then go out and challenge him/her to find it. The internet is no different from a book – it's just a source of information.

  18. That's simply not true. I can experience a game with old friends as a concept of "now" in the same way i can, when i go backpacking/hiking with them.
    Its really not the experience/moment (and what you are doing with it) that defines whether or not it is less or more "now" (and by extend connected to your life) but your attitude towards it. So if you get the feeling the digital world/technology is threatening you – yeah you might wont to slow it down bit. For me its a part of how i am.

  19. The real truth unites people; it does not divide them. It creates clarity, not confusion, and it applies to everyone, everywhere, all of the time. If you want to know the TRUTH about life and death, go to truthcontest''com and open "The Present." …

  20. She sounds intelligent. But when you take away the exotic accent and her endless use of "feel good" metaphor, you are left with the feeling that you have just given ear to yet another preacher of some "feel good" religion. The whole thing is just to much like a church sermon with little real, average life application. She strings circular reasoning and parables like a true evangelist. I know there was intended to be an "aha" moment. This is more social anthropology for today.

  21. No you do not. But this was not really TED material. Especially when you consider stand on other existential non science. Not bashing. But this was not the venue for this kind of presentation. She is smart and seems well spoken. But this is not enough to make it right for this venue. If that were the case start lining up the preachers and televangelist to have a go.

  22. i am not saying technology is flawless, but through out the history of human kind some people always blamed technology (and its products) for bad things. why? because they wanted something to blame; they wanted a scapegoat, some material which they can use for their pointless and inaccurate small talks. they blamed scrolls, they blamed books, they blamed press machines and right now they are blaming tvs, mobile phones, computers and the internet.

  23. before someone say 'but tv is stupid.' no it is not, reality shows and soap operas are. i watch documentaries and really nice programs.

  24. So mystical i forgot the point…. More direction conversation is needed when speaking to a western audience. Just look at the people in the audience snoring

  25. It wasn't a waste she made me think about importance of the present and how it cannot be saved, she made me think about the present as precious and irreplaceable.

  26. I love this and agree. Which is why I don't plug into every new thing that comes out. I've learned to say " I'm only human and can only do so much." Thank you.

  27. so many amazing TED talks, then one like this comes along, and I have to wonder… It's not "bad" it's just so not amazing.

  28. A profound talk, well thought through. We can choose not to be distracted, not to be sucked into the digital now. How hard it is to be in this precious moment. We have no idea how important those small acts of kindness, sharing ourselves with others can be, as those with her grandparents. When some bits of the digital now resonate with you in that way. Ah ha! Might be worth the distraction. Music, art/images… TED talks.

  29. Ironically I have spent time watching this over the internet on YouTube well after it was recorded, enjoyed it, then instantaneously shared it on Twitter and Facebook… All from my cellphone.

  30. After many years of being a cutting edge tech groupie I now realize my sense of well being is far better off with as few gadgets as possible.  I refuse to get a smart phone and become a screen zombie like the masses.  One computer will do for me.

  31. Technology is practicality, cell phones and the internet are practical tools. When people were rushing to charge their phones in New York after Sandy, that was so that they could use their phones to talk to their families and friends. I doubt it was so they could play solitaire. Sounds like a reasonable thing to want during a crisis, don't you think?

    Ms. Dawesar does not do a good job of making a specific argument. Of course there is a problem when people dive in and become distracted by technology (guilty), but digital connectivity is a blessing as well as a curse. 

  32. What an absurdly shallow and unenlightened speech this was. It's such an ignorant and outdated way to look at the digital era in 2013. "Miss out on what's real?" Really? If this person feels like she's missing out on something in her life, it's her own personal business. No need to make a TED talk about it, as if it was something that would be widely fitting for other people.

  33. Thanks Abha it was quite thought provoking and Waking us from the technical / Digital slumber I am glued to my smart phone, the pain in my neck and back reminds me to lake breaks but Something SO additive wops w glued to this gadget

  34. Thanks Abha it was quite thought provoking and Waking us from the technical / Digital slumber I am glued to my smart phone, the pain in my neck and back reminds me to lake breaks but Something SO additive wops w glued to this gadget

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