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September 01, 2005 23:12 IST

The magic of Raag Malkauns unfolded as Maestro Amjad Ali continued his alaap. In the dark auditorium in downtown San Francisco, the capacity crowd was still, silent and spellbound.

The person next to me was taking something out of his pocket. As the audience swayed or swooned, he was fidgeting with his instrument. No, not a cellphone, but something which looked similar.

What can one do, I thought to myself. I expected better from my friend from Silicon Valley with whom I had gone to this concert. Make no mistake. He was no pure geek or philistine. He was IIT, IIM, and currently vice-president of one of the leading technology companies and all that but I won't hold any of it against him when it comes to the world of art and culture.

Like many others in the Valley he makes tons of money, an obscene amount of it, but in terms of appreciating say Bhimsen Joshi or Salman Rushdie he is second to none.

As the raag ended and the audience broke into waves of applause I turned to him: 'I expected better from you. Can't you spend an hour without your gadgets and gizmos?' I hissed.

'I do try Prakash. But what can I say? If I have not checked my e-mail for an hour, I feel so disoriented and restless. I just could not enjoy the music and had to look at my Black Berry for the e-mails,' he confessed plaintively.

Here was the typical case of e-mail addiction, worse than nicotine or dangerous drugs. I was seeing it first hand, a new phenomenon, which is being discussed in psychological journals.

Don't know what a Black Berry is? Never mind. Ask your tech savvy friends.

For the innocent, Black Berry is a small handheld gizmo which is like an advanced cell phone and enables you to send and receive e-mails in a wireless mode. It has been around for a while, though not too long, and is now the next aspirational toy for the rich and the resourceful.

My readers by now must have surmised that I am technology unfriendly, but am forced to deal with it. That would be a pretty accurate description of my predicament. Had I been good at gadgets, I should have been here in California as an engineer. But my aptitudes, attitude and luck have conspired to make me a diplomat.

Fate, however, has now placed me in the heart of technological innovation, in Silicon Valley. So I have tried to overcome my prejudices and predilections and listened silently and respectfully to the paeans sung for technology. The speed, the ease, the efficacy, the joys of the toys, the quantum transformation, in short, how the ungadgetted world is indeed not worth living.

A small voice inside me has all along been telling me that there must be a flip side, that speed is not always a solace for the soul. I have tried to hush this voice, drown it in fact apprehending that it is my own disorientation from technology that makes me distrust it.

How right my suspicions were.

I have now come across research that shows how too much e-mail disables the mind. Don't believe me? Look it up yourselves on the Internet, but let me first summarise the phenomenon.

A new disease is afflicting mankind -- women included -- and with globalisation its victims are spread all over the world but among certain classes.

The young are particularly vulnerable. Its generic name could be Infomania. It can be either a mania for 'updating' yourself every half an hour and getting delirious over data, or it can be a phobia with an absolute dread of being 'not connected', the form affecting my friend, which I narrated at the very beginning.

I am sure that you are familiar with the symptoms in some form or the other. A decade ago, you had seen some of your friends or your sons (depending on your age) immersed in Nintendo games, totally lost to the world as they shot down strange spaceships or raced cars on the video screens. Wasn't it addictive? Whole arcades were devoted for the fans of what in the US is referred to as Gaming.

In Korea where such games are still a national passion, there are clinics to cure the restless minds and the itching fingers as the near idiotic pursuit has caused the GDP to come down significantly. How do they cure the itching fingers? I don't know. Perhaps by knitting exercises with chopsticks?

In India we perhaps partially leapfrogged this stage and are now at the 'mobile mania' stage. The incessant ringing, the constant SMSing and in short the total dedication of the brain cells to the cellular. And the constant tapping and messaging with the cell, the physical instrument for massaging the ego.

I find that America is different. Privacy is sacrosanct and nothing so shatters the privacy and intrudes on your mental space as the unwanted call by cellphone. They have hence an elaborate etiquette for making and receiving calls and in the adult world you don't call someone without first checking on e-mail.

E-mail 'rocks', as my daughter is inclined to say, since with this tool you are in control. E-mail does not intrude; it will wait for you. You can send it when you like. You are the master of your thoughts, schedules and your communication patterns; with whom to communicate, when, what and whether. Or are you?

The irony is that with ease and speed -- bandwidth and fast computers are the key here, I am told -- e-mails are terribly addictive. E-mail the great enabler can disable your mind. The notion that you must be connected, wherever you are, 24x7, that the whole universe is a matrix and you ought to be wired into it, has made location and inclination irrelevant.

Advertisements tantalise you with the hotshot executive types being able to check their mail from the azure oceans in Hawaii, from the snowy peaks of the Alps, from the dense forests of the Amazon. And what are they checking? Stock prices, exchange rates, corporate transfers and, of course, office gossip.

Black Berry and similar forms of web-based ready access has now meant that in the church, the concert or even in the cemetery, the restless mind can find its comfort in the gizmo in the pocket. You are wired to the material world with no fear of 'disconnection'.

All this comes with a price and that is the infomania or the excessive technology dependency syndrome that I talked about. A recent study by Hewlett-Packard and psychiatrists from the University of London concluded that the 'abuse of always-on technology' by employees can affect their mental sharpness, not to speak of social adeptness.

Workers suffering from the syndrome confessed that they had a compelling need to check their mail every fifteen minutes, an irresistible impulse to answer a message as soon as they got one (even if to say 'Thanks' or 'Recd Ur mail') and a of dangerous tendency to run to their computers screens even if they were in front of bewitching beauties or beastly bosses. Connectivity was affecting creativity.

As someone who looks at everything from an Indian angle, I sense a new opportunity for our gurus and guides. To be detached, disengaged and methodically practice the path of nivritti has been a part of our heritage. Even as we go up in the computer penetration, tele-density, increased bandwidth and such like, it would be wise not to give up the mastery of the techniques of staying 'disconnected'.

The wisdom about the web of maya is no less important than the www.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at cg@cgisf.org

Earlier columns:
'What do diplomats do?'
Reversing the call culture
How to become a millionaire
Sounding silly in Silicon Valley

B S Prakash
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