By Bernard Wainaina
When my friend Gilbert learnt that a long-time friend had returned to the country after many years abroad, he could not wait to touch base with him and catch up on events spanning almost a decade.
However, when he went to visit the man last weekend, he was disappointed.
“I can’t remember the number of times our conversation was interrupted by WhatsApps, Tweets, and Facebook messages.
It got to a point where I felt he was ignoring me, yet I had specifically made time to go and see him,” recalls the middle- aged banker based in Nairobi.
Did I hear you exclaim, “How rude!”
Just a minute.
How about you?
How many times have you looked at your phone today?
Perhaps more times than you can remember.
Statistics paint the picture of a device you cannot do without, and whose use has gone against the very mission it was intended for — social cohesion.
In fact, cell phones have become some of the major catalysts of social disintegration.
While we use these gadgets to communicate with those we cannot see, they have gradually
isolated us from those who are physically close to us.
They have made access to social media easy, drawn us to unseen companions, and rendered those near us irrelevant.
So important have these gadgets become that insurance firms are reaping heavily from Kenyans seeking to insure their phones.
Figures released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in May indicate that by the end of this year, there
will be nearly three billion internet users.
Mobile-cellular subscriptions will reach almost seven billion, and in Africa, almost 20 per cent of the population will be online.
Nearer home, the Communications Authority of Kenya estimates that about 31.8 million subscribers are actively using mobile phones.
Meanwhile, a report titled Annual Internet Trends 2013, compiled by Mary Meeker, an American venture capitalist with extensive knowledge of the internet and new technologies, says that Americans check their phones at least 150 times a day.
And that, according to figures released in December 2012 by Flurry Analytics, comes to about 127 minutes.
The slightly more than two hours compares closely with the average time an American watches television.
KILL SOCIAL NETWORKING
While these statistics make for interesting reading, perhaps what should be of greatest concern is how cell phones have killed the very social networking they are meant to build in
the first place.
Mobile phones have become our constant companions.
Many people will tell you just how helpless they felt the day they forgot their phone at home.
So important have these gadgets become that they have, to a large extent, replaced the way we interact with those around us.
For instance, watch people queuing, say, for public transport.
As soon as they join the line, the first thing they are likely to do is whip out these gadgets from their pockets or handbags and start using them.
They then become so engrossed in the
devices that they might not even notice what the person ahead of them is wearing.
Before the advent of these addictive gadgets, people lived up to their billing as social beings.
In those days, you would politely greet a stranger and ask them the time, since not
everyone had a wrist watch.
And they would gladly respond with a smile to boot.
If you dare to do that today, you will look completely out of place.
You might even be mistaken for a con man or woman.
The expectation is that you should know the time because your phone has a clock, even if you do not have a wrist watch.
Similarly, travelling offered total strangers an opportunity to get acquainted.
If, say, two people on the same bus were
travelling on an unfamiliar route, they could easily strike up a conversation and discuss some of the sites on the way or how far the destination was.
Morris Ruto, who grew up in Kipsitet and whose home was close to the Kericho-Kisumu highway, recalls with nostalgia the days when he and his colleague played ‘Google Map’ to
travellers on the road and even earned some cash in the process,“I remember when I was young, we would stand by the road,especially in December just before the Christmas festivities,
and give directions to those from the city who were not familiar with the area. It gave us an opportunity to get close to their fascinating cars and practise our linguistic skills. Some of them would even tip us. But today, most car windows are wound up and they just zoom past. I wonder why,” he says.
Perhaps what Ruto—who, going by his age would be classed as “analogue”—does not know, is that today’s phones have applications that help travellers locate their positions and the road ahead and can even tell them how far they are from their destination.
Travelling has certainly changed.
Unlike the olden days, it is difficult to start a conversation with a stranger in a bus or matatu, since they will probably be concentrating on their cell phones and you will be an irritating distraction.
And if you are driving, so much the better.
Roll up the tinted windows and drive on.
Your electronic companion knows the way and you do not need anyone.
Mobile phones are making us increasingly self-centred, such that we see little need for conversation.
Even simple greetings have become rare.
In the good old days, visitors were welcome any time.
They did not have to inform you in advance that they would be coming.
Even antisocial relatives found it hard to turn away visitors.
“Today, if I want to go home, I have to call my mother in advance. It would be strange to just turn up without notice,”says Jeff Koyi, who lives in Nairobi, where the same principle
applies even when visiting someone in your immediate neighbourhood.
If they do not want to see you, no problem;
they will simply tell you they are not at home.
Mobile phones have also made access to news easy, compared to the days when two people would start a conversation simply because they were sharing a newspaper.
In those days, the person who bought the paper would gladly lend it to those who did not have one.
In contrast, today’s techno-savvy person will check out the headline, then go straight to the online version to read more.
In the village where I grew up, only a few people could afford newspapers, so the whole village relied on them on everything to do with current affairs.
Occasionally, however,one of these cheeky “current affairs experts” would come up
with fantastic, non-existent stories, that would see impressed villagers buy them drinks in local pubs.
The humble folks had no way of telling that the stories were grossly exaggerated at best, or completely made up.
Today, pub arguments are resolved via Google.
There is no room for the kind of folks I have just talked about to get free drinks.
Even bets that would involve trivia made after taking one too many and the wrong answers that got rewarded no longer take place, thanks to Google.
Those days, if you travelled to the village, you could enjoy chatting with old men, who would invariably ask you about the other village mates who were living in the city.
There was a lot to discuss with people whom you had not seen for a long time.
Such conversations have been reduced and
before you tell them anything about the city, you might be surprised that they already know and could even end up updating you on the latest events since you left the city.
In many cases, they will simply ignore you since you are no longer likely to have any exciting news for them.
Trips to the rural areas during the days when phone booths were rare and found only in big urban centres have been minimised by the advent of mobile phones.
Consequently, the social bond that was strengthened during these visits has
These gadgets have applications that allow you to see the person you are talking to, so there is no longer any need to actually travel to see them.
Mobile phones have also become relationship breakers. Indeed, many marital disputes today originate from a text message, a WhatsApp message, a Facebook comment, or a
The mobile phone has become a secret diary and a partner’s access to it or lack thereof could well be the factor that determines whether the marriage survives or ends in divorce.
This is because, thanks to these gadgets, cheating on a spouse or partner has never been easier.
Love triangles are cleverly managed using these gadgets.
Think of any troubled marriage story you have heard in the recent past and you are sure to
find that a cell phone was involved.
Carolyne Sossion, a marriage counsellor, says she frequently advises couples to keep off each other’s phones to minimise fights.
These gadgets have enabled people to post comments and updates that sometimes promote socially divisive factors,such as racism, tribalism, and even religious divisions.
You have probably been infuriated by the ethnic undertones of comments on social media depending on the prevailing political temperatures.
Fredrick Okoth is one such individual.
Fed up with the annoying comments, he has decided to simply avoid social media.
“How I miss those days when you would avoid these negative sentiments unless you physically met the bearers of such inflammatory language. I once logged in on a Sunday
morning before the Saba Saba rally and chose to remain in bed for the rest of the day after reading annoying posts with very tribal sentiments,” laments the accountant.
Propaganda and hatred expressed on Facebook and Twitter are easily accessible, thanks to the availability of mobile phones, and their presence attracts wild reactions that only
aggravate delicate social relations.
So, as you complete reading this article and before you get out your phone to check your social media sites, remember to smile to the person next you.
Learn to greet strangers and create a rapport.
Your phone will not take you to the hospital if you collapse right there, neither can it inform you of looming danger the way your fellow human being can.
Let social media unite those who are far and the social nature of man continue connecting those who are physically close.
Too much social media is simply antisocial.
However, we cannot blame the tool more than the user, can we? So, guess who is guilty here.
“The African Story as told by Africans”.©African News Digest®