“Is the WiFi working?”
“Arre, see…I’ve been trying to download this photo your aunt WhatsApped me, for the last half an hour. Are you downloading something?”
“No. I’ve been working. And the router is showing that the connection is fine.”
“But why is the Net so slow?”
“I’ve no idea, Mummy.”
If you’re a broadband user in India, chances are high you’ve heard various iterations of the aforementioned conversation before. Over the last two months, life has changed drastically for everyone. People who could not be confined to their homes even in the worst of circumstances, have been forced to curb their “wanderlust” and seek solace in the world inside. Apart from the obvious threat to our lives from COVID-19, our priorities have become realigned.
Even as online deliveries of various commodities slowly limp back to normal, lifestyles have undergone a drastic change. People have sought to find peace in various activities, ranging from cooking to cleaning to reading. And then, there are the hordes of people who have tried to document all these activities on social media, for the world to see.
One thing that COVID-19 has successfully done is destigmatize the idea of “work-from-home” or WFH. Before the lockdown, WFH was a concept that a lot of people were aware of, yet not many people endorsed it because their identities as employers and employees were tied to the concept of the office as a physical space, with its cubicles, corner offices, computer monitors, sheaves of paper and water coolers firmly in place. Overnight, COVID-19 made everyone sit at home in front of their laptops and attempt to work.
The CEO of one of the world’s most well-known companies just stated a while ago that we will get back to offices one day, but that’s a different story. At a stroke, WFH has become a reality most people have been forced to live with. And good, uninterrupted connectivity is the bedrock of this entire enterprise. The chase for this same connectivity has turned our lives into a comedy of errors.
Most of us already had the devices to connect to the Internet, but then, no one anticipated we’d all be sitting at home in the middle of a pandemic. And so, our lives have revolved around the search for connectivity. Broadband networks have gone sluggish while trying to meet the increasing demand for data, while mobile data networks have waxed and waned as if we were seeing business news channels report on a highly volatile day at the stock exchanges.
It is funny, and scary, how much our everyday lives now depend on the digital realm. We started shopping online for books, clothes, food and everything else, because we couldn’t be bothered about dressing up, going to the shop, browsing products, and then, finally buying something we liked. We started using Net Banking and payment apps to keep track of our financial assets, because we all shudder at the thought of another encounter with in-person apathy and serpentine queues at banks. We take solace in the immediacy that the Internet offers because it is fast and extremely convenient. But it is a false immediacy.
If the lockdown has shown anything, it is that non-stop connectivity is still a myth. Actually, connectivity is more like that highly tempestuous digital “celebrity” who comes and goes as it wishes, oblivious to its thousands of devotees. In any company, the celebrity would’ve been fired for being lax at the job. But this is its game, these are its rules, and we must all play along.
The chase for this same connectivity has turned our lives into a comedy of errors.
Perhaps this celebrity’s biggest power move happens during the monsoons. See it this way. You have a fiber-broadband connection at home. You use it not only for connecting to the internet from your laptops or phones, but also for streaming movies and music on your television screens. Throughout March, April and the most of May, you’re battling the occasional sluggishness of download speeds, and still, getting your work and entertainment needs taken care of.
Suddenly, the monsoons close in on you. As heavy rains start lashing your corner of the world, your kind Internet service provider (ISP) decides it’s a great move to switch off connectivity from their end. As our digital “celebrity” hides its face from us, the madness gets unleashed in the household. WhatsApp notifications stop coming, making it seem for a while that everyone has disappeared off the face of the earth.
That 2.4 GB attachment you’re downloading suddenly terminates at 98%, which makes you question the validity of everything you know. And your plan to stream a much-awaited murder mystery on Netflix fails, as the screen goes blank just when you want to know how it ends. Experts will say that technical faults happen during poor weather conditions, but I’ll say this is our “celebrity” version of the #ThugLife meme on social media.
And then, there’s the mother of all variables—dealing with family members. The quest for connectivity, and the lack of it, has led to so many possible Waterloos happening in every household. Conference calls on Zoom get even more and more pixelated, and Email attachments take forever to upload. Elsewhere in the house, family members will hold forth on the ills of capitalism—“these telecom companies are only concerned about profits, and looting us in the bargain”—all because someone could not see a news anchor yelling on YouTube. Many rounds of hand-wringing and hair-pulling happen as a result.
But our “celebrity” is not that self-centered, and it takes care of its loyalists and gives them power.
Enter the Repairman. Our doctors and politicians may be fighting a good fight against COVID-19, but for our digitally-obsessed selves, the Repairman has turned out to be the undisputed king of the lockdown. Every time the network speed turns low, or the broadband connection goes for a toss, there’s a frantic hunt for the Repairman’s contact number. Never mind his counter-argument that he cannot do anything unless a complaint is routed to him via the ISP’s customer care—he has to be brought in at all costs to save our digital lives from completely collapsing.
If you call him up in the evening, he’ll say he will come the next morning. And the next day, morning turns to noon, and you keep looking at the clock, but he does not turn up. And then, just when you think you will have to spend another day of struggle, he will come and ask you basic questions like a police officer—“did you switch the router off and on again,” “are all six lights in the media converter blinking,” “did you play around with the wires,” and so on.
So, you see, connectivity is our “celebrity”. We have to keep it happy, we have to keep its loyalists happy, or else our own peace of mind goes for a toss. Bear with me, connectivity should be crowned Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 2020. Now, please excuse me as I rush off and find out who the killer is.
Cover Image from iStock by Getty Images.
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