I hate doorbells. It is strange because a doorbell is really someone requesting your attention or seeking your permission to enter your home, and by that definition it is such a polite gesture. But I think it is polite only from the perspective of the person ringing the doorbell (let's call them the ringer). From the perspective of the person inside the house (let's call them the recipient), it is rather... intrusive. You see, unlike the ringer of the doorbell, the recipient of it does not get to choose when to be interrupted, or why, or by whom.


Picture this -- said recipient is sitting back at the end of a tiring day, savouring some hot soup and bread, hoping that the miseries of the day are over. Just when her thoughts start to breathe freely in the warmth of the soup, a doorbell bellows in her ears, *TING - TONG* -- the exact phonetics of the sound may vary from home-to-home, but the effect is all the same -- intrusion. And it doesn't end there. It isn't as if the recipient can choose to ignore the doorbell and go back to her soup. One, the flow of her thoughts (or the joyous lack thereof) has already been irrevocably interrupted by the unsolicited noise. Two, even if she wants to go back to being who she was mere seconds ago, she cannot -- the social dictum is such that her unresponsiveness will only signal to the ringer that they should keep ringing. Surely, multiple rings won't be any better than one ring (nor any less intrusive to the experience of the soup). And so, the recipient truly has no choice but to abandon her soup, swallow the piece of bread in her mouth as fast as she can, fix her hair and all, put on her most hospitable fake face, and attend to the ringer as if she is pleased to meet them. Very few ringers, in very specific situations, can make this little sliver of hell feel ultimately good -- sure, if the ringer happens to be a partner who cut their work trip short to surprise you, or a stranger who has shown up with your lost pet, or a long lost child... maybe then. Otherwise, shall we agree that on most days, we'd all rather be sipping on hot soup and bread, with dysfunctional doorbells to our peaceful rescue?


Growing up, doorbells used to excite me -- I would go running to see what experience was waiting for me at the door... could it be it one of the fun cousins, or was it dad with a brown bag dripping of oil from samosas and jalebis, or was it the school friend who wanted to go cycling together? It didn't even matter if certain things were predictable, everyday affairs -- like the friends visiting for playtime in the evening -- the doorbell made them exciting anyway. Each *TING - TONG* made my little heart jump, overwhelmed from the joy of seemingly endless, even if knowingly finite, possibilities. That was childhood.


Over the better part of my adulthood, my dislike for doorbells took shape. I suppose, as we grow older, doorbells become less about the possibility of new adventures, and more about the dread of looming responsibilities showing up out of nowhere -- is it the paper guy with the monthly bill, or the always-complaining neighbour, is it the plumber showing up a day later than discussed, or did an income tax officer spot a mistake in my tax returns... the number of fun possibilities kind of shrinks with age, as the list of responsibilities grows longer, so it doesn't surprise me that my excitement for doorbells has been, for the lack of a better word, jading.


Even so, over the past year or so so, this dislike peaked and metamorphosed into proper hatred. Each *TING - TONG* now almost gives me goosebumps, and not of the good kind. "Pandemic times", as the moniker goes, haven't helped the case of the doorbells at all. There are days when I am interrupted by a doorbell in the middle of an intense (virtual) work meeting, only to see a food-delivery guy who has rung the wrong bell, or a vegetable-seller asking if I want to buy his produce, or a neighbour who needs the parking spot vacated for some funny business. Doorbells have made me realise how this world just never stops vying for our attention, and how little we have of it to offer.


Speaking of the world vying for our attention, aren't notifications the new doorbells? Those pesky little alerts asking you to log into some app to shop from an online sale that keeps happening with different names but pretends to be "exclusive" each time, or to order your favourite breakfast (is it croissants from mama's bakery? the app knows), or to log into your next work meeting in ten minutes, or to watch some random person going live on Instagram, or to just read a silly joke some brand thought would be a good use of your time... useful notifications, crucial notifications, vanity notifications, leisurely notifications, boring notifications... they all come at you, throughout the day, nibbling away at every inch of your attention, piece-by-piece, and there's little you can do about it.


That's about mobile "push notifications", as they are called. But a notification is really anything that seeks your attention to... erm, notify you (of mostly unimportant, often uninteresting, occasionally relevant things). You have email notifications (fun fact, in the 21st century, "email" is actually an ambigram of the word "spam"), always-on chats with customer-care representatives on various websites, SMSes, direct messages on social apps, and more. Notifications started off well -- they would look out for us, such as an alarm clock waking us up before an interview. But they have since gotten bolder and vainer, and we are now officially in notification hell.


As if that was not enough, we now have sound effects, too. My sister has been using a popular language-learning app a lot, lately. Good for her... not so much for me. Apparently, this app gets people to learn and improve by using different types of sounds. For the learner, it programs their human brain to learn faster and better using auditory effects, but for the people sitting around the learner, it is just an endless string of unpleasant noises. The only thing I, as an observer and a forced listener of my sister's learning experience, have concluded is that language learning is not worth more noisy disruptions in life. Not for me, at least, I have plenty on my notification plate already.


The good news doesn't end. More and more things are becoming capable of "notifying" us -- apparently it's a side-effect of them becoming "smart". Your watch can now notify you about any number of things under the Sun. If you dare to ignore it, it'll vibrate and startle the heck out of you. You have bots enclosed in little hardware with fancy names that want to talk to you all time -- they will of course notify you about the things you care about, they will also notify you if they think you're talking to them. Your refrigerator can notify you if it is feeling funny, your lights if someone so much as enters the room, you can even buy shoes if you want to be notified about your calories etcetera... I hear e-clothing is already on the block, so get ready to be notified across every inch of your being. All of these well-meaning notifications, while small gestures by themselves, add up to a day full of consistent and constant micro-disruptions which, pop science says, lead to constant over-stimulation of our brain's dopamine and cortisol pathways... in other words, more stress, less happiness (points for rhyming, anyone?).


***


Most science fiction envisions a future run by robots. Before we get there (if we do), these robots will need a lot of human help in the form of our feedback, in order to learn, improve, and eventually be re-made into near-human versions of themselves. Notifications of all kinds are, among other things, a tool to aid this learning process. It's going to be a long haul before notifications become unnecessary both for tech and for humans, so I guess we should embrac... sorry, I gotta go, just got a notification that my digital detox starts now. Toodles!


Updated: Jul 4



Original Pop Art by Charles Fazzino


I downgraded my iPhone storage today. Just like that. It had been on my mind for a while now, today I finally snapped. When I got this phone less than two years ago, it had nothing on it. Then I started taking photos, sending texts... obviously, I never stopped doing that, which is why we are here today -- some 143 GB worth of stuff I now need to get rid of. I have no clue what most of it is about -- is it more videos or photos or something else? is it important? do I need it? will my life be worse off without it? I don't know, but I suppose I felt pressured enough to spend money, month-on-month, just to hold on to all of it. Some kind of FOMO, perhaps, or quintessential millennial laziness... or worse, both.

This life-altering change in my storage needs comes into effect in a week. I'll need to make some cuts before that -- lots to delete, purge, or transfer elsewhere. Somehow, I need to truncate all 143 GB of stuff into a smaller bundle of 5 GB. That way, I can finally stop paying for cloud storage -- the silliest expense in my life right now, if you ask me. And that's saying something, considering my last purchase was a plush pillow.

Remember when the internet first came around? We thought it would be so simple. "Everything just stays on the cloud," they said, "so you'll always have it clean and simple." Whatever happened to that promise? Not so simple, after all, is it? Everything does stay on the "cloud", yes, but the "cloud" is actually made up of big stuff -- servers and data-centers and whatnot -- massive machines that occupy real space all over the world and cost companies tonnes of money that we, the consumers, pay a premium for. The advantage, of course, is that I no longer need to buy heavy CD/floppy disk holders or pen drives or hard drives to store my data/trash, but those used to be pretty cheap. A couple hundred bucks, at best. I now pay that every month for (cloud) storage I can't even see. I used to think that this is at least environmentally better but turns out that may not be true either. Cloud storage is said to be leaving a pretty big carbon footprint -- 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions as per one defensible study, another piece by a group of alumni from Stanford cites data that seems to prove that cloud storage is actually worse for the environment than hard storage. Wait, why did we just presume cloud-everything would be cleaner? Just because we can't see the trash doesn't mean it doesn't exist.


Speaking of trash, clearing digital storage feels a bit like clearing out the trash can, doesn't it? Every morning, we take out our trash can, someone comes and collects the old bag of trash, we supplement the bin with a new bag, and the cycle repeats itself... day after day. In the digital world, however, we make the trash, we keep it, we dispose of it. If we don't, then the trash lingers and accumulates (just like real trash would, minus the stink) until it becomes a mound so colossal that even the thought of sifting through it feels intimidating -- so intimidating, that you prefer to keep paying money just to delay doing it. It's one of the cool things money can buy -- the freedom to procrastinate.

I went through the storage settings on my phone to get a view of the work that lies ahead of me. Apparently, I have 113 GB worth of just "backups" -- backups of what? I do not know. What do I even need so many backups for? When has a backup ever been truly necessary? When have I ever paused and thought, "oh wait, let me find that backup asap." That's right, never. Besides, if I buy a new phone, the clean and empty storage space should be its perk -- reinstating 113 GB of backup would immediately clutter it, and then the mound of trash will continue to intimidate my procrastinating self... until eternity. I feel stupid now. Why did I ever think backup features on phones and apps are essential? It's like saying, "Hey, I want to collect a tonne of trash and be able to lug it around wherever I go, all my life, and I will pay you good money if you let me do so." That's it. <Delete> There you go. One-click and it's all gone. Backups I will not miss because I don't know what was in them.

Up next, Photos. Some 28 GB of them. I was surprised I don't have 113 GB of Photos, but then I remembered I had way more at one point, so much more that one Storage app did not suffice and I had to also download the Google Photos app. Now, I have two Photo storage apps and not enough good photos. The memories are nice and the travel throwback pictures are definitely good to look at, but in reality, there are more screenshots and blurs and random image forwards and ugly everyday things than there are pictures of me traveling or hiking or dancing or doing general cool things. My parents were able to fit in our entire childhood into a few photo albums, but apparently, my two dozen almost-alike selfies and pictures of the pretentious vase on my table or the tree in front of my house are so picture-perfect that I choose to pay rent for their existence every month?! No more. This absurdity stops now. <Delete> There you go, no more Photos on my phone (except the backups in the Google Photos app but hey, one battle at a time).

Jeez. I had underestimated how much work this would be. So much more work than clearing out the trash can -- with real trash, at least you know you cannot procrastinate beyond a point, otherwise little insect friends will start visiting your home and that won't be pretty. With digital trash, there's no such thing. Hey, how about an app that will send creepy-crawlies on your screen if you let your storage get too stuffed? Nevermind.

So, let's get this straight. This whole thing with digital storage is i) expensive, ii) hurts the environment, iii) creates a mound of clutter in our devices that is an intimidating amount of work to even get through... yet, it's somehow better than hard storage because, what, the cloud is more recent and therefore cooler? Sigh. I know this is my area of work, and I love it, but man -- some days I feel technology is just... bonkers.

There is another matter. What is with storage space never being enough? I heard this in a Netflix documentary long ago, I am not sure which one because there are multiple documentaries on the subject of minimalism, but they said something about how we are spending on extra storage as a luxury, then collecting things to fill up the empty space, and when it runs full, upgrading our storage... and thus goes the cycle of modern life. I can see it is true for me -- I had nothing on this phone once, then I filled up all 5 GB of space that came free with it... eventually, I ended up spending money on upgrading my storage space (twice). I can't go any further. Seriously, this has got to stop. I can blame tech companies all I like, but as someone who works in tech, I get what it's like -- they kinda have to offer what people need... customers first and all that. Imagine if Apple said, "Hey, Sugandha, we care about you. We think you have a problem because you really shouldn't have this much stuff on your phone because life is about smelling the flowers and looking at sunsets, therefore we will not be allowing you to add any more things to your device which, in case you forgot, had cost you a bomb." I'd be pretty livid if they did that. Like hello, boundaries and all?!

Anyway, that should be all. I'll go back to downgrading my iPhone storage. Now that I am doing this, it feels silly to have procrastinated for so long. Someone could have had a real use for all the money I spent on storing these things I never had any use for. I am deleting most of it pretty instantly, by the way, because deep down I know they don't matter. I always knew it. I guess I had held on to them "just in case". Isn't that what we do? "Just in case" everything. All I had to do was stop, think if I needed that picture/video/document or not, and move on. But nope, far be it from me -- a consumer of the digital age -- to think.

It's funny how our coffers run full with documents, pictures, videos... "memories" as we call them, of a past we didn't care about when it was the present. It's funny how living in the present is all that we talk about, when backups of the past take most of the space in our lives. It's funny, is all.


Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash


A virtual meeting just ended. Empty moment in the day. Muscle memory. Hands reach for the phone. Instagram. Red circles, new stories. Pictures of influencer with her friends. Meh. Scroll. Ex colleague saw a pretty sunset. Good for him. Scroll. Someone's mother needs a plasma donor. Wish I could help. Scroll. Influencer doing South Delhi girl impression. Scroll. Ten ways to style a scarf. Scroll. People urgently looking for Oxygen cylinders and concentrators and refills. I can't. Scroll. Vegan and cruelty-free cosmetic brand launching new face oil. Scroll. More pleas to save lives... oxygen, ventilators, injections, blood, plasma... Scroll. Scroll. Scroll... Next meeting calls.


***


Phone rings. Uncle is on the brink of death. Cousins cannot find a hospital bed. Time to create a Twitter account, finally after all these years. Phone numbers and emails of strangers with resources. Screenshot. Scroll. Someone's mother passed away while looking for a hospital. Scroll. Someone's confession of love for the Prime Minister. Scroll. An actor's fundraiser. Sponsored post. Scroll. News, they're gathering to count votes in some state. Sounds necessary. Scroll. More phone numbers and emails of strangers. Screenshot. Scroll. Scroll. Scroll... panic, cousins are calling again, have nothing useful to offer yet.


***


Freshly formed opinion. Must vent. LinkedIn is my thing. Thousands there to indulge me and my rants. Type, edit, post. Notification. Likes and comments start pouring in, as do the dopamine hits. While the likes pile up, we scroll. Startup raising trillions of dollars of funding. Regular stuff. Scroll. Person needs Oxygen for his mother. Share Twitter screenshots. Scroll. Something about growth mindset. Scroll. Someone lost his job, says more likes will somehow help. Scroll. New Cricket ad from finance app. Wonder if non Cricket lovers can use it too? Scroll. Someone needs plasma donors. Copy-paste more screenshots, pretend that you helped. Scroll. A founder sharing news of losing his father. People in comments offering startup ideas that'll prevent death. Scroll. Productivity guru launching new course on time-management. Scroll. Scroll. Scroll... More pleas for leads and resources, more productivity and growth hacks. Check latest number of likes on post. Exit.


***


In the middle of a raging pandemic, social-media is an interesting hodgepodge. For some people, it's where they find an escape from the reality. For others, it's where they must broadcast their reality in hopes of making it less painful. And then the advertisements and sponsored content are important, too.


There is a concept in computer science, called "Context Switching". It refers to the computing system's ability to multitask by storing and holding different processes in different states. Right now, our brains are switching context at unprecedented speeds -- we are scrolling through panic-inducing news about failing healthcare systems and then jumping on stoic work calls that begin with cheery small-talk, our social-media newsfeeds are showing us pleas for life-saving resources while also selling us clothes and gadgets through well-targeted ads, we are watching selfies of hopeful, sun-kissed faces closely followed by images of the dead and the mourning.


When computing systems multi-task too much, they get laggy. We? It's a wonder we are functioning at all. And that goes for those among us who are alive and not trying to save a loved one; the rest have no time to wonder.