Life between Doorbells and Notifications



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?).


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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!


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