Drifters in Cyberspace

I recently came across a cartoon in which a young mother forces her children with “Eat! Or I will change the Wi-Fi password” threat. I admire her. We hardly get our way with that.

At home, even the Wi-Fi password is controlled by our tech savvy children. We are mere subscribers; leeching off the air waves with ‘guest’ privileges. So when it is time to crack the whip, I rely on that timeless weapon left with us technologically-weaker folks – “I will snip off the wires and hide the modem, ok?”

The generation gap of yesteryears has become a technological gap, with the millennials leagues ahead of us in matters digital. Middle-aged folks like me are losing the battle daily against spunky, precocious teenagers in the war of ‘e-versus-us’. If you don’t own a smartphone today, they think you are a dinosaur. Not to be left behind, wily politicians are giving away free laptops to students as pre-poll gimmicks. If that’s not enough, our tech-savvy Prime Minister has ‘Modi-fied’ the rules of the game with ‘Digital India’.

To me, all this sounds like trouble brewing.

As per American IT giant CISCO, annual global IP traffic will pass the zettabyte (1000 exabytes) threshold by end of 2016, and will reach 2 zettabytes per year by 2019. For most of us still living in the age of gigabytes and terabytes, how much is an exabyte? An exabyte is approximately one billion gigabytes. Further simplified, 5 exabytes would roughly equal all the words ever spoken by mankind.

It’s an invasion from the skies. As I travel around the city, country or anywhere in the world, I see people either browsing their pads or laptops, speaking into their phones, or taking selfies. Apparently, no job is complete today till the status update is done. On train journeys, we used to covet the window seat. Now we hope to get the charging point. Long walks with animated discussions on current affairs are being replaced by ‘plugging in’ to your private theatre with Adele or death metal. Visit any place of interest and you will see people taking their own pictures endlessly while hardly dwelling on the beauty of the place or pleasure of the moment. Virtual joint families spanning several generations exchange notes through ‘family’ WhatsApp groups or Facebook pages. Driven by a virtual herd mentality, wishing ‘happy this’ and ‘happy that’ and pouring compliments on trivia has become a compulsive activity today, often at the expense of actual ‘facetime’ or family time.

To be fair, the digital revolution has indeed made several aspects of life in India simpler. I still recall the time when my father used to queue up at Victoria Terminus a night before the 60-day window for advance booking on Indian Railways? Phones were a luxury, trunk calls had to be booked hours in advance and only important people had phones with ‘STD’ facility. There were no pizza deliveries and information came from heavy encyclopaedias (Remember Childcraft & World Book series?). Now my teenage son, thumbing through his phone, diagnoses our pet cat with Dermatophytosis without moving from his bean bag! People plan their dream cruise through their laptops, in the comfort of their living room. So much has changed. So why complain?

All disruptive technologies bring in their wake a new set of challenges. While information is in abundance today, same cannot be said about wisdom. The ‘touch & feel’ kind of experiential learning has all but ceased.  Living a student’s life today is like preparing for an exam in the 70’s with the Russian Circus performing in your living room. There are distractions and temptations galore. The same sources that give us information 24/7 have become ubiquitous vehicles for drifting around in cyberspace. These ‘drifters’ randomly change tack like a rudderless boat in stormy weather. Perhaps with similar results.

Two of the prominent trends are video sharing & online gaming. Online gaming is one of the most profitable businesses on the internet today – a ready vehicle for escaping from the real world. Just like cigarettes and booze, but available off the internet much cheaper and without raising eyebrows. The online gaming industry is dominated by MMORPGs, an acronym for Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. According to a study (Game Traffic Analysis: An MMORPG Perspective) by Taiwan University Professor Chin Laung Lei , non-MMORP games have defined endpoints and allow gamers to break off and regain consciousness of the real world. MMORPGs, on the other hand, have an endless cycle of adventures, and have no mechanism for the players to even take a pause. An elaborate mechanism of reward points, relationships and immersive nature of the game ensures that the gamer is ‘addicted’ over a period of time.

Sadly, addiction to gaming has been claiming lives. A recent article in Deccan Chronicle, India (09 Sep 2015, E-edition) mentions ten such cases of deaths caused directly or indirectly due to gaming addiction or gaming-influenced violence. As far back as 2002, a 24 year old South Korean man named Kim Kyung-jae collapsed at an internet café and died from a combination of exhaustion and deep vein thrombosis. He had been playing an MMORPG called Mu for 86 hours, pausing only to buy cigarettes or visit the toilet. Just a few days later, also in Oct 2002, a 27 year old Taiwanese man named Lien Wen-cheng started foaming at the mouth and bleeding from the nose after playing for 32 hours straight. He collapsed at an internet café and died on the way to hospital.

Just three weeks into 2015, a three-day gaming binge claimed the life of a Taiwanese man in a gaming parlour. The cyber café staff did not notice for hours that the gamer was dead. According to a news report, other gamers immersed in their own MMORPGs did not even notice that one of their own was being carted out ‘stiff as a board’ by paramedics. These are just indicative of many young lives lost or ruined by this addiction. Although no direct correlation has been found between online gaming and violence, several cases have evidence pointing in this direction. Oh, and let’s not take comfort in the belief that these things don’t happen in India. They do. Only they are not as comprehensively recorded, reported or researched.

Video sharing or viewing is another ‘trending’ pattern of internet usage. According to a recent biannual “Global Internet Phenomena Report” by Canadian bandwidth-management systems vendor Sandvine, media streaming service Netflix is the undisputed champion of web traffic in the United States as of Mar 2015. As per the report, gaming occupied 3.4% of peak period online traffic in North America while “real-time entertainment,” the term used for video or audio streaming, took up a mammoth 61.45%. CISCO predicts that by 2019, 80% of the world’s internet traffic will be video. Not surprising, since most of us are habituated to viewing and sharing videos, often with no clear purpose other than just cheap entertainment. The immersive nature of video sharing websites like YouTube is enough to keep one glued to the screen for hours together, thanks to an inbuilt algorithm that second-guesses your possible choices and lines them up almost intuitively. There are also other video-streaming services such as Twitch which are quickly moving up the peak traffic ranks. This service lets gamers live-stream their gameplay to thousands of viewers across the globe simultaneously. Another endless adventure for those who want to drift around in cyberspace.

This global spike in video watching and online gaming is not surprising. Both provide easy gratification, especially in domains where lack of natural proficiency is often an impediment. Higher levels of proficiency and sensory gratification are achieved without the rigour of classrooms and teachers. What an easy trap for children and adults alike, especially those who do not find such easy victories in real life.

How do we control the usage of a facility that has such obvious double edges? On the one hand, we all like our Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc and try to keep up to date with all of that. On the other hand, we go “tch tch” over how much time our children spend online (looking over our reading glasses, even as we hit ‘like’ or ‘comment’ on that FB status). Most of us parents of teenage children navigated through the brutal competition of Indian education system long before advent of internet, online gaming, social media, etc. Are we even qualified to preach to our children what we don’t understand or cannot practice? I am not sure, but perhaps we don’t. But we persist with the nagging; while being almost equally culpable and vulnerable.

What does this portend for a country were 50% of the population is below 25 and 65% of the population is below 35 years of age; a country where innovation is hardly a recognised virtue? While India is often referred to as ‘the next big thing’, according to surveys, just 3.5% of global research output in 2010 came from India (Although this represents a 146% increase over the decade spanning 2003-2012). While we continue to consume computers and smartphones, only 2.4% of global research on computer sciences came from India in 2010. As per a Thomson Reuters report of 2014 on global research and innovation output from G20 countries, ‘there is much good scientific research in India but a seeming dearth of contributions at the highest level, when measured by citation impact’. Another article in Scientometrics (Rahul Panat, Springer 2014) highlights that India has fallen ‘far behind’ China in terms of scientific and engineering research output.

Evidently, we are becoming consumers with a voracious appetite. No wonder world’s biggest IT companies are making a beeline for India. Quest for deeper research and creativity of original thought are being drowned in the din of day to day life fuelled by purposeless education, scramble for seats, ‘online’ lives and gadgets that feed instant gratification. Are our children losing touch with reality and unwittingly becoming victims of consumerism & consumption in an increasingly globalised world? Who is tracking the lost time in gaming, fruitless surfing and endless messaging on social media? How many school projects in best of schools go beyond the first few pages returned by Google (Wikipedia, in most cases)? I am not making a case for deep research at school level, but I fear that in our mad rush to keep up with the artificially accelerated pace of life, we, and indeed our children, are fast losing the patience to sift facts from fiction, weigh evidence against facts and arrive at well-rounded conclusions. Google-read-pronounce verdict (in less than 140 characters, if you please!). Quickly copy down the project, stuff it in the locker and get back to drifting. Sounds familiar?

Online gaming and video sharing are just two examples in an ever-expanding spectrum of online addictions. There are several others. For instance, researchers in Norway have published a psychological scale to measure Facebook addiction. Apparently, there are ‘addictions on the internet’ and there is ‘addiction to the internet’. Medical science is still coming to grips about the scale and intensity of these new-world behavioural aberrations. Speaking at a ‘Principals’ Conclave – 2015’, noted psychiatrist Dr. Vishal Indla said on 09 Dec 15, “Internet Addiction is now a diagnosable disorder which is prevalent in Asian countries among adolescent males between 12 to 20 years of age”. He goes on to quote a finding that ‘graduates had spent less than 5000 hours of their lives reading against more than 10,000 hours playing video games’. I think the doctor may have only exposed the tip of the iceberg.

Sure enough, in the years to come, psychiatrics, psychologists and doctors will be laughing their way to banks with rising cases of mental illness, spondylitis, carpal syndrome, and what have you.

Here are some of the symptoms shown by ‘drifters in cyberspace’ – an epithet I use for internet addicts. I have gathered these symptoms using my own observations, experiences, interactions with psychiatrics and from open source literature. The list is neither comprehensive nor final because the problem itself is still evolving. However, if you notice a combination of these symptoms in anybody, remember, it’s not a sign of the times.  It’s most likely a behavioural change linked to internet-abuse and probably requires a deeper clinical or psychological probe.

  • Spending excessive time online
  • Frustration and temper tantrums when internet is down
  • Not willing to come out to places and holidays where internet is not likely to be available
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Poor eating habits, carrying devices to the food or vice versa in order to multitask.
  • Encouraging parents to go out and ‘leave me alone’.
  • Slow withdrawal from social activities, outdoor games and sports
  • Deteriorating social skills
  • Constantly denying excessive usage of internet or playing down internet usage
  • Sudden anxiety attacks or nervous breakdowns
  • Inability to complete schoolwork or tasks that require focussed attention
  • Lying or making excuses to spend more time online
  • Sacrificing sleep time for online time
  • Increased absenteeism at school for no apparent reason
  • Asking for ever higher speed internet connections and faster devices

By no means am I making a case for eschewing the internet or social media. Neither is it possible. According to another study, globally there will be nearly 341 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2018, a seven-fold increase from 2014. So you can run but you can’t hide! The power of this medium is unparalleled and has improved several aspects of our life. During all emergencies and natural disasters in the last decade (including the recent Dec 2015 floods in Chennai), internet and digital media was widely used for coordinating rescue and relief and tremendously improved the reach of volunteers and communities in providing help and succour.

But for the internet, many pleasures and conveniences that we take for granted today would not be possible. Honestly, I am myself an avid user of internet and all forms of social media (though my behaviour is symptomatic at times!). My limited point: we must learn to differentiate between ‘good use’ and bad use’ of these technologies, and guide our children to do too. It is just as essential as it is to know ‘good touch’ from ‘bad touch’.

It’s not the laptop or internet that will change your life. It’s how you use it that will.

When in doubt, do not hesitate to seek help.

And yes, help is also available online.


© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2015. All rights reserved.

Views are personal. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. Images from open source (Wikimedia Commons).


19 thoughts on “Drifters in Cyberspace

  1. Very well captured Kips. Two things come to my mind

    1. Its a necessary evil.There can be no information age Luddites.
    2. Can we tackle this by having a self regulation especially at home…..mealtimes are strictly family time, plan weekend getaways to locations without wi fi……points to ponder

    1. Agree with you completely om point no. 1.
      As regards point 2, i think self regulation (as opposed to parental pressure) is key since the whole foundation of internet, worldwide web etc is free and uninhibited access to information and all that it brings along.

  2. Good analysis ….yes we can run but cannot hide…so embrace the new world without letting go of small pleasure like a game of real time football with friends on a real time grassy patch with green stains on the knees to prove ….yes we are still alive in the real world inbreal time and not virtual

    1. Absolutely right Shu! Perhaps the disappearance of open spaces from our urban landscape also has an indirect effect of driving people into the virtual world. A poor substitute for kicking a ball or swinging that raquet though!

  3. Absolutely enthralling to go through your write up, aptly penned down the effects of social media on human relations and on society as a whole.The best part was that you touched all aspects including health ….how over and inappropriate usage of this technology can prove fatal. So its a ‘Boon or a Curse”, we are the decision makers.Knowingly or unknowingly have surrendered ourselves to these gadgets and therefore steadily it has overpowered the very essence of life . So the inference from your article… its up to every individual how you make out the best of a given thing as….Health and Happiness truely lies in Our hands Looking forward for more such informative n interesting articles from u….regards…

    1. Thanks very much blossom! Appreciate your feedback and elated with your words of encouragement.

      Here’s to less e-time and more face time in the new year!

  4. Your description of the problem is greatly exaggerated, with a lot of it being juvenoia and hyperbole. Internet Addiction claims lives, it’s true. Toasters claim lives too, you wanna ban toasters? Why not bananas while we’re at it, I hear of many people losing their lives tripping on a banana peel.

    ‘Gaming Addiction’ is not a real thing…yet. To declare it the scourge of the young generation is premature. Gaming to the detriment of everything else may harm, but it is rarely the problem itself. Psychoanalysts will agree.

    Cyberspace does not exist. To try and draw a line between ‘digital’ and ‘physical’ when it comes to matters such as these is failing to understand what the Internet is. It is not a drug, and to compare it to real problems such as drug addiction is silly and pointless.

    While blaming gaming might make you feel better about yourself, I’d highly advise you talk to whomever you suspect to be ‘addicted’ about matters completely unrelated, and see how long the conversation lasts before either of you talk about cyberspace. It’s quite an accurate test and the results might surprise you.

    Good luck dealing with whomever you’re dealing with, you seem to have issues with the internet.

    1. Dear Tyler,

      Thanks for your trenchant critique of my blog. Contra views are most welcome.
      Of course accidents with toasters and banana peels cannot be compared with a conscious over-consumption of anything, including the internet.
      I agree with you that excessive gaming or internet abuse could often be the symptom of an underlying issue. To that extent, blaming the internet or online games for such incidents would be like blaming the murder weapon in a crime. You would have noticed that i did mention in the end, its not the laptop or internet – its how you use it that decides your fate. Internet is inseparable from modern life as we know it and i would be foolish to throw the baby with the bathwater.
      I am not the one who termed this an addiction. Please consult your nearest psychiatrist or psychologist and take their opinion on whether the behaviour described by me fit the description of ‘addiction’ or not. You may be surprised.
      Lastly, i have no issues with the internet. It is because of the internet that we are able to exchange views so frankly sitting halfway across the globe.

  5. Kps articulate as ever.!! It’s the next Gen problem. I have now set a rule of complisory one hour out of the house playtime. And I still vividly remember my mom screaming for me to come back from play to put in some study time!!! The other real irritant I find is when I go out with friends and family, say for a lunch or dinner, it’s really annoying to see the group all with their heads down texting or like you said ‘status updating’. Not to mention the fact that you turn your head around in the restaurant, it’s the same disease affecting most tables! Amazing!!! The only mercy that I have been bestowed upon with is that the kids are still listening to me and sacrifice their one hour offline!!! Blessed are we!

    Your symptoms list should be given wide publicity. Could not agree more with them.

    Lovely article. Keep them coming…

    1. Thanks venky! You are a globe trotter. You will be best placed to observe if this phenomenon has indeed attained a global scale. Will appreciate your feedback on this too!

  6. To just say “well written” would be a gross understatement !! All aspects of the issues we middle aged parents of teen kids and the young generation are facing/ going to face have been comprehensively covered.
    A couple of suggestions which could help counter the adverse drawbacks brought out:-
    (i) Whilst being net savvy is good, it helps to set an example to the influential minds of kids that the Internet is a means to an end. It’s how they see you using the net that influences their habits.
    (ii) Engaging in physical activity yourself and pushing your family members to do the same would nip the issue of addiction in the bud by reducing the time available and/or take one’s mind off from the myriad distractions that abound at our fingertips.
    I guess this (net addiction) is one more aspect we have to make our kids wary about with the same level of seriousness as the historically prevalent addictions like drugs, alcohol etc.
    Looking forward to more enlightening stuff on your blog Sir !!

  7. Invasion from the sky no doubt, a very well written to the point, but who is to blame we have not struck a compromise.
    An avid traveller we are, as rightly pointed out the fort, the tower, the church or Meenakshi temple in the background are of no consequence it is the selfie.
    Ask one of the folks the history no response.Unlike the west where internet came much earlier most individuals read about the place before they move ontour and definitely have some literature of the place of visit.
    We have numerous people visiting Nandi hills daily 90% will not have a clue of the history of nandi hills (this is an example) to sum up how proud we are of our history, will then only lead to progress and prosperity.

  8. I remember reading this meme a long time ago: If a traveller came from 30 years in the past and asked what’s the biggest change that’s happened, the reply would be: “I have in my pocket a device that contains the knowledge of the universe. I use it to see videos of cats”. I think that put – quite succinctly – the issue you are talking about!

    So yes, there definitely are people who are addicted to the net. But I’ll disagree with you as to the extent of the problem. All the problems related to addiction ‘exist’ only because they make the news; the 86- and 32-hour gamers are the outliers.

    Today you can’t avoid the net even if you are a technophobe. Banking? Why drive to the bank and stand in a queue for an hour when the job can be done in 5 minutes from your phone? Electricity bills? Ditto. Music? I listen to mine on my morning walks, quite impossible to do so while lugging a turntable and stack of 33 rpms around. Sending mail, telling the time, doing mathematical computations, reading books & magazines, navigating on maps, candid photography, all can be done with much greater ease on my devices. Google, Wikipedia, OTT platforms, news channels, all can be used on a single device instead of multiple ones. For my work alone, I use 15 separate apps, but you won’t E6B and map cases in my flight bag anymore.

    And yet, I’m not on Facebook, Insta, or any social media app other than LinkedIn; I eschew WhatsApp groups. My wife however thrives on this as her entire business runs on that medium. My daughter’s doing her 12th online, uses YouTube to learn the arts (which incidentally was the foundation of my wife’s business). My son, yes, he plays MMORPG games online, but he also learnt HTML, CSS, JQuery and Python, goes to the gym, cooks meals, creates music…

    To me, the internet’s growth is just natural progression, a catalyst to economic change and to increased ease of doing everyday chores. As for the addiction, it needs to be tackled on a case-to-case basis, like all other addictions.

    As for our poor record in research, I blame rote teaching, fewer opportunities, poor salaries and lack of government interest as the main factors.

    My 2 bits.

  9. I share many concerns that you raise. Would be great to hear your views about online schooling and the impact of excessive screen time on teachers and students.

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