Apparently, the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, wants to turn Twitter into X, an app that will solve all your needs. But Musk, isn’t that my phone?
I mean, short of producing food and water, our phones do everything: track our spending in the day, our breathing at night, the illicit sweet calories and our virtuous 10,000 steps, as if the world at large is the temple we are trying to do a parikrama of. Then, every now and then, apps ask me if, don’t mind, could they have access to my contacts? And I want to say: So polite! As if! As if you are not listening to me all day and all night to provide me the eternal scroll of ads catering to my innermost desires!
Given this situation, what is X going to do? Y have X? I want to say to Musk that we are not like the musk deer of the Kabir doha that doesn’t know the good stuff is already in our navels. We have got it in our phones already. All of it—white noise and headspace and flashlight and electricity bills.
I understand, though, that for some people a new digital tech solution is irresistible, the same way some of us used to find those gadgets you saw in exhibitions (and later on teleshopping networks) delightful. They were magical, until the moment you left the exhibition grounds. I mean, stunning. A small plastic gadget which, in the salesman’s hands, would create exquisite flowers out of carrots. A small plastic gadget which, in the salesman’s hands, would perfectly trace any drawing your art-impaired but art-desiring heart desired. At home, somehow, you were unable to clutch either the carrot or the pencil quite the right way and always blamed yourself. Why weren’t you good enough at harnessing this magical technology?
Nowadays, my face takes on a lemon-sucking, ginger-eating expression at the thought of a new app. In the exact same spirit of “all you need is one small aubergine”, I am constantly trying to repurpose one app to do other tasks. Using fake WhatsApp groups (make a group with one other person, delete the other person and then text yourself) for notes, for example. This, I will hastily add, is very unlike Musk’s plans. Unlike you, who is ready to use your old pressure cooker to make triple layer chocolate cake, he wants to sell you a new Instant Pot to solve all your problems. (They have one of those “everything” apps in China called WeChat that obviously makes the heart of a monopolist go double speed).
Like Musk, every interiors magazine and shelter blog will tell you to never buy an object for your home that cannot serve multiple purposes. You want to buy a thing that only crushes garlic or only warms baby wipes? Be prepared for much, much shaking of head. They ask, with complete justification, what about climate change? But I am hopelessly seduced by the charm of a tool that promises to fix a highly specific need.
My friend, who has recently re-entered the dating scene and is often contemplating poking people with safety pins, told me she bought a sex toy, which, unlike many phallic objects marketed to women, is very specifically tailored to provide “unique suction technology that mimics the mouth” with “ten different speeds and patterns”. She sings its praises in the way I did after visiting the home of an elderly artistic couple in Bhopal.
I have two memories of that trip. One, that everyone we asked on the street knew where all the Bhopal museums were. Two, every dinner at the friend’s home had decadent mutton dishes. What made it unforgettable is that as we sat on the sofa with our warm plates on our knees and eyes on the next serving, each of us was handed slim silver objects, slightly longer and thicker than a toothpick. To poke the marrow out of the bones! I was so pleased at this sign of a highly developed civilisation that understood your personal suction technology was not always effective enough to get the tasty bits out.
Technology, our old fascination, has ceased to fascinate when all it does is sneak up to you inside your notifications and ask you with fake consent-seeking behaviour if you will share your contacts and location. It is as uncharming as the person who wears a big badge in markets saying, “Want to lose weight? Ask me how.” All you can do is avoid eye contact and make a run for it with your basket of small aubergines.
Instead, technology can be perfect. One summer in my youth, my friend Archana told me that in the bathrooms of Old Delhi homes you could usually find a small object to help you re-insert the naada (drawstring) into your salwar. Until then my naada, which always achieved escape velocity and had to be forced into re-entry with a borrowed safety pin and humiliated smiles, had seemed like my personal failure, mine alone. Other women had control over their realms and empires. But in that mythical item of Archana’s description lay a whole world of other women who had cursed their itinerant naadas, a world of fashion and compassion, and to use that Bengaluru bro phrase, solved for the problem. The naada fixer was material history, my friend. It just needed a tastefully curated exhibition. Enough for a woman to ask, Hum App Hai Kaun?
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.