Since 1902

Unshackle yourself from mobile phone slavery

Do you guys remember those old school telephones; the ones that had a rotary dial that you had to spin to make a call? They had a cord that tied them down to one corner of the house where they could usually be found on a crocheted ‘kitambaa’ and covered by another. If you wanted to use the phone, you had to go and sit in that corner.

It was easy to feel that the phone and its cord had you tethered. Easy to grumble about your freedoms of movement and expression being curtailed. And easy to have bad thoughts about Alexander Graham Bell, because even though he had allowed you to communicate with people who were miles away without leaving your home, you were still being severely inconvenienced by the inability to walk and talk.

And yet in those days, we were all much freer than we are now. Our phones were functional gadgets. We used them to pass pertinent information and for the most part we were very economical with our speech. It was rare to stay on the phone for more than five minutes because calls were not cheap.

I remember the dread my sisters and I would feel every month-end when the phone bill arrived and we knew that we’d gone overboard talking to our friends, or had even had the nerve to make international calls. My parents would threaten to disconnect the line permanently and we would be forced to face the reality of being completely cut off from the rest of the world. Looking back, that reality was not as bad as it seemed.

Vital organs

The stationary and analogue nature of those phones encouraged face-to-face interactions. Today, mobile telephony has dramatically altered our community settings. We spend way too much time ‘talking’ to our phones. Mobile phones have become like vital organs that we cannot live without, and social media the blood that feeds them. Our phones are like a gateway drug, pulling us into the Internet of things, where we become hopelessly addicted to swiping, commenting, and posting. We have surrendered our agency to the gods of the inter-webs.

And because social media users are such a captive audience, it’s easy for external forces to control the narrative. Think about the whole idea of ‘influencers’. These are people who either stand out or are propped up to convince huge groups of people to think in certain ways about certain things. The effect is gradual but it soon comes to a point where a lot of what you believe to be your own thoughts and ideas are actually curated by individuals, brands, and even governments.

Public land

Just look at the entire Wilkins Fadhili Odinga fiasco. I will not debate the merits of the accusations made against him, except to say that news of his ‘conmanship’ ballooned into a social media scandal of such massive proportions that everything else became a detail. Even the usual football banter was barely detectable.

But what truly got me thinking about social media narratives, and how easy they are to manipulate, were the muted discussions around the National Land Commission’s decision not to bring down William Ruto’s Weston Hotel despite finding that it was built on public land. Instead, they have offered him the opportunity to buy the land. I mean the nerve of it all! When a state commission shrugs off even the mere appearance of respectability, things are not looking good for us – the people who public land is supposed to serve. So why have we been so blasé about it?

We should have been posting compulsively about it, but nah. People were too busy dissecting the Fadhili Odinga allegations, and casting aspersions on the character of his accuser(s). It was insane. I’m not saying that the thread that started the Odinga saga was a plant, but I can see how it could have been.

Either way, we all need to be much more careful about how we consume the ‘news’ on social media platforms, and how we engage with content from sources that are not easily verifiable. It’s way too easy to get distracted from the things that actually matter, and to focus on those that have no direct impact on our well-being. And yeah, some might argue that talk is cheap whether we’re gassing about stolen land or fake identities. To that I will say this: I would rather spend my energy railing against impunity than to waste it engaging in Internet banter with people I don’t know, on views I often don’t agree with.

Ms Masiga is Peace and Security Editor, The Conversation Africa