It’s 2014. You can’t walk into a party and introduce yourself by just saying you run a business anymore.

You have to be a businessperson who’s also into Super Tuscans or collecting jazz records. And you can’t just leave it at that. You also have to be able to discuss other things: the new Waheeda Rehman book with the classics fan, fitness trackers with his marathon-aspirant wife, and basa farming with their foodie cousin.

Have the kids been invited? Then you’d better know the lyrics to that song from Frozen and if Hike beats WhatsApp. Your host will want your opinion of his new curved TV, a fellow guest will ask if Kick will fare better than Jai Ho?

And eventually, everyone will have discussed yesterday’s topic of outrage, today’s headline, this afternoon’s developing story and the tweet from 10 minutes ago.

Dessert? That reminds me, what’s the name of that natural sweet leaf everyone’s been talking about?

Let’s stop for a minute here; if for nothing, then just to catch your breath.

You’ve discussed hobbies, books, fitness, food, films, apps, technology, the news and health, all in one evening. All to keep up with your peers. A few years ago, you could get by with polite mumbles about the weather and politics. Now, it’s hip to be square. You need to know everything about everything and show it, or have the party ignore you for the evening. How did we end up like this?

Wired world

It’s tempting to blame the Net — after all, for the first time in history, it’s brought us all together, introduced us to new interests and made us aware of how many things we can be interested in. Even one generation ago, information was hard to access,” says consumer analyst Santosh Desai. If you didn’t know about a band, a film, a style, you remained an outcast for longer.” Today, the solution is literally in your pocket. So many people have mobile devices, be it smartphones or tablets and what not,” points out Anja Kovacs, project manager at Delhi’s Internet Democracy Project. And with many of those devices now connecting to the Internet, it’s easier than ever to be plugged in.

But for India the Web was only one part of a bigger change. For us the Internet revolution happened at roughly the same time as globalisation,” says Faiz Ullah, a researcher associated with the School of Media and Cultural Studies at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences. As a people newly exposed to what the modern world had to offer, and with newly acquired money to pursue it, we’ve steadily found more to like, influence our peers and be influenced in return.

Haven’t heard of molecular gastronomy, mixed media, mayor de Blasio and the Mi3? Where on Earth have you been? There’s no excuse (or tolerance) for ignorance today. The gap between the trivial and the essential is narrowing,” says Desai. It is all worth knowing now.”

Pressure points

Except, knowing everything is impossible (even if you’re Varys, the Spider). The Net adds roughly 34 hours of new video, 430 blog posts, 680 new web sites, two lakh new photos and 25 lakh Facebook likes every single minute.

It would take you over five years to just watch the amount of video that crosses the Net every second.

Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, at the Department of Clinical Psychology at Bangalore’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, has conducted several studies to ascertain what happens to those obsessed with keeping up. He found that missing out on minute-by-minute developments in social media actually caused stress. The subjects told us that they want to know this or that because their friends knew about it, so they also had to know,” he says. He also adds that knowledge itself had turned into a status symbol, fostering competitiveness, a sense of, I should know this before someone tells it to me.”

Ullah calls it a feeling of being at a disadvantage if you don’t have cultural capital”. But there’s a catchier term: Fear Of Missing Out, or the even catchier FOMO. Writer Twaambo Kapilikisha knows the symptoms well. It got to a point where I had my phone on me all the time,” she says. I was in the middle of a conversation with a friend one day and I started to check my phone, going Uh-huh, uh-huh’ as she spoke.

At one point she’d stopped talking but I was still scrolling through the phone.” Her short, fun e‑book How FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) Is Actually Making You Miss Out argues that we risk burnout, jeopardise quality relationships and even our sense of self by chasing events that have no lasting importance for our lives.

So what if you logged out for a couple of days? Just two days; say, July 8 and 9 this year. Here’s a bit of what you’d have missed: Israel’s offensive on Gaza, marijuana being legalised in parts of the US, the first look at that hot California felon Jeremy Meeks, and SpiceJet’s one lakh seats on sale for as little as Rs. 999. The greater loss would arguably be Brazil’s. But you’d have missed it and the record 35.6 million tweets it spawned.

Spread thin

Sure, to appear cool in public, you now have to be a geek in private. But our obsession with keeping up is changing the very way we perceive and consume knowledge — we know a frightful more things, but frightfully little about them. Earlier if you did not have depth of knowledge of a subject you were considered a foolish person. Now, you are respected if you know a little about a lot of things,” says Desai. Imagine a world littered with many Re 1 notes instead of a few Rs. 10 notes. It makes us interesting and shallow at the same time.”

The issue worries Ullah more. If this obsession with information is only a repository of trivial nuggets, then we’re missing something,” he says. There are political implications to depthless-ness. It promotes simplicity and that leads to a sort of conservatism.”

Will our #FirstWorldProblem ultimately create a more conservative society?

Or will future generations get over their obsessions and make fun of us at their parties on Mars? You don’t have much time to think. Networking company Cisco estimates that by next year, the Web will have grown so big it will have to be measured in zettabytes. If you had to burn it all on disc, you’d need 250 billion DVDs.

Desai thinks there will always be a social pressure to keep up. But Kovacs believes we’ll ultimately have a handle on it. Historically, with every new type of technology, there are all kinds of fears and lot of stories about what these new things do to our brain, etc,” she says, citing the advent of radio and television. Every time any technology provides a new paradigm in communication, it leads to a shift in the amount of information people get into their lives and creates anxiety. So this is nothing new.”

Ullah believes the next generation will be able to survive this embarrassment of riches too, probably by ignoring it. I have students who walk out mid-lecture to take a call as if they had nuclear-launch codes on their phone,” he jokes. But I also know students who don’t carry a cellphone today.”

With inputs from Satarupa Paul

Originally published in Hindustan Times Brunch.