The ideological divide between friends that began in 2014 will widen in the 2020s, as India gets more polarized and relationships more political. Technology will accentuate this process and offer us digital alternatives in the decade ahead that we haven’t encountered so far, replacing human interactions with artificial intelligence and robots. Already, the word ‘friend’ has lost characteristics such as honesty, trust and vulnerability. The next ten years will peel off its other human features. Our friendships will be trapped in echo chambers, they will be more fragile, with fewer human interactions, leading to lower social skills. The 2020s will be the turning point, when the young of today will be more comfortable and have more friendships in cyberspace than in meatspace.
Early in 2020, I flew down to Kolkata to attend a college friend’s daughter’s wedding. It was primarily a get-together of collegemates. People came in from across the country and from around the world, from San Francisco and Singapore, Hyderabad and Hong Kong. I spent three nights in Kolkata; the two non-wedding-related evenings were spent with my oldest friend—we have been buddies since we were six years old.
At the wedding, I was meeting many people after thirty- five years. All of us looked vastly different from when we had last seen one another, and our life trajectories had taken us in many different directions and shaped us in unique and undefinable ways. There were Silicon Valley millionaires and Indian public sector managers, professors and men from the defence forces. Yet, money and achievements (and disparities thereof) meant nothing. We were as equals, as we had been in our hostel days. We could effortlessly pick up from where we had left off.
As for my oldest friend, on the first evening, I rang his doorbell, he opened the door, said, ‘Oh, long time no see,’ and we repaired to his study. We had not been in touch for four years. We spoke about many things—how Kolkata has changed, and people, and the world—but none of that mattered. What mattered was that some good things will stay the same.
Yet, the very nature of friendship has been changing over the last some years and may be dramatically transformed over the next decade. All of us know this, consciously or unconsciously. The bigger—and the more visible—force driving this metamorphosis is, of course, technology. The other, less visible (mainly because we are loath to talk about it) and more insidious force, is ideology.
Nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his book Nicomachean Ethics, defined three types of friendship. Two of these he considered to be ‘incomplete’. In utility friendships, people come together because of the benefits they derive from each other, like studying together for exams or business partnerships.
In pleasure friendships, people share a passion or a hobby, such as playing tennis on the weekends or being members of a bird-watching society. These friendships are based on mutual benefits or self-interest, and once those interests are served, there is not much incentive to keep up the relationship.
The third type, what Aristotle called a ‘friendship of the good’, is rare and precious. It is essentially selfless, where A likes B for what she is, and wants the best for them. A and B are comfortable being honest and open with each other and can criticize each other without causing offence, because each knows that the other is looking out for their best interests and will not be judged. This is ‘true’ friendship, not bound by maintenance of utility or pleasure. The first two types of friendship are unlikely to change—these traits are hardwired into the system of perhaps most animal species.
It is the third form of friendship that concerns us. Something changed in India in 2014 when Narendra Modi took over as prime minister. And as we enter the 2020s, the country is more polarized than ever before in living memory. An analysis of how and why this has happened does not concern us here. But since 2014, we have been seeing many friendships, which seemed ‘true’, breaking down.
Men and women who had been friends for decades drifted apart. Strangely enough, it is the so-called ‘liberals’, the ones supposed to be more open to diverse viewpoints and less close-minded than the ‘right wing’, who are more likely to end these relationships. Relationship complexity has been abandoned in favour of quick and easy labelling and stereotyping. Long-time friends have suddenly had their identities reduced to ‘bhakts’, ‘sanghis’, ‘fascists’.
A friend, let’s call him Siddharth, whose ‘sanghi-ness’ and Hindu fundamentalism extends only to a deep interest in ancient Indic texts, recounts how a decades-old friend was nonplussed when Siddharth walked in, uninvited, at his mother’s funeral. He had quietly unfriended Siddharth and thought that the feeling was mutual. Surely Siddharth too now disliked him because he was ‘liberal’? A cousin, a long-time Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter, tells me how some ‘liberal’ friends have cut him out. ‘They think I’ve changed, but it’s actually them,’ he said. ‘What I’ve felt for them for years remains the same, but suddenly I’m judged on the basis of my vote.’ He says with a laugh: ‘I’m low-class now.’
This lazy and simplistic labelling, which is the hallmark of the growing ‘woke’ movement, will only become stronger in the decade ahead. We have crossed a line and there is no turning back. Is it that, as our lives and worlds have become more complex, we have developed a ‘with us–against us’ binary paradigm as a defence mechanism to simplify our existence? But simple and simplistic are hardly the same thing. The latter is the sign of a sluggish mind. The former unearths clarity from the clutter.
But, looking ahead, one can only see the rise and rise of the ‘simplistic’, with more and more friendships locked in echo chambers. Our filter bubbles, aided and abetted by technology, will grow ever more resilient to osmosis. By 2030, most friendships will hardly resemble what Aristotle defined as ‘true’. We will essentially be gangs, though we will not look and speak the way we imagine gangs do. This will be a return to primitive times, when humans formed ‘bands’ to survive and thrive.
Heading Towards a Fadeaway
The younger Gen Z-ers will possibly be more adept at navigating the digital world than at handling meatspace. Their IRL social skills may be affected by the amount of time they have spent communicating digitally since childhood. They will, in all likelihood, be more comfortable talking to people on social media than meeting them physically.
Digital communication allows people to avoid awkward and emotionally uncomfortable moments. Thus, when those moments do happen IRL, rather than deal with awkwardness as a normal part of everyday communication, will they just hide?
In her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Turkle argues that all the instant messages, texts and minimally effortful ‘likes’ and asynchronous communication are diminishing people’s capacity for empathy and their ability to communicate in real-life situations. Earlier, when friends had disagreements, they could sit down and talk it out. But in cyberspace, ‘ghosting’ is now common—the unilateral ending of a relationship by suddenly stopping all communication with no explanation.
Combine all these trends now. One, when choosing our friends, we are increasingly opting to stay within ideological echo chambers. Two, as the juggernaut of socio-economic change rolls on in India, the sense of identity in younger and coming generations, with less contextual stability and sudden changes in environment, could become weaker, more threatened and more fragile. Three, fear of infection (let us face the truth: whether a vaccine is found or not, COVID-19 will leave a difficult-to-erase stamp on our minds about physical proximity), technological advancement and economic reasons will lead to lower need (and appetite) for face-to-face interactions, and we will spend—whether by choice or necessity—more and more of our time alone, with only ourselves for flesh-and-blood company. Four, as digital time and space occupy an increasing share of Indians’ lives, there is a strong likelihood that our sense of empathy and our social skills will be impacted. Five, since the digital world offers us ways of escape and self-delusion that the real world cannot, we will be more comfortable in cyberspace than in meatspace.
By 2030, many of us will essentially be friendship gamers. Within the broad platforms and rules laid down by our technology providers, we will have the flexibility to create our own games and play them. We will be both user and system administrator of our friendships. Seen in today’s terms, or actually, terms mutually agreed upon many millennia ago, this picture of the future may look like one of people who no longer have access to a vital part of what makes us human. But if they consensually define friendship in a new way and are comfortable with that, who are we to judge? After all, our parents’ generation made the transition from joint family to nuclear, which dramatically changed not only their own lives and tested their ability to adapt, but also transformed our society and economy. Perhaps this next transition that looms before us is in the natural course of things.
This excerpt from India 2030 edited by Gautam Chikermane has been published with special permission from Penguin India.