In JRR Tolkien’s famed trilogy, The Lord of Rings, Gollum, the hobbit, is so obsessed by the ring – his “precious” as he calls it – that he speaks to it as to a living person, and when it is lost, he chases after it with all the pathos of someone searching for a dear friend. Our relationship with our smartphones, buzzing with apps, notifications, likes, loves and comments, is getting close to what Gollum shares with the ring – we are addicted to its digital fix and can’t do without it.

When we halt at a traffic light, we reach for our phones to check the newest notifications, the latest tweets, or a friend’s update even if it may just be a photograph of their morning tea. When we wake up, we first reach for our phones to check if we’ve missed anything while we slept. We respond, adding our two bits, react, move on to the next app that’s begging for attention…repeat the process, return, resume. It’s a cycle that doesn’t end.

We are continually skimming, moving from one thing to the next as our brains search for dopamine fixes – little red dots of reinforcement, glowing lights and purring alerts. Ironically, the vast majority of notifications we get on our phones do not require an immediate response and yet, we are always at its summons.

More thorns than roses

Digital slavery, its dangers and the complicit role of large tech firms is the subject of Carnegie Mellon University professor and academic Vivek Wadhwa and his co-author Alex Salkever’s newest book, Your Happiness Was Hacked. Wadhwa, a former tech entrepreneur, has built a reputation for calling trends out before they become mainstream and certainly, he and his co-author are among the early ones to warn of the dangers of excessive and addictive digital consumption through their book.

From being a productivity tool for businesses in the initial years to becoming a tool for consumers in the later years, technology has now moved beyond – to becoming a part of work, play, love, relationships and of life, in general. The book delves into each of these areas and talks about what makes technology today such a rosebush of thorns – and increasingly, more thorns than roses.

It leans on the experiences of both the authors to illustrate why one should be a cautious user of technology and consciously limit its usage. The latter becomes a necessity because of the addictive features that digital behemoths such as Facebook, Amazon and Google have built into their offerings to increase usage.

Impact on society and work

Early in the book, Salkever narrates how, driving along a highway hugging the ocean cliffs in California, he started checking his phone for messages every time the curves on the road straightened out. At one point, when he was “furtively tapping a reply” to one message, a “sixth sense” prompted him to look up and brake in time to avoid a bunch of cyclists. Heart beating loudly, it was a moment of realisation for Salkever and he has since restricted the use of addictive technology both at home and at work.

Wadhwa and Salkever also delve deeper, going beyond individual impact to how technology is causing societal shifts, changing the way we interact with our environments and changing behaviours of entire populations. In the personal sphere, for example, they write how the rise of messaging apps which promote communication at almost no cost is decreasing in-person interactions, resulting in increased isolation and loneliness.

Similarly, they write that the growing consumption of pornography, driven by the ease of its availability and improvements in technology, is also posing social challenges, and psychologists and researchers worry that sexuality is becoming divorced from intimacy. “If porn becomes more attractive than the real thing – more convenient, more enjoyable and sufficiently realistic – and becomes more widely consumed numerous other problems could result,” Wadhwa and Salkevar warn.

In the section on work, they point out that productivity increases in the US economy have been stalling in the past decade. This could be because the impact of big technology shifts take time to show up in total factor productivity but it could also be, as some researchers say, because technology as it is currently used at work is detracting from productivity.

Deep work or work defined as requiring extended thought and concentration and which according to computer scientist Cal Newport is behind most great intellectual advances as well as responsible for work satisfaction, is one of the areas affected by interruptive notifications from tools such as Slack and WhatsApp (ironically, both are thought to increase productivity by decreasing response time), they point out.

Lacking incisiveness

The book has several flaws though. It equates the more benign email with today’s pumped up apps that first hook you and then ensure you stay hooked. Those familiar with Wadhwa’s columns in The Washington Postand other publications and his no nonsense style of writing, will also find the book a bit of a letdown. The book goes to great lengths to ensure it presents both sides of the coin – to the extent that it often fails to take a stand. So the key message it seeks to convey is either lost or watered down.

For instance, after multiple incidents of lynching in India prompted by the spread of fake news on WhatsApp, Wadhwa wrote in a column in The Hindustan Times: “It isn’t that the messaging platform can’t be fixed: there just isn’t enough motivation for the firm.” He also wrote in his newsletter: “Delhi shouldn’t be as dumb as Washington DC was by letting Zuckerberg offer false apologies and outwit outsmart political leaders.”

Since then, WhatsApp has indeed buckled down, under pressure from the government, and announced it will take measures to limit forwards by changing its design as well as restricting the number of people a message can be forwarded to.

The book lacks this incisive approach to fixing the ills of technology. Often it fails to go deeper into the issue. And while the authors have used examples from their own life to illustrate some of the worrying aspects of technology, they refer to themselves in the third person throughout leaving readers wondering why the book draws so extensively on the lives of two people and not many more.

However, none of this takes away from the fact that the book is an eye-opener and highly recommended in today’s world of technology-fuelled stress. Both Wadhwa and Salkever are experts whose words carry weight and credibility – something that is becoming scarce in an era of rumour and fake news. In fact, reading a book may just be the start you were looking for to reclaim your focus and concentration.

This article has been reprinted with permission of the author.

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