Tag Archives: smartphones

Hooked to Your Phone? The Dangers of Digital Addiction

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.

Why You Need to Live in the Future — As I Do

I live in the future as it is forming and this is happening far faster than most people realise, and far faster than the human mind can comfortably perceive.

I live in the future. I drive an amazing Tesla electric vehicle, which takes control of the steering wheel on highways. My house, in Menlo Park, California, is a “passive” home that expends minimal energy on heating or cooling. With the solar panels on my roof, my energy bills are close to zero. I have a medical device at home, which was made in New Delhi, Healthcubed, that does the same medical tests as hospitals—and provides me with immediate results. Because I have a history of heart trouble I have all of the data I need to communicate with a doctor anywhere in the world, anytime I need.

I spend much of my time talking to entrepreneurs and researchers about breakthrough technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics. These entrepreneurs are building a better future. I live in the future as it is forming and this is happening far faster than most people realise, and far faster than the human mind can comfortably perceive.

The distant future is no longer distant. The pace of technological change is rapidly accelerating, and those changes are coming to you very soon. Look at the way smartphones crept up on us. Just about everyone now has one. We are always checking email, receiving texts, ordering goods online, and sharing our lives with distant friends and relatives on social media.

These technologies changed our lives before we even realised it. Just as we blindly follow the directions that Google Maps gives us—even when we know better—we will comply with the constant advice that our digital doctor provides. I’m talking about an artificially intelligent app on our smartphone that will have read our medical data and monitor our lifestyles and habits. It will warn us not to eat more gulab jamuns lest we gain another 10 pounds.

So you say that I live in a technobubble, a world that is not representative of the lives of the majority of people in the US or India? That’s true. I live a comfortable life in Silicon Valley and am fortunate to sit near the top of the technology and innovation food chain. So I see the future sooner than most people. The noted science-fiction writer William Gibson, who is a favourite of hackers and techies, once wrote: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet”. But, from my vantage point at its apex, I am watching that distribution curve flatten, and quickly. Simply put, the future is happening faster and faster. It is happening everywhere.

Technology is the great leveller, the great unifier, the great creator of new and destroyer of old.

Once, technology could be put in a box, a discrete business dominated by business systems and some cool gadgets. It slowly but surely crept into more corners of our lives. Today the creep has become a headlong rush. Technology is taking over every part of our lives; every part of society; every waking moment of every day. Increasingly, pervasive data networks and connected devices are causing rapid information flows from the source to the masses—and down the economic ladders from the developed societies to the poorest.

Perhaps my present life in the near future, in the technobubble in Silicon Valley, sounds unreal. Believe me, it is something we will laugh at within a decade as extremely primitive.

We are only just commencing the greatest shift that society has seen since the dawn of humankind. And, as in all other manifest shifts – from the use of fire to the rise of agriculture and the development of sailing vessels, internal-combustion engines, and computing – this one will arise from breathtaking advances in technology. This shift, though, is both broader and deeper, and is happening far more quickly.

Such rapid, ubiquitous change has a dark side. Jobs as we know them will disappear. Our privacy will be further compromised. Our children may never drive a car or ride in one driven by a human being. We have to worry about biological terrorism and killer drones. Someone —maybe you—will have his or her DNA sequence and fingerprints stolen. Man and machine will begin to merge. You will have as much food as you can possibly eat, for better and for worse.

The ugly state of global politics illustrates the impact of income inequality and the widening technological divide. More people are being left behind and are protesting. Technologies such as social media are being used to fan the flames and to exploit ignorance and bias. The situation will get only worse—unless we find ways to share the prosperity we are creating.

We have a choice: to build an amazing future such as we saw on the TV series Star Trek, or to head into the dystopia of Mad Max. It really is up to us; we must tell our policy makers what choices we want them to make.

The key is to ensure that the technologies we are building have the potential to benefit everyone equally; balance risks and the rewards; and minimise the dependence that technologies create. But first, we must learn about these advances ourselves and be part of the future they are creating.


This article is re-published here with the express permission of the author.