Till late 2014, an Android phone eluded me. While the world was catching up on that paraphernalia, I settled almost doggedly for my humble Symbian, which came in the form of a Nokia E72. It had completed over four years with me, and I found it hard to give up on the device, even though it would freeze each time I attempted to open Facebook, or text on WhatsApp. The phone had been purchased when “push email” was still a novelty — the excitement was palpable, when for the first time, I was notified about an email in my inbox. But, the over-heating battery of the qwerty phone finally gave up on me one fine day, and I had to reluctantly join the bandwagon. Life hasn’t been the same ever since.
In the light of a new book, Your Happiness was Hacked by Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever (Penguin Random House), a rather timely work on the problems of tech addiction and how it is controlling our lives and well-being, it felt like self-introspection was the need of the hour. Not too long ago, London-based tech blogger Jamie Bartlett in his book, The People Vs Tech, cautioned us to employ self-control while using the Internet. “Hordes of us are now members of a zombie army that walks while looking down at our phones,” he wrote. Wadhwa, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering, and Salkever, a technology leader and author, share similar concerns. The paranoia about us being the last generation to remember a life before technology invasion, is very real.
Tracking the addiction
While reading Wadhwa and Salkever’s new title, I consciously decided to make an attempt to track my technology consumption over a period of 24 hours. It would be wrong to call myself an addict, because in the past, I have weaned off social media — once, for as long as a month — and I didn’t feel any withdrawal or unhappiness. In retrospect, the decision to cut off had stemmed from the anxiety, stress and discontentment that I was feeling in the process of being inundated with information, photographs and sometimes vacuous chats, which I found hard to process.
My first real obsession with the web began when I was on social networking website Orkut, back in 2005. The good part about not having a smartphone then, and having a home landline driven Internet connection meant that I could only invest 30 minutes each day. The Symbian, where I could download only limited apps, barely fuelled the desire to be on the web constantly. The Android smartphone changed the dynamics. The first app that I downloaded was Instagram, which was a rage. An hour later, I posted a photo of the neer dosa I had prepared. I barely had any followers then, but the ‘likes’ came pouring in from everywhere, including dosa fans I had never met.
The book highlights how social media platforms use likes, hearts, and retweets, as an attempt to encourage you to use these apps more often. The more the love, the greater the social approval, and the bigger the possibility of you getting hooked. Sending your love might seem harmless, but as the authors point out, too much of it might be dangerous for the soul. It’s also possibly why Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion in 2012. It had the ability to entice users by not just having them scroll through images posted by others, but also getting them to spend hours planning the images they wanted to post.
Four years on, 1,359 posts and 992 followers later, I am not sure if that was what motivated me to keep putting up pictures. And, I try religiously to upload every day — even if that means sharing a photograph of a leaf from a home garden, which amusingly garnered 80 likes. Putting up a profile photograph, always gets over 150 likes. The day it doesn’t, there is niggling feeling at the back of my head, that this isn’t my best shot, yet. Again, isn’t this problematic?
While tracking my Internet use, which included using my phone as well as the desktop, I also figured that after uploading a picture on Instagram, there was this unwarranted need to check on my hearts. In 30 minutes, I had visited the platform 10 times. Each time, I go back to Instagram, I am also investing a few seconds scrolling. If there’s rampant commenting on a picture, the seconds soon turn to minutes. On a friend’s suggestion, I also downloaded an app — Quality Time, once I reached home at 9 pm. I slept off by 11.30 pm, but, in the short span, I had already invested 62 minutes on the web, having spent the maximum time on WhatsApp, Netflix and Instagram. The following day, between 7.30 am and 12.30 pm, the app notified that I had picked up my phone 88 times.
Way out of this whirlpool
Not just social media, the authors also talk about the need to keep going back to our work emails, post office hours, and how it has eaten into our relationships. Then, there is Netflix, which they reveal, has PhD data scientists on their roll, to figure out how to get you to watch more movies. Binge-watching the latest series is not just then about your lack of self-control, but also about how your watching behaviour has been tracked, to further feed your consumption. This explains how when I am just done with watching a comedy special on the platform, I am immediately led to a menu of similar shows.
There is no way out of this, unless you are honest about the feelings that technology raises in us. The authors suggest we ask the right questions — whether it makes us happier or sadder, does it change our behaviour, and hurt those around us, and most importantly, would we miss it, if we stopped using it?
Like Bartlett explained the need to plan your personal time and space carefully, which includes having switch-off times, avoiding the checking cycle and never hitting refresh, similar suggestions with real-life examples are doled out for us in this book too. One person stopped taking his phone into the bedroom. Others don’t check their emails after work, and many have just deleted social media apps from their phone. Many Silicon Valley leaders are now speaking out against this disruption. Roger McNamee, a technology investor and mentor to Mark Zuckerburg — who has written the foreword of the book — is one among the many voices. If anything, we are at a crossroad, and measured steps, is possibly the only way forward.
Reprinted with permission by the author.