Tag Archives: WhatsApp

Is Dad Doing The Laundry?

As families celebrated Father’s Day in June, I was reminded that a month ago when moms were being feted, some dads were playing true to type – and not the kosher kind.

On Mother’s Day my WhatsApp group chats were overflowing with fulsome messages from male high-school friends who were paying tributes to motherhood and to schoolmates who were mothers. 

Messages ranged from simple salutations like ‘Happy Mother’s Day to all the lovely moms in this group,’ to warm, fuzzy images of new moms holding babies.   

The very next day, the same Whatsapp chats were overflowing with contradictory comments; ‘Party over, back to the kitchen ladies!’ and clever little jokes about ‘witches going back to their brooms.’  I must confess some were funny and made me laugh.  

But without exception all these comments were offensive to women.

In India I went to a small, progressive high school with a small, somewhat homogenous student body. Many of my schoolmates, though well-intentioned, came from relatively conservative and old-fashioned families. In our class of forty, perhaps just two mothers drove their own cars and maybe three mothers worked outside the home.

Given this context, I put the whole Mother’s Day kerfuffle down to ignorance or lack of exposure and moved on.  Over time, I thought to myself, as the younger generation gets more educated and aware, things will change.

But the COVID crisis revealed some uncomfortable truths.

As families were forced to quarantine and share close quarters as well as household chores, I began to realize how deep and enduring the sex-based biases are.  

My Whatsapp chats closely mirrored the reality of real life between men and women, roles and expectations.

There were the usual jokes about men being imprisoned with their wives and corporate big-wigs being stuck washing dishes.   And yes, they had a comedic element and ought to have been taken with a pinch (or mountain) of salt. But nonetheless, the comments struck a nerve, especially as women have long borne the greater burden of child rearing and housework, even in so-called equitable societies.

Many of my liberal friends who went to college with me have competed head-to-head with women, fully respecting their talents and abilities. They have been nothing but supportive of their wives having an independent career and life and have raised their girls and boys to be equally empowered. 

And yet the same open-minded individuals posted artless comments that left me wondering about unconscious biases.  Several complained about helping with household chores that were now a big part of their daily routine. Arguably, in many of these households, couples are taking on responsibilities that usually are left to their domestic help who are now sheltering at home themselves, and who normally are a luxury taken very much for granted. 

But the underlying assumption was clear – household chores were the wife’s responsibility; the husband was only expected to help when he could (even though both spouses had equally demanding jobs), and they were all uniformly proud about being great husbands.

Closer to home, my ex-husband was visiting our children at my house and started offering me tips on loading the dishwasher – he said he had picked them up from ‘years of experience’ loading that particular appliance.  I was fully cognizant of his dishwashing skills during the course of our marriage and asked how he came by that expertise.  His response – he had done a lot of thinking about the matter (unlike me), while doing the loading during the lockdown, ‘over five days!’

In another astounding episode, a friend who is a longstanding human rights activist and a self-declared feminist, announced on a webinar about the impact of COVID-19, that while he appreciates the many men who have stepped up to help their wives at home, corporations should do more to support the women in remote working environments, as they are primarily responsible for the household. 

He meant well I suppose, but his assumption left me absolutely shocked.  Even as COVID upends roles and responsibilities at home, why is the basic presumption that domestic work is a woman’s job?

This is a man who looks after his own home and cooks for his family. He is fiercely proud of being married to an independent woman who is a highly placed corporate professional.  Coming from a man who sees himself as sophisticated feminist, I expected differently.

Perhaps deep-seated biases are embedded in our cultural DNA. It made me wonder – will things ever really change?

While society seems to have moved forward when it comes to equality between the sexes in the household, some men who espouse liberal views appear to remain fundamentally sexist when gender roles are disrupted, especially in a crisis like this one.  

But then, something extraordinary happened.  Recently I was helping a male friend ‘G,’ with a home renovation project. The building contractor was dismissive of me and flatly refused to answer my questions unless G asked them. He was extremely responsive and respectful to G.  

I asked G to deal with it.  He looked straight at me and said “why do you need me to talk to him?  You have straightened out dozens of people in your life who have been disrespectful.  Give him a piece of your mind – you are no victim.”  

So I did exactly that.  I told the builder that I liked his ideas and budget but his attitude made me hesitate.  If we were to work together, he had to learn to cooperate with me or he was not getting the project.  It took seconds to assert myself and for the builder to reset his attitude, and after that the project went on smoothly 

In the face of deep rooted sexist biases women need to move the needle by asserting ourselves and being firm and direct. The pandemic has created an imbalance in what may have been a level playing field for some but it’s also presented an opportunity to reset our roles and expectations. 

I am used to asserting my position in professional settings but this casual incident was a revelation. As a woman, had I absorbed the same biases myself? It’s not always easy to combat sexism in one’s inner circle, whether it appears in schoolmates, my contractor, my feminist friend or my ex-husband. But it’s important to command respect in all settings in life.

We must take a stand and stick to our guns – not wait for someone else to do it for us.  


Photo by Félix Prado on Unsplash

In the “Age of the Coronavirus” – A Reflection

I sipped my morning coffee and browsed through the news, social media and emails. Spain declared an emergency and locked down.  The situation was still dire in Italy. Testing was woefully inadequate in the US and published numbers were the tip of the iceberg.  Toilet paper, cleaning supplies and frozen food shelves could not be restocked fast enough in supermarkets and grocery stores across the country to keep up with the wave of panic buying.

Sigh. 

Three other items caught my eye.  

The Times had a heartwarming story about how Italians nationwide – under lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – took to singing and playing musical instruments from their balconies and rooftops, with “piano chords, trumpet blasts, violin serenades and even the clanging of pots and pans” spilling from people’s homes” to show that they would get past this together, and to thank all the medical personnel on the front lines fighting the spread of the virus.

A good friend in Switzerland sent me a WhatsApp message.  “People have been hoarding toilet paper here,” she said, “empty shelves.” She also forwarded a video (it likely took multiple forwards to get to me) showing a young man in a coffee shop paying for his coffee with single sheets of toilet paper, and the barista asking for one more sheet, as Abba’s classic song plays in the background.  Money, money, money, must be funny, in the rich man’s world.

And then I saw this post on the social networking platform for local communities, Nextdoor:

“I’d like to take a moment to reflect on our current situation by bringing up a quote from the author C.S. Lewis.  It’s from an essay titled “On Living in an Atomic Age”. I’ll let Lewis say what he says best:

‘In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation…

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.’

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays”

Lewis wrote these words 72 years ago.  We must heed his advice today. Let’s not panic. Let’s be sensible. Let’s use common sense. Let’s adopt common courtesy. Let’s pull together towards a common cause.

Carefully follow the simple, sensible advice of healthcare professionals. Wash your hands, Maintain social distance. Stay indoors and avoid contact with others as much as you can. Be prepared to sacrifice some of your needs for the common good.  It’s not just for you. It’s for everyone around you, and for everyone around them.

Together, we will eventually emerge victorious from the “Age of the Coronavirus.”

Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. 


With gratitude to Joel Filipe for the use of his beautiful photograph from Unsplash.com

Real and Unsettling Dangers of Digital Dependency

It looked like a surreal scene except that it wasn’t. The family of five, all sitting in the living room and busy with their gadgets, hadn’t uttered a word in the last 30 minutes. It was when this scene was getting repeated several times over the week that Rafi Q Khan realised there was something wrong with the way the family was communicating with each other. “Even while at home, my kids had started messaging us on our family WhatsApp group instead of walking into our room to discuss things,” says Khan, a 47-year-old communications consultant from Gurugram. “It seems we are all happier typing than talking,” he adds.

There are many urban households like the Khans where gadgets have taken the central role in everyday lives. A self-confessed gizmo addict, Khan is away from his phone barely for a few minutes a day, keeping it at arm’s length even while sleeping. With three children aged 24, 21 and 17 years, the family of five is almost always engaging with each other through mobile apps. The Khan household has a smart TV, a smart refrigerator, digital cameras and innumerable other gadgets, which are connected to smart home device Amazon Echo. “I am always staring at a gadget. And I do realise that it’s a problem,” Khan confesses. His dependency on gadgets has reached a point that has had a ripple effect. His family members have started having conversations online rather than face-to-face interactions. Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Harvard Law School, might classify Khan as a borderline case of ‘tech addiction’.

His recently released book Your Happiness was Hacked, written with co-author Alex Salkever and published by Penguin Random House India, tries to pin down cases such as Khan’s and the effect technology is having on people’s happiness. Wadhwa stresses that most people don’t realise that there is such a thing as technology addiction. “They check their email 20 times an hour and spend hours everyday on WhatsApp and Facebook, but don’t know that these products have been designed to make them addicted. They don’t realise the harm that is being done to their well-being and happiness,” he says. With the proliferation of social media sites and a communication explosion, the desire to stay connected online has become permanent.

What started out as humans controlling a device has now turned the other way round. A situation, which Simon Gottschalk, a sociologist from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, puts across as: “machines have normalised a state of permanent urgency”. In his book The Terminal Self: Everyday Life in Hypermodern Times, he talks about how when we turn the terminal on, it immediately responds and prompts us to respond. And as soon as we do, it typically reacts instantly in an ongoing and potentially endless conversation. “Such a rapid response time naturally invites us to follow suit, to ‘sync’ to the tempo of terminal interactivity, and to accelerate our response time,” says Gottschalk.

We talk to our device, listen to it and even decorate it. We rely on it to remember information we deem important and consult it when making important decisions. “Its mere presence in a setting transforms interactions, we feel lost without it and violated when others look at it without our permission,” he adds. Ironically, even as people are worried about artificial intelligence (AI) engulfing humanity, not many seem bothered about inching towards it by being dependent on the intelligence of their devices rather than their own intelligence. “AI is surely advancing rapidly, but is nothing like what we saw in science-fiction.

Yes, some people have proposed marriage to Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, but these bots are far from being human-like and we can’t depend on them for anything but telling us the weather. And yes, we often trust the directions given to us by Google Maps over our own instincts, but there is little to worry about here… no one spends their days chatting with Siri and Alexa,” assures Wadhwa. Yet depression arising out of an uptick in the usage of sites like Instagram and Snapchat has been the topic of many research papers. Getting trapped in the web of unending demands of technology has taken its toll, and how.

Digital doom

The industry defines digital dependency as a behavioural addiction, loss of control due to excessive immersion in digital gadget usage, consequent daily disorder in the form of nervousness and anxiety, and inclination towards the virtual world. According to a report published this month by Ofcom, the UK government-approved communications regulator, the average internet user spends 24 hours a week online and checks the mobile phone every 12 minutes. Ofcom also found that, for the first time, the time spent making phone calls from mobile phones fell, as users used messaging services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger instead. On average, British children own their first mobile phone by the age of seven years, a tablet at eight years of age and their first smartphone by age 10. India isn’t far behind.

As per a KPMG-Ficci 2016 report on cellphone usage, the number of smartphone users in India is expected to reach 690 million by 2020, which is seen as a key enabler in internet consumption. So it is not surprising that as per a new research conducted by the Aligarh Muslim University, which is yet to be made public, it was revealed that 63% of those surveyed logged on to their smartphones for four-seven hours daily, while 23% are logged on for more than eight hours daily. The study, titled Smartphone Dependency, Hedonism and Purchase Behavior: Implications for Digital India Initiatives, was funded by the Indian Council for Social Science Research, New Delhi, and surveyed students from universities of Delhi and surrounding areas. The preliminary findings reveal that only 26% respondents indicated the primary usage of smartphones for calling purposes and the remaining used it for accessing social networking sites and entertainment.

This year, the World Health Organization added gaming disorder to its list of mental health conditions. Staying in denial is no solution. Some like Belinda Parmar, a London-based tech evangelist who was a passionate advocate of the digital revolution for women a few years back, have now started keeping their family’s smartphones and laptops locked away. The change happened when Parmar started getting disturbed by her son’s apparent compulsion to play video games. “‘I need to get my life out of the way, so I can get on with gaming’—this sentence sums up how my son feels about video games,” says Parmar. She started the campaign #TheTruthAboutTech to raise awareness about the positives of technology along with the consequences of its addiction and is working in schools and running workshops across the UK.

“I still love technology for the benefits it gives us, but I’ve seen a different side to it as well. The hijacking techniques, the way the companies design games so you can’t end them until you’ve finished the battles, the manipulation to keep us addicted to our devices, etc. I saw my son and his friends use technology in a way that was more about pressure than pleasure,” Parmar adds. According to Parmar, the number one aspiration of a teenager today is to become a ‘vlogger’ or ‘live streamer’ like Ninja or Summit 1G. “The rise of digital dictators and their desire to make us tech addicts is changing the nature of our relationships. The ‘boring real world’ can’t compete with the number of dopamine hits that the virtual world offers. The levels of empathy in society have dropped in the last 10 years, coinciding with our increased use of tech,” she says.

Dependency fallout

Digital dependency isn’t difficult to define. Checking messages or browsing the web compulsively, without even being conscious of it, are the first signs of dependency. “Technology addiction can be defined as frequent and obsessive technology-related behaviour, which continues to be increasingly practised, despite negative consequences to the user,” says Mohammed Naved Khan, project director, Faculty of Management Studies & Research, Aligarh Muslim University. In his research, individuals admitted to suffering from “extreme tech anxiety” when separated from their devices such as smartphones or tablets. Researchers are putting technology addiction on a par with dangerous addictions such as drugs and alcohol.

Last year, researchers from University of Maryland’s International Centre for Media and the Public Agenda conducted a study where college-student volunteers at 12 universities around the world were asked to spend 24 hours without access to devices or even newspapers. The study findings revealed that when not allowed to connect to digital technology in any way, participants developed withdrawal symptoms typically seen in people addicted to cigarettes or other substances. Many study participants said they felt like they were trying to kick a hard drug habit or going on a strict diet. This condition has been described by experts as ‘Information Deprivation Disorder’. It is now reported that technology impacts the pleasure systems of the brain in ways similar to psychotropic substances.

“It provides some of the same rewards that alcohol and other drugs might: it can be a boredom-buster, a social lubricant and an escape from reality,” says Khan. In fact, a name has been coined for the fear of being without your phone: nomophobia (no-mobile phobia). “It is defined as that rush of anxiety and fear when you realise you are disconnected and out of the loop with friends, family, work and the world,” he adds. Rajiv (who goes by one name only), a 29-year-old media professional from Delhi, identifies with tech anxiety. “My mobile phone, if nothing else, is always with me. I don’t part with it even in the shower where it is lying comfortably in a dry corner,” he says. Rajiv likes to believe that he isn’t addicted to any gadget, but says, “I do like to keep my phone with me all the time.

Keeping it with me is not a problem. Losing sight of it is.” A worldwide study conducted by Internet security company Kaspersky Lab earlier this year suggested that spending too much time in cyberspace is taking a toll on people’s natural ability to learn, memorise and recall information. It’s leading to digital amnesia where people can’t recall more than two or three phone numbers, as they are using their brains far less than their forefathers did. In Norway, researchers at the University of Bergen studied the social media use of more than 23,500 people in 2016, revealing that addictive social media use is linked not only to low self-esteem, but also narcissism.

Besides the health ramifications, cyber security is another area of concern. According to Debarati Halder of Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling, Ahmedabad, spending too much time on devices has led to an increase in cyber crime, ranging from stalking to forgery. “I have come across several cases where young people (teens and young adults) have faced problems of data mining and grooming by strangers online. This has led to cases of cyber stalking, cyber bullying, trolling, creation of fake avatars, etc. Sexting is another area of concern, which has led to an obsessive nature of content generators,” says Halder.

Plan of action

India’s first tech de-addiction centre, SHUT Clinic (Service for Healthy Use of Technology), was started in June 2014 and, the same year, Uday Foundation, an NGO, started the first tech de-addiction centre in Delhi. “Awareness has increased, so we are seeing more cases in our clinic. Parents are now conscious of the lifestyle disturbances they notice in their kids, especially lack of sleep and social activities,” says Manoj Sharma, associate professor, department of clinical psychology, Nimhans, who also heads SHUT. While technology de-addiction centres are becoming a norm, technology companies have started owning up to some of the responsibility too.

In August, social media giant Facebook announced that users of Facebook and Instagram will be able to create pop-up alerts to limit their time on the apps, block push notifications for fixed periods and get updates on the time they spend on the social networks each day. Google’s ‘Digital Wellbeing’ and Apple’s ‘Screen Time’ are similar concepts that the tech firms developed recently to discourage smartphone overuse by allowing a user to set self-imposed time limits for apps on their phone. Yet not everyone is convinced that digital well-being tools will help. “The top tech companies are the most powerful brands in the world—more powerful than governments. It is not in their interest to stop our addictions.

For everyone of us trying to stop using tech, there are thousands of designers, psychologists and technologists working to keep us addicted to their platforms to consume ads and make them money,” points out Parmar. Words that indeed ring a bell. Wadhwa suggests, “Analyse how and why you are using technology and decide what is best for you. Ask yourself these questions: is the way I am using this app (or any technology) making me happy or unhappy? Is it hurting people around me emotionally? If I look back on my life, will I be glad I spent a lot of time on this app or would I rather have spent it another way?” In short, it’s time to question your digital dependency.

https://www.financialexpress.com/industry/technology/digital-web-real-and-unsettling-dangers-of-digital-dependency/1284999/

This article was posted with permission from the author

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.

Facebook and WhatsApp aren’t just flawed — they’re downright dangerous

Facebook’s woes are spreading globally, first from the U.S., then to Europe and now in Asia.

A landmark study by researchers at the University of Warwick in the U.K. has conclusively established that Facebook has been fanning the flames of hatred in Germany. The study found that the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, and those living in large cities and those in small towns were alike susceptible to online hate speech on refugees and its incitement to violence, with incidence of hate crimes relating directly to per-capita Facebook use.

And during Germany-wide Facebook outages, which resulted from programming or server problems at Facebook, anti-refugee hate crimes practically vanished — within weeks.

As The New York Times explains, Facebook’s  algorithms reshape a user’s reality: “These are built around a core mission: promote content that will maximize user engagement. Posts that tap into negative, primal emotions like anger or fear, studies have found, perform best and so proliferate.”

Facebook started out as a benign open social-media platform to bring friends and family together. Increasingly obsessed with making money, and unhindered by regulation or control, it began selling to anybody who would pay for its advertising access to its users. It focused on gathering all of the data it could about them and keeping them hooked to its platform. More sensational Facebook posts attracted more views, a win-win for Facebook and its hatemongers.

India

In countries such as India, WhatsApp is the dominant form of communication. And sadly, it is causing even greater carnage than Facebook is in Germany; there have already been dozens of deaths.

WhatsApp was created to send text messages between mobile phones. Voice calling, group chat, and end-to-end encryption were features that were bolted on to its platform much later. Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 and started making it as addictive as its web platform — and capturing data from it.

The problem is that WhatsApp was never designed to be a social-media platform. It doesn’t allow even the most basic independent monitoring. For this reason, it has become an uncontrolled platform for spreading fake news and hate speech. It also poses serious privacy concerns due to its roots as a text-messaging tool: users’ primary identification being a mobile number, people are susceptible everywhere and at all times to anonymous harassment by other chat-group members.

On Facebook, when you see a posting, you can, with a click, learn about the person who posted it and judge whether the source is credible. With no more than a phone number and possibly a name, there is no way to know the source or intent of a message. Moreover, anyone can contact users and use special tools to track them. Imagine the dangers to children who happen to post messages in WhatsApp groups, where it isn’t apparent who the other members are; or the risks to people being targeted by hate groups.

Facebook faced a severe backlash when it was revealed that it was seeking banking information to boost user engagement in the U.S. In India, it is taking a different tack, adding mobile-payment features to WhatsApp. This will dramatically increase the dangers. All those with whom a user has ever transacted can harass them, because they have their mobile number. People will be tracked in new ways.

Facebook is a flawed product, but its flaws pale in comparison to WhatsApp’s. If these were cars, Facebook would be the one without safety belts — and WhatsApp the one without brakes.

That is why India’s technology minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, was right to demand, this week, that WhatsApp “find solutions to these challenges which are downright criminal and violation of Indian laws.” The demands he made, however, don’t go far enough.

Prasad asked WhatsApp to operate in India under an Indian corporate entity; to store Indian data in India; to appoint a grievance officer; and to trace the origins of fake messages. The problems with WhatsApp, though, are more fundamental. You can’t have public meeting spaces without any safety and security measures for unsuspecting citizens. WhatsApp’s group-chat feature needs to be disabled until it is completely redesigned with safety and security in mind. This on its own could halt the carnage that is happening across the country.

Lesson from Germany

India — and the rest of the world — also need to take a page from Germany, which last year approved a law against online hate speech, with fines of up to 50 million euros for platforms such as Facebook that fail to delete “criminal” content. The E.U. is considering taking this one step further and requiring content flagged by law enforcement to be removed within an hour.

The issue of where data are being stored may be a red herring. The problem with Facebook isn’t the location of its data storage; it is, rather, the uses the company makes of the data. Facebook requires its users to grant it “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content” they post to the site. It assumes the right to use family photos and videos — and financial transactions — for marketing purposes and to resell them to anybody.

Every country needs to have laws that explicitly grant their citizens ownership of their own data. Then, if a company wants to use their data, it must tell them what is being collected and how it is being used, and seek permission to use it in exchange for a licensing fee.

The problems arising through faceless corporate pillage are soluble only through enforcement of respect for individual rights and legal answerability.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon’s School of Engineering at Silicon Valley. He is the author, with Alex Salkever, of “Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain — and How to Fight Back.” Follow him on Twitter @wadhwa.

This article was published with permission from the author.

We Did Not Agree to Sell Our Souls to Facebook and Google

“Cars will soon have the Internet on the dashboard. I worry that this will distract me from my texting,” joked the satirist Andy Borowitz in a biting takedown of humankind being overrun by technology. Technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa talks to Chidanand Rajghatta about his latest book Your Happiness Was Hacked and the problem of too much tech

You were among the early proponents of deleting apps such as WhatsApp from phones over privacy issues. Is it fair to identify it as a culprit in spreading social disharmony in India? After all, even phones and emails can spread rumours.

In India, in particular, WhatsApp is a threat not only to privacy and happiness, but to democracy itself. With the introduction of the groups feature, WhatsApp made its technology the most effective way of spreading misinformation and hatred. If anyone makes a public speech that stirs communal disharmony, they would be held criminally liable. Yet, on WhatsApp, they are protected by the so-called end-to-end encryption. This is not a misuse of technology, it works exactly as designed. All that WhatsApp’s owner, Facebook, cares about is getting information about its users and selling ads. It has no conscience and will do anything it can to keep its users addicted to its technology. The end-to-end encryption doesn’t protect WhatsApp users from being spied on by Facebook, by the way.

How did you go from technology evangelist to technology sceptic?

In my last book, Driver in the Driverless Car, I posited that we finally have the ability to solve the grand challenges of humanity, everything from shortages of food and energy to education and health. Yet if we make the wrong choices and don’t share the technology in an equitable way or become too dependent on technology, we could end up destroying humanity itself. When writing this, I thought that the dangers were at least a decade or two away. I never imagined that social media would so rapidly facilitate genocide in Myanmar, the rise of demagogues in the US and Europe, and cause depression and suicide in the US. Yet, these are the things that my friends in Silicon Valley have enabled.

Is bailing out/unplugging/disconnecting even for a few hours (except during sleep) even feasible?

The answer is different for every one of us. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in the novel Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But everyone should answer these questions: Does it make you happier or sadder? Do you need to use it as part of your life or work? Does it warp your sense of time and place in unhealthy ways? Does it change your behaviour? Is your use of it hurting those around you? If you stopped using it, would you really miss it?

Are there good, peer-reviewed and peer-accepted studies to show that technology makes us sadder?

For the book, we reviewed hundreds of studies done by academics all over the world. There are conflicting findings, particularly in studies that companies such as Facebook have funded. We tried to present a balanced picture and share our own experiences.

Are those who feel that technology has enriched and enhanced their lives fooling themselves?

No, technology has enriched and enhanced our lives. Imagine what life was like before we could instantly communicate with each other and share photographs with family members. It becomes a problem when you have too much of it. It becomes like an addiction to alcohol or tobacco — moderate usage will not do much harm, but when you go overboard, it will kill you. In the US, for example, children are generally addicted to technology from an early age. If you look at the data, you see that teenage suicide rates are up and depression has become an epidemic. This is the problem — too much of a good thing.

The last thing I am suggesting is turning our backs to technology. I would have a hard time living without it. Yet, I have learned the damage that it is doing to me and have to work hard on living a balanced life. It is all about doing things sensibly, we can’t run from technology or switch it off for too long! It is the addiction and overdose that is doing the harm. It is tearing families and societies apart now because of the way it is being used.

Didn’t we give up privacy the moment we signed up for a cellphone with a signal and an internet connection with an IP address?

No, we did not agree to sell our souls to Facebook and Google and to let them know our innermost thoughts. These companies have gone much too far. I would choose to pay a small fee to both companies every month if they stopped spying on me and compromising my privacy. I don’t want them knowing what I say to my children or my wife.

This article is reprinted here with the author’s written permission.

Force Facebook to Shut Down WhatsApp

Defects in the design of Facebook’s WhatsApp platform may have led to as many as two dozen people losing their lives in India. With its communications encrypted end-to-end, there is no way for anyone to moderate posts; so WhatsApp has become “an unfiltered platform for fake news and religious hatred,” according to a Washington Post report.

WhatsApp is not used as broadly in the U.S. as in countries such as India, where it has become the dominant mode of mobile communication. But imagine Facebook or Twitter without any filters or moderation — the Wild Wild West they were becoming during the heyday of Cambridge Analytica. Now imagine millions of people who have never been online before becoming dependent on and trusting everything they read there. That gives you a sense of what kind of damage the messaging platform can do in India and other countries.

Earlier this month, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology sent out a stern warning to WhatsApp, asking it to immediately stop the spread of “irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation.” The Ministry said the platform “cannot evade accountability and responsibility specially when good technological inventions are abused by some miscreants who resort to provocative messages which lead to spread of violence.”

WhatsApp’s response, according to The Wire, was to offer minor enhancements, public education campaigns, and “a new project to work with leading academic experts in India to learn more about the spread of misinformation, which will help inform additional product improvements going forward.” The platform defended its need to encrypt messages and argued that “many people (nearly 25 percent in India) are not in a group” — in other words, only 75 percent of the population is affected!

One of the minor enhancements WhatsApp offered was to put the word “Forwarded” at the top of such messages. But this gives no information about the source of the original message, and even highly educated users could be misled into thinking a source is credible when it isn’t.

WhatsApp owner Facebook is using the same tactics it used when the United Nations found it had played “a determining role” in the genocide against Rohingya refugees in Myanmar: pleading ignorance, offering sympathy and small concessions, and claiming it was unable to do anything about it.

Here is the real issue: Facebook’s business model relies on people’s dependence on its platforms for practically all of their communications and news consumption, setting itself up as their most important provider of factual information — yet it takes no responsibility for the accuracy of that information.

Facebook’s marketing strategy begins with creating an addiction to its platform using a technique that former Google ethicist Tristan Harris has been highlighting: intermittent variable rewards. Casinos use this technique to keep us pouring money into slot machines; Facebook and WhatsApp use it to keep us checking news feeds and messages.

When Facebook added news feeds to its social-media platform, its intentions were to become a primary source of information. It began by curating news stories to suit our interests and presenting them in a feed that we would see on occasion. Then it required us to go through this newsfeed in order to get to anything else. Once it had us trained to accept this, Facebook started monetizing the newsfeed by selling targeted ads to anyone who would buy them.

It was bad enough that, after its acquisition by Facebook, WhatsApp began providing the parent company with all kinds of information about its users so that Facebook could track and target them. But in order to make WhatsApp as addictive as Facebook’s social-media platform, Facebook added chat and news features to it — something it was not designed to accommodate. WhatsApp started off as a private, secure messaging platform; it wasn’t designed to be a news source or a public forum.

WhatsApp’s group-messaging feature is particularly problematic because users can remain anonymous, identified only by a mobile number. A motivated user can create or join unlimited numbers of groups and share hate-filled messages and fake news. What’s worse is that message encryption prevents law-enforcement officials and even WhatsApp itself from viewing what is being said. No consideration was given in the design of the product to the supervision and moderation necessary in public forums.

Facebook needs to be held liable for the deaths that WhatsApp has already caused and be required to take its product off the market until its design flaws are fixed. It isn’t making its defective products available only to sophisticated users who know what they have signed up for; it is targeting people who are first-time technology users, ignorant about the ways of the tech world.

Only by facing penalties and being forced to do a product recall will Facebook be motivated to correct WhatsApp’s defects. The technology industry always finds a way of solving problems when profits are at stake.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon’s School of Engineering at Silicon Valley. This piece is partly derived from his new book, “Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain — and How to Fight Back”. This has been reprinted with his permission.

 

An Unusual Whatsapp Rendezvous

Last night while scrolling through my WhatsApp messages, a new message popped up. The number looked familiar and on closer examination I remembered that it was my old phone number from almost 15 years ago. I looked at it frantically. How was this possible?

In utter disbelief, I started typing.
ME: Who is this? Do I know you?

SHE: Yes, you do. You have been talking to me in your head for so long that I decided to show up.

ME: I do talk a lot in my head – but with myself. Not with you.

SHE: But I am you. Your younger self.

ME: My younger self?

SHE: Don’t sound so flabbergasted.

ME: Obviously I am. What are you doing here?

SHE: I’m here just to see how things have been with you.

ME: Not too bad. I’m still chewing on the stuff you served me.

SHE There you go!! I have been receiving a lot of flak from you for quite some time. I’ve had enough. I want to put an end to this once and for all.

ME: Alright, busted. I do blame you for everything that has gone  wrong in my life, but who else is there to blame? At least I am not blaming other people or circumstances like other  people do.

SHE: People who blame others are losers and people who blame themselves are victims. In either case they sulk in self-pity. Why does there have to be any blame at all? Why not take responsibility for your actions?

ME: That does make sense. I always wished that if I ever get to meet my younger self, I would give her a piece of my mind. Here is my friendly advice to you:

“Don’t take life seriously. Don’t kill yourself for your goals. You can’t have a perfect score in everything. Be flexible. When life does not seem to go according to plan, be open to change. Life’s plans might turn out better than yours. If things are not favorable, wait for them to change as nothing lasts forever. Have some confidence in your own ability to withstand the storm. Give yourself credit when you deserve it. Project confidence. If it does not come  from within, fake it till you make it. Make friends, but don’t lean on them far too much. Share not just your joys but your sorrows too. Depend only on you for your happiness but include others in your journey to share it. Laugh more (crooked teeth don’t matter). When confused, follow your gut. Your instincts are there for a reason. It’s alright if you are not successful in your venture. Success is defined by others, but contentment is defined by you. Every successful person is not content, but every content person has transcended success. Immerse yourself completely in this life without fear of getting wet. Life will leave its mark, but those marks are the living proof of a life well lived.”

SHE: Hold on. Before you go any further, you seem to be finally catching up with emotionally intelligent peers. Which self-help books are you reading? Good job memorizing them. And to sum up your advice that amounts to “Follow your heart,” sorry, but I find that overrated and unrealistic. You seem to sound as if I was sleepwalking all along

ME: This is not a self-help book talking, this is my experience talking.

SHE: And from where did this experience come from?

ME: Life, of course.

SHE: Exactly my point. Let me complete it now. That experience came from the mistakes that I did in that life. Choices that I made, that you now think were wrong. If it was not for those unwise choices, you wouldn’t have learned these life lessons you were preaching just now. The wisdom that is a  by-product of those wrong choices cannot be used to undo those choices. You cannot reverse engineer in this case. These problems only tested your grit and helped you grow. Now use this wisdom for your current problems to build a better future. You will obviously see things more clearly with a bigger flashlight. But you still need to change the direction of that flashlight. Instead of using it backwards, please use it forward. You were not there to guide me. You were not even born. In-fact my problems, my losses, my wins, my successes and failures gave birth to you. You came out of me.

ME: So, you are my mom!!

SHE: Sort of, but not literally. Like a mom, I always wish for your happiness, but unlike her, I can’t be around.

ME: What does that mean?
SHE: Get rid of me and let me rest in peace.
ME: How?

SHE: I am the unfinished business that you need to take care of. Instead of blaming me, give me some credit for making you who you are. You are an ardent fan of Buddhist Philosophy. I am sure you understand the law of impermanence. Don’t let me linger permanently in your subconscious mind. Everything has an expiration date. Why are you holding on to me? Why this attachment? Let go of me. You can’t live with this divided identity. Calm and peace cannot co-exist with fear and insecurities.
ME: But I need someone to talk to. If I let go of you, who will listen to my rants?
SHE: Your friends and family. Invest in your relationships. I don’t exist in real life. You are keeping me alive. My job is done.

ME: Alright. I can let go of you only if you answer one question. Since you are here, tell me how I should deal with difficult people in my life.  

`SHE: Be difficult for them. Sorry, you know I am impulsive. If you are looking for wiser advice, listen to the wise! . Go chat with your older self!

ME: Thank you. That really helps (sarcastically!)

And she disappeared. I kept typing but a reply wouldn’t come. I guess she was right. Her job was done. I closed my eyes. Confusion gives way to clarity, insecurity  gives way to strength, agitation gives way to calm and peace.

Every now and then we have to die to be born again as a new person with a renewed sense of self. We are in a constant state of flux. Life keeps happening and we keep changing. We wish that we could have done some things differently and life would have been magically better. But the truth is nothing comes for free, not even wisdom. By making us go through difficulties, life is charging its price and making us wiser. Probably life’s best gifts are not wrapped in pretty gifts. When you look back, don’t just look at one aspect of your past. Connect the dots to see the complete picture. Everything will start making sense. My younger self was trying to follow her head and I am trying to follow my heart. In this battle of head and heart, no one wins. I am logical and rational when I use my head and I am intuitive and kind when I use my heart but I am wise when I know when to use what. So, I choose the middle way. As explained in Buddhism, the more we delve into the middle way the more deeply we come to rest between the play of opposites. And the conflict ended.

While Facebook Faces the Music, Maybe it is Time to #DeleteWhatsApp

It is time to hold all the social media companies accountable for their massive breaches of our privacy WhatsApp differentiates itself from Facebook by touting its end-to-end encryption. “Some of your most personal moments are shared with WhatsApp”, it says, so “your messages, photos, videos, voice messages, documents, and calls are secured from falling into the wrong hands”. A WhatsApp founder recently expressed outrage at Facebook’s privacy policies by tweeting “It is time. #deletefacebook.”

But WhatsApp may need to look in the mirror. Its members may not be aware that when using WhatsApp’s “group chat” feature, they are susceptible to the same type of data harvesting and profiling that Cambridge Analytica employed on Facebook. WhatsApp goes further, making available mobile phone numbers, which can be used to accurately identify and locate group members.

WhatsApp groups are designed to enable discussions between family and friends. Businesses also use them to provide information and support. The originators of groups can add contacts from their phones or create links enabling anyone to opt in. These groups, which can be found through web searches, discuss topics as diverse as agriculture, politics, pornography, sports, and technology.

Researchers in Europe demonstrated that any tech-savvy person can obtain treasure troves of data from WhatsApp groups by using nothing more than an old Samsung smartphone running scripts and off-the-shelf applications.

Kiran Garimella, of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland sent me a draft of a paper he co-authored with Gareth Tyson, of Queen Mary University, UK, titled “WhatsApp, doc? A first look at WhatsApp public group data”. It details how they were able to obtain data from nearly half a million messages exchanged between 45,754 WhatsApp users in 178 public groups over a six-month period, including their mobile numbers and the images, videos, and web links that they had shared. The groups had titles such as “funny”, “love vs. life”, “XXX”, “nude”, and “box office movies”, as well as the names of political parties and sports teams.

The researchers obtained lists of public WhatsApp groups through web searches and used a browser automation tool to join a few of the roughly 2,000 groups they found—a process requiring little human intervention and easily applicable to a larger set of groups. Their smartphones began to receive large streams of messages, which WhatsApp stored in a local database. The data is encrypted, but the cipher key is stored inside the RAM of the mobile device itself. This allowed the researchers to decrypt the data using a technique developed by Indian researchers, LP Gudipaty and KY Jhala. It was no harder than using a key hidden atop a door to enter a home.

The researchers’ goal was to determine how WhatsApp could be used for social science research. They plan to make their dataset and tools publicly available after they anonymise the data. Their intentions are good, but their paper has exposed the flaws of the application, and how easily marketers, hackers, and governments can take advantage of the WhatsApp platform.

Indeed, The New York Times recently published a story on the Chinese government’s detention of human rights activist, Zhang Guanghong, after monitoring a WhatsApp group of Guanghong’s friends, with whom he had shared an article that criticised China’s president. The Times speculated that the government had hacked his phone or had a spy in his group chat; but gathering such information is easy for anyone with a group hyperlink.

This is not the only fly in the WhatsApp ointment that this year has revealed. Wired reported that researchers from Ruhr-University Bochum, in Germany, found a series of flaws in encrypted messaging applications that enable anyone who controls a WhatsApp server to “effortlessly insert new people into an otherwise private group, even without the permission of the administrator who ostensibly controls access to that conversation”. Gaining access to a computer server requires sophisticated hacking skills or the type of access that only governments can gain. But as Wired wrote, “the premise of so-called end-to-end encryption has always been that even a compromised server shouldn’t expose secrets”.

Researcher Paul Rösler has said: “The confidentiality of the group is broken as soon as the uninvited member can obtain all the new messages and read them… If I hear there’s end-to-end encryption for both groups and two-party communications, that means adding of new members should be protected against. And if not, the value of encryption is very little”.

WhatsApp also announced in 2016 that it would be sharing user data, including phone numbers, with Facebook. In an exchange of emails, the company told me that it does not track location within a country and does not share contacts or messages, which are encrypted, with Facebook. But it did confirm that it shares phone numbers, device identifiers, operating system information, control choices, and usage information with the “Facebook family of companies”. That leaves open the question as to whether Facebook could then track those users in greater detail even if WhatsApp doesn’t.

Facebook and its “family of companies” are being much too casual about privacy, as we have seen from the Cambridge Analytica revelations, harming freedom and democracy. It is time to hold them all accountable for their massive breaches of our privacy.

This article is posted her with the permission of the author.