“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.