The fault lies not in our tech

The spate of articles and books bashing social media has increased manifold in the recent past. We are repeatedly told that what was meant to connect and bring us closer is making us dumber, pushing us to do things both stupid (spending hours going down online rabbit holes) and criminal (indulging in violence in response to spurious posts).

Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever, both early adopters of technology, bring a wealth of facts and data to this thesis in their new book. After examining nearly every major field, from love to work, that technology has upended, they diagnose that the only way to maintain our sanity is to switch off.

The genesis of the book lies in their personal experiences. Both Messrs Wadhwa and Salkever had life-altering scares brought on by their addiction to technology. In Mr Wadhwa’s case, he had a heart attack during a vacation at a place where internet connectivity was poor, preventing him from checking his email and keeping abreast of the status of his company, which was passing through a lean patch. 

Mr Salkaver was on the verge of killing a bunch of cyclists on a narrow, winding road in California. His eyes were glued to his iPhone — he too was tracking work, particularly the fate of an all-important deal — and it was only in the final seconds before a likely collision that he noticed the cyclists and frantically pressed the brakes. Luckily, a tragedy was averted.

Both these incidents certainly point to the grievous effects of technology addiction. But I am not sure they present a problem with technology itself, as the two writers argue. What technology does is make a lot of routine tasks, such as status updates, easy, perhaps even too easy, depressing our inertial impulses. But to blame technology for our inability to gauge the place and time to use it is akin to blaming the telephone if the caller has bad news.

The writers are on firmer ground in tackling the psychological effects of the rampant use of apps, especially those that promise to help us with our most intimate needs like love and sex. Anyone who has spent any amount of time on Tinder will attest to the diminishing returns of the platform, and not just in its express purpose of helping you find a mate. The very idea of deciding a person’s suitability on the slimmest of parameters — the attractiveness of a photo — is enough to make the most hardened romantic weary.

But probe further, and this too is representative of a deep social malaise that technology perhaps accentuates, but is not the cause of. If sex is looked upon as a need that can be fulfilled on tap like ordering a dish from a restaurant, then the problem is with this outlook, not the technology that assists its fulfilment. Our modern preoccupation with emotionless living — a studied ability to not tie bodily desires with a fulfilling relationship — has found the perfect abyss in Tinder.

This is true — in a different sense -- for the world of work. Smartphones have blurred the line between work and home, and our willingness to respond to emails at all hours is due at least as much to the pressures of work and career advancement as to the flickering notification icon in our pockets. 

Messrs Wadhwa and Salkaver mention more than once that the ills chronicled in the book are personal and may not apply to everyone equally. It is legible to conclude, then, that our ability to disconnect has roots in a number of factors that go beyond the irresistible pull of technology. These include family ties, commitment to personal projects and hobbies, the strength of friendships, and so on. A middle manager who is an avid tennis player or the member of a band perhaps has less difficulty switching off than someone whose existence revolves around his work.

The book could have benefitted from an extensive discussion of the real threat of technology: Its propensity to be misused for sectarian or totalitarian purposes. How governments use citizen data is an important debate whose shrillness in the media disallows nuance. A straight line is sought to be drawn, for example, from Edward Snowden to Aadhaar. An analysis of this issue would have enriched the discussion.

The other major complaint against social media — its ability to disseminate fake news — also requires a careful audit. Both Facebook and WhatsApp have committed resources to stanch the flow of disinformation on their platforms. But why disinformation spreads and what subconscious psychological fears it stokes is a broader discussion that, again, goes beyond the remit of technology. Unfortunately, the book does not undertake this exercise either. 

Your Happiness Was Hacked is an interesting look into the way technology has overtaken our lives, but it takes its premise too far. Our happiness is or should be, richer than something that a bunch of new-age apps can hack. 

Your Happiness Was Hacked
Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control your Brain and How to Fight Back
Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever
234 pages; Rs 599