Business Today

The Dark Side

Tech addiction tends to get obsessive nowadays, but there are ways to gain control and make technology a true enabler.
BT Guest Columnist   New Delhi     Print Edition: December 2, 2018
The Dark Side

Published in june this year, Your Happiness Was Hacked is a timely account of digital tech proliferation and its all-pervasive impact. The likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram and Netflix govern our lives in a far more significant way than we recognise.

The authors delve deep as they analyse how technology is affecting our choices and leading to addiction, with consequences such as isolation and invasion of privacy. Happiness is their second book, the first being The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices will Create the Future, published in 2016.

In their first book, the techno-logy analysts worried whether the current trends would lead to 'utopia' or 'dystopia'. For instance, the driverless car, while promising better safety and convenience, could make the current automobile industry and the job of a driver redundant. On the other hand, a new job category, with technology geeks as 'drivers' of the driverless cars, could emerge. Building on those thoughts, Wadhwa and Salkever elaborate in their second book how we can strive towards a healthier and a more humane technology ecosystem.

Technology does away with options when service providers systematically build individual profiles based on data and neuroscience techniques, and guide us to algorithmically determined choices, "forcing us to follow their agenda to reach our agenda". Options are there but along with a nudge towards choices that increasingly make us lose our mental application in the decision-making process.

Another consequence of engaging with such technology is that we get easily distracted. We may visit Facebook for some specific information but may soon start browsing other things. Navigating through Google Maps is given as another example where drivers increasingly lose awareness of the physical reality surrounding them but are mechanically responding to pre-recorded and intelligently synthesised audio directions.

These arguments have merit, but it is also worth reflecting on whether such concerns had always existed. When calculators came in, many wondered if numerical abilities would be lost. But are we unhappy with how things have worked out? Or think of printing and democratisation of books. I think those who got into reading books instead of pursuing the 'normal' activities of the pre-printing era, must have been viewed as people whose happiness had been hacked. Then again, the privileged few who could afford to read handwritten texts might have felt unhappy as reading was no longer an exclusive privilege. But over generations, reading books has emerged as a source of happiness. The authors also highlight addictions like binge-watching Netflix. However, the term couch potato was coined when television, with its multiple channels and the convenience of the remote, used to rule our leisure hours.

It is true that the impact of digital technology on work, play, love and life in general results in several issues such as information overload, sleep deprivation and a sense of disconnect. But after taking us through the bleak journey, the writers tell us how we may gain control and allow technology to be subservient and a true enabler. Think of Google Maps in a foreign country where we may not know the local language, and we see how technology can help.

The authors suggest six questions that we need to ask ourselves when engaging with immersive technology. And based on the responses, we should decide how much of technology should enter our life. These questions are:

  • Does it make us happier or sadder?
  • Do we need to use the technology as part of our life or work?
  • Does it warp our sense of time and place in unhealthy ways?
  • Does it change our behaviour?
  • Is our use of technology hurting those around us?
  • If we stop using it, would we miss it?

The issues and their possible solutions make it an interesting read with plenty of food for thought. As said by Roger McNamee, a technology investor who has written the Foreword, "There will be many more books about this issue, but this is a great place to start."

G Raghuram is Director, IIM-Bangalore

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