The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating tech addiction, says Vivek Wadhwa, pioneer of digital detox, – Technology News, Firstpost



Vivek Wadhwa is many things. An academic – Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering – an entrepreneur, bestselling author and one of the first to mention the dangers of the technology industry’s addictive products.

In 2018, when talks about Facebook’s privacy violations and meddling in the US election were just beginning, he and Alex Salkever published their book Your Happiness was Hacked – Why Tech is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain and How to Fight Back . This made them the pioneers of digital detox.

With a pandemic making us even more dependent and addicted to our screens, Wadhwa tells Moneycontrol how best to preserve our digital sanity.

What’s the first device you reach for in the morning? How long after you wake up?

My phone, waking up after half an hour or an hour. I don’t always listen to my own advice.

What do you check for?

Unfortunately I installed Whatsapp a year ago so I get a stream of forwards… the same mess (that everyone else gets). Even I have relatives who send chains of messages. I respond if it is urgent or I ignore them. Then I check my emails. Again, if they are urgent I will respond (immediately) otherwise I will wait a few hours.

What apps do you have on your phone?

WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Twitter, E-mail… now Skype (for the interview with Moneycontrol).

Which app couldn’t you uninstall, the app you had to reinstall?

Whatsapp. I need it for my Indian friends… Indians don’t seem to email. I deleted the app twice but in the end I had to accept it (defeat) and it stayed. So now I manage its use by simply ignoring it, except for the messages from family and some colleagues, which are on the favorites list. My WhatsApp bio says that… that I rarely use WhatsApp and people should email me at [email protected] instead. Otherwise, people will send you all kinds of junk from the moment they wake up. Now they know I’m not responding.

What are all the devices you have and what is your relationship, if we can call it that, with them?

I have a phone, a laptop and a smart TV… I don’t use cable. My laptop has two screens, with two inputs: one for work and the other for entertainment. They work as two different worlds.

How would you define digital health?

You have to take control of the technology, control it and not let it control you. Otherwise you will be overwhelmed. I will not take calls after 9pm unless it is urgent. I don’t check texts…I ignore them. On LinkedIn I have about 900 requests…I just ignore them. Emails are easier to check. Check (respond to) emails on your own terms. I’ve told people you either send me short messages or I ignore them…so people get about 400 to 500 words before I lose interest. And if I think they just keep walking, I ignore them. I am under no obligation to do anything with it.

How many emails do you receive per day and how many do you respond to?

About 300 to 400, from all over the world. I answer maybe half of them… so I do 100 to 150 emails a day. I take about three to four hours a day for my communication with the world, which is largely through emails. Then I spent two to three hours reading and learning. Then do whatever I’m doing, like checking a paper and so on.

What are some tips you would give the reader to take charge of their relationship with technology?

One, go through each app on your phone and evaluate what would happen if you don’t have it. If you can do without it, take it off. One that you’ve decided on your app, you set the rules on how you’re going to use it. Two: decide how and when you are going to use it (app or digital devices). Preferably switch off a few hours before bedtime. I don’t take calls after 9pm. Three, learn how to use Do Not Disturb (mode). Turn off the notifications… otherwise you’ll get messages and alerts all day long. These technologies are designed to keep you hooked by sending notifications. It’s a common problem in India… the overload, you are bombarded with messages and texts all day long. But you have to decide when to check your phone or device.

If you do these three things, 80 to 90 percent of the (stress) is absorbed. The book (Your Happiness was Hacked, 2018) gives smaller tips… the whole list.

It’s not easy to knock out for those with managers three or four levels above…

You should tell your manager that you’ll be taking a few hours with the family when you get home…a good amount of time. You dictate the rules to everyone. Companies expect you to respond (immediately), but taking an hour or two off shouldn’t be a problem.

Do you see people becoming more aware of the dangers of these technologies years since the book was written?

Now we accept that the tech industry is bad, that Facebook is manipulating and polarizing us. The book (Your Happiness was Hacked) was one of the first to be on it… we had to be very careful. The subtitle was ‘Why technology wins the battle to control your brain’. But now a reminder is needed more than ever. People are quick to pass on misinformation and this polarizes entire societies. People are addicted to technology more than ever. Data used to be expensive, but now almost everyone in India has a smartphone, reducing the cost of phones and data. Previously only the educated middle class could afford this, but now even the poor use it (smartphone) and are not educated or smart enough to separate misinformation from information.
It has become a pandemic of misinformation, fear and addiction.
Religious fundamentalism, be it Muslim or Hindu fundamentalism, is on the rise. These technologies are doing to India what they have done to America… tearing societies apart. In America everyone (Prime Minister Narendra) blames Modi for the rise of Hindu nationalism and so on… But it’s not Modi, it’s technologies like Facebook and WhatsApp that are causing this. People are getting more and more of the same waste, and they believe it. You wake up in the morning to 50 such messages from friends with all these videos and stories, and you start to believe it.

If you follow people on Twitter, are you making a conscious effort to follow people you disagree with?

Yes. I follow Trump supporters and Biden supporters. I find reading from people I disagree with more interesting… because you learn a lot from them. But the number of people I agree with would be greater. I try to keep it 50/50, but honestly it would be more like 25 percent of the people I can’t stand and 75 percent of those I agree with. I also try to follow women on Twitter, but someone they are only a third of the people I follow… maybe because men are more vocal.

Which country do you think manages this technology-driven social discord well?

China. China is cutting the legs of this industry. I rarely support China, but the government has realized the damage these technologies are doing. They are now leading the way worldwide in (managing the crisis). They are trying to regulate these (the companies) algorithms. They ask for the algorithms to be published, they ask for better privacy controls and tell them they will be held liable if their platforms spread misinformation. So if WeChat (Chinese app that supports messaging, payments and social media conversations) spreads misinformation, their executive could go to jail! India needs to wake up and do that.
Yes, the western media will harass India about it. But right now India is being colonized by these western corporations. Now there is no moderation done by these companies. Facebook (which owns WhatsApp) says the communication is encrypted and it can’t. But if India says Indian customers can sue them if there is misinformation on their platforms, then suddenly Facebook will develop the ability to do the moderation.

The government must take a stern stance and say that laws apply to everything that happens in India. The government must have the courage to do that.

Do you think local apps could be the answer?

The local apps need the same rules. They should be told not to misuse users’ (personal) data, to publish their algos…that if women are auctioned on their platforms, they will go to jail for it.

Has the pandemic worsened the technical relationship?

People are using Zoom and online meetings more, and that’s a good thing. But the pandemic is also exacerbating tech addiction. People have upgraded their phones, got better plans, and started using their devices a lot more.

Have you switched devices to help you better manage your tech usage?

Not really. I’ve tried the limited phones, but I need a high-definition camera, and I’m so spoiled that I need the latest technology. So I have a regular Android phone and I delete apps that I don’t need. I don’t use cable TV, I use a smart TV so I can choose what I want to watch. I use my son’s Netflix account.

How do you help your family manage their digital use?

Are you kidding? Nobody listens to me. I’m not stupid (to even try).

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