We are social beings and need company, affirmation, and friendship. Traditionally we sought that in face-to-face interactions, the most remote form of it was the penfriend. Someone we had never met but who we wrote letters to. We protected our identity and personal information and guarded it jealously and would go ballistic if even our parents, closest relatives or friends opened any letter of ours or read our diary without our permission. Then came social media and opened the doors for us to seek affiliation and affirmation without any boundaries or rules and without the tools to even assess its reality. Suddenly from a few real friends who we knew, we ended up with tens and hundreds of virtual ‘friends’ and ‘followers’. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram and everything else in between encouraged us to share the most mundane information about ourselves and suddenly made it the means to become ‘popular’. I am putting these words like ‘friends’, ‘followers’, ‘popular’ in quotes to underline the fact that none of that is real. However, human nature is such that it doesn’t analyze or deny pleasant experiences. And so, if we have 2000 virtual friends on FB or 3000 followers on Twitter, who are we to deny that or to check it against real evidence? We are happy to stay with that and give in to the drive to increase our ‘following’. This also means that we will do whatever we need to, to ensure that we don’t lose any friends or followers. Remember that all this happens very unobtrusively and quietly and our behavior changes without our being aware of it. Rapidly we start getting our own sense of identity hooked to this and start to look forward to seeing what our ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ think of us.
So, where we used to be upset if someone pried into our private lives, now we voluntarily put it out there and get upset if nobody comments on it (thumbs-up, hearts, likes) immediately. We keep checking after every post to see if it is getting attention. How often do we check? How about every three seconds? If you don’t believe me or the statistics which I am quoting here, just time yourself to see how long it is before you look at your phone, even if it is just lying there on your desk, without the notification tone sounding. We post a picture of our dinner in a restaurant on Instagram, Kheema dosa, which should be sacrilege as it combines that which is vegetarian with that which was. And check to see who liked that picture. It doesn’t matter whether we even know those people. All we are looking for is the ‘like’ symbol. We conveniently ignore the fact that those who post ‘likes’ or whatever passes for it, are exactly as interested in our post as we would be in their similar post i.e. totally uninterested; but would still hit the ‘like’ button because they want us to hit the ‘like’ button for their posts. That is what Dopamine addiction is all about. Instant pleasant reactions which create a need for more and more of the same and create withdrawal symptoms (which can be severe) when we don’t get that ‘positive’ stroke. Even without this, the need for strokes creates huge distraction of focus and a fall in productivity and quality of life. Needless to say, while we are engaged with these apps, whether that is on the phone or any other device, we can’t do anything worthwhile and this seriously impacts life-goal achievement.
Dopamine is a drug which is created in the body, like cancer. But just because it is created in your body, it doesn’t mean it won’t kill you. It will unless you treat it. Also, like cancer. Imagine the effect of Dopamine addiction on children. Yes, children. Your children, thanks to you. Yes, you. Parents who are too lazy to parent and leave parenting to the tablet or the phone. You are the cause of your child’s addiction and the effect of the make-believe world that you opened for your child which will have long-term negative consequences on his attention span, perseverance, social skills, resilience in the face of hardship, ability to reflect and conceptualize life’s lessons and simply ability to grow into a confident, ethical, compassionate, well-adjusted, and courageous adult. Dopamine addiction can lead to maladjusted individuals who have major problems forming real relationships, dealing with disagreement, marriage and in increasingly frequent cases, suicide. It is as serious as that.
That’s when came in those who found a way to exploit Dopamine addiction to their advantage by creating algorithms to identify what we prefer and are attracted towards and used that to create the dream of the advertiser – the supremely targeted advertisement that can almost guarantee purchase. This metamorphosed into mind-steering and instigating action; buying behavior to begin with and then more dangerous possibilities like manipulating public opinion and elections. WhatsApp is another nail in that coffin which when they begin sharing our data with FB which owns it, will help FB to further fine-tune their strategy of mind steering. The tragedy is that there is nothing that WhatsApp or FB or Instagram or anyone is taking from us without our consent. That is like taking money from a heroin addict. He will hunt you down to pay you because he needs his fix. We run behind them because we need our fix.
My principle in this is very simple. I say, “I may not be able to stop it, but I am not going to help it to happen.” FB and its like may want to control the world and may even succeed (remember Cambridge Analytica https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/04/us/politics/cambridge-analytica-scandal-fallout.html) but that is not going to happen with my help. It is your call what you want to do.
Please see the excellent Netflix documentary: The Social Dilemma https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11464826/ and don’t say, “This can’t happen to me or my kids.” If you said that, it means that you are already addicted. Every addict denies his addiction. Everyone it happens to, says the same thing and that is exactly the reason it happens. Those who accept that it can happen, take precautions and get out while they can and save themselves. This documentary was made by the very people who created this monster. Listen to them, because there’s nobody who knows it better. Your call.
I have heard the following statements (excuses) from people when I told them that I am planning to dump WhatsApp.
- ‘They’ (who is they?) already know everything. What’s the point of changing now?
- By ‘they’ if you mean WhatsApp or FB or any social media app, that statement is simply not true. They know only as much as you told them. Keep telling them and they will know more and more. Stop telling them and they can’t know anything more. Your call.
- I have nothing to hide, so what do I care who knows anything?
- That’s like saying, ‘I have nothing to hide, so I am going to walk around naked.’ Yes, it IS as stupid as that. Privacy is a human right. It is the basis of dignity. We have nothing negative to hide but that doesn’t mean that strangers must have access to our personal data. Once again, your call.
- What’s the use of changing to Signal or something else? They will also become like FB and WhatsApp one day.
- If they do, then deal with it when and if it happens. Otherwise, it is like saying, ‘What is the good of wearing a mask to prevent being infected with Covid? One day we all must die anyway. Makes no sense, right? Neither does this if you think about it. Your call.
- If FBI (Police) wants to know about me, they can always find out.
- Hello!! Wake up. We are not talking about the FBI; we are talking about FB. Maybe there is a difference? We’re not talking about a criminal investigation. We know you committed no crime. We are talking about volunteering information about yourself to help FB et al to do all that I mentioned earlier, better, and more powerfully.
There is a reluctance to change in many people. I say to them, recognize it for what it is; comfort with status quo (like a woman with an abusive husband who will complain but won’t leave him because she fears the unknown) and FOMO (millennials don’t need this explained – Fear of Missing Out). FOMO is real and is the hook for Dopamine addiction. I remind myself and you that there was a time when we had BBM (Bahut Badi Museebat) on Blackberry. We thought that life was not possible without it. Where is it today? So also WhatsApp or whatever else. Treat a tool like a tool and treat your spouse like a spouse. Not vice versa. What I discovered to my great delight, incidentally, is that those who I care about and who care about me, have downloaded Signal and we are in touch as always. Others? Well, it’s a free country after all and everyone is welcome to make his/her own decision.
I was born and spent my entire childhood and youth in a world that had no social media. We wrote with pen on paper and licked the back of the stamp and stuck it on the envelope and trusted the Postal Service to deliver our letters. We loved receiving letters, read them with great interest, reading between lines to see life through the eyes of our friends. Then we replied. I used to buy handmade paper from Chimanlal’s in Mumbai (it was Bombay in those days) and wrote on it with a broad-nibbed Parker pen with Royal Blue, Quink ink. When I wrote to anyone abroad, I used very fine tracing paper and wrote with a pen with a needle pointed nib, very close together but very clearly. The idea was to get the maximum message keeping the whole letter as light as possible because Air Mail had to be paid for by weight.
As for the phone, for a long time our house was the only one in the whole colony where we lived, which had a phone because my father was a doctor. This was a wired landline (there was no other kind of phone) which was fixed to the wall and you had to pick up the receiver and tell the operator which number to dial. The operator was a very nice man, a friend of my father’s but with ideas of his own about what young boys ought to be doing at that time. So, when I asked him to dial a number he would ask me, “Have you finished your homework? Why do you need to talk to your friend at this time? This is dinner time, maybe they are eating dinner,” and other such things. I had to remain polite, salvage my dignity and keep persisting until he dialed my number. I was always suspicious that perhaps he would listen in to the conversation, but never confirmed it. What I did was to ensure that my conversation was eavesdroppable. As they say, ‘Discretion is the better part of valor.’
The long and short of this is that I can assure you that it is possible to go back to a world of wired landlines and the Post Office as your friend in need. I’ve been there, done that. And it was very pleasant and rewarding. Believe me, the pleasure of receiving a ‘real’ letter cannot be matched by any email, much less a ridiculous, misspelt WhatsApp message with OMG, LoL and smileys passing for conversation. Having said that, I love Smileys.
Also we have the telephone in its normal and other forms, like Skype, Duo, Facetime, etc where we can actually have conversations instead of what we had become used to on WhatsApp. And if you are looking for free internet based calling, then you can do it on both Signal and Telegram.
Finally, let me reiterate; this is not about them. It is about us. What do we want to do with our lives? Allow others to use us as commodities for their personal benefit? Or take charge of our lives and live in a way that is positive, dignified, and powerful. Have real friends, make real contributions knowing that this takes time and persistence and leave behind a legacy.
For those who want to say at the end of all this, “What difference does my leaving this space make? After all I am only one person.” I say to you, “Even if you can’t stop them, don’t join them. For in the end, it is not about them. It is about you. It is about us.”
I made my choice. I have explained to you why. Now it is up to you.