Vivek Wadhwa is many things. An academic–retired Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering–an entrepreneur, author of best-sellers and one of the first people to call out the dangers of technology industry’s addictive products.
In 2018, when conversations around Facebook’s privacy breaches and meddling in US elections 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. With it, they became the digital-detox pioneers.
Which is the first device you reach for in the morning? How long after you wake up?
My phone, after half an hour or an hour of waking up. 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 garbage (that everyone else gets). Even I have relatives sending chains of messages. I respond if it is urgent or I ignore them. Then I check my emails. Again if they are urgent, I respond (immediately) otherwise I wait for a few hours.
What are the apps you have on your phone?
WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Twitter, Email… now Skype (for the interview with Moneycontrol).
Which is the app you couldn’t get rid off, the one you were compelled to reinstall?
Whatsapp. I need it for my Indian friends… Indians don’t seem to do emails. I uninstalled the app twice but finally 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 few colleagues, who show up as on the favourites’ list. My WhatsApp bio says that… that I rarely use WhatsApp and that people should email me instead. Otherwise people send you all kinds of junk from the time they are awake. Now they know that I don’t respond.
What are all the devices that 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 screen for working and the other for entertainment. They work as two different worlds.
You have to take charge of the technology, control it and not let it control you. Otherwise, you will get overwhelmed. I don’t take calls after 9 pm, unless they are urgent. I don’t check texts… I ignore them. On LinkedIn, I have around 900 requests… I simply ignore them. Emails are easier to control. Check (engage with) emails on your own terms. I have told people that either you send me concise messages or I will ignore them… so people get about 400 to 500 words before I lose interest. Also, if I think they are rambling on, I ignore them. I am not obliged to do anything with them.
How many emails do you get in a day and how many do you respond to?
Around 300 to 400, from around the world. I respond to maybe a 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 done through emails. Then I spent two to three hours on reading and learning. Then do whatever else I am working on, like reviewing a paper and so on.
What are a few tips you would give to the reader, to take charge of their relationship with tech?
One, go through every 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 you have decided on your app, you set the rules on how you will use it. Two, decide how and when you are going to use it (app or digital devices). Preferably switch off a few hours before you go to sleep. I don’t take calls after 9 pm. Three, learn how to use Do Not Disturb (mode). Turn off the notifications… otherwise you keep getting messages and alerts throughout the day. These technologies are designed to keep you addicted by sending notifications. It is a common problem in India… the overload, you bombarded with messages and texts throughout the day. But, you should decide when to check your phone or device.
If you do these three things, 80 to 90 per cent of the (stress) will be taken care of. The book (Your Happiness was Hacked, 2018) gives smaller tips… the entire list.
You need to tell your manager that you will take a few hours of family time when you get back home… a good block 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 more aware of the dangers of these technologies, years since the book was written?Now we accept that the tech industry is evil, that Facebook is manipulating and polarising us. The book (Your Happiness was Hacked) was one of the first on it… we had to be very careful. It’s subtitle was ‘Why Tech is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain’. But now, a reminder is needed more than ever. People are fast-forwarding misinformation and this is polarising entire societies. People are addicted to technology more than ever. Earlier data was expensive but now practically everyone in India has a smartphone, with the cost of phones and data falling. Earlier only the educated middle-class could afford this but now even the poor are using it (smartphone) and they are not educated or savvy enough to separate misinformation from information.
It has become a pandemic of misinformation, fear and addiction.
Religious fundamentalism, whether it is Muslim or Hindu fundamentalism, is on the rise. These technologies are doing to India what they did to America… ripping societies apart. In America, everyone blames (PM Narendra) Modi for the rise of Hindu nationalism and so on… But it isn’t Modi, it’s technologies like Facebook and Whatsapp that’re causing it. People are getting more and more of the same garbage, and they are believing it. You wake up in the morning to 50 such messages from friends with all of these videos and stories, and you begin to believe it.
When you follow people on Twitter, do you make a conscious effort to follow people you disagree with?
Yes. I follow Trump supporters and Biden supporters. I find reading from people who I disagree with more interesting… because you learn a lot from them. But the share of people I agree with would be more. I try to keep it 50/50 but honestly it would be more like 25% of people I can’t stand and 75% of those who I agree with. I try to follow women on Twitter as well, but someone they are only a third of the people I follow… maybe because men are more vocal.
China. China is cutting the legs off this industry. I rarely am supportive of China but its government has realised the damage these technologies are causing. They are now leading the world in (managing the crisis). They are trying to regulate these (the companies’) algorithms. They are asking for the algorithms to be published, they are asking for better privacy controls and are telling them that they will be made liable if their platforms are spreading misinformation. So if WeChat (Chinese app that supports messaging, payments and social-media conversations) is spreading misinformation, their exec can go to jail! India needs to wake up and do that.
Yes, you are going to have the western media haranguing India about it. But right now, India is being colonised by these western companies. Now there is no moderation done by these companies. Facebook (which owns WhatsApp) says the communications are encrypted and that can’t be done. But, if India says that Indian customers will be able to sue them if there is misinformation on their platforms, then suddenly Facebook will develop the capability to do the moderation.
The government has to take a tough stand and say that laws apply to anything that happens in India. The government needs to have the courage to do that.
Do you think local apps could be the answer?
The local apps will need the same rules. They need to be told that they can’t abuse (users’ personal) data, that they have to publish their algos… that if women are auctioned on their platforms, they are going to go to jail for that.
People are using Zoom and online conferencing more, which is a good thing. But the pandemic is also worsening the tech addiction. People upgraded their phones, got better plans and started using their devices much more.
Not really. I did try the limited phones but I need a high-definition camera, and I am spoilt in a way that I need the latest tech. So I have a regular Android phone and I delete apps I don’t need. I don’t use cable TV, I use a smart TV, so that 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? No one listens to me. I am not dumb (to even try).