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Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

What Facebook? Adderall it is

Social media networks that collect big data are pass. Investors have moved on to other things like creating personalized medicine. It's worse.

For close to two years now, my colleague N. Ramnath in Bengaluru and I have spent most of our time researching a long-term project on big data. On emerging out of the cave and staring at the headlines after a long while, it turns out a company called Facebook that collects big data has been up to a lot many snarky things.

Everybody sounds surprised. Why?

That Facebook is up to no good is a submission that was made in this series three years ago. Another plea was made to readers of Mint on Sunday. Get off Twitter and LinkedIn as well, please. Platforms of these kinds are places that make you dumb because they are abusive, violate privacy and work to manipulate your mind was the argument then.

There were louder voices though that insisted the emergence of platforms like these are a harbinger of the death of editors. This argument is a tub of crock. I have maintained that in the past—and I continue to maintain it.

That out of the way and pushed to posit where is all this headed to, basis conversations on the ground with people engaged in the business of big data, the smarter ones have already made their moves. They are interested in our “health" and “well-being". They are already at work to build a new industry. It is shaping up in the form of “personalized medicine". Much in the way of investments have already been deployed in it. 

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO is on the record that “health care is big for Apple’s future". With $7 trillion spent on health, what is spent on smartphones each year sounds like pennies. Google is investing heavily in pharmaceutical start-ups via Google Ventures, the company’s investment arm. That Jeff Bezos and Amazon have nurtured dreams of getting into the industry for a long time is now well documented. Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, pledged his money to eliminate chronic disease, making headlines in 2016.

Having just gotten out of researching how fortunes in big data were built, there seems to be a method to the madness.

It is another matter altogether though that in the short term, much song and dance will be made about regulating these entities. I’m reasonably sure though after expending much time and energy, the authorities will tear their hair in exasperation trying to figure how may these entities be regulated. While some kind of scrutiny will be mounted, when legally challenged, all arguments are in favour of platforms.

This is because there are many reasons why these platforms are needed. The rate at which technology is changing is unprecedented in human history. This leads to a few outcomes. Some of these were summed up succinctly on Farnam Street Blog by its founder Shane Parrish under a post titled the Half Life of Knowledge. In it, he highlights a very important factoid.

“The doubling of knowledge increases the learning load over time. As a body of knowledge doubles so does the cost of wrapping your head around what we already know. This cost is the burden of knowledge. To be the best in a general field today requires that you know more than the person who was the best only 20 years ago. Not only do you have to be better to be the best, but you also have to be better just to stay in the game."

The implications of this were explained in a podcast on Farnam Street by Samuel Arbesman, a complexity scientist focused on the nature of scientific and sociological change.

“There were natural limits to what the human mind can understand. ... but at the same time over the past maybe century or two, there’s been this somewhat triumphalist sense when it comes to science. That if there’s a question, no matter what, if we put our minds to it we can understand everything. That’s not always true. There are limits and we’re going to bump up against our limits of understanding. That’s true even for the technologies that we ourselves have made."

The dichotomy here is impossible to miss. As humans, we have reached the limits of our understanding. Technology is needed to make some sense of it all. On its part, the technology has acquired a life of its own. How do you regulate it now? A problem as complex as this is beyond my limited comprehension. What I am most concerned about though is not just my future, but that of my children too.

As articulated earlier, over the last two years researching how big data is evolving, most conversations with thought leaders at the frontiers indicate their deep interest and willingness to put skin in the game in healthcare. How they are going about building these industries is eerily similar to how their current empires were built.

One outcome is that people who use everything from the ubiquitous cell phone to social media networks are addicted. A mass-outcome of this is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Everybody wants to attempt too many things at once. What was intended to be a spotlight brain has changed into a floodlight brain

We were originally built to concentrate on a single task and had a spotlight brain. We cannot do that now because there are many choices available, such as social media networks, and the floodlights get turned on. Everything can be seen, what to choose, and how to choose seems impossible. Unless aided by applications of some kind on online platforms.

Studies conducted over eight years among schoolchildren show ADHD has risen by as much as 43%.This means they find it hard to pay attention, or have behavioural difficulties.

“I am not surprised at all by changes in how the human brain responds to stimuli on the screen," says Siddhika Panjwani, a psychiatrist based out of Mumbai. In her practice, she is a witness to people across age groups visiting her to cope with the problems that arise of such behaviour. “The beep on a phone or change in colour on an application can trigger of a dopamine rush. What happens from there on include a chain of events over which individuals lose control," she says.

It is inevitable then that they start searching for solutions that include drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, LimiDax, Adrafinil and a whole bunch of “study drugs". These are not party drugs. These are not performance enhancement drugs either like steroids.

“These are amphetamine-based drugs," says Dr Panjwani. There are derivatives of them available in India and she is a witness to students and young working professionals across the world latching on to them to beat ADHD and other lifestyle disorders. They are completely averse to the risks these drugs pose and imagine that these drugs improve their ability to think better to get on top of their game.

All these drugs do is allow them to stay focused, organize tasks and listen to others talk. It creates an illusion that time has slowed down and more can be accomplished. In a more old-fashioned world, it was called “concentrate on a task".

When did things come to such a pass that to concentrate, drugs are needed? Whatever happened?

“It is not just screen time. Those addicted to screens consume a lot of processed foods and engage in very little physical activity," says Dr Panjwani. When added up, all of it, she says, derails a human.

Trying to stay engage with in focused conversations with children in schools and teens in college and young professionals suggest they are under enormous pressure to get faster, higher and better. But do it they must in a world where the half-life of knowledge is growing shorter. Content is being belted out in trucks. To just stay in one place, they must run faster.

An academic friend shared the internal findings from a prestigious university near Delhi. It reported that over 40% of its students are “depressed" and require intervention. Much debate within the faculty later, they admitted they have themselves to blame.

The pressure they place on students to perform across every domain is high. Failure is not taken to kindly. When they introspected upon though, they figured this has much to do with how they see their contemporaries from competing universities on social media. Everybody looks happy and shiny.

The Law of Unintended Consequences then kicks in. All “outstanding performances" are shared and amplified. A race begins to outdo and demonstrate who is happier and shiner. Nobody is willing to admit they feel wretched. And that to feel low is as human as it is to feel high. 

To stay high all of the time then, if a few pills can be obtained over the counter, why not? There is big market now for amphetamine-based drugs in the Western world. It has been documented and regulatory authorities are coming to terms with it. The question on their mind is, how do they begin to regulate it? It is being shared by the very young in much like they would share pictures and status updates because it is seen as “cool" to pop a pill that allows them to do much. This is how social media networks started to percolate.

It then morphed into entities that can personalize content feeds to create echo chambers where each one can hear only the voices that matter to them. Things stand at an inflection point where now sit on data that allow them to create personalised medicines to suit individual personalities.

What am I getting something wrong here? It was time to call Rajat Chauhan, a doctor and columnist at Mint and close friend. Turns out, he is as concerned about what is going on. 

As a thumb rule, he does not like to prescribe medicine. “Go back to first principles," is his preferred prescription. Two months ago that he had thought up some exercises anyone can practice. It looked ridiculously simple. I told him it doesn’t look worth my while. He insisted I try it out for old time’s sake.

When I started on it though, it soon obvious what he meant. I wasn’t performing at my optimum. Things started to fall into place.

When focused on how to breathe right, two weeks into the program later, I figured I was using only one nostril. It meant I was taking in only 50% of the oxygen my body needs. Of this, only 25% actually makes it to the brain for it to perform at optimum. 

In trying out what looked deceptively simple, I now know I have weak shoulder blades and that I had kept my feet encased in shoes for too long. That is why I am bad at long distance running and tire out easily. 

One day though, while attempting to breathe deep, the blocked nostril popped open and suddenly I was breathing. The difference was palpable soon enough. With more oxygen getting into the system, I can now stay focused for longer periods of time. My brain has gotten better—without any amphetamine-based drugs or sharing my data with a technology platform that may trade it. 

That this can be had for free is something no commercial entity wants me to know. To figure that out though, I’ve had to switch my phone off and disconnect from social media networks most of the time. 

I need the spotlight part of brain turned on all the time. It’ll take a while to convince the kids though.

Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel Publishing. His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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