(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Opinion | The online ‘reliance endgame’ and what we risk losing

Experts say that internet use has a deleterious effect on human memory and cognitive capabilities

Many agree that smartphones and the explosion of social media platforms have created a dangerous new addiction.

User interface (UI) design is an integral part of the new app economy and of the “digital" revolution. Designers work hard to create pleasurable associations each time we interact with their app. There are various methods they use to make sure that the time spent on their app is maximized. One theory says that receiving “likes" on a social media post causes a release of dopamine in the brain. The brain then associates the activity with pleasure and causes the user to repeatedly return to the app, or stay on the app for ever longer periods of time. This compulsive behaviour is exactly what these apps are looking for. Maximizing the attention we pay apps allows the app’s owners to better sell their “real estate" to advertisers.

One school of thought says that these apps, and indeed the operating systems that govern them, have a responsibility to keep their users “digitally healthy". Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS operating systems for today’s smartphones now have an added feature around “digital health". These allow a user to track his or her screen-time and to dissect this use across the various apps that populate today’s smartphones. I don’t believe these “digital health" tools are used much in real life, but they represent an important admission by manufacturers that too much time spent on a screen isn’t good.

Other things are addictive too, but their manufacturers have either self-regulated or submitted to external regulations on their use. Cigarette advertising has sharply fallen since when I was a young man. The health warnings on packets are now much more grotesque. In Australia, for example, one does not even see cigarette packets displayed for sale. When you buy a packet in that country, there is zero branding on it. The brand name appears in very small print on the bottom of the packet and is as small as the health warning 30 or 40 years ago. Advertising for alcoholic beverages is also regulated. Direct advertising for alcohol is banned in India, for instance.

There is, of course, a philosophical question as to whether it is the substance that is to blame, or the people who abuse it. But that is beyond the scope of this column.

There are good reasons to be on our phone for a large part of the day. It has become an indispensable tool for many daily functions. We don’t remember phone numbers any more. When we meet a new person, we add their name and number to our contact list. We then immediately proceed to forget the number as we can always call it up from the contacts app by name.

Almost everyone who drives uses Google Maps or other map software such as Waze. In an earlier column, I had written about how these apps redirect rush hour traffic in real-time through residential neighbourhoods. This is often to the consternation of residents. Some even complain that access and egress to their homes is compromised. They cannot get their vehicles out of their own driveways when their street is chock-full of cars redirected by an online map app.

Some experts say that internet use has a deleterious effect on human memory and cognitive capabilities. I have seen this happen first hand, but with an older technology. When I first went to America for postgraduate studies in the 1980s, I was surprised when I shopped for food. Grocery check-out clerks seemed completely unable to perform simple mental mathematical tasks such as multiplication and addition. They had relied on calculators and cash registers for too long and had forgotten their mental math. Any kirana store owner would have put them to shame.

While trawling the internet on my phone last week, I came across an interesting concept: the “reliance endgame". Most of us think the digital game is about the “attention economy": grabbing our eyeballs and attention. But the real end-point is to force us to rely completely on portable pieces of technology. Such dependence is a dream for any business: to have a product or service customers can’t live without. We have become much like the American check-out clerks. But we now rely on the technology on our phones in many more ways: waking to an alarm in the morning, listening to music, watching television or movies, navigation, scheduling our meetings and tasks, shopping. The list is long.

I prefer to think that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is relatively primitive as it hasn’t extended beyond pattern recognition. That said, as the pattern recognition of AI gets better, we will only find that the “reliance" list adds on more activities. Self-driving cars, electronic “secretaries" who screen our calls and apps that find us a soulmate are only the beginning.

If technology can replace a task, we will rely on it rather than exercise our mental faculties. So, the tech giants will give birth to a “reliance economy". Technology was once the back-end of business. It has now been reshaped into the front-end to increase profits in the online world, where unbridled capitalism still exists. This unbridled capitalism makes us products for consumption by the companies that tech titans sell our data to, and the more reliant we get on these tech titans, the less easily we are able to leave their ecosystems.

I think that when Mukesh Ambani said “data is the new oil" after launching Jio, he didn’t mean data from the attention we pay our apps. He meant reliance.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on tech