When life is reduced to the size of a small screen
Nine years ago at the Cairo Suhba we said, “The Internet is death.” The repeated use of purposeless websites bends the fitra out of shape. For some people, their fitra bends so much it becomes irreversible. It’s just not possible to straighten them out. It was many years ago that Sheikh Yunus remarked to me about the dunya, “When it dominates, it takes captive.” We might say the same about the Internet. It too takes the human heart, spirit, and brain captive, trapping all in its web. When this happens and life is reduced to the size of a small screen, the effect of dhikr is reversed. The less one has to do with them, the stronger the dhikr. And so we wanted to say a few words today about messaging, because the pace of technological change is relentless, and this hurts human behavior and health.
I do not use email or have it on my computer, but I do have an email address for people to contact me. I don’t use the Internet or have a cell phone. My computer is offline all of the time. Yet Facebook knows my name, has my email account details, and knows who contacts me. Facebook also knows that murids in different parts of the world are somehow connected to each other, even if they don’t use Facebook. My email and my offline social connections were all handed over to Facebook and Google without my consent. This invasion of privacy happened because most of the world uses the Facebook company WhatsApp. People signed up, started using WhatsApp, which uploads all the contact details of everyone in their phone. All without the permission of these people. These details aren’t stored in some benign online storage vault. They are monetized and used to monitor, influence, and sell products. This creates an ethical quandary that needs answering. Do you have the right to give other people’s personal details to a dishonest, multinational social media company, that profiteers off these details, and invades our privacy?
With this WhatsApp data, Facebook has near limitless access to all the phone numbers, email addresses, home addresses, and social media handles that most people on earth have ever used. These connections from an uploaded contact book are not innocuous. They run very deep. Take the following real-life example. A person has the number of an addiction clinic stored on their phone and the name of a psychiatrist. This is automatically uploaded into WhatsApp. The company knows you are under psychiatric care because it matches the numbers in your phone with the numbers it has in its database, and in this case you are a match for an addiction clinic. Facebook now knows you have a mental health problem, even if you don’t ever use Facebook. The more connections it makes from its shadow database, the more the company knows about you, all from uploading the contact details of the people you know. And remember it doesn’t just know about you. You’ve betrayed every single person in your contact app on your phone.
The problem with this level of invasion into our privacy is that it becomes dangerous for our society, health, and spiritual progress as it leads to manipulation, wasted time, and addiction.
The first indication that the Facebook group of companies were manipulating users came in 2014. The company selected over six hundred thousand users to see if they could make them happy or sad. This was done by showing them negative or positive newsfeed stories, then observing the change in their emotions. The Facebook experiment was a success. The company was able to change the mood of people, even though the subjects were utterly unaware they were being manipulated. There was an unexpected side effect of this mass experimentation. The altered moods were contagious. Although six hundred thousand people were targeted, their emotional state soon spread through social media like a virus, infecting many other innocent users. They too became depressed or happy, depending on who they knew in the online world.
Even undergraduate psychology students know that ethical approval is needed for this type of experiment. Yet here was a company influencing how hundreds of thousands of people felt. To do this to people who are suffering from depression or anxiety is profoundly unethical. The tech giant did not care and there were no consequences. A professor would have been sacked. This was just the start of a sustained program of modifying human behavior that has its roots in the former East Germany.
On the east side of Berlin stands a complex of multi-storied buildings. They are grey and nondescript, built during the time of communist rule. The people who worked in these offices used to be feared, as they housed Stasi operatives, the former East German secret police. The place is now a museum, where visitors can marvel at the sophisticated techniques of a former surveillance state. There are trays of index cards that hold details of every person, in every street, their activities and political views. It was an all-encompassing system that made neighbors afraid of each other. These index cards now seem quaint compared to the holdings of social media companies.
In 2014, a Cambridge University psychologist set up a company called Global Science Research. He had invented a highly accurate personality test that predicted personality, leadership qualities, religious and political views based on Facebook-owned data. The test soon attracted the attention of a military contractor called Strategic Communication Laboratories, which was the parent firm of an obscure data gathering company called Cambridge Analytica. This partnership hoovered up the data from tens of millions of Facebook accounts. Within two years, the company had 5,000 pieces of data on every American. The index cards archived by the East German Stasi now looked positively prehistoric. Armed with this data, a potent personality test, and access to hundreds of millions of users from the Facebook group of companies, Cambridge Analytica was courted by right-wing, populist organizations. They used that data to target and manipulate public opinion. This culminated with the current state of affairs in the White House. The coup d’etat was successful. The old media didn’t quite understand what had just happened.
A few months later, the same modus operandi, the same people and companies turned the BREXIT vote in favor of leave, all using data supplied by the people who use Facebook services. The inhabitants of two nations had just been manipulated without them even knowing.
The old, naive argument about privacy used to be “who cares what they know about me, I’m not doing anything wrong.” The issue now at stake is not whether you are doing right or wrong. It’s about what some of these companies can now make you do, and how they can alter your behavior and thoughts without you realizing.
This behavioral modification was further brought to light after the leak of an internal Google presentation called The Selfish Ledger. The film showed how Google’s collection of data could be used to guide the behavior of entire populations. A recent High Court case in England revealed that this data included racial and ethnic origin, mental health problems, physical health, political affiliations and opinions, sexuality, sexual preferences, social interests, social class, financial information, shopping habits, and geographical location all from your phone. To this was added data from Google search, email content, message content for those who use an Android phone, contacts, notes, documents, and just about everything and anything a person may know, think, or do. Using this data a profile is built and their behavior is constantly modified by prompting the user into action. But this action is not in accordance with the fitra, the spiritual path, or what it means to be human. The goal is to manipulate people until they behave and act in a way that reflects Google’s values. Such behavior modification and reeducation has echoes of the Soviet Gulags, where people were sent to be reeducated and corrected, without any regard for their humanity or wellbeing.
Dotted around India are remote villages. In villages like Rainpada, many people cannot read. Very few own or watch TV. Yet they long for an Android phone to watch videos sent on WhatsApp. Said one resident about these videos, “We don’t really know who or what to believe anymore.” In July, a video was distributed implying that five men traveling through the region were child kidnappers. Word spread via WhatsApp. By the time these innocent men reached Rainpada a furious mob awaited. They beat them to death with rocks and their bare hands. All based on rumors. The behavior of a whole village had altered. This year there have been sixteen such incidents.
Perhaps beating people to death still seems too abstract. Perhaps you still feel you’ve got nothing to hide, and WhatsApp, Google, and their parent companies make life so much better and easier. There are other concrete ways that misuse of technology is changing behavior.
After the prayer, some people check their phone before they pull out their misbaha. When sacred knowledge is being taught, people check their phones. When conversing with others, some will abruptly ignore the person talking to them to check an incoming message. While sitting in a zawiya people will ignore the rules and check their phone. This is rude. These poor manners are not something Muslims should have. Just a few years ago, this would not have happened. People’s habits and behavior were different.
Meals with families and friends are interrupted by inane messages. Social occasions are marred by the ever-present phone. One recent heart-breaking image came from a study where young children had to draw a picture of their childhood. One little girl drew a picture of herself tugging on her parent’s sleeve. The parent was oblivious, completely immersed in the phone. The young girl had scrawled across the page: “I hate cell phones.” After being trained to learn that a cell phone is more important to mum and dad than just about anything else, children learn not to bother their parents, sinking into their own saddened, interior world. This is child neglect. With such examples, you can see how the small screen and messaging changes behavior with consequences for families and society.
There are other consequences for families. Deep down, most people know how problematic WhatsApp groups are, even when the conversation is supposed to be beneficial. Get three, four, five people on a group chat and phone notifications become near constant. It’s difficult to ignore. The child who is tugging on their parent’s sleeve trying to get their attention fades into the background. The needs and opinions of the people on the group become more important and valid than family and friends who are present.
The speed and ease of the medium also modifies behavior. Often it means that a person in a faraway place will have an idle thought, opinion, or need. Rather than waiting for that thought to develop, or viewing it as a transient thought, it is instead transmitted via a messaging app. That private thought then leaves the head of the person thinking it, and in an instant it appears on the phone of another person, entering into their head. Our minds are already overloaded with our own thoughts, but now we get exposed to the thoughts, feelings, funny ideas, and needs of others, often with no filter. The speed of transmission means questions, remarks, and needs are sped up, there is an expectation to reply and act on these messages. We eagerly await to see if the ticks turn blue and the other person is typing back. Our interior space is intruded upon at all hours, and there is little time for focussed, reflective calm.
This has health ramifications as these apps were deliberately designed to manipulate and alter the human mind. Consider the remarks of the first president of Facebook. In an act of repentance, he confessed that they intentionally got people addicted to their services, adding that the use of their apps literally changes your relationship with society and each other. The addictiveness comes from a dopamine hit when a new message arrives. You feel pleasure when receiving a new message. This dopamine-led addiction happens because the messages are constant, random, and variable. You never quite know when they might arrive. You feel wanted, as though you have friends. It is an illusion. Compare this to the postal service. A person might anticipate and look forward to a letter or parcel, but no one ever got addicted to waiting for the post, because it arrives just once a day at a set time.
This dopamine hit from new messages is a very real addiction. It’s why the pull of the phone is stronger than the pull of your child or listening to a lesson. It’s the same neurological pathway that gambling addiction obliterates. As Muslims, we abstain from gambling, as betting shops are easy to avoid, and the ruling on gambling is clear. But our phone is always with us. It’s an item that is permissible, and so the possibility of rewiring the connections in our brain is very real. Addicts change personality. They become rash, nervous, aggressive, and selfish. We see some of these traits in people whose life is reduced to the small screen. As the addiction to messaging grows it leads to a condition called anhedonia—the inability to draw pleasure from real life. At this point, the fitra is starting to bend. Messages and the screen give more pleasure than real people and real-life experiences.
Not being immersed in real-life is a problem in our time. The exterior world of a Muslim should be full of shared common experiences. We pray together, touch each other, and face each other when we speak. We celebrate and eat together. Family time and our elders are honored. When life is reduced to the small screen, these shared spaces and experiences start to vanish. Instead, with prolonged use, messaging leads to more isolating behavior from social experiences. This is why social anxiety significantly correlates to WhatsApp use.
In contrast, people who do not use WhatsApp have lower neuroticism, they are more open to new experiences, more agreeable, and more conscientious people. Being more conscientious means people who can more diligently follow their daily routines. They get things done, without being waylaid by distracting, addictive behavior.
It’s not possible to be unconcerned about privacy, because privacy is inbuilt into our religion. In a hadith found in Sahih Muslim, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
Whoever peeps into a house without its people’s leave, they may put out his eye.
Our privacy and those we have a duty of care over is sacrosanct. The way Muslims dress, that we don’t tell secrets, even the way traditional Muslim houses were built, with the courtyard shielded from view, all show the inviolability of privacy. It’s not our right to decide that privacy does not matter. The pedlars who use our data do more than peep into our house. They peer into the innermost parts of our mind. They ogle our families. But we chose to give them this data. It’s ironic that we protect the honor of our families in the real world, yet naively hand over intimate details to the Facebook group of companies and Google. Maintaining privacy does not mean going off-grid or living a life of social isolation. It’s about making smart, ethical decisions. We are already the most contactable people in history. There are plenty of alternatives to the hucksters whose business model is based on data collection and abusing your privacy—Signal and iMessage to name but a few. There are people sitting here today who have serious jobs and commitments, with family dotted across the world, and they manage just fine. There’s always an alternative.
Beyond privacy, we need to think about what the excessive use of these messaging apps is doing to our brain, our dhikr, and our family. It is true that they can be used for organizational and other valid purposes. As numbers grow, messaging helps this Suhba to happen. The danger is that they are insidious and steal our time. There has to come a point every night when you switch off. For our soul and brain, real-world life is always better. Meeting people in person or talking to them on the phone is better. Not being an addict is better. Being with your family rather than your phone is better. Nor should parents point the finger at their children, as the hypocritical smoker does when he tells his children not to smoke. Our current age is upside down. It’s parents who now need controlling. It’s about time we thought harder about this.