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We’re in the age of ‘InstaGrat' - and we need to learn to say No!

InstaGrat. It is not quite the same as Instagram, where we can put up pictures of what we want the world to see of us.
 
InstaGrat is the instant gratification that is engineered into almost every social media application that we use today. It is that soft, sudden feeling of ‘aah’ that comes and goes, without quite making the same mess or causing all the same guilt of other sources of dopamine-shot releasing activities that boomers, Gen’Xers and even nominally normal millennial creatures used to be used to.
 
Today, every human being within six feet of a smartphone and forty five miles of a 4G cell tower, has access to InstaGrat. And most of us are ODing on InstaGrat without ever knowing who we’re working for as we furiously type out our rage against the machine on Facebook, or whilst we jealously click ‘Like’ on Insta videos of beautiful people with eyelashes thick as a brick, and cheekbones higher than the Himalayas, or as we mass forward the latest outrageous video of yet another injustice in this relentlessly cruel world over WhatsApp. 
With every click, every forward, and every expression of how we feel, we feel like we feel better (we don’t really). That’s InstaGrat.
 
The human physiology that Mark Zuckerberg, who runs Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, or Jack Dorsey, who runs Twitter, are exploiting is not particularly complicated, once we consider the wider ecosystem in which their algorithms are operating. Sean Parker, who founded Napster and was the first president of Facebook explains it in the best and most direct way possible: “The thought process that went into building these applications was: 'How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”.
 
A global army of ambitious technology entrepreneurs are being egged on, and cheer-led into an abyss of micro-manipulations and macro-catastrophe, by venture capitalists and Wall Street bankers, eagerly seeking the next Snapchat or the next TikTok, with little or no concern for how these technological applications are affecting individual and collective behaviours.
 
Of course, like any slow motion disaster, both state and society are so poorly equipped to handle the challenges posed by this phenomenon, that any attempt at addressing the problem likely only exacerbates it. For one, the easiest way to draw regulatory or legislative attention to these problems is to demonize the companies and individuals involved. Strangely, and paradoxically, this satisfies our insatiable need for InstaGrat, but it doesn’t actually solve the underlying problems that are driving us over the cliff, way, way over the speed limit.
 
The role of social media in voice creation and amplification for ordinary people all around the world is no less revolutionary, at least in theory, than Gutenberg’s printing press. But the human technology that fuels the magnitude of social media’s impact seems as or more likely to be exploited by wealthy people at the expense of the non-wealthy quite exactly in the same way as any technological revolution ever did before, from the printing press, to the steam engine, to the radio and television.
 
Chamath Palihapitiya, who was once responsible for ‘user growth’ at Facebook, recently explained his personal guilt about being associated with the social media business in rather stark and extreme terms, suggesting that the “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works”. And if you take a long hard look at some of the evidence, this hyperbole may not be all wrong.
 
Last year, Trevor Haynes, a researcher at the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, wrote about dopamine and smartphones, claiming that social media applications essentially “leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible”. 
 
Now consider this: slot machines are heavily regulated by gaming or gambling commissions in some nations and entirely banned in many others. Cocaine, on the other hand, is a banned, illegal substance pretty much everywhere on planet earth. Yet there is hardly any country on the very same planet where social media is fully regulated (unless of course, we consider North Korea, or Iran, or China to be models of regulation).
 
The China question especially interesting, especially from the vantage point of Pakistan. The newest global fad among social media platforms is an application called TikTok. 
 
TikTok has about 12 million Pakistani users, which is nearly twice the number of Twitter users in the country — despite having only existed since 2017 (Twitter is about eleven years older, having been founded in 2006). So many of the world’s most important people and pressing issues use Twitter as a source and an amplifier, but hardly any use TikTok. Why? Because unlike Twitter, TikTok is actually fun. It is video, after video, after video of inane (and sometimes insane) young people having fun.

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