Smartphone-transmitted diseases, the new STDs

Smartphone-transmitted diseases, the new STDs

The Digital Alarmist

Roger Marshall

Up until the mid-1980s, the Indian government, which monopolised telecommunications equipment and infrastructure, considered telephones to be luxuries rather than necessities. As a result, few people owned telephones and the rest had to walk miles to find public pay phones to stay in touch with family and friends. In the 15 years that followed, the establishment of public call offices with STD (subscriber trunk dialling) facilities across the country drastically altered the communications landscape.

The evolution of computers followed a similar trajectory – mainframe computers followed, in sequence, by minicomputers, personal computers/desktops, and laptops. India’s adoption of various technologies has always been one or two generations behind. Compare this with Myanmar, which went from few telephones and even fewer computers spanning a 50-year period, directly into the smartphone era.

With the advent of wireless communication technology and a concomitant increase in internet usage over the past 15 years, we now have over 500 million Indians and 25 million Myanmar citizens in proud possession of smartphones. According to the US networking giant Cisco, smartphone usage in India is slated to double in the next five years. Staying in touch 24/7. You couldn’t ask for more, could you?

Which brings me to the main issues that I wish to address in this article. The acronym STD may stand for ‘sexually transmitted diseases’ such as HIV/AIDS, or ‘subscriber trunk dialling.’ The latter usage is, of course, passe and needs to be updated. I would suggest ‘smartphone-transmitted diseases’ as a possible substitute. Before identifying and discussing these new diseases, I present some background information which may be helpful.

The wellbeing of a country is often measured in terms of its per capita GDP while its ‘connectedness’ is based on internet usage and social media participation. Using IMF economic data and global internet statistics data, here are some important numbers for select countries: Compared to 95 per cent of the population using the internet in the US and Germany, both high per capita GDP countries, internet usage is only around 40 per cent in India and Myanmar, two countries that rank in the bottom 25 per cent of per capita GDP. However, social media access in India, China and Myanmar is very high, compared to Germany or the US. In Myanmar, it is 100 per cent.

Globally, Google is the search engine of choice on smartphones. Likewise, Facebook for social media. Google and Facebook operate the world’s most sophisticated dragnet surveillance system, be it to show ads or as a tool of social control by keeping tabs on entire populations. In countries such as Myanmar and Qatar, the default homepage is Facebook’s website. It is a given that users rarely change the default settings on computing devices – either due to ignorance or indifference.

A list, by no means complete, of smartphone-transmitted diseases, is the following – conspicuous consumption, narcissism, nationalism, religious bigotry, ethnic hatred, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, misinformation, and fake news.

Conspicuous consumption is at top of the list because Google and Facebook make enormous amounts of money promoting products, irrespective of whether people really need these products or not. A good way to boost both the nominal and per capita GDPs of any country, don’t you think? The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting quarantines have only served to increase online shopping even more – be it shopping for groceries, toys or electronics. And fancy clothes and plastic surgery so that you look good while video-conferencing.

The remaining items on the list all have to do with social media platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter.

In a pathbreaking May 2018 study, “Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate Crime”, authors Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz of the University of Warwick analysed over 176,000 posts, 290,000 comments, and 500,000 likes by 93,000 individual Facebook users in Germany before reaching the conclusion that anti-refugee hate crimes increased disproportionally in areas with higher Facebook usage.

The fact that volatile, short-lived bursts in sentiment within a given location substantially affects people’s behaviour, which is then propagated across regions and time by social media, is quite worrisome since it can be very damaging to society, irrespective of country.

Isn’t it curious that Myanmar, which entered the information age only a decade ago, did not take advantage of the many benefits of computers; instead, it allowed radical Buddhist monks such as Ashin Wirathu to use inflammatory postings on Facebook to egg their followers on to commit numerous acts of violence against the Rohingya minority; similar postings in Sri Lanka have resulted in mob violence directed against Muslims.

One can only imagine the after-effects of promoting disinformation on coronavirus vaccines if they become globally available. And affordable. Brand name or generic, your choice.

Perhaps you are an anti-vaxxer? Hopefully not.

(Roger Marshall is a computer scientist, a newly minted Luddite and a cynic.)