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Sunday, Aug 18, 2019

The new, new drug peddlers: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi

It’s no accident that you can’t set your phone aside for more than a few minutes. Companies are investing millions of dollars to make sure you stay hooked.

lifestyle Updated: Jun 29, 2019 18:47 IST
Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi
Hindustan Times
This image was posted on Twitter by @poisonaavi recently, tagged: ‘The “I don’t have time to read” starter pack.
This image was posted on Twitter by @poisonaavi recently, tagged: ‘The “I don’t have time to read” starter pack.
         

When, why and how I purchased Day Cost Pro, a personal finance app, I do not recall. I may have been nudged into it by a recommendation on iTunes. Because it was priced at Rs 299, it probably sounded cheap enough to just download. But then it stayed unused on my phone.

Until two months ago, when a voice in the head began to insist that I record all my expenses and earnings in the app. As the month ended, charts emerged to show in granular detail how I spend and earn. Apparently, I spend disproportionately on digital subscriptions of all kinds.

I knew I wasn’t consuming much of their content. And when I scrutinised the charts for consumption patterns, I found that in most cases either sleep or family time had been sacrificed. Pragmatism dictated that an un-subscription drive follow.

It felt unpleasant because each application promised to make life better by keeping me more informed, more entertained, more educated, more mindful, more fit, and so on. They were priced competitively too. But the charts demonstrated that when the monies were added up, they equalled the family’s annual health insurance premium.

A brutal cost-cutting exercise and post-mortem followed. How did I subscribe to so many services? Clearly I was nudged to purchase much that I knew I would not use.

A pointer on how that was done can be found in a public statement by Reed Hastings, the chairman and CEO of Netflix: “You know, think about it, when you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night. We’re competing with sleep, on the margin.”

To compete against the human urge for sleep is a tough ask. Which is why this year alone, Netflix has set aside $15 billion to create original content. Apple has earmarked $14 billion for research. Amazon has placed $6 billion in the ring. These are brutal sums.

What hit harder still was listening to the chief product officer at an Indian technology company that mines for data. His team monitors how people consume content, so that they can craft personalised narratives that will appeal to them. When they think their story is just right, they offer a free trial. The reason is simple. “You see,” he said, “we aren’t very different from cocaine peddlers. The first shot is always free.”

This places in perspective the fierce debate raging in the US around whether Big Tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Netflix should be broken up to curb their dominance over our lives. In India, that debate has not gained public attention yet. But outside the US, India is the largest market for these companies and Indians are among the most vulnerable to their narratives.

It is time we took note as well. Our time, family lives, sleep and money are at stake.

(The writer is co-founder of Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)

First Published: Jun 29, 2019 18:47 IST

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