Big Tech and Big Food both resemble Big Tobacco today

I have been on a binge in the days leading up to last weekend. The binge was an almost perfectly predictable one, at that. I have been trying to watch my sugar intake for several months. In February, I decided to abstain completely. Happily, this abstention had also allowed me to shed a kilo or two. Not much, I admit, but enough to make my belt feel a little more comfortable. Maybe complete abstention is not the answer; it can, at least in my case, lead to my string becoming so taut that it snaps with a vengeance. Now, within a span of 48 hours, I have wolfed down enough sugar to undo all the good from four months of discipline.

I am not a medical professional or dietician, but I have certainly learned that at least for me, sugar is addictive. Once I start eating good desserts, there is no end in sight. I usually gorge on these until I am physically uncomfortable—to say nothing of dealing with the admonitions I get from my conscience the day after. I have had a sweet tooth all my life, and indulging it gets me nothing except indigestion, heartburn and then lethargy and tiredness once the sugar high has worn off. It also pushes me towards several hours of sweating it out in the gym trying to work off my excesses. While I’m on a binge, there is an illusion of pleasure, but the truth is that I’m a slave to my tongue.

Tobacco has the same effect on me. Much to my parents’ consternation, I picked up the habit as a teenager in the 1980s and have flirted with it ever since. To add to this, my parents, who were doctors, daily provided me graphic examples of what harms can possibly infest a habitual smoker. No amount of cajoling helped. Tobacco is a dirty weed and it had me in its grip in a very short while. I have been trying to kick the habit ever since.

The world has moved on from its earlier tolerance of Big Tobacco. Governments, educators and the public at large have acted in various ways to contain the ills that use tobacco can bring. Schools have health education classes on the dangers of tobacco, governments force tobacco companies to emblazon cigarette and chewing tobacco packets with grotesque photographs to warn consumers of ill effects.

However, the world hasn’t gone as far as it has with tobacco with respect to sugar and junk food. The general public is certainly much more sensitized than it was a few years ago to the addictive properties of these foods. Just as Big Tobacco hasn’t stopped manufacturing its health-endangering products for the sake of the larger common good, Big Food hasn’t taken its less healthy products off retail shelves. That said, processed food products do have much more informative labels on them than they used to have just a few years ago, allowing the consumer to at least make an informed choice.

Some years ago, I wrote jocularly in this space that public health warnings may next be needed for social media, given its ability to addict users. Today, there have already been plenty of studies that document how social media giants have been aware of the addictive nature of their platforms, and how they have gone great lengths to keep their users hooked. On this issue, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee and a specialist in algorithmic product management, decided last year to blow a whistle on Facebook. The initial reporting was done by The Wall Street Journal in what became known as “The Facebook Files”.

According to Haugen’s website: “In 2019, she was recruited to Facebook to be the lead Product Manager on the Civic Misinformation team, which dealt with issues related to democracy and misinformation, and later also worked on counter-espionage. During her time at Facebook, Frances became increasingly alarmed by the choices the company makes prioritizing their own profits over public safety and putting people’s lives at risk.”

It appears many social media platforms are now letting users self-police their use by setting maximum allowances through time limits for screen time that can be set on their digital devices.

The video-clip platform TikTok recently took this approach one step further. Now, the company will also let users set time limits that call for a break after a certain amount of uninterrupted screen time, a figure that users can set themselves. So, in addition to just a maximum daily cap, it also allows for intermittent control of app usage. Moreover, a new screen-time dashboard will also provide TikTok users feedback on how much time they spend on the app, how often they open it, and a breakdown of their day and night-time usage.

Nicotine found in tobacco is an addictive substance, its use has significant and scientifically documented negative effects, and Big Tobacco has suffered class action lawsuits from users and relatives of those who suffered. The problem has also seen public health departments step in.

On the other hand, Big Food and Big Tech are less easy to police. An argument can be made that sugar is just part of a well-balanced diet and that complete abstinence from it (other than for medical reasons) is not really required. Moderation is all that’s needed. The same can be said of social media or of other use cases in Big Tech such as gaming, online retail and a raft of other applications. This means that how the world deals with the excesses of Big Tech and Big Food will remain a problem for years to come. Meanwhile, addicts like me will have to fend for ourselves.

Siddharth Pai is co-founder of Siana Capital, and the author of ‘Techproof Me’

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