AUGUST 28 — All of us are familiar with what happens when we delete a WhatsApp message. The message is removed, yes, but a “trace” lingers announcing to everybody that we initially wrote something but have since deleted it.

This often invites tongue-in-cheek questions like, “Hey, what did you write earlier?! Why did you delete it?!” Surely I’m not the only one who wishes that the platform would just remove the entire message and not leave a presence of its absence there.

For — and this is where it gets uncanny — often the non-existence of a message is more intriguing than its actual contents should it be there.

Isn’t it the case that seeing “Alwyn Deleted This Message” on the screen creates more curiosity and interest than would be the case if we actually saw what Alwyn sent?


The Unconscious 101

Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek has highlighted this phenomenon whereby much of reality is constituted by the negative and how the non-real is almost as important (if not more so) than the “positively real” in our world.

One of the chief complaints about robots acting like humans is, ironically, their “perfection” i.e. there’s something awry about entities who possess no character flaws or tiredness or inconsistencies.


Closer to home, imagine if your family member or colleague one day suddenly appeared faultless and perfectly polite and behaved supremely well, you would immediately be concerned and wonder what’s happening.

Other examples of this concept include the “awkward silences” between people which mean a lot despite being literally nothing. Or how companies seem more obsessed when staff are not around (even for a day) than when they do show up (for a thousand days).

Apps and our absences

We may or may not buy into Žižek’s philosophy but, whatever the case, it’s clear our apps and platforms are (also?) taking a great interest in our inactivity.

Algorithms that track user activity now focus on us doing nothing as data to be captured. Netflix, for example, reads a failure to click on a suggestion as a lack of interest in it — a signal that becomes training material for their algorithms for future use (and suggestions).

Notifications and gamification tactics are, of course, well known and frequently used and activated based on what the app considers to be “inadequate” motion or bustle by users.

Instagram, for example, keeps sending me on guilt trips by telling me who follows me without me reciprocating (with a huge “FOLLOW BACK” stamped next to these highlights).

Likewise, Linked-In, Tripadvisor, Agoda and a million other websites I visit once in a while (but hardly do so regularly) will not stop blasting me reminders, promotions and “baits” until I, well, do things on their sites or apps.

Google even knows how long you’re taking a break from the Internet.

Finally, whilst not a gamer, I’m nevertheless reliably informed that Twist (the video-game streaming site) has put in place algorithms to monetise lurking, idleness and casual viewership.

Ad displays and virtual currency (when users can “cheer” for another player) are promoted and personalised based on how active (or not) the user is.

The point is that our absences and inactivity are today a source of great concern. Apps are becoming more and more like super-complicated and super-needy Tamagotchi pets who go into hyperactive mode the moment it senses you’re not paying it (enough) attention.

The writer senses a creepy inverse relationship between our apps’ obsession with our inactivity and the real-world society we live in. — Shutterstock pic
The writer senses a creepy inverse relationship between our apps’ obsession with our inactivity and the real-world society we live in. — Shutterstock pic

Back to the real world

Finally, I sense a creepy inverse relationship between our apps’ obsession with our inactivity and the real-world society we live in. If apps today can’t help focusing on our non-participation and passivity, many facets of our world seem to prefer us remaining in such states.

If today’s apps refuse to ignore human passivity (“Stop doing what you prefer to do and start scrolling your timeline!”), today’s institutions seem to reward it (“Don’t ask, don’t probe — simply go along!”).

In the case of poor leaders, the passivity of the people is what energises them. Perversely, they need their students or workers or voters to remain unquestioning and in full acquiescence to function the way they want to.

Is this life imitating app imitating life?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist