Jun 102017

When a senior official of the Supreme Court of Pakistan made that now famous WhatsApp call to the Chairman of the SECP regarding the selection of a certain person for the JIT, little could he know what a profound impact his call would have on the politics of Pakistan.

Technology, they say, is the great disruptor. It is also the great divider in many ways. This division is usually characterised by the comfort (or lack of it) that a person has with technology. The comfort in question also revolves around age. The ‘digital aliens’ — those born before the arrival of the internet and the digital age — find themselves at a severe disadvantage compared to the ‘digital natives’ who are born into the digital age. Digital aliens can recall the times when computers had to be learned through proper instruction; when typing was something that professional typists were hired to do and when information was accessed through newspapers and state media only.

In those early days the government had — perhaps in a bid to ‘modernise’ its functioning — invested in desktop computers for senior officers. However, while these desktops looked good in offices, their utility was severely restricted. In most cases the computer would be placed on a separate table adjacent to the sahib’s impressive desk. The monitor and the keypad would be lovingly covered by a silver plastic casing and to complete the aesthetic picture, a flower pot would often be placed on top of the bulky monitor. The sahib owned the computer but the sahib did not operate the computer. For that to happen, the typist would be summoned who would boot up the machine, punch in the memo, take a print out from a dot matrix printer and hand it over to the sahib. The sahib would then take his red or green pen, do the corrections on the printout and hand it back to the typist who would then proceed to make the changes in the document, etc.

As technology became consumer-friendly and digital natives began to come of age, attitudes among the aliens also started shifting. That desktop in the sahib’s office inched its way on to the main desk. The flower pot and the silver casings also disappeared with the passage of time. And thus was born the indelible image of the sahib hunched over the keyboard struggling to type some sense on to the screen with two reluctant fingers. It was a sight to behold.

Those days are mostly behind us now. Technology has a way of seducing even the most stone-hearted and the smart phone is smartly demolishing the walls of resistance among the last remnants of the old guard. Sure, there lurk among us those who still call the ‘@’ sign in the email as ‘at the rate of’ but their numbers are dwindling like the Houbara bustard. The so-called ‘millennial horde’ is carpet bombing the rest of us with their techno-babble and there’s no escaping this trending avalanche.

In this apocalyptic landscape enters WhatsApp. It provides voluble Pakistanis the perfect platform to make groups and chat up like there’s no tomorrow. Before we know it WhatsApp turns into a potent political tool. Hence is born the infamous “fwd as received” phenomenon which plays a glorious role in befooling gullible and fact-challenged citizens into believing the unlikeliest of conspiracies and half-baked news. It also enables us to discover new aspects of the human psychology: the struggle between dying to share something and shrugging off the responsibility of owning it. In our rush to forward the received, very few among us pause to consider that someone somewhere wrote the post without owning up to it. In other words, the author himself or herself did not want to take responsibility for his or her words. From there starts the unending chain of forwards as receiveds with each receiver and forwarder shirking individual responsibility and yet eager to spread these anonymous words to his friends and contacts. Opinions have been formed and narratives shaped by this wonderful feature offered by those beautiful people at WhatsApp. Fooling all the people all the time was never easier.

And neither was making a secure phone call. Since ours is a society unshackled by privacy laws, government agencies believe it is their right to tap anybody’s phone and merrily listen in to private conversations. In fact, we had reached a stage where it was assumed that if you had any sort of a public profile, your phone was tapped. Conversations on the phone therefore acquired a certain sinister tone with code words being used for the most benign of things. This until WhatsApp returned to us the joy and comfort of speaking on the phone with old fashioned normality.

This normality is rooted in the belief that WhatsApp means what it says about its end-to-end encryption. For the cautious amongst us this means no one can listen in to these WhatsApp calls. The strength of this belief manifests itself in increasing number of people now routinely speaking on WhatsApp instead of the regular SIM call. People like the senior official of the Supreme Court, for instance.

And here’s where we come full circle from the lonely desktop in the sahib’s office to the indigenisation of WhatsApp as a tool to conduct unofficial official business. While the bulky desktop illustrated a fetish for appearing to be ‘with it’, the verbification of WhatsApp is a sign of the troubled times we live in. Privacy has never been under greater threat and more so in societies like ours where laws to protect violations of individual privacy are either non-existent or weak. Fixing the laws is hard. Finding refuge in WhatsApp is easy.

So as WhatsApp slowly infiltrates the deepest recesses of our society and weaves itself inside the fabric of our social DNA, its addiction gets stronger and its reach wider with each passing day. How long before the informality of its usage transforms into a practical application of its features in the conduct of official business? The WhatsApp nation waits with bated breath for the green logo to turn greener still.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 11th, 2017.

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