Just over a decade ago, 2010 to be precise, an extremely important development took place in India. The WhatsApp messaging application was launched, barely a year after two bright sparks, Brian Acton and Jan Koum, flagged it off in the United States. Those of us who happen to own a smartphone, which is practically the entire universe, have become craven slaves to this brilliant technological advance, enabling the human species to communicate with one another, across villages, towns, cities, countries and continents with a degree of ease that was unthinkable barely 20 years ago. The convenience, the utility value, the mere fact that your message can get across to your contact even before you’ve been able to marshal your own thoughts (‘blink of an eye’ doesn’t even begin to describe it), has given us a boon that some may consider a mixed blessing. To be perfectly blunt, many consider it a bane – with good reason. Of course, the WhatsApp bouquet is but one of a plethora of very clever things that your internet-enabled smartphone allows you to perform. Like ordering groceries, net banking, watching films, live sports and so on and so forth. Whether an utopian day will arrive when we can order food and have it delivered piping hot straight off our mobile screens instanter, I am not sure at this point in time. That said, I won’t count anything out, given that snooping devices are being embedded without our knowledge on our mobiles, even as I am tapping these letters on my keyboard. All in all, rapidly advancing technology, like so many other things that advance rapidly, have their good points, though you must perforce take the warts in your stride.
However, the main purpose of this contemplation is to reflect on the WhatsApp app, which incorporates an extra ‘app’ that is redundant, surplus to requirements and sounds corny, but it is what it is. If the application becomes part of the brand name, you have to expect convoluted sentences like that. The WhatsApp app (there I go again) has as many critics as it has supporters. Of one thing, nevertheless, I am convinced. Polarised though the WhatsApp world may be, both those in favour and against are avid users of the app. The carpers against WhatsApp, who find themselves unable to live without the app, can be accused of being part of the ‘pot-calling-the-kettle-black’ brigade. As a moderate user of the app, I can vouch for its ills and its benefits, but I would much rather take the broad view. I would like to look on WhatsApp’s positive attributes. The negatives are too many and can take care of themselves. The benefits that have been conferred on an unsuspecting public through WhatsApp have been plentiful and varied, too long to enumerate, but here’s a brief sampler. From residents of apartment blocks, old school associations, general do-gooders who get together to do good to the society at large, music lovers, book lovers, dog lovers, which in turn can be broken up into specific musicians, authors and dog breeds – they all form groups on WhatsApp and keep chatting (often violently) all the livelong day on subjects as diverse as the ‘Gone with the Wind’ controversy, rubbishing the archaic building society regulations, what to do when your adopted pie-dog contracts distemper, and much else besides. Why all this must be done on WhatsApp when you already have other online platforms like Facebook is a question for the ages. If you detect a touch of irony in my analysis, I assure you it is entirely intentional.
Among those who have benefitted greatly from people’s addiction to incessantly be on WhatsApp messaging or telephone calls, the latter being free and often much clearer than regular calls, the orthopaedic wing of the medical profession must surely top the list. In order to obtain a better insight on the subject, I called up an orthopaedic doctor friend of mine, whose knowledge and experience on the subject of bones and joints is second to none. What he does not know about spondylitis or spondylosis (I can never tell the difference), cervical or lumbar, can be written on the head of a pin with a pneumatic drill, as I have heard it described. To this good doctor friend, therefore, I placed a call.
‘Hi Doc, what gives? What with the pandemic and everything, I guess business must be pretty dull. In your line of work, you need patients to be placed on metal beds, x-rays taken, backs and necks pummelled till they leave your clinic feeling much worse than when they entered, and the neck pain shooting skywards when they see your bill. All in a profitable day’s work, it used to be. Now with masked patients hobbling into your clinic in trickles, how do you make ends meet?’
I could see my bone specialist pal was not best pleased with my airy-fairy, tongue-in-cheek conversational gambit. ‘Look, it’s all very well you cracking tasteless jokes. However, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick, my friend. If you must know, business is booming.’
‘Really,’ I responded with a touch of sarcasm. ‘Pray, do enlighten me.’
‘For one thing, this talking and messaging on WhatsApp virtually 24 x 7, has resulted in more and more people of all age groups coming down with cervical problems. Even before the pandemic struck, neck related complaints had increased manifold, thanks to WhatsApp. Now, Covid19 has ensured that the use of WhatsApp on smartphones has gone through the roof, and along with that so has my online consultancy. If you must know, my systems manager tells me that the number of patients consulting me with neck issues has gone up by a staggering 66% over the last two years. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.’
As I don’t smoke, I let the boastful metaphor pass. I pressed on. ‘Surely then, you should be advising your patients to use their mobiles in moderation and not indulge in useless chit chat about what they are wearing this evening for someone’s birthday which they will celebrate online through what else, but WhatsApp. By the way, with regard to developing neck problems, is there a difference between texting and video calls? What I am getting at is, is one of those two activities less likely to create a crick in the neck?’
The doc was not impressed. ‘What kind of a damn fool question is that? Whether you talk over video or you type in text, you are still hunched over your mobile, are you not? Your neck is still prone to the same level of stress. Capeesh?’
I was beginning to feel the strain myself. My neck muscles were knotted up. ‘Capeesh? What is that, Swahili? Alright, don’t get so stressed yourself? Just seeking an opinion, that’s all. In sum, what you are striving to tell me is that this obscene pre-occupation with WhatsApp has resulted in pretty much massive swathes of the population being unable to keep their heads straight thanks to the neck pain. This in turn has hugely increased calls being made to you, also on WhatsApp, and you are laughing all the way to the bank. Would that be a correct summation of the situation?’
‘Got it in one, even if you expressed it crudely. You are not quite as thick as a brick. The point is, my friend, I cannot be seen to be profiting from other people’s ailments, but that is what all medical practitioners do. It’s not our fault that people fall ill. I was only making the limited point that one thing leads to another. The pandemic has forced people to stay at home. This has compelled more people to conduct all their business, personal and professional, through their smartphones. At that, WhatsApp has come out on top as the communication tool of choice. Which has naturally led to more people coming down with neck trouble. Simple logic. Savvy?’
‘Savvy is better than capeesh, I guess,’ I replied drily. ‘That’s great. Good for you, Doc. Why don’t you close shop and come over to my place? Let’s have a drink. We’ll smoke a peace pipe. Ha ha.’
He looked pained, rubbing his neck vigourously. ‘Sorry, no can do. I have an appointment with my orthopaedist.’
I went ramrod straight. ‘What! But you are one yourself. Orthopaedist, I mean. And why, for crying out loud?’
‘That is the irony of it. All this constant talking and video conferencing with my patients on WhatsApp has put my neck clean out of joint. Quite literally. I have been on WhatsApp with you for the last 20 minutes! And you know the cardinal rule in the medical profession. Doctors should never treat themselves or self-medicate. They always get a second, objective opinion.’
I guess that made sense. Doctors should also help each other out to keep the home fires burning. I ended the call with a consoling, ‘Physician, heal thyself.’
When all is said and done, Messrs Acton and Koum have much to answer for.