The Golden Cage of Personalization

As we sign up for any new website, we often click “I Agree” on a long list of fine-print terms and conditions. Some websites try to be a little ‘ethical’ and tell you that they are recording your information – either to improve their product or to improve your life.

Initially, this was great thing for most of us middle class citizens across the world. After decades of being relegated to obscurity, it was great to have something ‘tailor-made’ for us – something we thought was the privilege of the rich. Of course, it was only online but it was still something.

Except, we failed to realise that personalized experiences are nothing more than traps, locking us in a gilded well, giving the illusion of marginally new experiences that never take us out of your comfort zone.

We are circling within the same walls, with minor twists that make us believe that we are discovering something new, while never really allowing us to see the other side.

Videos are recommended based on what we have previously watched. We’re happy we are watching new content, but really, it is just slightly different words on the same context. We believe we are discovering something new, but when it is similar to what we’ve already seen, how is it a new experience?

Travel sites throw up offers and resorts based on what I’ve searched for. I get a million experiences ‘tailor-made’ for me, discovering places without ever really seeing them. We get sanitised experiences that make us believe we’ve seen the real thing. Sort of like how the white tourist comes to India, lives in a 5-star hotel, travels in an air-conditioned car, is shown a little bit of Dharavi to show the ‘other’ side and goes back believing that they’ve seen the real India. We rarely interact with the locals beyond what has been chosen for you. We rarely hear the narrative beyond what has been designed for you.

So where, tell me, do we create free-thinking, enterprising souls? Where is the innovation that is sparked by a new idea? Where is the thrill of discovering something absolutely miraculously new?

I recently decided to wipe my history on YouTube. I did have to score through horrific videos ‘trending’ in India, but I discovered some really cool comedians from Malaysia. Of course, now my YouTube is flooded with more such people.

Google kept throwing up information about a particular kind of phone that I almost missed the innovations happening elsewhere.

Let’s not even talk about Facebook and Twitter.

And this will be the future – a world of puppets.

Running from the Digital World

Did you know that your eyes can constantly see the tip of your nose (or more!)? They just learn to ignore it.

We all are aware that our activities are being monitored online. We can see samples of it everyday – the ads that we online, the “add friend” that pops up on Facebook… but like our eyes ignore the nose, we ignore these little things. Sometimes, we install ad blockers, we click on the ‘do not send my data’ or ‘delete my data’ and believe that we are secure.

Recently, while cleaning up my computer, I installed a few tools that analysed the amount of data that was going out from my computer.

Google Chrome showed massive activity. It was sending several packets of information to sites, which on a quick search turned out to be a ‘security’ company. The interesting part about this was I had no sites open at that point. Just Chrome and an empty tab. I shut down Chrome and there were some sporadic things still being sent.

Then, there was the infamous Windows 10. Windows takes a few years to perfect their products, which is strange considering their bandwidth. Windows 10 tells you that to ensure your security there are certain things they want you to use. I could probably delve into what exactly is being sent out, but hell! knowing the way things work, I know they are tracking quite a few key things.

I decided to veer away from the popular tools – Chrome etc and switch to something that was good but not as popular. Strangely, though the browser has been around for decades, several sites do not support it. I’ve to install different components for this. The one good thing though was I was not automatically signed into every Google product I did – and Google pushed hard. Some sites threw me out, even though I tried to login. Some sites put up a pop up every few minutes tell me to sign in via Facebook or Google+ ‘For a better experience’.


We are conditioned to tap on ‘Sign in with Facebook / Google’ for any site. It makes life less irritable and it is one less password to remember. But all of these things add up to your user behaviour. The sites and Facebook show you news that they think you prefer.. so if you’ve clicked on two links about Shah Rukh Khan being detained at the airport, they show you similar links about celebrities. They do not show you more links about racial profiling and the terrorist watch programs at the airports. Nope, you are very subtly directed to read more about the celebs and leave things like violation of privacy behind.

You read about Leonardo DiCaprio making a statement about the environment. The next they show you is a link about his girlfriend or him sunbathing somewhere. They don’t show you links about global warming and what our industries are doing.

The ‘curated’ content or ‘personalized’ experience these sites are touting, including the social media platform will keep you in a cage. Is this intentional? Conspiracy Theorists and some others believe so. Or it could just be the ‘algorithm’. The result, however, remains the same. You remain in a cage that you are not even aware about. You are the protagonist of your own Truman Show.

Most people, including me, do not realise how easy it is to shape their influences. You read what your friends share. You read what your newsfeed says. You read what is ‘suggested’ and rarely venture beyond that. So some issues come to the forefront – the death of a Dalit student, the rape of a 12-year old, cow slaughter. Important topics, no doubt. But what about the other stories that you are not reading about? That barely surface from this nonsense and are buried because they did not get enough likes… simply because it was not written about well enough or simply did not contain enough gore to make it interesting.

And what if, and we go into the conspiracy theory mode here, one day the government decides that there’s too much trouble being caused by a particular topic and they want to trend something else to take away the attention? Do you think this hasn’t happened? Do you think this won’t happen? After all, we are all sheep and we follow the herd. So you are happy reading about SRK’s detention, random arguments about local languages and arguments about pellet guns, while elsewhere, something more serious is happening. And we’ll never know about it… because the only person who wrote about it on a blog has gone quiet and the blog disappeared.

Google+ vs Facebook

My mind’s cluttered with a million things and what i really need is an organizer that can really sort everything out for me. Something that can read my mind and automatically classify things according to priority, deadlines, categories and even include cross-referencing and plot out the day according to my geographical location.

But no one is working on such a thing.

What they are working on is a new version of a ‘social’ network – Google+

And then they are spending more time talking about this so-called network and comparing it to Facebook and how FB got punched in the face.

To me, G+ is like a combination of Twitter and a bit of Facebook. So they took Tweets, removed the character limit, took friend’s list from FB and called it ‘circles’ and made cool interfaces and included their old chat stuff and ‘hangouts’ (which is chat again, if you think of it) and there was G+.

Kudos to Google for coming up with something like that. The best part about G+ is you can work it all from within your Gmail, which is something we all are hooked to anyway.

But if G+ Facebook’s rival? It could be… but Google has already had plenty of awesome projects that never really took off because it was way ahead of its time.

I love G+’s “Spark” feature and I hate that anyone can follow you.

But what else is new? How does it help me?

Now, can someone get started on that organizer?

Facebook Mail

That was the next obvious step in the world of social networking. We all knew this was coming at some stage.

The question, however, is – will we really use it like Gmail? Facebook and its founders are brilliant, so I’m sure this will be quite a competitor to Gmail in terms of its offerings. But the thing that is between the lines – Privacy.

Google never caused us as much worry as Facebook has in the past few months. Mark Zuckerberg has gone from being this cool… a little nerdy but cool… genius to a guy who just wants to grab as much money as possible, damn the consequences.

Facebook knows more about me than anyone on earth. They have what we call “comprehensive data.” A particular group of friends might get to see some links, some photos, know some incidents about me. But Facebook has all of that. Including status messages about incidents that I do not even remember. (Yes, we all do get personal sometimes on public platforms. We all like to be heard bitching.)

Facebook also knows what I like to read, which sites I visit, what photos I like etc. Now – Email.

Going back a little bit before moving ahead –

There were murmurs and some concern about 3 years ago when Gmail started putting up ads which were very relevant to the content in your emails. If you were writing about renting a house, voila! there were ads about houses for rent and such. People wondered if Google was reading their email. Then Google came out and said “Well, it is only machines that are reading your email. And they aren’t really reading it. They scan it for certain words and pull out ads related to that.”

And somehow that turned to “Oh it is only machines! That is fine then!”

Did anyone wonder if these machines also transmitted some content to anywhere else? Or store these little nuggets of information in their vast memories? The question has been haunting me for the past few days because I’ve been getting a loooot of “Find Your Life Partner” mails that are not marked as spam. Google has a fairly decent spam filter so I wonder why these mails are getting routed to my inbox, despite repeatedly marking them as spam.

While in conversation with a friend, I remembered this nugget of privacy issues from 2007 and I figured since there is a lot of talk about weddings in my mails, given half the people I know are getting hitched etc. I wondered how that would translate to other things though.

Now it turns out Google accidentally (oops) has been collecting personal information from people who weren’t wise or savvy enough to password protect their wi-fi data. (And people wonder why our generation has trust issues!)

So if the most trusted internet giant has begun to leak like this, what would Facebook – who has blatantly stated that privacy is an evolving thing and we should all open our doors to the entire world – do with access to my mail?

Hey! Sure they might be really conscious with the email and all. But at this point, I wouldn’t put it past Zuckerberg to say “hey fellas, if you didn’t want us to read and share it, you shouldn’t have simply called the person and not emailed it.”

Facebook has done a lot of damage control since March. But certain things linger in our memories… Of course, most of us signed up for an email the minute they were announced. What we do with it is a different thing though.

The best thing about Gmail is the integration of everything… it is a one-stop sign in for search engines, emails, chat and more. Facebook, however, is blocked in several offices where Gmail is tolerated. How would that work? Facebook is still considered a social thing, a fun thing.

And right now the question is – how much do you want Facebook to know?

Side note: A series of investigations on the Wall Street Journal pointed out that various nuggets of seemingly innocent information was being sold to various marketing firms. To the uninitiated, it might seem like this long string of numbers couldn’t possibly reveal the most personal data – name, address/email. But anyone with sufficient skills could perhaps say that it isn’t that hard to trace out the numbers to a particular source. We are all numbered fugitives on the internet and privacy is an illusion we all hide behind.

While we can’t do much about those e-traces we leaves behind (particularly if you are living outside the US, where cookies are just accepted), we would definitely like to control certain things what we can.

News That Shocks

It has been a day of news reading after a long time. And I discovered that some news still has the ability to shock me. Or some are so absurd that you are glad it was printed/published.

The article on WSJ today about Indian women opting for a particular time for cesarean birth so it would be an ‘auspicious time.’ I wonder what exactly is happening to urban India. The more choices we are given, the weirder we get. I recently read another article somewhere that stated ‘medical tourism’ in India now  included ‘surrogacy pregnancies.’

In other words, baby factories. Yes. The nation, which has the reputation of being one of the most conservative and populous, is now manufacturing babies for those who can afford to pay from abroad. And now this practice is legal too! I maybe get the need for a couple to want a surrogate mother. But is it morally right for them to invest in a woman who really doesn’t have an option, keeps this pregnancy a secret from everyone else, lives literally under house arrest for 9 months and gives them a baby at the end of it? The women were quoted as saying they would never mention this outside that compound or really want to see the baby. This is yet another kind of a sweat shop and I’ve a feeling that if this ever gets out to those women’s families or neighbours, they would be ostracized. And the Indian government is actually sponsoring this?!?!

Sergent Calvin Gibbs.

For those who are unaware, he is one of the American soliders currently under trial for killing Afghan citizens for sport when he was on military duty in the region.

The story has been going on for so long that it was buried deep in my memory. But I read an account on the NYTimes today, where his friends are defending the man. Is he guilty? That is for the courts to decide. A lot of misconduct did occur in Afghanistan and I’m sure there are plenty of people responsible. It is the Courts’ jobs to decipher who and how.

But I do wonder what makes a person treat another human so horribly? I read about child soldiers in Somalia, in India. I read about soliders in Iraq killing and torturing other people for ‘sport’ and I wonder How. These are people who came from normal families in whatever country. Does holding a gun make them feel invincible and gives them the power to grossly abuse their powers?


Facebook. Google. The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg cleaning up after himself.

Yes. Read it all. And the more I read about it, the funnier I find it. The man seems more and more to be an egomaniac. I remember watching this movie – Revenge of the Geeks – when I was in high school. The title says it all. And it was kind of cool then to see the underdog winning. And then Bill Gates happened, and the geeks/nerds got their ultimate revenge.

So when Mark Zuckerberg happened, geeks had mostly lost their ‘aww’ value. And Zuckerberg can be quite… unreal and greedy, which was annoying. At least Bill Gates was just giving you software to run your computer. But Zuckerberg takes your most private information and then says “hey you have to tell this to the world so I can make more money” and then tries to push you into believing that this will what the world will be – everyone spilling their dirty secrets in public. Is this his interpretation of ‘world without boundaries’?

Everyone has secrets and skeletons in their closets. And even when i’m sharing a bunch of that not-so-scary skeleton with the world, I would like to keep that to a small section of the world. My secrets. My vote to say who gets to share it. Maybe I do not want to tell Zuckerberg about my liking for… yellow slippers. Silly but hey! My wish, right? Wrong is what he has to say.

Facebook has a bug. You cannot block Mark Zuckerbug. Actually, I’m not sure if it is a bug or if they fixed it since it was reported.

And now the fears are Google might do the same. Facebook has information you intentionally revealed. Google has bytes of everything you ever did on the internet. Did you google for ways to kill a rat? Your boss? Google owns the world with its browsers, mail, chat and whatever else. True, so far they haven’t seemed aggressive in using your information to sell ads or tell you outright that they’ll use whatever you post on Picassa or email people or chat or whatever and sell that information to marketeers to make a pot load of money.

But maybe they do. They have an algorithm that picks out words from your email and conversation and displays those ads on your task bar. Notice what ads are being displayed on the top of your Inbox the next time you log into Gmail. So maybe they aren’t stating it out loud yet, but when Facebook is being aggressive (or you could call it the stupidity of youth) you have to be careful about what the giant Google could do, more softly and more dangerously.

How Much Does Google Rule You?

Me – Absolutely!

I got my first email account when email was still catching up. During the time when email invites had to be sent. I actually started off with Yahoo, unlike many people whose primary account used to be Hotmail.

And then I shifted to Google and there I stayed till one day Google locked me out stating “Your account seems to be sending a lot of spam. We have locked your account temporarily while we sort this out” or some such thing. There was no definition about ‘temporary’ and I flipped. All my contacts, all my mails – my whole fricking life was in that mail account. Which is when I got wise, created another account and learnt things like backing up, auto-forwarding etc.

Of course, google still remains primary. It is a verb. And they are slowly taking over the world, as conspiracy theorists put it.

And then I discovered blogger… so they have all my pictures and thoughts. And then there was Google Reader – where you can pull in all the information you read on the web and read it in ‘one place’ (find it a little chaotic actually). So google now knows what you like to read. Google also knows what you read more and what you read less and what you just subscribe to but usually mark “read”.

Then there is Picassa – with all the possible pictures you shot, your aunt shot and you downloaded… searching out every single bit on your computer (and how many actually log into settings to say ‘do not scan this folder’)

And now, Chrome – which I think is a sleek browser. And then they’ve Google itself – the original search engine – which knows whatever you key in to search. I have absolutely lost the effort to research about anything. Actually research is wikipedia and reading all the results on google (well, some!). And googling addresses, areas, looking at streets on the google street viewer,  google earth – which can find people standing on any corner of any corner street (they are watching you right now!).

And yeah now do not forget the google phone. Including an app that will allow you to voluntarily tell the world where you are standing right now. I’m a little glad it isn’t available anywhere but in the US.

However, I am dying for google voice. Of course, they get your phone number and everything else then too… but for cheaper international calls and stuff like that, who cares. I mean they know everything about me already.

It should perhaps make me paranoid how much they own me. I cannot imagine life with google and I was wondering what would happen if tomorrow google said I would have to pay for all these services. I would perhaps pay. Like I would for the google operating system when it comes out.

As paranoid as I am, I am also super lazy. And the one touch integration makes it so simple. Bookmark, read, mail, dream, write.

It is a little freaky. What about you?

Song of the day: Made in India – Alisha