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.

Narendra Modi, Godhra and The Internet

Several times in the past week people, including me, have wondered why we keep harping about the 2002 riots. There have been worse riots with death tolls being much higher in the past and a lot of people responsible for this haven’t been brought to justice till date. So why did Narendra Modi win the lucky title of the bad guy.

The answer remains simple. The Internet.

When the 1984 Sikh Riots happened, or the Babri Masjid fiasco, the channels of discussion between people were limited to their neighbours. Sure, we were outraged but we could write “Letters to The Editor” and perhaps one or two would get selected. Nobody could really do anything about it. The media was mostly nationally owned and the foreign correspondents could talk elsewhere.

Internet penetration was quite bad in 2002 as well… but there were more media who could talk about their views. More perspectives for people to hear. 

Fast forward 4 years later, by the time Modi was trying to salvage some things on his end, the social media was taking shape. Internet media had taken root. Blogs were around. A lot more people could add their two cents and these were the most recent riots for reference. At least the most talked about in the India. Sure, there were people dying in Kashmir and in the North-east but the media didn’t talk about it and so we did not.

People made short films. Photographs could be shared on the internet without waiting for verification by a nosy and purist editor. And so they were shared, without verification.

By 2010, when Modi started his PR campaign in earnest, a Google search would pull up the negative stories about him because there were just that many. Till his agency started working towards planting positive stories and wait for the crawlers to do their job, all we knew was of this guy who was responsible for the death of several thousand people. Most of the Facebook-savvy crowd were just being born in 1984 and issues related to those times just were too distant. We would look to the immediate past and there was this guy standing there, big and tall.

It shaped the opinions of a lot of us, who were impressionable at that time. My opinions of Modi and his guilt were shaped by a documentary I watched in college about the Gujarat riots. I went home and tried to read up on it and most of what was available talked about his guilt. The video footage of Modi asking the people what we should do with dissenters made an indelible mark in my mind.

And for the new generation, we wanted answers and accountability, starting somewhere. The somewhere was this one quantitative figure standing in front of us. 

I wonder if Modi would have been so reviled if not for the internet and social media. Or if he would be so loved if not for the internet and the social media. Or if the truth would have been so irrevokably lost if not for the internet. 

Most Indians who are hungry for economic progress have pushed his actions to the back in favor of the promises he brings. The internet makes sure we do not forget Godhra. This post will probably be another one of those floating in the top. But without the access to a blog, I’d have probably scribbled this on a piece of paper, which would be used to wrap the hot bhajjis sold on the street corner. 

There is a long list of people who have remained unanswerable to their mistakes and sins. And perhaps we would have to wait for another decade before we can make any leader accountable for anything, starting with Robert Vadra. Vadra’s sins too would have gone unspoken about if not for the internet, given the amount of influence his wife’s party exerts over certain sections of the media.

Internet. Friend or Foe.

Petition-ed Out

I got yet another petition today, requesting my support and signature for yet another cause. I deleted the mail without bothering to open it. This might make me insensitive and uncaring. 

I’ve signed at least 30 petitions since I got joined the petition-signing bandwagon. If I remember right, one of the earliest petitions I signed was led by a classmate who was trying to save trees or kittens or some such thing. It was a ragged piece of paper and she needed certain amount of signatures and in the weird idealism of youth, it made us feel like we were actually doing something.

That idealism continued and then I remember a petition to stop the killing of blue whales and dolphins in Japan, where the meat is considered a delicacy. Given the low numbers of these beings, the rest of the world felt that the Japs could go without their meat for a while. 

I felt strongly about the issue and proudly added my signature to the petition. I’ve no idea about the outcome. I vaguely remember reading that Japan continues to have the highest rate of whale hunting in any country, despite treaties being signed. Japan’s excuse to scientific research and they continue to eat the byproduct as well. 

Then came “save the tigers’ campaign. Tigers were low in numbers and we really needed to do something to save them. Our answer, probably spearheaded by a national TV channel or celebrity, was to sign a petition. 

And then there were petitions to stop the atrocities in the North East, for justice for someone, for better safety for women and the likes. 

Once you subscribe to a site, we somehow find it easier to delete the mail everyday instead of clicking on the ‘unsubscribe’ link. Belonging to this class, I continued to be flooded with mails about various causes. Every so often, I’d go back to check if any of the petitions had any positive results. 

Petitions, candle light vigils and flash mobs are the ‘status’ symbols of today’s intellectual elites. It always feels good to show a “I signed this petition” on Facebook, or take funky photographs at candle light vigils and post it on your Facebook page. Sometimes, like the Delhi march, some protests do have effects. But very rarely is there a positive effect of the petition signing and vigils. 

I remember the one and only protest I attended – it was near the Commissioner’s office and we were protesting against brutality against women. Some women had been chased out of a pub and beaten up by vigilantes. Filled with anger and angst, I made my way to the protest center. We stood there, chatting and laughing for about an hour, as the organizers ran around trying to keep us off the streets and on the pavement. Some people had posters and the rest of us stood mutely till the Commissioner’s car came by. He moved past without any hassle and went into his office and the rest of us went home, with a sense of satisfaction of having been a part of something and a larger sense of dissatisfaction that nothing really happened. 

My friends continue to argue that these petitions are required. I tried to research if a certain number of signatures on a petition actually have any legal impact, but could find no legal document to support my argument.

Why then do we insist on signing petitions? Has it become the equivalent of “Like This Photo If You Care” and “1 Like = 1 Salute” photographs that make rounds on Facebook. 

Digressing a little, in a recent photograph on 9Gag, one user took up the case of a photograph which compared a child with a horrible deformity to an female actor and said “Like You Think The Child Is As Beautiful As Her.” The user refused to like and support such an argument.

Such an act stresses on the fact that beauty is only physical and creates an idea in the mind of the child – who knows that she is no where as physically perfect – that she needs to have particular attributes to be ‘beautiful’. Her efforts and struggles against her disease, the courage are all belittled by a single photograph where she is compared to a movie star (with all her surgeries and botox) and said “she is a beautiful.” 

True, the intent of the photograph might be saying that the child’s strength makes her beautiful… but quite often, it is a shallow comparision of the two, designed to make others feel good about their righteousness.

Soldiers sacrifice their lives everyday for their country, children struggle with deadly diseases, animals are killed brutally – our liking the photograph does not really give any of their acts validation, nor is it required. Doing something off Facebook – now, that might help.