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’.

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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.

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The Delights of A “Non Smart” Phone

Being without social networks has its perks. The phone size gets a lot smaller.

The texts are not in a series for you to scroll through it and remind yourself about all the things you were supposed to do and have not done.

You do not get constantly woken up by the sounds of beeps – Text messages, Whatsapp, Facebook messages, Facebook notifications, mails, tweets and whatever else you are subscribed to.

You do not feel compelled to start your day by reaching out to your phone as soon as your eyes are open and scroll through all the messages received, allowing that to set your mood for the day.

Your phone remains silent a lot more. Most people don’t bother calling and prefer messaging, so you might have missed that important meeting notifications. But you didn’t know about it, so you cannot stress about it. Right now.

Logging onto Facebook has a novelty value. You actually go “hmm” on all the posts. You do not get annoyed by photographs and videos of everyone’s kids and might even decide to view one of them when you log on from your computer.

You get distracted a lot less. That is, once you get over the habit of automatically reaching for the phone when your mind goes blank every other minute.

You learn to listen to the voices in your head.

You finally pick up those books you bought in the strong hope of wanting to read them.

You might forget appointments since they are not listed in the calender, but then again, since the alarm didn’t go off, you continue with your peace blissfully (for the short duration at least).

You learn to recognize, if not memorize, more numbers given that your simple phone does not have the capacity to store your 3000 numbers and email IDs and all other relevant details.

You forget about Candy Crush and all those games and learn to enjoy the frustration of a small screen and a silly game.

Most importantly, the phone fits in your pocket, can fall a few times without any worry and even if it does break, all it costs is a couple of grand and a loss of 10 numbers that you probably remember anyway.

Communication

“Communication”

Being in the world of communication – via reporting, PR or photography – I should be an expert. Infact, I do call myself an expert to clients. But in the past few weeks, perhaps it is an overload of the word but I have begun to hate “communication”.

There is a constant inflow of messages on various platforms – text messages, calls, Facebook, mails, LinkedIn, Whatsapp and a few others – and all of them need an instant reply. I often forget to reply simply because I do not have the mindspace to compose intelligent, coherent, diplomatic replies to each of them.

This has backfired quite badly, even in a professional capacity. In hindsight, perhaps if I had written a mail to the client giving them a status, I would have been better off. The client wouldn’t be pissed, I wouldn’t be frustrated and things would have been a lot better. 

I began to think of the ways I could harness all my forms of communication into a simpler, easier way. One article I came across (by chance) mentioned that you do not check your email as and when. You check your email and messages at specific intervals and you “allot” time to reply to that. I did think of doing this. But when you are juggling two equally important and equally hectic jobs, it is hard to ‘allot’ time to reply to emails. 

I get an average of 5 emails per hour, and at least two of them need some kind of action. I get about 4 whatsapp messages every hour, and some of these can be ignored / delayed. 

But in this world of chaos, delay actually means never.

Which means I have a pile of pending work and I do not know when I’m going to get around to finishing it. I have missed conversations with friends, funny jokes that could have perhaps lessened the drama of the day, meetings that could have been important and proposals that could have fetched me what I was looking for. 

What I would really appreciate – an app that I could tap and it could record my “to-do” list as I speak in bullet and sub-bullet format. A decently working voice command (Sorry folks, i’m not an iPhone user and i shall never be) that understands my voice and my accent and will not write “porn” when I say “pen” or some such other innocent word. 

Communication, indeed.

India vs US in the cellphone service provider game

When you talk cellphones, you need to first consider three main countries – United States, China and India. These are the fastest growing regions for cellphones and the most lucrative. China has the highest mobile subscriber rate, closely followed by India. United States stands third but in terms of mobile penetration rate, it is the highest.

Mobile Penetration rate is the number of active mobile phones in a population. Given the tendency to have multiple phones and default subscriptions, it is natural that India has a lower penetration rate. But when one looks at the kind of US telecom laws vs Indian telecom laws, I wonder if we are going the scary US way.

This difference comes up sharply tonight, against the backdrop of T Mobile announcing that they are dropping their contract plans, offering free tethering and cutting those annoying voicemail messages down to the beep. 

Contracts were often considered the best way to get a fancy new gadget. Considering you pay the total bill off in installments, a $600 phone doesn’t feel that pricey. Of course, what most people did not notice, was that their bills did not drop even after the 2 year contract. A friend of mine who lives in the US argues that she rarely sticks to a phone for two entire years. She upgrades the  minute her contract is up, or sometimes earlier, so she never paid heed to this difference. I am no longer in touch with the market pulse of the US, but from what I know, not everyone does this. 

Regardless, the two-year contract seemed like a dream for us on the Indian shores and quite annoying on the US shores.

This contract system was introduced in India with the arrival of the iPhone. But in this context, the biggest service provider Airtel, expected you to pay up the entire INR 44,000 ($880) for the phone in a single payment and yet, you would be locked in for the same service provider. Why? That is just the way it plays, bro. 

Weirdly, several people signed up for this too.

The tariffs and packages… in 2002, cellphones were just entering the market. They were big, bulky and network charges were extremely high. Calls were charged at INR 12 / minute, an extremely high rate considering you could talk for half an hour on the landline for the same amount. Scarily, even incoming calls were charged and so were text messages. ‘Missed call’ became the fashion with everyone. Similar to a pager, you would give a single ring on a cellphone indicating you required a call back. Only emergencies, big shot politicians and real estate people carried around and actually spoke on cellphones.

Three years later, everyone had a cellphone. Service providers offered free text messaging to all the college students, leading to hours of illicit relationships and flirty messages. Call charges dropped and nobody was charged for incoming calls. It was 2005.

It is now 2013, and somehow, US seems to be stuck in the parody of being charged if someone calls YOU. It doesn’t matter who it is, but unless you are on an unlimited plan, you are supposed to pay for talking on your phone. Period. You pay to receive text messages. You pay to send text messages. You pay to retrieve your voicemail. And you pay a few extra cents listening to “if you want to send a page, please press #”. A page? Really? Surprisingly, the US telecom authorities aren’t keen to do much about this.

Of course, US subscribers do not really have to pay much for 3G like we do, nor do they have to pay if they travel out of state. 

“Roaming” was the key that service providers used in India to keep their revenues. That was where incoming calls were charged too. 

Given the intense rate of growth in India and hence, the competition, most service providers have been forced to lower their rates. I make calls from another state at the same price of a local call 5 years ago. And if TRAI is to be believed, this too will be gone soon.

We crib about many things here though… the high prices for 3G network, bad network and dropped calls. and TRAI’s new regulation of limiting the number of SMS. 

But as I remember more about the quality of network in the US and the kind of charges they pay for the same, I am grateful to TRAI and don’t mind the issues that much. Network is a problem that is faced by every growing country. Scams… well, they are a problem we’ve faced forever. Frankly, Airtel does need some competition and I’d be glad to see them taken down. 

Otherwise, least I do not have to pay to hear the nonsense someone else spouts.

Alone In Cyber Space

It was perhaps 10 years ago. I got a mail saying I have an invite from something called ‘Gmail’ to open a new account. These invites were treasured. There were only a 100 given to each person and you had to be a real close pal before the person would accede to sending you one.

Of course, we didn’t know about test groups, collecting personal data and marketing strategies then. The world of internet was in its nascent stages. It was simply cool to have this.

I’m trying hard to remember how Gmail looked then. I simply cannot remember, or gmail hasn’t changed that much. Of course, they integrated their chat into the mail, leaving its competitors Yahoo and Hotmail in the dust. And there was that awesome search feature, with a conversation style mail chain that drove me nuts.

Being used to mailboxes with limited space, you felt compelled to clean out your inbox everyday.  The inbox figure had to read (0) with no bold items. There would probably be two mails on your screen on any given day. And then comes Gmail, with all the mails, right there in your face. People like me suffered. But like everything else, we got used to it. We even got used to the ads that were being thrown up every now and then, even if we did have strong discussions about how someone was reading our mail.

Then came Facebook, who prodded you to share more information and photographs and slowly made us think it was okay to share our crazy birthday photos with the entire world. Privacy was a word they did not want you to hear.

It was about then that I began thinking about the word ‘privacy’. Who were these people who would post ads for that book I was thinking about reading? They claimed Amazon was offering a discount on it. Who were these people who were suggesting I read about the French President’s latest antics? Were they reading my mail? Were they listening to my chats? Were they following me?

Yes, this was a wonderful time for paranoid people and the ones with OCD to be alive.

But we got used to that too. We got used to seeing 150 mails in our spam folder every day. We learnt not to break open a bottle of champagne anytime we got a mail from Nigeria.

Today, when I look at my multiple email IDs, where much of the mail is all about newsletters I’ve signed up for and offers from a site I visited months ago, I wonder about the state of communication.

It is perhaps understandable that one gets overwhelmed by the sheer amount of junk in our lives. If we unsubscribed from all those newsletters we never read, if we mark everything else as spam except for official and personal mails, what do we have left? 5 emails a day?

Even as a person who needs to be constantly connected, I get overwhelmed with the number of platforms we are juggling. Facebook, Gmail, Skype, Whatsapp, Calls and text messages. I’m sure I’ve forgotten… oh yes, LinkedIn, Twitter.

And perhaps there is someone sitting out there thinking of how to ‘integrate’ all this into one platform. Except, that is no longer simple due to registered corporations, shareholders, advertisers and revenue policies.

Somehow, this is supposed to be making my life easier. Supposed to be helping me connect better. Instead, all it does is create the image of little green men running around in my head muttering about things I couldn’t care less about.

And now I hear there are more things coming up.

A friend asked me to sign up for 500px. Flickr is dying and this is the new future, he claimed.

Another asked me to sign up for Pinterest. Forget about del.i.cious and all those things. This is where you find everything you want, she said.

Another asked me to log into FourSquare. We can catch up if we are ever in the same area.

But maybe my curiosity is dying or I’m getting old.

I absolutely do not want to remember one more password.

The Smart Phone Bug

We all catch this bug every now and then… some of us fall victims several times a year.

I’ve slowly been leaning towards the touch-screen, smart phone genre for a while… and finally I got around to reading the reviews and comparisons between the HTC Sensation and the Samsung Galaxy S2.

I cannot decide which one is more awesome and which one I would like to own. In the interim, discussions began between my friends about which is awesome and why the iPhone is better/worse.

I’ve had this discussion several times and I was even an iPhone fan till I bought one and then, infamously (or is it infamously?) returned it in a few hours. I hated the experience of the iPhone… too smooth, too expensive and what annoyed me the most – I had no control over my phone.

If I pay close to half a lakh for a cellphone, shouldn’t I be expected to have complete control over it? But Apple is like a strict parent, censoring what I can download and what I cannot and what I can share.

True, they do have brilliant interfaces, a great screen and a good camera. But now that the others have learnt the art of smart-phone making, Apple needs to do something different.

In India particular (and pardon me if I am repeating myself), you buy a phone for about 40 grand, yet you cannot use it with any other network other than the one you buy it from. In other countries, where you buy the phone on a cap and hence get it a little cheaper, it makes a little sense to be ‘locked’ into the network for a particular duration.

How does that make sense in India when you are paying the full price of the phone? And yes, if you ‘unlock’ it, you lose the warranty. And the bluetooth… can someone please explain to me the purpose of having an atrophying bluetooth in the iPhone?

Anyway, back to the HTC-Samsung war… which one is better? I like Android… I like the fact that I have majority control over my phone. I can lock it, throw it, download any sort of nonsense and be solely responsible for it.

HTC Sensation
Samsung Galaxy S2

 

Nostalgia

Nostalgia: yearning for the past.

Or as someone else put it, a “psychiatric disorder.”

That perhaps suits the state of the current generation. Our generation is supposedly given more to nostalgia than any other previous generation, perhaps due to the pace at which things change.

I came across this blog where every post starts off with ‘remember when’. I don’t know how old the author is, but at 25, I have a series of ‘remember whens’ that make me feel incredibly old. Or like I’ve lived a long time.

I lived during the age when there were no computers – and if I ever tell that to any kid today, they would look at me as ancient. There were no cellphones either. I’m not going to get into the debate of if communication was easier or better in those times. I barely even remember those times… except for this one night when I was having a sleepover at my place and one of the girls wanted to call her boyfriend (who being super rich, did have a cellphone). I did have a phone line outside my room, but all the time my friend was whispering sweet nothings into the phone, me and the other girl stood anxiously hoping my mother wouldn’t come out of her room and demand why the hell we had to make a call at 1 in the morning. Cellphones definitely solved that problem.

But there are other things that I do miss… like the orange chocolates we used to get for 5 paise. That is like… a really, really small fraction of a rupee. Or these things we called ‘lollies’ – frozen ice packed into plastic that we sucked on after school. It would cost 50 paise… now, I barely even get to see those coins. And yeah… mango pulp called ‘Naturo’… they don’t even make those things anymore. I do love my Snickers and all those, but I definitely miss those little sweet things.

We discovered a little shop near my office recently who still stocked the orange candy. All my friends at work, regardless of what region we came from, were familiar with it… and after going back thrice to buy more of those, we ended up buying the whole bottle.

Are these longings for a simpler time – like childhood? Or simply easier times… without so much stress?

Life was easier then… I did not have to go to the local mall to do my shopping… the grocery list could be dropped off at that little store (with your brand names) and he’d bring the entire lot to your house – without a delivery charge. You’d have a running account with him for those other one-off purchases, which could be settled at the end of the month.

Coffee was filter coffee at SLV and Coffee Days didn’t exist. CCDs were quite a novelty when they opened – the last few months of my 12th standard. We would chill out there after college, drinking a ‘tropical iceberg’. 10 years later (or more), the menu is still unchanged, the quality has gone down and the prices, up. College kids now prefer sheesha/hookah and ferroro roscher shakes.

Some changes are for the better. Thanks to chain restaurants, more options for home delivery of food. Or the malls… now you can pick up certain items without raising an eyebrow, or having to wear an elaborate disguise to pick it up. But some… make things complicated.