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Guest column: Prisoners of the Algorithm

Prisoners of the Algorithm

A quick question: What`s to stop us even as we hurtle to hell with our fingers poised to click?

The answer is: nothing but our self-control/willpower/ self-discipline. And if you are rolling your eyes at that answer, well, so am I.

I came deliberately late to two docudramas fast acquiring cult status. One that shows us loudly and clearly just how our lives are being manipulated by algorithms, supercomputers and by advertisers. The second that traces the scary path of an online hater.

The existing dilemma was displayed in all its scary proportions. Unfortunately, the solutions were all Band-Aid ones, purely stopgap in its nature. Like getting off notifications, deleting most of the apps, not clicking  on the quizzes that are dead giveaways to your personality, not clicking on the ads, not  mindlessly forwarding  messages you are not a hundred per cent sure about.

Really, I ask? Think about it. There you are, scrolling aimlessly, which you have been doing entirely unwittingly for the past two hours now. You come across a quiz that will reveal your nature/intelligence/past life avatar, based on your name/date of birth/ three BFFs, and you are expected not to click and play? You come across a nifty dress or a pair of shoes that verily resemble the stuff of your dreams and you are expected not to click and find out where you can get it, how you can get it, how much it costs? You come across a forward that has you cracking up, and you know a whole bunch of friends would also crack up, and you are expected not to forward some joy into their pandemically bleak days?

Actually, the answer is yes. The less time you spend on your social media apps, the better. The less number of apps you download onto your phone, the better. The less you offer yourself as clickbait, the better.

In theory, that is. Because the alarming urgency of the news that we are puppets controlled by algorithmic hands, just doesn`t seem to be getting across  to us, not seriously enough. When we weigh the pros and cons of social media, the former continues to outweigh the latter. We make new friends, we get off on the highs of all the likes we can garner, we play with filters till we can`t recognise the glamorous creatures we masquerade as online.

But I shouldn’t tar every user with the same brush. Some people clearly understand how social media and fake news have brought us to the brink of culture wars. Some of us recognise that it suits the controllers to keep us in a state of eternal anger, ready to turn savagely on anything and everything that offends us. Some of us see quite clearly just how our scrolling habits are bringing out the worst in us.

Some people don’t rush to answer every text, click approval on every post. Some — wonder of wonders — actually use the mobile phone as just that, a device to make and take calls. Instead of being on social media, they read, write, paint, cook, go for a walk, snooze.

This is a crisis that has already broken over our heads. Our analogue lives have taken a backseat. Post-truth forwards are believed more than the observed truth. We believe what we want to believe, and the algorithms ensure we stay happy doing so.

However, expecting all users to exercise control, to cut down on their phone usage, to be more circumspect, is like crying for the moon. People are mostly acquiescent when it comes to external regulations, even though they might grumble at the loss of freedom, privacy, etc. Only, there seems to be no external controls on this social media monster that is doing a Pac-Man on us, slowly gobbling us up, one interest at a time.

Most of the wired populace understands that much of social media is inimical to our physical/mental/emotional wellbeing. But most of the wired populace is also confident that they are on top of the situation.

So, there we are. Hurtling towards hell with our fingers hovering above the buttons, happy smiles on our faces.

https://www.newindianexpress.com/magazine/voices/2020/dec/20/prisoners-of-the-algorithm-2237683.html

This appeared in The New Sunday Express Magazine of 20 Dec 2020.

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floating in cyberspaceguest columnNew Sunday Express magazineprisoners of the algorithmTNIE

Sheila Kumar • December 20, 2020


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