I am, what they call, a ‘90s kid’ – born and raised in the era of the TV news, newspaper editorials, personal computer, Cartoon Network, and dial-up internet. Mine is a peculiar generation that has witnessed not just the historic turn of a millennium, but also a radical shift in the very nature of our collective, interdependent existence.
In stark contrast to those days of slothful living, I now live in a time that is visibly different. In some ways, the 90s were the quintessential calm before the storm, and in retrospect, there was certainly an overwhelming sense of finality to that ‘calm’. In other words, we are now in the eye of a storm. A storm called the “internet”. Thanks to the maddeningly rapid technological advancements of the past one decade, we put our feet into the ‘information revolution’ – the age of hyperconnectivity and social media – even before we could fathom the full length and breadth of it.
As a cross-generational phenomenon, the so-called information revolution has had some drastic consequences – ones that most of us haven’t even come to terms with yet.
Loss of Individual Autonomy
The post Cold War generation has witnessed the dramatic rise of the behemoth called ‘internet’ and its beast-child, ‘social media’. Despite several quarters of the society underplaying the internet’s effects, fact was that the average individual was not going to be the same ever again. Neither was human society as a macro unit.
The information age, besides shrinking the civilisation, has also decisively impacted its individual constituents. Earlier, every human being enjoyed a certain degree of conscious autonomy. This autonomy was based on two things: a voluntary sense of isolation from broader knowledge systems; and the ownership of endemic information.
Today, with the coming of social media, both have unraveled.
From Isolation To Hyper-connection
Before the internet age (as it stands on this date), the individual – as a social being – enjoyed a significant sense of isolation from the world around her/him.
Take for example the TV news. As a mode of information dissemination, it was (still is) a staccato piece of broadcasting technology. The average household, owing to its preoccupations of survival (like a 9-5 job), consumed TV news only at certain points of the day. The ‘prime time’ slot , which usually falls in the late evening hour of 8-10 pm, is precisely a product of this time-specific consumption of big information. For the rest of the time in the day, the individual is more or less isolated from the din of the bigger world around.
Same goes for the printed media. The newspaper arrived early morning, and spoke of the happenings of the previous day. Most often, it served as nothing more than a morning accessory, just like the toothbrush, the cup of hot coffee, and the dry biscuits. The pages flipped forward with every passing minute and were put to rest at the strike of the dog’s hour when belts buckled in and ties fastened. Time for office. Eight hours later, the eyes returned to the TV screen and opinions began to crystallise. When the week winded, it was time for magazines, which were basically broad throwbacks to the previous fortnight. More opinions.
The intervening time between the newspaper and the prime time TV was one of an island-like existence when the individual remained largely cut off from manufactured information, plastic opinion, and intrusive outreach of corporations. The individual was to her/his own, as if separated from the outside world by an endearing glass wall.
This has changed. As active cyber citizens, we are now all hooked into a massive continuum of information by virtue of something as small as carrying a smartphone. Thanks to 24×7 push notifications, the ‘cooldown’ period between the morning newspaper and the evening prime time TV does not exist anymore. The average smartphone user is continually receiving, processing, and absorbing an extraordinary amount of information all day long. Most pivotal aspect of this is our dual role as receivers: we are all both perpetrators and victims of the pandemic web of knowledge, opinion, and propaganda. When we tweet, we perpetrate. When we like a tweet, we fall prey.
Besides the fact that now individuals have all day long to think about the happenings of the world beyond their immediate legspace and create corresponding opinions, the direct outcome of this informational integration has been the steady erosion of the individual’s physical sense of isolation. Today, the everyday cyber citizen would press to be ‘alone’ in the truest sense, even in the remotest mountain and the deepest jungle by courtesy of the near-ubiquitous cellphone signal and the vibratory ping of the device. Scroll up, scroll down. Like. Comment. Share. Retweet. Reply. Repeat. This almost goes on forever, save for our sleeping hours.
This stretching and flattening of the information matrix has rendered us daylong consumers of a multitude of information. The immediate implication of this is an overall contraction of the distance and sharpening of the dialectic between the individual and society. The broader implication is a convergence of knowledge systems. All either for the good or the bad.
Is this gradual erosion of isolation a ‘loss’? That depends on how naturally inclined each individual is towards being ‘left to be.’ Yet, to say the least, isolation is an entitlement that every individual must have without any precondition. With the bulging dominance of the internet, we are fast losing this natural right.
Ceding Ownership of Information
As far back as I can remember (which isn’t as far back as it sounds), before the internet age hit us in the face, individuals had ownership of information, notwithstanding state surveillance in some countries. This could be metadata about their own selves or original knowledge that they synthesised. We used to be in control of how much of us must others know. We were our own filters.
But, the average individual today – at least the one who has active social media accounts – is no more the sole proprietor of endemic knowledge. By ‘endemic’, I mean the information that is exclusive to oneself, either organically seeded or externally acquired. Today, we are plugged onto a global super-network of information that is much more pervasive and controlling than most of us might believe. It is almost like an all-encompassing living organism that constantly feeds into and off us.
As concurred by political scientist Ronald Deibert of the Citizen Lab, University of Toronto, with the coming of popular internet, we have begun to turn our lives outward while the institutions that are larger than us (corporations, governments, organisations, etc.) have begun to direct their informational resources inward – towards users, citizens, subjects. This convergence is remarkably decisive and will be the single-most point of inflection insofar as the future of the modern social contract is concerned.
In simple words, we have lost the sole proprietorship of information that emanates from us or directly relates to us., while at the same time, the ‘spatial’ aspect of our existence has blurred. Today, both our next-door neighbour and a stranger sitting 12,000 kms away, are fairly aware of our house’s layout and wall colours. Both of them are also equally aware of what we feel about specific issues, say, transgender rights. Add to this list of ‘knowers’ the country’s government and the government next door. And your cellphone service provider.
From big data platforms to state authorities, a host of seemingly bigger-than-life entities have systematically wrested the exclusive data linked to the individual: from food tastes to political leanings. Even carnal desires.
Has the ceding of this individual autonomy happened voluntarily? Yes and no. It would be fair to say with some amount of determinism that the takeover of big technology was inevitable with the creation of an unregulated public space like the internet. Hence, its futile to blame the surfers of the wave, since technology, historically speaking, has always been subsuming. The printing press subsumed oral histories, the wheel subsumed physical movement, the radio subsumed in-person outreach, and the telephone (partially) subsumed human interactions. Hence, Facebook is not the culprit. The internet is, if at all.
This means that while no one pushed us into cyberspace at gunpoint, the tide of the times and upward progression of forces beyond our direct control (like technology) pulled us all into it. More crucially, we gave in at a subconscious level.
However, that does not preclude the demand for openness from the errant cyberspace. As far as taking back some of our rightful autonomy of existence is concerned, it might not be too late. The first step is to realise and inform ourselves of how much autonomy have we ceded. This could start with something as simple as understanding the end-user agreements of the apps we use every day.
The second step is to pull parts of it back by demanding absolute transparency and accountability from the landlords of the internet: Facebook, Google, Twitter. Not saying they are going to oblige us. But, the demand is the bare minimum we can and must make.
Needless to say, we stand at crossroads of history today. We might just be hurtling down a rusty track on a rickety coach, and not even realising it. This calls for serious introspection. The internet, many argue, was created as a force for good. But, to take it at face value would be to sign a collective death warrant while numbing our own senses.
Angshuman Choudhury is a New Delhi-based policy analyst and independent filmmaker.
Views are the author’s own and do not reflect any editorial line.