Opinion

Ignorance in the age of information

| Updated on May 04, 2021

Chronological feeds and subscription models will help curb the creation of echo chambers   -  scyther5

The internet era has spawned ‘ideological prisons’. To break free we need curated sect of information providers

Raghav Chopra and Pranav Pratap Singh Baghel

While unveiling the iPhone in 2007 one of the first things Steve Jobs said was “it fits beautifully in the palm of your hands”, highlighting its intended purpose: convenience. One doesn’t need to be retrospective in order to acknowledge that the scope of this ‘convenience’, in Jobs’ own words, had been quite material; providing his customers with the features of an iPod, a cell-phone and the entire internet in one device.

The era of smart phones spearheaded by Apple stepped into a symbiosis with the era of information and ringed in an easy access to ‘knowledge’ and thus started the age of epistemological abundance.

When you become the product

In his article ‘The Machine Always Wins: What Drives Our Addiction to Social Media’, Richard Seymour underlines the digital-media landscape as the biggest ever writing project where all who become a part of it are capable of producing text under the bait of social interaction, advantaging from it so much so that after a point it becomes a disadvantage not to be a part of it.

Our obliviousness to the fact that we are ultimately only writing to a ‘machine’ that is then relaying on the message highlights its addictive nature working on the modalities of manipulation techniques much like BF Skinner’s Skinner Box (an experiment to control behaviour of pigeons and rats). Every click, comment, like, and share becomes a tiny reward that creates an insatiable need for more. ‘We are users’, Seymour writes, ‘much like cocaine addicts are users’.

A parallel in making

While social media was busy selling our attention for advertising dollars, there was a different kind of ignorance unfolding that we would eventually subject ourselves to; the kind capable of spreading violent extremism, formerly conceived as beyond the limits of online social interaction. In 2016 a monumental shift in approach, particularly by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, transformed the foundations of information dissemination on social media — these corporations started calibrating their algorithms to create personalised feeds instead of chronological ones.

We now had technological giants collecting numerous data points based on online activity and programming their automatic segregation in such a way that users were displayed content they were most likely to engage with. Confirmation bias, a cognitive tendency that has us cherry-pick information validating our beliefs and ideas, got complicated even further: concurring and agreeable content took over our web feeds without us consciously or voluntarily seeking it. The promise of free internet started creating ideological prisons.

As internet became cheaper content from around the world found its way into bedrooms and living rooms eventually squeezing itself up to ‘fit beautifully in the palm of our hands’. With information came in the noise. Every possible view-point found a place on the internet and an audience ready to accept or reject it at the click of a button or the swipe of a thumb — people could now choose what to believe in.

One needn’t be socially informed — just scroll through the comments section of any politically motivated post to relate with this phenomenon. Specific to India is the rise of ‘Andh-bhakts’ and ‘Sickulars’, terms (apart from many others) used as swears for those subscribing to either the Right or the Left of the ideological spectrum respectively, with pro/anti-party sentiments at the centre of it.

Once categorised as either, it becomes unimaginably easy to write off opinions or even facts from the ‘opposing’ side as propaganda. Just as easy is the mass-production of interchangeable versions of reality that can at once be hailed as ‘rectification of history’ and at the same time be discredited as ‘fake news’.

From Covid-19 vaccines to climate change, scepticism is spilled on scientific evidence creating large sects of people expressing their concerns over the veracity of research and the motives of academics. Even seemingly irrefutable events have become subjected to contentious debates that do not seem to bring the warring factions to any agreement.

As audience we tend to fixate on the ‘gospel truths’ spoken by a set of people we idolise. On a larger scale are specific influencers carrying enormous social currency that can sway the masses in their favour. Information generated by IT cells of political parties and endorsed by politicians who enjoy cult like following creates illusions of reality that eventually generates a set of early adopters that in turn facilitate the top-down flow of ideological prejudice into actionability on the ground.

Donald Trump’s claims of a fraudulent election were channelled through Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram and soon spiralled into an unprecedented attack on the Capitol building right as he stood on a podium avowing reprisal. The fact that most credible news sources, academics and even Republican senators around the country vouched for the fairness of elections fairness, or the lack of evidence of fraud, did little to dissuade the angry mob.

Un-simulate

Besides familiar suggestions of ‘self-education’ and ‘open-mindedness’, what can curb this blatant violation of intellectual independence?

An overstated and unlikely solution is the adoption of chronological feeds by social media companies and the introduction of subscription models, thereby reducing the dependence on advertising revenue and a consequent need to propagate addictive content.

Tech companies find themselves in a position of undue influence. Their own platforms can be used to create awareness about user behaviour and encourage permutations that enable access to a diaspora of opinions. Most tech companies, for instance, have designed their interface in a manner than even with the presence of various security features, these settings aren’t easily navigable nor known to the user.

A far more philosophical and overarching reality is that we determine the world we build. In the digital realm, a practical solution that is appealing is the conscious cultivation of one’s own ‘digital garden’, a carefully curated sect of information providers that extend beyond what one wants to hear and curates credible information from across the spectrum. If only we know we’re in a prison shall we be able to break free from it.

Chopra is with International Innovation Corps (University of Chicago Trust)

Published on April 23, 2021

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