Challenges in Detoxing from the Digital World

by Kaushiek Pranoo 

 

The Digital Age – Welcome to the Machine 

The Digital Age we are part of today offers us so many comforts and conveniences of technology that no other generation before us has ever had the privilege of enjoying. A simple smartphone today can do what a dozen or more items did a few decades ago. But with great power (of technological capabilities), certainly comes great responsibility. What could this responsibility mean? In my view, very little seems to have transformed about the fundamental sources of human suffering which have remained the same for thousands of years – that as individuals and in many of our social systems, we are still enslaved by our compulsiveness for hate, guilt, greed, fear, jealousy and anger within us. For example, warfare, since ancient times, has evolved from the use of clubs, swords, bows and arrows to guns and bombs, gradually increasing an individual’s capacity for destruction. Today, a single leader may hold the power to press a button, to launch an arsenal of nuclear weapons that can decimate dozens of cities at once and can even trigger a nuclear holocaust. 

If at all history has taught us one thing, it is that investing in expanding our power and capabilities irresponsibly without laying a strong foundation in building our sense of inclusiveness, clarity and balance can have disastrous consequences. How we address this in today’s current modern context is a challenge that looms in front of all of us as it has always been through time. I think this is something that individuals and particularly, the education systems can address effectively, if only they are willing to make it a high priority. 

Especially with something as powerful and potent as digital technology, as much as there are profound possibilities to impact the world positively, there will also always be scope for exploitation, abuse and misuse. This essay is an effort to share some of the key learning I’ve had, in my explorations to find a more meaningful way to slow down, reflect, question and re-imagine my role and engagement with our rapidly evolving digital world. Some questions I’ve been exploring include, 

  • How can I take a closer look at my role and place in this vast but intricately interconnected digital world? 
  • How can I re-imagine a more responsible and conscious way of engaging with technology? 
  • As someone mentoring and facilitating processes for young people, what are some of the useful questions and aspects that I can explore with them around our day to day relationship with technology ? 

Photo by rishi on Unsplash 

Growing up, I was deeply engaged with science and was educated as an engineer from a reputed Engineering institution. I learned how to ‘problem solve’ based on boundary conditions and assumptions in a controlled setting. But when I moved away from that life to explore adivasi Indigenous communities in remote villages, I noticed many things about the interconnectedness of life which I had no idea about, which was in no way part of my ‘problem solving’ design. I saw technological solutions being deployed with the best of intentions to address social problems without understanding the chain reaction it is capable of setting off in the economic, cultural, social and spiritual fabric of a community because the people who addressed the problems were trained like me – to identify and handle a problem in isolation.

When I first offered a session on ‘Data Detox’ at Swaraj University a couple of years ago, I spent the first 15-20 minutes asking for volunteers whose ‘digital profile’ we built together, purely using publicly available data online. All we did was use a few search engine queries and public social media posts, blogs, etc. to map out what we could about the person. With surprising ease, we found out a lot about their inner and extended social circles and the themes they were passionate about in life. We discovered places they’ve traveled to and some of their key life events. For example, we could fairly guess when they probably went through a heartbreak and how long it seemed to take for them to recover. From raised eyebrows to people gasping in the shocking realization of just how much of someone’s personal information could be gathered within a short few minutes with no professional skills, a general sense of panic escalated quickly. What was interesting to some participants was that almost all of what we had ‘dug up’ was information that was voluntarily posted online by the persons themselves over a period of just a few years! 

While I feel that technology, by itself, cannot be generalized to have dire consequences on humanity, there are exploitative elements which seem to be doing everything they can to misuse the power of technology. If one were to look at the digital world as a field of emerging power play, there appears a pattern of ‘divide’, ‘dumb down’ and ‘isolate’ that seems to be happening at various levels of life – personal, our interpersonal relationships and the larger systems we are part of.

For starters, It wasn’t long ago when I began to recognize that I may be getting ‘dumber’ as my devices grow ‘smarter’. I neither showcase my grandmother’s memory power to remember dates and phone numbers nor my dad’s gift for intuitive navigation and spatial intelligence. I’ve wondered if it has anything to do with my increased dependency to apps like GPS, reminders, etc. In conversations with farmers, fishermen and other skilled workers who’ve embraced technology today at various levels, I’ve heard how their predecessors seemed more multi-faceted and diversely talented – a ‘master/mistress of practical knowledge and skills of the trade- most of which is now handled by different gadgets today which has resulted in them losing out on their skills. A question I’ve often grappled with is, 

In the process of improving our conveniences through ‘technological outsourcing’,  are we losing out on our innate capabilities to experience the multiplicities and interconnections of life? Are we letting technology maim us from embracing the wholeness of how we can be and of life itself?

Even in the interpersonal realm, despite the many digital platforms that can now so swiftly connect us with people near and far, based on our specific preferences, I cannot help but recognize that it has also created a certain isolation. It has become common to see people with their noses buried in their screens in public trains and metros, even young children. I notice hundreds of ‘friends’ I have on social media and how hardly a few dozen of them are whom I deeply care about, and yet, I seem to set my happiness to revolve around how many likes and views I can get from everyone for what I project about my life. 

In this deeply interwoven fabric of information exchange, as we become more and more dependent on technology, data has become a currency of power. Most of my activities – from travel, entertainment, interactions, payments, etc create a ‘digital footprint’ that can be a gold mine of information about me. Part of my journey has been to unravel and discover the often overlooked world of activity that is busy tracking, recording and using/abusing it for various purposes.

The Market – Heart of the global economic engine 

Photo by Adem AY on Unsplash

One of the most attractive things about some of the most popularly used digital services today – like Facebook, Google, and others is that they seem to be FREE, i.e., unpaid for. The vast majority of the people I have interacted with, never seem to make the connection that companies that offer these ‘free’ services are also among the wealthiest and successful profit making corporations in the world! So how Free is a free service, really? 

If you use a digital product that seems free, then most probably, YOU have become their product/fee. Let us take one of the common products we use. Any android phone today comes with several ‘free’ apps from Google that helps us use our phone better. This also means one company is capable of noticing several things about me, like, the list of contacts I have and how often I interact with them, my calendar schedules and meeting calls, the kind of news I follow and which sides I lean towards taking, my travel locations, routes and where I have been at different  times, the nature of music and video genres I prefer, the questions I ask the internet (These can be often more private than most people care to share with their loved ones), sites I visit and my browsing patterns (this includes sites on shopping, banking, learning, etc.), the contents of the emails I send, the photos I have clicked or saved, including facial recognition algorithms that may collect data, voice recognition services like “OK Google”, which require the device to be listening and processing every sound heard on the microphone until it recognizes the required phrase and every app I have ever used and how long and how often I’ve used them. 

To me, this feels like too many eggs in one basket. Several companies like Amazon (including Alexa), Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. also have a similar presence in the market and are a part of many people’s lifestyles. Now does this mean that all these corporations are evil and wanting to exploit everyone all the time? That is not an assumption I wish to jump to. Some of these companies have also worked to offer options and privacy features in their products that provide the user, choices to ‘opt out’ or manage what data can be tracked, stored or shared. 

Why should data be tracked at all in the first place? In my search for an understanding, I’ve identified two major needs:

Firstly, most digital technologies today inherently need to track and process user data as part of their fundamental operation– for example, the voice recognition engines have grown so much better only because it is constantly being ‘trained’ by millions of users. Secondly, digital services use data to statistically improve their accuracy. The richer the data fed, the easier it gets for the system to identify and fix bugs, the more ‘personalized’ the service can become. Some basic examples you may come across while browsing are ‘suggested videos for you’ and ‘songs you might like’ but the rabbit hole goes much deeper than that. 

‘Personalization’ works by learning better about the person. So it becomes almost necessary to ‘profile users’ to address these needs. The sophisticated algorithms today are capable of drawing even psychological profiles of people based on their data to a shocking level of accuracy. “Psychometrics” or sometimes called “psychographics” is a whole body of work developed to identify psychological traits of a person, including their personality, based on various models, like OCEAN (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism) which among other things, intends to be able to understand what people need and fear while predicting their behavior. By 2012, there were proofs that with just an average of about 70 facebook ‘likes’ , a person’s skin color, sexual orientation and political affiliation could be determined with about 85-95% accuracy. If you’d like to see this ‘magic’ in action, here is a potentially safe portal (courtesy of The Psychometrics Centre, University of Cambridge) to experience it anonymously – https://applymagicsauce.com/demo 

It is important to note that the digital world is almost nothing without data. However, it is this very inherent dependency for information that invites markets to step in. Because most digital services are also businesses that thrive on profit and also have to deal with their customers’ preferences for ‘free apps and services’, a logical solution would be to offer ‘free service’ while finding other ways to make profit, vis-a-vis, the user information collected as part of the service to various third parties. 

Photo by ev on Unsplash

Who would want such data? Why would they need it? Turns out, there are a lot of groups out there that can benefit hugely from ‘mining this data’. For example, advertising companies target customers with specific product ads improving profits. Dating/matchmaking sites could help boost their member base by providing matches closer to users and that are better suited to their psychological profiles. The possibilities of offering personalized products while improving sales is enormous. Isn’t that a sweet 

win-win situation? Well, things can get pretty dangerous depending on who is accessing this data. For example, authoritarian governments have been able to isolate and target their own citizens for voicing dissent, target journalists, activists or competitors. Especially in the hands of unethical hackers, sensitive information can be used for identity theft, banking frauds, blackmail, ransom, etc. If you’d like to slow down and understand just ‘how deep this rabbit hole goes’, here is an interesting read – https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/mg9vvn/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win 

What can we do? 

There are two important aspects to explore here. 

The first one is working on better awareness about what options we already have about our data – what is being collected, for what purpose and what can we ‘opt out’ of. Sadly, hardly anyone bothers to read the “Terms of Use’’ or “Privacy Policy” before choosing the “I accept or I agree” option. Personally, I feel it is also the responsibility of the companies to make it easier and clearer for users to know their options more clearly. Take Facebook’s account creation page – the sign up form is so easy to fill up that even my parents can manage it. However, one glance at their terms of use and privacy policy reveals that the language and quantity of content is so complex, that most people may never understand what it says. Yet Facebook boasts a whopping 2+ BILLION users. It is assumed legally that each of these users have read and accepted the terms and privacy policy. 

CHOICE magazine published a YouTube calling for simpler user agreements in a video titled “How long does it take to read Amazon Kindle’s terms and conditions?” where Lawrence begins to read the entire text out loud. It takes him a whopping 9 hours to go through the 73, 198 words in the contract! Some services like Google and Facebook have simplified a few options for users, allowing them to ‘download’ a copy of their personal data stored (FB) or opt out of data being recorded during use of their services (Google). However, not everyone is aware of these options nor is this the case with most services. Eventually, it also becomes important for the user to begin questioning these in whatever capacity they can and support those services who are taking the steps needed to make their services truly ‘user friendly’. 

Despite these few options, some data is invariably recorded. Now, the unnerving question for me is, ‘how do I know who is on the other end of the line, or if someone is accessing my data? How can I really know or control what they do with it?’ Though contracts and terms promise and assure data safety legally, there have been many ‘slips’ in companies keeping their word. These are just the ones that got caught. The reality is that there really is no sure shot way to know who can be trusted with your information or how to maintain the confidentiality they promise. 

This is where the idea of ‘open source’ offers some relief – it lays out the blueprint of the service (the code) open for public scrutiny. While this means that companies may risk their ‘intellectual capital’, it brings transparency, trust and several collaborative innovations that have made some companies flourish. Companies like Firefox, Tor network, etc rely on ‘open sourcing’ their services and openly voice their support for better user privacy and data transparency. One way to support good open source services would be to contribute/donate to their projects whenever possible. 

The second major aspect is about policy. There are extensive laws in several countries, national and international in scope, dealing with user rights, disclaimers, licenses and warranties. Most people I spoke to weren’t even aware that there are acts to protect the information and privacy of citizens to some extent. In India, debates around the Aadhar Card System (A system of unique identification numbers for residents in India including a biometric database) provoked discussion around possible misuse of data and privacy as a fundamental human right. Otherwise, people I speak to seem hardly aware of other provisions in the Indian IT Act, 2008. When I offered a free series on Data Detox and Digital Decolonization on Social Media, some people wrote to me about how their data and privacy had been abused by stalkers, hacking threats, etc. This helped me to slow down and take a closer look at the many provisions the law offers currently. However, I also came to hear the sad reality that sometimes, the enforcement authorities in the lower and middle level/ranks tend to trivialize or dismiss people’s issues when approached. 

Companies aren’t the only ones interested in profiling users. Governments around the world are finding subtler and sneakier ways of profiling their citizens in the name of ‘improving governance’ and ‘rooting out terrorists’ and improving national security. China’s Social Credit Score Experiment and the infamous mass surveillance project PRISM by the United States of America are examples of Government overreach. There are dozens of surveillance projects run by individual governments around the world. There are also international surveillance agreements to share intelligence between countries such as the 5 eyes, 9 eyes and 14 eyes where the number indicates the number of member countries exchanging intelligence data between each other about their citizens.  [China’s Social Credit Score] [Project PRISM]

Most people I spoke to didn’t know that India passed a bill with ‘no debate’ giving the government absolute authority to tap into all communications without even a court order or warrant. The Aadhar programme allowed the government to gather sensitive biometric data of its huge population which has been a hot topic for debate for some. Despite the government’s consistent dismissal and denial of any ‘security flaws’ in storing this data, there have been almost a dozen reported incidents where such sensitive data have been hacked by various groups, some merely to show that it can be done. What may be even lesser known is its subsequent implications – for example, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states in India have used Aadhaar UID data along with state sponsored CCTV cameras to create 360 degree profiles of people, offering unprecedented face matching capabilities. At times like these, the world described in the novel “1984” by George Orwell no longer seems so dystopian.  [Surveillance Projects in India]

In a country like India, not everyone has the economic, social and power privilege to be able to influence laws and policies. Widespread corruption, the deep rooted feudalistic mindset and the lingering impacts of colonization have ensured that the powerful keep finding more and more devious ways to keep people away from recognizing their own power and moving towards action that can bring change. This is why I feel it is important that those who can, do what they can do, to stay informed, pay close attention and reject any policy or law that is citizen unfriendly. And this isn’t unprecedented. When Facebook tried to roll out ‘FreeBasics’ through Internet.org, there was suspicion that it may lead to privatization of what is now free for all. With people pushing back, despite investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertising, Facebook withdrew the project for what it was. Another incident that warranted a strong backlash of reaction from the people happened when the Indian Government tried to make it illegal for citizens to watch porn by ambitiously blacklisting only 827 sites, most of which came to light because of the list they released. [Pornography ban in India]  While these examples are a sign that people’s voice does carry weight, it’s important we exercise this power for all other unfair policies as well. 

This brings attention to how we are influencing and equipping the next generation of citizens and leaders today, particularly through education. Digital Literacy is increasingly important in an age where many students read as much on screens as they do from books. When it comes to learning – whether it be the formal education system or beyond, an enormous part of our learning resources and preferences have turned digital. I’m not just referring to e-books and readers, online learning modules, videos, smartboards, tablets, and other forms of technology being steadily embraced by institutions, but also what people across different countries, ages, economic backgrounds engage with everyday, using the internet to learn and to be entertained. From news about local and global politics to cooking recipes to nursery rhymes that entice the youngest of our population, so much of what we learn comes from the internet that it has become extremely vital that we take not just ‘digital literacy’ but ‘critical digital literacy’ seriously. Here is a cool 5 stage framework to better understand critical digital literacy https://www.teachthought.com/literacy/5-dimensions-of-critical-digital-literacy/ [5 Dimensions of Critical Digital Literacy for students in education ] 

Individually too, there are some things we CAN address to begin this journey of building literacy. 

  1. Become a little more aware of what services we encourage. Free and popular is not always the right choice. Sometimes, a closer look can help us find out more about the companies that create services and to be able to choose healthier alternatives, just like with everything else in life.
  2. Try googling yourself up. Get a sense of your digital footprint. Check to see if you’re okay with the kind of information you are willing to share about yourself while on the internet. Remember, once on the internet, always on the internet.
  3. Know your privacy options – privacy settings in your phone, browser, etc aren’t that hard to learn
  4. Know your laws – Learn more about the national and international laws protecting the digital rights and privacy of people.
  5. Encourage open source products and other ethical companies
  6. Try not to blindly ‘outsource’ what you CAN do with your own intelligence – it would be tragic if we lose access to our own intelligence in the pursuit of what is more convenient and easy.
  7. Remember to stay connected to nature, to other human beings and our own intelligence. 

There is a dangerous gap growing between the level of an ‘average everyday user’ and the level of sophistication around the policies, laws, technological expertise, market strategies and politics that are played out in today’s digital age. Each day more and more people, irrespective of their class, education or other social privileges, are able to connect themselves deeper into the web of information that is powering the digital world, unaware of the many possibilities and consequences it may be connected to. 

In the field of education and learning, there are larger questions that would be helpful to slow down with regard to the role technology plays in our life and in our society. There are personal, ethical, vocational, social, political and economical effects to how we engage with any technology today. Some interesting questions to explore can be found here https://www.bestsemester.com/locations-and-programs/oxford/FAQ/76-reasonable-questions 

When remembering the V2 rocket landing in London killing hundreds, genius scientist Wernher von Braun later is said to have remarked, 

The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.”

To me, this summarizes the compartmentalization that is an inevitable outcome of the education and governance systems we are part of – which, in the hopes of building humans as systemic cogs to improve efficiency through ‘specializations’ and ‘expertise’, dismisses the value of being a holistic ‘jack/jill of all trades’. This prevents people from recognizing, knowing, unlearning and questioning the interconnections of the society that they are part of. This invariably tends to create ignorance, fear, exploitation, misunderstanding and a sense of mistrust or blind trust in authority systems. 

A crucial question to be considered by the educational systems of today is “How can we educate, empower and train seekers to be more aware and sensitive of the larger interconnectedness of life in the process of applying their expertise out in the world and in their own lives?” Asking this very question may in itself bring attention to several other questions that challenge the foundation on which our current education systems thrive. Questions such as,

What narratives do we set about technology through our education – do we see education and technology as the sole savior of all of the world’s problems? How can we bring the knowledge of digital laws and rights as part of our curriculum? How can we improve the quality of people who are creating/curating and disseminating the content of what we learn? How can we better regulate the role of money in  determining how our learning happens – from basic education to advanced research? How can we truly decolonize and localize our learning contexts?

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we and our choices are being influenced day after day by the systems we are surrounded by. With markets that are capable of creating ‘artificial’ demand, education systems that are capable of becoming ‘blinders’ (like horses wear) and an economic engine that is capable of keeping people anxious and desperate at all times, the dire possibility that the digital world can be used to manipulate and ‘program’ the opinions, votes, likes and dislikes of the masses is VERY REAL. I see signs of this everywhere – governments and corporations invested like never before into strategic outreach and media, people swaying easily towards ideologies, products, political parties that sport voices that are either loud or mesmerizing, as long as they know how to persuade people into ‘selling’ what they want. Therefore, it becomes even more imperative to deliberate the larger practical questions around the fundamental role of technology and digital literacy in our lives.

  • How truly ‘social’ is social media? What are the thrills and prices we pay for fun and play online? 
  • What role will economics play in the commercialization of digital content ? And what role can open source and creative commons play in keeping public knowledge affordable and available? 
  • What is real and not real in a world of instant information and fake news. How can we equip ourselves towards better critical digital literacy? 
  • How can we preserve anonymity and protect privacy in a fast digitizing world? 
  • How can we choose to use technology for autonomy, dissemination, education and human rights advocacy instead of using it as a tool for surveillance, exploitation, addiction and colonization? 

As systems like Artificial Intelligence (AI) grow in sophistication, it is not just going to result in the replacement of the human workforce in a big way, but also offer never before known capabilities of ‘programming’ and ‘conditioning’ people and their behavior in a big way. But despite the rise of AI threatening to surpass human intelligence in many ways – doing much of what we do, way better, I find it useful to remind myself that human intelligence is way more than the mere data that is stored in our brain. Like most other technologies, AI too depends mainly on data and information and is therefore restricted to the infinity of possibilities that can only arise from the combinations of applied memory. This is a wonderful opportunity for much of our education system to wake up and begin investing in a way of learning that isn’t heavily dependent on reproducing what is merely memorized. AI will make sure such ‘rote memorized‘ knowledge becomes worthless and obsolete for human beings. 

I personally see there is so much more to human intelligence that is well beyond the confines of mere memory. Perhaps it is time to hasten our effort to deepen our work to live more consciously. I believe there is more to the ‘humanity’ in us that no machine – digital, economic or political can truly take away from us if we choose to stay awake, aware and do the best we can do, together, through re-imagining our personal lives, our relationships, our economy, society and our education systems. I see great power in this and this is a possibility that is open to all of us. 

Here are some useful links that can be a good online resource for those wanting to research, explore and share more about some of the things discussed in this article. I leave it up to your discretion to find out which ones work for you. There are also several online courses on sites like Udemy, Coursera, Khan Academy that can offer an in-depth understanding of these topics if you wish to learn more. 

  1.  [Privacy International]
    2.  [ Internet Democracy Project, India]
    3.  [ Tools for online privacy and safety]
    4.  [ A Brilliant Data Detox Kit, sponsored by Mozilla]
    5.  [ Electronic Privacy Information Center]
    6.  [Privacy Laws, country wise

Below are references to some groups that work on advocacy, digital literacy and pedagogy 

  1.  [The Electronic Frontier Foundation] states that it is an organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. They have an action center with several campaigns that may be worth a look https://act.eff.org/ ]
    2.  [Digitally Connected – in collaboration with UNICEF] states that it addresses the challenges and opportunities children and youth encounter in the digital environment. 
  2.  [Youth and Media – Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society , Harvard University] states that it aims to shape the evolving regulatory and educational framework in a way that advances the public interest. 
  3.  [An article with resources and links on pedagogical settings for digital literacy, teaching resources and exercises, etc ]
    5. [The Internet Governance Forum ] – a forum bringing together people for discussions on public policy issues relating to the Internet. 
  4.  [The Internet Freedom Foundation] As explained on their website “The IFF is an Indian digital liberties organisation that seeks to ensure that technology respects fundamental rights. Our goal is to ensure that Indian citizens can use the Internet with liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Disillusioned by the life he was taught to live, Kaushiek Pranoo walked out of his corporate job and turned down an offer for an advanced degree abroad in Engineering in pursuit of a way of life that felt more meaningful, self-reliant and deeply fulfilling. Giving up the comforts of city life, he moved to live with and learn from indigenous communities in South India for a few years, designing localized, self-led learning projects with their communities. He has co-facilitated safe-spaces for young changemaking leaders across India and has been exploring Yoga as a deeper science of well being for several years.

Currently, he lives with his partner Shruti in Kerala, India. Together, they run “Unlearning Ashram” a collective of offerings inviting people to slow down and reshape their life around food, health, (un)learning, relationships and leadership through experiential and practical unlearning journeys. His focus is on transforming human experience by facilitating people to empower themselves to deepen their attention to life and through conscious experimentation. He is passionate about decolonizing narratives and reclaiming the individual’s autonomy in transforming quality of life. Spaces he has facilitated for, include the YES Jams in India, Swaraj University, The Dalai Lama’s Foundation (FURHHDL), Youth Alliance of India and Learning Unconferences.

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