Erosion of Trust

Two words – Fake News.

Lies, gossip, speculation and slander have been prevalent in society ever since humans developed the concept of language. Gossip was in-fact the prime cause of language development and even the bedrock upon which human connections were developed, ultimately leading to the unification of the word as we see it today. But what has changed in the last decade with the penetration and power of social media that has completely destroyed the notion of trust.? Everything now seems fake until proven otherwise.

Thanks to hundreds of algorithms at work, Facebook has turned into an echo-chamber. I read somewhere that TV was in-fact much better – even if it created false narratives and spread rumours, it did that to extremely large audiences and gave a united message. Today social media has made the reality different for every one of us, it is a mind numbing concept – make your own reality and facts, dividing us at every level. How can the fast growing tentacles of this gigantic beast be controlled?

I am very critical of social media’s role in this emergence of “fake news” and “alternate facts”. I always wondered who had the time to make these elaborate articles look so genuine with chock-full of bullshit and make clever gifs and animated files, videos and clickbaits. It is with horror I read a report about how making these false news items and “viral” content is also an industry. You can now “buy” twitter followers to boost your credibility, hire “troll farms” to spew malicious lies and outright nonsense at your detractors and thanks to the AI algorithms of Facebook, connect intimately with only the crowd of your choice. This isn’t the rise of social media, it is psychological warfare.

It in turn has made me a skeptic. I refuse to trust anyone (apart from a very small inner circle) and my eyes quickly scan for the sources. I have quit all forms of social media and need atleast two or three independent sources to confirm any news before putting my faith into it. You might call it a good habit, but it is draining. The more you run away from vile, unsubstantiated news, the more it is flung at you and your life becomes more and more difficult. Look for sources, trust no WhatsApp forward and learn how to maneuver google’s search lists to spot authentic content. As far as Google’s involvement in my life, I have given up and have to implicitly trust this one company.  I can only hope that they are hiring the best cryptographers and have a tough handle on their security unlike yahoo.

I try and get inspired from simpler creatures like my dogs and people who have led relatively uncomplicated lives like my parents. I am consciously trying to live a simpler, more fulfilling life offline with a minimal online presence. I knew the internet was dangerous right from the yahoo chatroom days but off late this danger is threatening our very existence. Tech-industry folks, drop striving for the bottom-line alone and get a conscience!! How long will you pretend to just be tech platforms with no social conscience? How long will you focus on just the business model without any concern for its sources? How will you recover the trust from your users? When will you go back to being the fun websites to connect with family and friends  and making life convenient without being a platform for showing off, spreading misinformation and creating dangerous worlds for people to inhabit?

Everyday I read the news, I sigh and wonder what happened. Seriously, how did we get here?

Adiós Facebook

I have a confession to make: I  was an addict, a social-media addict. I was so used to mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed without registering any information, or at times, remembering insignificant details of others’ lives. I found myself remembering random irrelevant people (destroying the natural progression of life where people and friendships fall by the wayside ) and during the last five years, found facebook nothing but a glorified wedding album of sorts.

I remember creating my account sitting in my college library upon hearing about this new facebook website that seemed so much more fun than Orkut, the social media craze of its time. (Gosh, it feels old typing this). I missed the Myspace wave but was firmly latched on to Orkut. Orkut testimonials felt like an electronic slam book with conversation threads and groups. Slam books were all the dope in high-school and it felt nice to immediately convert the slam book filling experience to an electronic one bolstered by the sadness and uncertainty experienced at the cusp of college life leaving one’s home and school behind. But Orkut wasn’t addictive and the dull blue and purple color gave it an old-fashioned feel. Facebook, with its clean white and blue page structure and “poking” options was a fun thing to do in college. The influence and power wielded by the social media giant today and its content and feel are nothing like what they were 10-15 years ago. To be honest, I think it lost a lot of its “fun” feeling converting itself from a college hobby to one of the largest media outlets in the world ( Even though Zuckerberg might insist on calling it a tech company, I think he should just accept that it isn’t just a tech company anymore).

With advancements in AI, algorithms, big data, social media evolved into time black holes and emotional manipulators, tapping into basic human vulnerability and emotional depravity. I read about tools such as SDK which spy on you all the time, algorithms and features deliberately designed to make one addicted and about how the facebook model has turned users into products with targeting advertising. The look and feel of the website has changed so much not just superficially, but in its ability to control people’s minds as well. Targeted posts, so much advertising, ability to log and post every single detail of our lives started out as interesting at first and now feels rather scary. For me, the final straw was fake news – the true black plague of the cyber era.

Fake news is poison and clickbait is like mold that threatens to infect any lesser-vigilant user. I needn’t mention the ramifications of fake news at all – just look at the Presidential elections in the USA in 2016. As legal authorities clamp down on what actually transpired leading up to the national debacle, Facebook’s name gets thrown around frequently. Indeed, as the largest distributor of (fake) news and targeted advertising, it brought to light the algorithms and psychological tricks used by the giant to draw users and keep them hooked.

I am not qualified to describe these algorithmic inventions and uber successful psychological warfare unleashed on the unsuspecting users by facebook. But I definitely was one of its victims. As studies upon studies come out  revealing why this social media platform captured the public’s imagination and time, one thing is clear – it clearly worked. I found myself opening the app and wishing to “check-in” during my activities or scrolling through profiles of people I have no contact with or have no intent to contact. It was unnerving to know what my friend from kindergarten ate for dinner yesterday without a conversation in over two decades.

It isn’t without its benefits. For people from the older generation who are now slowly settling into retired life, it is a second chance at re-establishing their friend’s circle and reconnecting after decades. When I hear my mom or dad talk, I can envision Zuckerberg’s lofty, well crafted and seemingly innocent vision of having the world more connected come to life. The first few weeks of being on facebook are indeed exciting – you  get to see how your friend’s lives shaped up and view photographs of them and their families. For the generation that grew up with facebook however, the thrill and excitement is long gone.

So I quit. I quit cold turkey one morning when I decided I no longer needed to see and debate if news articles were authentic or click on useless videos that were trending. I realized at the risk of losing out, I would get back my peace of mind, restore sanity and read news articles from their trusted origins and forego the requirement of leaving behind an electronic trail of my life for data scientists at facebook to pore over and decide to push out advertisements tailor made for me.

The surprising part is I don’t miss it. Not one bit.

Technological Dependence

I came to realize this fact just a few days ago when my cell phone switched off due to low battery charge. Now, I was left here without any phone or contact numbers in my head with no one I could possibly call from any public phone. I was thankfully aware of my home number and my dad’s cell number, but it got me thinking that today we seldom try and remember any phone numbers at all. We instantly unlock our phones, type out the digits as the other person is saying, give missed call to store our number and save it with a name. Another entry in the phone book, another number saved. But nothing in our head.

 I remember the times we had a race to memorize the number the fastest, to store as many numbers as we can and use s simple address book only for those contacts few and far in between. Unlike today, where everything is stored externally, there was a time when calculations were done in our head, numbers stored there and an effort to remember facts and figures actually made. After extensive use of calculators (thankfully, I wasn’t a part of this, but then it did cost me dearly in subjects like Numerical Analysis), people use them to add 16 and 12, divide 12 by 4. I do agree that their use is mandatory especially in engineering calculations but not over dependence.

 No, I am not being Mulayam- Singh- like asking people to forego the comforts that technology has so graciously given us. We must use them efficiently and economically, not allowing our brains to rot in the process.

 I memorized a few phone numbers again. It felt good, really.

Whr hv th vwls gne?

I am sure the title is very clear to many. As clear as being written completely “Where have the vowels gone?”. I really need to ask the necessity of implementing this new sms-lingo which is apparently hep and happening and adopted by everyone even when they are not actually texting. So my question remains.Why have they killed English?

I am a very slow texter myself. I take so long to type a message on the cell phone that my friends actually ask me if I am writing an epic or something. I use the Dictionary because I simply cannot get myself to type words without vowels. Using it for smsing or short-texts is one thing. But EVERYWHERE!? I get so ragged up when people type ‘Frnz’ for Friends or worse short forms. I am not a stickler for Queen’s English demanding that each word be written completely. I am liberal to an extent like for using ‘U’ instead of ‘You’ or even ‘Abt’ for ‘About’.I don’t even mind the usual “Wassup” and other garbled versions like “Wuzzzaaaaa…” But not to the extent of people using them everywhere and for every single word! That is the reason I dislike chatting on gtalk with many people who tend to use such nagging short forms for every word they want to type. Also, I believe that this murder of language is in no way justified by England allowing students to use sms-lingo for their English papers. If I were to correct their papers, I would have failed them on-purpose and marked them zero for such usage.

I believe that all these shorthand forms of writing are actually used when you are really writing things down fast or even the basic purpose of invention of this lingo is perfectly justified. But not for usage everywhere!

I get so irritated. Blah!