On the internet, we produce information to be forgotten. The life of digital information is shaped by conditions of volume, velocity and variety (the three Vs). The scale of our collective digital content production has now reached massive proportions. We produce more information in a day than we have produced over entire centuries. So trying to make human sense of this information is futile. We can be assured that almost everything we write will be forgotten and archived before it is consumed and remembered. The large volume also means that in order for information to stand out, it needs velocity. The trend of today will be replaced in a few clicks by something else. Fomo, the fear of missing out, is not just a millennial anxiety, it is the new natural. It is because information is continually being forgotten, transferred from memory to storage, it needs to have variety. It needs to be new but familiar, expected but exciting. Let’s call it, same same, but different.
Renewal is the default of all our digital transactions. Our data streams need constant renewal, our platforms demand updating, our habits of social media engagement need maintenance, and we find new ways of doing the same things over and over again. Our devices light up, with frantic energy, with seductive beeps and sounds, reminding us of the need to renew and update. The poetics of hope and regeneration have long since given way to the politics of manipulation and transactions.
It is the state of continual renewal that perpetuates the fake news economies, as people share without verifying, and consume without reflection. It enables lynch mobs and vigilante violence. It is at the heart of why outrageous claims, provocative politics and a state of extreme apathy make their way into our digital conversations and responses. This is why, hate speech has now become acceptable, and actions without consequences is the new ethos online. It perhaps accounts for why we seem to care more about our gadgets and services than the people behind them. This is why, when we see a food-delivery person stealing some food from our expensive orders, we ask for them to be sacked, rather than being shocked by the deep irony of getting food that costs more than anything the person can ever afford. It puts our attention on to things that have more engagement value than things that matter — which perhaps explains why three weddings with their obscene displays of wealth and power had more social media engagement than conversations about #MeToo in the country.
This renewal has been naturalised as our new mode of being and becoming, making us hypermobile drones that are always on the go, always working, always interacting. The state of perpetual renewal is here to stay, and we will have to figure out ways by which to live with these three Vs. As we approach that time of the year, when we make new resolutions, I want to offer the three Is which perhaps need to be brought back into consideration in our unthinking digital actions: intensity, intimacy, ingenuity.
The volume imperative of digital information favours scale. It wants more clicks, more eyeballs, more users. We get passionately invested for a brief period of time and then are moved on to the next thing. Instead of continually looking for volume, let us focus on intensity. We don’t need a thousand likes, we just need people who we care for, to like things that we do. Something doesn’t become important only when it circulates and goes viral — it becomes so because of the people who are involved in it.
Similarly, the velocity of digital networks demands high speed. We click before we think, and we share before we verify. Our relationship with information has been reduced to sharing as opposed to processing. Maybe it is time to replace velocity with intimacy. When we encounter information, let us take a small pause, process and analyse, and instead of just blindly sharing, maybe respond and critique it, so that it is a relationship of value.
The expectations of variety provoke information that is often untrue or removed from reality. Our filter bubble echo chambers often establish this information as true through repetition rather than verification. We need to get out of the schizophrenic need for variety and concentrate instead on ingenuity — the truthiness of the information and our capacity to stand behind things that we say and share.
The three Vs of digital information are machine protocols. They put the computational in the centre and dictate how human behaviour will be shaped. Maybe it is time we think of the three Is instead, to focus on human needs and aspirations, and demand that our technologies measure up to what we can expect from each other.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.