It was a day of chilly silence. I first registered something was wrong when the phone, that one true love, seemed to be giving me the silent treatment. The purple, blue and red lights that mark the notifications from three of my most-used apps — Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp — were missing from my daily habits. When I tried to open and refresh the apps and nothing showed up, I confess I had a sense of foreboding.
Three immediate scenarios came to my mind. I surreptitiously looked outside the window to see if I had missed the memo for the apocalypse while I was reading. However, because there were no zombie masses thronging the streets, I realised that the collapse of my information channels was not the end of the world. I also tried to see if the internet in the house had cracked, because surely, if Facebook wasn’t loading, the problem must be with my local service providers. But even as I looked around, all the Internet of Things devices at my home beeped, chirped, winked, and flashed merrily, reassuring that all was still the same. As a last resort, I tried reinstalling all the apps to see if my phone had gone bonkers but to no avail.
That is when I decided to go to the “other” service that was still working — Twitter — and was delivered the digital reassurance that I was not alone. In fact, I was arriving to the party late because by then, all the thumb-click addicts, aghast at the loss of their platforms, had already flocked to Twitter getting their quick-fix of social media vagaries, and also complaining in horror at the biggest outage in internet history. The hashtags #facebookdown, #instagramdown, and #whatsappdown were already trending. Ironically, all the three companies were also using Twitter to update people about their engineering fixes, and also letting us know that this was just a “machine error” and not the cyberwarfare that we have been preparing for by downloading all our favourite shows on unconnected hard-drives stored in secure locations.
While this #downgate continued, it was a lot of fun to see people trolling their favourite platforms threatening to go back to MySpace and Orkut accounts (remember those?) while they wait for their lives to be restored. While the outage slowly became an inage (yes, I know that’s not a word, but it’s the internet, okay?) and we went back to the habits of the endless scroll, one question remained — what happens to the internet when we start giving up the ownership of all our information channels to a few megalithic corporations?
This question is particularly pertinent because just before #downgate, Facebook had already announced its intentions of clubbing all its messenger services together to achieve a seamless experience for its users. Seamlessness sounds like a great idea but it is also another word for assimilation. It is also another word that reminds us that the internet, once imagined as a disruptive force of independent voices and local collectives is obviously heading (if not already there) for a complete takeover by private companies.
We seem to be in the paradox where everyday we have a new app, offering new choices, new filters, new manipulations, and yet almost all of these apps are owned by the same companies. We have arrived at the moment of the “same same but different” where the plethora of choices is hiding the lack of creative freedoms on the web. The implications of these are not just about the boredom of our appified lives but about the politics of control. In closed information-architecture countries like China, we have already seen what a monopoly of digital data technologies can lead to — from social-credit-score systems to databases of “breed-worthy women”.
It has been the fun (and the racially marked prerogative) of the global West to mock China and its curtailing of civil liberties and exercise of control. Most digital media outlets have encouraged this trend of setting up China as the laughing stock while the same happens to our global internet landscapes. Despite the continued reporting on data breaches, security overrides, and blatant exploitation of our digital practices, we continue to believe in the emancipatory potentials of the web, while turning a blind eye to the silent control of the technologies we use at the level of hardware, software, standards, protocols, code, and usage.
As we TikTok our ways into the rabbit hole of the endless stream of blink-and-miss viral content, it is easy to forget that behind the immense diversity of users creating this content is an increasingly monolithic technology infrastructure that can shut it all down at the whim and fancy of the next person who holds the switch.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Digital Native: Turning Life Upside Down’