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Monday, October 26, 2020

How social media kills information by overproducing it

The digital space is essentially a space of erasure by dead information

Written by Nishant Shah | New Delhi | Updated: October 11, 2020 12:51:57 pm
The digital space is essentially a space of erasure by dead information. (Photo: Getty)

What do you do with dead information? Not information that is no longer valid. Not information that is no longer relevant. Not information that has fallen out of fashion. But the information that has become truly and profoundly dead — scrambled in an irreversible glitch, corrupt on fickle storage devices, residing in formats that nobody reads, written in machine languages that are long since forgotten. What do you do with information that is inaccessible, illegible, and not intelligible?

These might sound like thought-experiment questions in an age where we are led to believe that everything has an infinite backup and that storage is unlimited. The notion that “information will always be available” has led us to produce an endless amount of data without worrying about where it is stored, who stores it, who accesses it, and what happens when — without our knowledge, consent, and agency — that information lives up to its attribute: It is always available to anybody who wants it. However, that way, the story of Big Data, surveillance, and the big bad GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) lies.

Today, I am still grappling with what happens, in the age of incessant data retrieval and algorithmic data mining, to information that exists, but can no longer be retrieved. What happens to the information that leaves traces in our memories, marks on our bodies, scars on our relationships, and creases on our social fabric, but can no longer be accessed? I am not even talking about information that was never produced — the negative space of the plate of food that was not made into an Instagram picture, the half-written status message that was never posted on Facebook, the tweet that was almost scribbled in your mind but never made it to the keyboard. Therein lies the tale of reticence, human discretion, and the fierce struggle to keep things private, personal and, perhaps, precious.

No, the question at hand is information that exists, can be seen in an index, is available in its physical stores, but is no longer readable. Like a library book that everybody knows exists, and when you go to the shelves, you can see it, but cannot retrieve it. And I ask this, not because I have suddenly discovered that the novel I had written at the age of 21, and which was going to make me famous, is now backed up on a hard-drive that has long since stopped working, and has just been declared dead on arrival by people who call themselves professional geniuses. Though that is a story of obsolescence and loss and, perhaps, thankful erasure with time, that also needs to be told.
The question remains because, once again, my digital timeline explodes with the indignation, political mudslinging, performative action, and non-performing justice system, as we bear fruitless witness to another national report from #Hathras on a young Dalit woman allegedly gang-raped, abused, and killed, and her body reduced to an icon, an image, a factoid, upon which political wars and Twitter drama are being staged. In all the turmoil, #FakeNews emerged as a trend, this time, with the government and its apparatus claiming a conspiracy theory to destabilise peace in the region. And, then, the internet responded in expected patterns.

The same jokes came forward. The same polarised conversations were rehearsed. The hate complex of the internet was reanimated to repeat lies, discredit witnesses, intimidate voices, and dismiss the pain of the woman who first died a biological death and then was made to die again, repeatedly, in judicial processes and social media narrations. People shouted and swore at each other. Newspaper headlines that looked like they had not changed since the last decade were paraded again. Old information, which is so tired that it has retired, was repackaged as new news.

The digital space is essentially a space of erasure by dead information. It seems to be a particular condition of the digital space that it takes up specific information patterns and mines them for details, stores all the different parameters, creates overwhelming streams of circulation, makes archives of ever-growing intensity, and then makes that information dead. Not death by silence or destruction, but merely by overproducing it, giving it extraordinary visibility, depleting all intensity, and then, flattening it as an individual case rather than the symptom of a larger problem. Ironically, the machine built for pattern recognition refuses to identify the patterns of gendered information being erased and diminished by the same actors surprising us by doing the same things each time.

By the time this writing is out, the attention of the news cycle will have shifted, and the world will have moved on. The information about the #Hathras case will be another information stream that is archived. The internet will not connect it to the umpteen cases that we have digitally dramatised over the last decades. We will all be surprised again when old information will surface again, when another body, marked by gender, sexuality, and caste, will resurface on a hashtag.

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