Something weird has happened to our lives because of the digital. We have long lamented the fact that our life is being reduced to flattened spectacles mediated by manipulative filters that exacerbate the feeling that everybody else is having adventures of a lifetime while we count it a day well spent if we caught up on the latest show on Netflix and whined to a friend about a potential online date that could also be a catfish. The presentation of life in digital streams is performative, and we have perfected the craft of artfully capturing our lives. The visual predominance has become the default mode of being of our mobile-triggered lives, where every banal moment is potentially viral and presents us as perceptive and quirky and insightfully thoughtful.
However, there is another kind of visualisation that has captured my attention lately — the kind that presents people with visuals of themselves. Just look at your smartphone right now and you realise that there is a continued stream of information that it gives you about yourself. Some of this is notifications from social media that values our worth in likes and tweets. But more of it is actually things that we didn’t know about ourselves. My phone gives me a real-time update about the number of minutes I have been “active” in a day, and sends me continued nudges to move more and keep busy. It shows me how much I have walked and shames me when I don’t reach an arbitrary 10,000 steps a day. Apps show me how much I sleep, what my body temperature is like at different times of the day (I just put my finger to the sensor when prompted), the BMI and health index on a daily basis, and a list of food I have eaten and calories I have consumed in a day. It is also a conduit that pushes me to connect with other non-medical service providers who offer to do scans of my body to identify different potential illnesses and mapping my DNA to tell me what my ancestry is.
In one particularly weak moment, I ordered a DNA testing kit and even swabbed myself and was about to send it out to understand what my racial lineage is. However, before I could send it out, I wondered what profound truth these visualisations and countings of myself are going to tell me about myself. If it turns out that I am a fraction European, for instance, does that suddenly change my understanding of me as an Indian person? Do I also go investigating which of my apparently Indian ancestors was an adulterer? What does all this information about my body and self tell me? This is an extraordinary amount of information that I am tracking in real-time, but I don’t particularly know myself when I learn that I sleep a certain time, walk a certain distance, weigh a certain number, and have potentially adventurous ancestors.
This visualisation doesn’t just stop at visualising the individual. It also gives us representation of our social and collective lives. Everybody in New Delhi, post-Diwali, shared charts of the pollution in the city, telling us that the AQI levels are all out of whack. I am not sure what additional information it added to the fact that everybody in the city is experiencing the suffocation of living in gas chamber-like environments. Similarly, almost all conversations around climate change are accompanied by charts that are unreadable because of lack of indicative data, and visualisations that insist that we should believe the visualisation produced by this algorithm, rather than our experience of the change.
None of this information actually gives us any insight into our health, well-being or the struggles of everyday life. It doesn’t speak to our relationships, connections and friendships, and the way we feel about the people in our lives. It wraps us in continued flows, but doesn’t really enable us to make any decisions or help us know something about who we are and want to become. And yet, we find comfort in these visualisations of self, quantified and presented to us in colourful dashboards that give scientific-looking spectrums and charts that supposedly tell us how we feel, live, and love. This emergence of information about ourselves, authored by things that are not us, and still give us profound knowledge which we don’t know what to do with, is a new relationship with the digital that I want to watch, because if we are not using this information, it is still being produced, and somebody is definitely finding value in it. And the questions remain: who, and how, and what for?
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Watching and Learning’