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Monday, August 10, 2020

What to keep in mind when personalising a digital image

If we are okay with the idea that social media feeds curate and show us a friendscape that an algorithm decides, why is it difficult to imagine that it can also customise borders, divisions, and maps to the location of the user?

Written by Nishant Shah | Published: February 21, 2020 5:30:56 pm
The stories told about us are going to be more than we can ever control, fathom, or keep up with.

The joy of total surrender to the smart technologies around us is in the imagined utopia of the world being customised to our needs, wants, whims, and fancies. Never, since Galileo’s decentering of the earth in the map of the cosmos, and definitely not since Darwin’s degradation of the human as a risen ape, have we returned with such ferocity, to the idea of us being at the centre of the world again. The Internet of Things and the world of predictive social web are both so seductive, not because of the proffered connections and convenience, but because they allow us to unashamedly dream of ourselves as the most important things in our life, where everything around us caters to our schedules, routines, desires, and aspirations in one synchronised digital dance.

Personalisation is the reward we get for subjecting ourselves to extreme surveillance. We unravel ourselves into data streams that form patterns of algorithmic recognition so that extremely insignificant things are fine-tuned to our personal desires. Life, in the age of customisation, is that mythical cup of Starbucks coffee where you make seemingly profound choices (fun fact: you can drink your Starbucks beverage in 80,000 drink combinations) in order to get a cup of coffee. We select advertisements so that we can be targeted with the precise products that we want, but should probably not buy. Our home assistants are locked to our voices and offer us the joy of starting our favourite news radio stations when we say “good morning” to these devices, even if we might not to people around us. Our gadgets recognise our eyes and fingerprints and suggest apps that we want to use. Our apps give us notifications based on who they think we are close to.

For any of us who have used the If This Than That (IFTT) apps in order to get the smart lights to change a particular colour based on our mood, or for our coffee machines to start brewing when they notice us coming home, we know that we have immersed ourselves in the quest of extreme customisation. It is an acknowledgement of the fact that our lives are so bereft of possibility and so conscripted, that our devices are all so generic and our choices so limitless in their pointlessness, that the only way we can now realise our individuality is by crafting minute choices of futile living.
It is strange, then, that the recent news of Google Maps showing Jammu and Kashmir as disputed territory, if you view it from outside of India, triggered so much disconcert.

If we are okay with the idea that social media feeds curate and show us a friendscape that an algorithm decides, why is it so difficult to imagine that digital displays will also customise borders, divisions, and maps to the location of the user? It should have been obvious to all of us, that personalisation and customisation signal the end of a universal narrative, a singular truth, or a fixed meaning. Post-truth has not been about the peddling of lies on the unverified web. It has been about the lack of a common truth that you and I can agree on because truths and meanings are being customised to fit our realities, outlooks, and comfort zones.

It is good to recognise that the representation of Kashmir’s disputed borders differently is merely a symptom of what digital personalisation leads to. It reminds us that digital choices are political — be they about the friends we connect to or the nations we live in. And because these choices are political, it means that the quick resolutions that come from authoritarian practices — clamping down of information, internet blackouts (like we still see in Kashmir), revision of history textbooks, or a forceful erasure of multiplicity — will always be contested beyond the geographies of power and the pockets of sovereignty. It is one of the most extraordinary powers of the internet that the stories that are told about us — individually, collectively, or politically, as a nation — are going to be more and multiple than we can ever control, fathom, or keep up with. We might be able to sweep some of the dirt under the carpet, and we might even be convinced that in our manipulated pictures, everything looks clean. But the digital is a leaky system, and it will leak and share information that can no longer be given a universal meaning or singular narrative.

(Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru)

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