Social media has become the de facto visual representation of the digital. The infinite scroll seduces all our attention and it is also where the drama is. It is designed for human engagement and consumption and offers cybernetic feedback loops of instant gratification. They feed us with something almost being said, a sentence without an end, an expression that hasn’t yet been completed, a tale that grows in its telling, thus keeping us hooked to what is just around the corner. Thus, when we say “online”, or “connected”, or “digital”, we eventually narrow it down to apps and sites and platforms that we engage with through different digital devices.
This focus on social media as synonymous with the digital works two ways: One, it shapes our digital devices to be continually updated to join these social media platforms, thus creating the need for everything to be smart and controlled by our phones and bodies. Two, it shapes our lives to be documented, streamed and stored through these ubiquitous devices that surround us. In the midst of this updating to remain the same, this smartness without a cause, this internet of everything where everything, even the human beings, have to be reduced to a thing, hides something — a foundational shift that has happened in our relationship with the digital.
In the emerging phase of the digital, we were faced with many questions of how to live with the digital: What does it mean to be on the move and still be connected? How do we deal with friends who we have never met? Where are we when somebody attacks online? Who are we talking to when we flirt with somebody online? How do we record our lives, connect our data, and make a seamless connection between the online and offline versions of us? These questions now sound outdated, not because we have figured the answers to them, but because we have stopped asking them — not because they are no longer relevant, but because we now no longer think about living with the digital. We live in the digital.
You are surrounded by visible and invisible digital technologies all the time. You engage with them, actively giving them information and talking to them. Their invisible trace records and shapes your presence. Your home is filled with devices that talk to each other about you, behind your back, saying things that you would not want anybody to know. On the streets, you are smiling at potential drones, visible cameras, passing mobile devices, and hidden satellites following you with the joyful keenness of a stalker. More than half of your car is just computation and electronic circuits that are already guiding and shaping your semi-autonomous driving without you realising it. In your office, you are no longer looked at by the nosy colleague but a productivity algorithm that is keeping track of your bodily functions, rhythms and movements. You are never alone as things happen to your information and data, without your own consent and content.
We have spent our last four decades turning the planet into a giant supercomputer. How we live, speak, work, and love are not just domains where we have to figure out engagement with the digital. They are shaped by the condition that we live in the digital. This shift is momentous because it has some dramatic repercussions on how we understand the very act and fact of being human. For example, the idea of freedom of speech in modern democracies, like India. Many advocates of free speech, when they are faced with the digital clamping down — internet blackout in Kashmir, social media disconnection in Assam, removal of content across the country, data erasure in government databases, and introducing preferential content management systems — often struggle to make sense of it. In our earlier paradigms of living with technologies, these acts were seen as merely technological acts, where people could use other channels, or fight back using anti-censorship laws.
However, what we are witnessing with new forms of technological moderation of free speech is that they don’t shut down our channels, they merely take away the infrastructure of access. To block protesters from the streets just needs the government to cut off access to the digital infrastructure and not silence their voice. There is no protesting this on grounds of censorship because instead of modulating content, we are subjected to a manipulation of the platform. Living in the digital is not just about extending our pre-digital ways into a new set of applications. It is a fundamental reconceptualisation of who we are and what we do, and it is going to need a new vocabulary and framework of defending our rights of being human.
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