We’ve grown to the idea that the digital is dangerously fast. We are now used to instant delivery of services, immediate streaming of programmes, and having a coterie of people available to us at a click and a scroll. The globe has shrunk, the world has flattened, and we live on a planet that is essentially a giant super-computer enveloped in information and data streams. There is much to celebrate about the light-speed traffic of digital networks, where the gap between yesterday and tomorrow is so small, that there is no more today left to live in.
Our quickly accelerated lives get closer and closer to the science-fiction reality that our fantasies had once imagined. People get connected in ways they had never imagined, and our social and personal lives experience dramatic upheavals that might have filled lifetimes in other epochs. While these transformations are surrounding us, and the digital fulfils the promises it had kept, it is time to realise that not all is well in digiville. Because, sure, the digital circuits give us access to unprecedented information and give us a window into bedrooms far away from home, but they also lead to triggers that were never possible.
Last week, for instance, a large part of the world was frantically looking for the meaning of “covfefe”, after the Twitter-happy president of the USA decided that the world was ready for that word. Twitter went berserk, with conspiracy theories of what “covfefe” could mean, and the social web was exploding with much hilarity at the cost of the president. At the same time, the algorithms that govern the empires of Google Search, were being confounded by the fact that all the Indians, who have been quite prominent in their quest for digital porn, had suddenly changed their preferences and were really into “peacock sex”. Following the misguidedly strange proclamations of the judge from Rajasthan who desexualised the peacocks and cast a blemish on their records, hordes of people spent their time talking about the sex lives of peacocks.
Both of these incidents, moments of great levity and mirth, are symptomatic of the reactive space that the web has become. The hashtags trended. Memes were created. YouTube suddenly got flooded with peacock-mating videos — don’t just take my word for it, seriously, go and search for them! — and the tweets went viral. If we were to quantify the time that was spent globally and locally, reacting to what can only be seen as the ramblings of ignorant demagogues; while it does reflect the democratic potentials of the digital web, it also shows how trigger-happy we’ve become in our interaction with information.
In the digital web, attention is currency. The more time, clicks, scrolls, likes and shares a digital object accrues, the more valuable it becomes. So much so, that completely insignificant items can thus assume dramatic proportions and people who have nothing more to offer than their ability to garner attention, can become celebrities. Incidentally, there is algorithmic science behind it. There is a reason why not all the rubbish that goes online becomes virally distributed. The human actors — the people who follow you — and the influence they create, form a small part of why some things get attention. The real influencers, in this case, are actually networked algorithms.
The network is not just a benign connection of nodes. It is a self-sustaining system that is designed for circulation. The network has its meaning and its lifeness only in its capacity to circulate data. The minute algorithms notice some information gathering interest, they start spreading it to even more avenues. As the information spreads and leaks into different spaces, more people like it — and the more people like it, the more it becomes subject to rapid circulation. This avalanche of attention that networks deposit on some information allows for these viral objects to emerge as significant, becoming time sinks where we all spend our time responding to them, without giving us a space of reflection or critical distance.
This same phenomenon creates uncivil, arrogant and boorish media personalities into celebrities. This is why fake news has become a naturalised phenomenon, where what is missing, is not our ability to discern between good and bad information, but the fact that most of this information comes with the endorsement of thousands of likes and millions of views, which gives it credibility even when it has no claims to truth. The rapid nature of our responsive digital lives needs to be questioned. While it is obvious that in the constantly updated data streams, momentary and micro engagements is the only survival mechanism that we have to cope with information overload, it is important that we check ourselves to make sure that the attention that we are spending is bestowed on objects and ideas that might be more worthy than peacocks having covfefes.