Getting people out of their houses on a Sunday is the hardest thing. That is what all the marketing people find challenging. Free Software Movement – Karnataka (FSMK) was able to pull in quite an impressive crowd on of mostly young people for their program, titled ” A public discourse on Tech4Democracy”, held on 10th March in Bengaluru, which is really commendable. Though Prakash Raj and Kiran Chandra were not able to make it, Prabir Purkayastha and Sugata Srinivas Raju were delightful for the ears.
Being a bilingual and journalist Sugata was able to connect with the local crowd mixing the speech with local language. He started with the question “How many of you here know what is the colloquial word for surveillance in your local language? You see the word that comes closest in Kannada is “kangaavalu” but this word has positive connotations too. It can be used for a mother watching her kid. Hence on a language level if there is no word to surveillance it shows that people of that language are not serious enough regarding this issue. How will one communicate to the locals in their language about surveillance if there is no word to express what is to be told.
He also pointed out as to how we all are a part of this surveillance. He said that surveillance in today’s world is so sophisticated that we are willing recruits and also passive participants by willingly sharing our data to Facebook by telling where you went for a trek, what you ate, which movie you watched. He pointed out that we have to give up the notion that surveillance is a state imposed feature. Current surveillance sucks you in and gets you to voluntarily subject yourselves to surveillance.
He agreed that there is one perspective of state surveillance that needs to be discussed. With only a state surveillance belief it builds into us that getting past the state surveillance is enough to avoid surveillance, which is completely not correct. He said that the state imposed surveillance idea dates back to Cold War times. These used to be physical manning where friends, teachers, brothers and even children were recruited to inform. This created whispering societies. This can be identified from the writings of Boris Pasternak or George Orwell. There was a great author named Pierre Vallières who wrote The Precocious Autobiography, where he talks about the Cold War running in Iran.
Sugata reminded that the idea of surveillance is from the remote past. The current idea of the same is in being non invasive and being presented only as a collateral possibility not as the activity or the purpose. This is clear in the architecture of Social Media technology with the filter-bubbles that are being created and the algorithms that control them. Eli Pariser wrote ‘The Filter Bubble’ where it was pointed out how by 2010 large companies updated their algorithm to sort interest list and create bubbles.
Sugata took up the case of Aadhaar and said that huge data was created with the primary intent of welfare. This was done with a good intent to ensure that the grains, subsidies, wages are all delivered properly and to plug leakages at middleman and distributors along the delivery line. But we missed its mandatory linking and also when this information was passed on to the corporates and when they started exploiting that data for profits. This is how the whole idea of surveillance has been masked and applied.
He spoke of his friend Anand Giridharadas who critiqued the philanthropy system and pointed out that this is an elite facade of chaining society. Questioning as to why these companies do huge CSR activities concentrating their efforts towards social change, he pointed out that Azim Premji told 15-20 years ago that they will change so many schools but the school status still remains the same. Even newspapers build the mythology around philanthropist. Yet they are more towards this social change only to ensure the status quo. Actual social change is a revolutionary idea that will prompt people to go down the streets and fight for salary. These classical methods of protest are being given up because those driving the social change are the people who have taken Aadhaar data, the same people who have written all those different algorithms. They control both the good and the bad of the society to put a harness around our nose. In the book Winners Take All one can get more insight. So keeping their philanthropy and the good intent of welfare corporates play the game of business. We need to understand these nuances.
On journalism he pointed out that CFI recent study shows that the current cross-media ownership is with only 3 to 4 groups who have a hold on our thought process. Or all these companies are involved in this business and hence money is very important so they will not promote free speech. Even for the independent media that was built, a bunch of corporates came together saying they will support independent media and will not interfere, but finally brought a person of their choice as CEO who is responsible for everything that is wrong with journalism like private treaties and media heads. To change the media value system, independent media was created but now philanthropists are controlling even that.
His critique of social media includes the points that it is not designed to deepen democracy, encourage free speech, build networks across societies or build communities. Facebook actually creates a sense of nostalgia that it makes one lose the sight of the reality today. The past has become so important that the present has become unimportant. It is actually a different type of politics on what type of past is being looked at and how it is reconstructed on such platforms. These platforms perform a surveillance of your emotions, minutiae of thought process, political views, economic choices, buying preferences, touristic intentions, creating filter-bubbles. Then there are algorithms that start doing the thinking once this data is fed. This leads to the collapse of the public-private life structure.
As a reminder he pointed out that Facebook, twitter are objects that are being traded on stock exchange. They will have investors as part of them who will be expecting returns and share has to remain at a certain price, if it falls they will be destroyed. The venture capitalists are actually vulture capitalists with demands. He was pointing to the fact that this is a business.
He spoke about thought leadership where Social Media has replaced it. He said that thought leadership is currently an euphemism. It is something that has been hyped and shown, or wrapped in layers and shown. It tells that you all can be journalists, publishers and much more. Once there are likes and followers it creates an impression that the whole world is at the feet but critical thinking is lost because one has to now repeat the writing in such a way that there are likes and shares. This creates a psychological trap and so critical thinking is thrown out of the window.
Further Sugata pointed out the changes in individual expression and why expression is not done freely anymore but spoken through our chosen constituents. Speech is calibrated and moderated due to the constant fear of retribution. The biggest mother of retribution is “unfollow” and “unfriend”, or becoming unpopular. So filter are created to indulge in the social media platforms. With friends now acting as virtual surveyors we do what they want us to do and this fact of constantly being watched over by friends disturbs one’s personality and free thinking.
In conclusion he said, let us not think of free society. Let us accept that we don’t have free expression. Those expressions are oxymorons. Only stateless society can be free and that is not possible and the whole thing is actually paradoxical. This is the state that we have landed ourselves where as a result of AI, technology and algorithms any kind of order has turned into surveillance. There are benign actions of surveillance, like the mother looking after the kid, and if one extends this analogy of Castor we end up with benign surveillance and malignant surveillance. This malignant surveillance will always be there on social media. Surveillance is an act of creating power over all of us. It gives the power of striking fear, power of blackmail, the power of leverage, power to discriminate and the power to segregate.