Polarisation is the consequence of building the internet around an attention economy according to Nandan Nilekani.
The Infosys co-founder and former chairperson of Unique Identification Authority of India believes that choosing advertising as the primary revenue model for the internet has not only polarised people but also led to the premature deaths of community newspapers.
"It (polarisation) is definitely an outcome, whether it is unintended or not I cannot say. The reality is the whole game is attention economy, it is about keeping your attention. The longer time you spend, the more ads can be shown to you because there is no other way of making money other than showing you ads," Nilekani told BOOM.
"What people have realised is that if they give things to you that inflame you and make you angry you are more likely to be engaged. So it is probably inevitable that when you have an attention economy that is trying to keep your attention, and things that bother you, excite you more and engage, then that kind of content will go up in the system and that is exactly what has happened.
"It is also accompanied by the fact that at least in the West there has been a massive collapse of local newspapers. Local newspapers used to rely on classified ads, but classified ads went away with digital advertising You get all information from some app and there you get into echo chambers where you have people like you and you become more polarised. So I think this has definitely played a role in polarisation," he added.
In their new book, The Art of Bitfulness, Nilekani and Tanuj Bhojwani, a Fellow at iSPIRT Foundation, tackle the issues arising from an increasingly digital world where social media platforms, streaming services and content creators jostle for the attention of the end user.
Though online platforms must be called out for creating an attention economy, Bhojwani believes that at the end of the day, users have the final say in how they can control their need to stay on the internet.
"A lot of us believe that in this day and age, how can I not be connected, how can I not be available on WhatsApp, how can I not respond to every email. Please rid yourselves of these false notions. If you do have a kind of environment, or work that is always dependent on you then talk to your colleagues, and you will find a lot more people agreeing with you because this is a problem that we found out everybody faces uniformly," Bhojwani said.
"One of the underlying principles in the book is: Choose calm, productivity follows. I think if you are able to design the information environment so that it is not always coming at you, the very first effect that it will have on you is that you are calmer, and once you are calmer you can take better decisions on what to spend your time on and you will hopefully spend time on things that are meaningful to you and make meaningful progress in your life, whatever those goals maybe," he added.
Edited excerpts of the interview with Nandan Nilekani and Tanuj Bhojwani follow
Most tech billionaires look ahead and are able to say which way the world is going. In this case you seem to be looking ahead and looking back. And in some ways, maybe some people would say it's a little too late…
Nandan Nilekani: I think that the timing is right. The pandemic brought home to all of us that digital technology was even more a critical part of our lives and unless we had a way of using technology better, a way of being on top of it, rather than being overwhelmed by it is very important. And this will only be bigger issue as we go forward as more and more you know technologies come which keep gripping you on your device.
We also use this book to point out how we came about where we are, how the original model of the Internet was not based on transactions but on advertising which then led to creating the attention requirement of the economy and so on and then the consequence of that.
And then we tried to be non-judgemental in our book. A lot of people will feel that you should become a monastic or monk and give it up. That is not possible in today's world. And a lot of people feel after they spent some four hours browsing some photographs or videos, they feel that they have become weak.
The reality is that technology is also encouraging you to engage more and more. So we are trying to be non-judgemental and give people a set of systems which people can use to continue to get full value from the digital lives without getting overwhelmed by it.
Tanuj, how did you start looking at the Internet? You are a much younger user and adopter. Our demographics of Internet usage in India are quite different. And you clearly belong to the younger considerations set rather than the older one.
Tanuj Bhojwani: I credit the Internet for my entire education. It is basically everything I knew. I started programming at the age of about 10-12. Back then there were no coaching classes, no White Hat Jr for teaching you, you just had to go on to the Internet and do it yourself. And honestly it has been lovely and the Internet used to be a great space but it is not any more. Especially as I have grown up with it, the change is even more drastic for me. I did not get on to it in the last 5 years, I got on to it 15-20 years ago, and therefore something has been irrevocably lost but it is still not hopeless.
We still believe that we can still have an Internet which is still useful, benevolent and kind to all, is common to all, and not just another space captured by a few players and politicised. Can we have that space back? Yes, which is why we wrote the book, which is why it is timely because unlike say other crises like the pandemic or climate change where the actions have to be long-drawn and multi-year, the Internet is a space that can change tomorrow.
You can announce the concept of metaverse and everybody is thinking of flying cars and weddings virtually. So, we can reclaim the Internet. And that is the best/rest of the book
Nandan, Tanuj mentioned White Hat Jr. Now this is a symptom of the problem – that we are trying to rush, understand and crack the Internet as soon as possible because we think that this is the way to the Jackpot. How do we even begin to address something like this?
NN: I think that there is some merit in that argument because what has happened is especially after the pandemic, there is a massive digital acceleration worldwide where societies and companies are dramatically transforming their technology landscape to become far more digital and far more agile. And this is creating a boom of demand and India has emerged as the logical place for that.
So the industry has about 4 million jobs and it is expected that in the next decade it will double the number of jobs. In other words, what took 40 years to reach 4 million will now happen in 10 years. So I can understand that young people believe that a tech career is something that they should pursue and obviously once you believe that, then there will be vendors who will come across and say that we will get you the skills.
Because of the attention nature of these applications, people spend a lot of time in browsing, spend a lot of time engaging in chit-chat, looking at short-from videos and then they feel overwhelmed because they are not able to get their job done. And we just have a simple set of principles by which, using the very same devices that you have, you can bring a little more order into your life and then feel that you are on top of the situation and then become calm.
Many people who interact with you are aware that you brought in this self-discipline in the way you manage devices. How do you do it and when did this realisation dawn on you?
NN: For me the first device was a desktop maybe thirty years back, and then a laptop maybe 25 years back (or whenever laptops came) and my main instrument of communication was an email and that is how I functioned for a long time. And then of course the mobile phone became popular and then around 2010 I got my first smartphone and then of course I got an Ipad device.
My style is slightly different from Tanuj's because we actually have different physical devices for my different modes. So we talk in the book about three modes.
One is the create mode where you need to sit down without interruptions to do thinking work, deep work and writing work. And then we have the curate mode where you browse and read and maybe watch some interesting shows. And then you have the communicate mode where you talk to people and send them messages. I actually physically divided this.
My first device was always a laptop. So the laptop continues to be the place where I do all my work. Though it is a laptop and can be technically taken anywhere, I keep it at the same place with nice lighting to give me a sense of calm and I work there. I use my iIpad for browsing and reading. I read a lot of physical books and online. So my online reading is always on my Ipad. And I use my phone for both voice and messaging.
I do not use any social media apps. I do not use Instagram, TikTok or Facebook or whatever. I use Twitter but again I do not use it in an interactive way. I do not get into arguments. I just use Twitter to communicate articles or things of interest to my followers. So, I have a very well-defined discipline towards digital technology which is why even though I do a large number of things, I never feel overwhelmed by the technology.
One of the things that you talk about in this book is the zero inbox. How do you have a zero inbox? You talk about addressing the mails of the day and finishing it off rather than allowing it to fester. But that is precisely what many of us do. Where do you make that start, how do you go for a nuclear option and why does that become necessary?
TB: I think the best way to think of it is weight. Every unanswered email, unanswered message that you have not actually not settled, not closed the loop on, you are carrying weight on your shoulders. Ask why you want to carry that weight. So, it is that simple.
You mentioned the 'nuclear option' in the book. There is a line that we have written that I actually like. It says: If you are the kind of person that thinks that deleting all your past emails, deleting all your files, or deleting all your to-do lists is a severe thing to do, then you are exactly the person who needs it. Because then you are the kind of person who likes to carry weight.
So my advice to you if you have not done the inbox zero today is: forgive yourself. Start today, delete everything previous, maybe the last one week, the last one week is relevant and anything beyond that you are going to miss anyway because you were not going to be able to pick the needle out of the haystack of thousands of unread emails that you have.
But going forward, just have a simple algorithm, which is that: once and done. You touch it once, make a decision and do it including if it is saying no, say no. If you ask me, that is the formula. Have a simple set of rules for whatever you are going to do. Once you touch it, actually get it done, so that you actually do not look back on it. Never have weight and you will feel freer, calmer and better.
Polarisation, which you have touched upon in the book, is something we at BOOM address as well by fighting misinformation and fake news. Is polarisation a cause, an outcome or is it an unintended consequence of what we have spent or invested in digital infrastructure?
NN: It is definitely an outcome, whether it is unintended or not I cannot say. But the reality is the whole game is attention economy, it is about keeping your attention. The longer time you spend, the more ads can be shown to you because there is no other way of making money other than showing you ads because there was no transactional ability on the Internet for a long time.
And therefore what people have also realised is that if they give things to you that inflame you and make you angry you are more likely to be engaged. So it is probably inevitable that when you have an attention economy that is trying to keep your attention, and things that bother you, excite you more and engage, then that kind of content will go up in the system and that is exactly what has happened.
It is also accompanied by the fact that at least in the West there has been a massive collapse of local newspapers. Local newspapers used to rely on classified ads, but classified ads went away with digital advertising and all these other things that came about. The local newspaper was actually for a community for the small town. Now that went away, and you got all information from some app and there you got into echo chambers where you have people like you and you become more polarised. So I think this has definitely played a role in polarisation.
How do we even begin to address this? The business models of the companies that operate on the Internet, particularly the consumer internet is based on blitz scaling, growing big, drawing capital and bringing in consumer. So everything in the Internet world including the flow of capital is designed in some way to polarise us and keep it that way. So how could we even begin to fight this?
NN: Actually blitz scaling was coined by Reid Hoffman (the LinkedIn co-founder) in his book, and Peter Theil wrote another similar book Zero to One which is about how to create monopolies. Well, I think what we talk about in the second part of the book is how we address the underlying architecture of technology so that you have much more interoperable protocols like we have shown with UPI and these naturally allow more competitors and more innovation.
And having portability is important. One of things that we have done in UPI, I can switch my consumer app and continue to use UPI, I can switch my bank and continue to use UPI and that keeps everybody on their toes because they have to keep innovating and providing better service.
Similarly if you have real interoperability in social media and messaging where I could take my friends list and profile and move to somebody else, then new models will emerge. And then as transactional commerce takes off – like what is happening with UPI in India – then if the revenue model goes to commerce and there is less dependence on this attention stuff then that is another way.
Part of the reason for this is that there is no intermediary liability for these social media platforms, under the US Law 1996 Communication Decency Act. So there are other issues that regulators and others are concerned about. We are focused more on how to use technology to make markets more competitive and innovative and less of a lock-in.
How do you see this challenge of us not allowing technology to lead us down that rabbit-hole literally on an hourly basis?
TB: I think it starts by looking at your own life. A lot of us believe that in this day and age, how can I not be connected, how can I not be available on WhatsApp, how can I not respond to every email. And maybe 15 short years ago this was not the way the world worked and the world still worked.
So the first thing I would say is that please rid yourselves of these false notions. If you do have a kind of environment, or work that is always on you then talk to your colleagues, and you will find a lot more people agreeing with you because this is a problem that we found out everybody faces uniformly. In our conversations, we found nobody who said: No, No I am very happy and I do not overuse my phone. There was not a single person and that says something in itself.
Second is, do not try to judge yourself by thinking that if I read, it is better than watching etc. Simply ask the question: Is my attention aligning with my intention. When I am on my device – like Nandan was saying there are three modes that we like to think about create, curate, and communicate – when I am on my phone to sit down and create or on my laptop to sit down and write something, am I actually doing that? Or am I getting distracted by work like things such as emails or messing around with some data or looking at charts, which is also a form of procrastination distraction. I would say that the simple objective would be to do this.
Because of incoming notifications, because of so many people being at our fingertips, so many news sources, information sources being at our fingertips, we are easily triggered. We are always overwhelmed; we are always falling behind, even if we simply stand still.
So, one of the underlying principles — people ask us what is the principle in the book — is: Choose calm, productivity follows. I think if you are able to design the information environment so that it is not always coming at you, the very first effect that it will have on you is that you are calmer, and once you are calmer you can take better decisions on what to spend your time on and you will hopefully spend time on things that are meaningful to you and make meaningful progress in your life, whatever those goals maybe.
That is honestly the only abstract level principle that we can talk about and the rest comes down to your specific situation.
In an ideal world, we would all be cognizant of our own failings as they were. This is not an ideal world and sometimes gentle intervention could happen to make them aware of the perils of the Internet and digital age. How do you see that?
NN: First of all I think we should not flog ourselves saying that we are weak. Lot of people spend 3-4 hours watching TikTok and feel Oh my God! I do not have any will power. The reality is that the TikTok application is designed to keep you engaged for 3-4 hours. So it is not entirely your fault.
The amazing thing is that we do not have any digital hygiene classes to tell them that this is the way to use it and I think this is definitely required. Because if you get a smartphone and all you get is inflammatory news on WhatsApp or watching cat videos on TikTok, then that is not the world you should be in. So there is great need for addressing digital hygiene and then definitely they can use our book as a textbook I think (laughs).
One of the government's initiatives is Diksha and you have talked about touching 3.6 billion learning sessions. Is there a role there for more media literacy or Internet literacy at a younger age?
NN: Well that is really more to address the basic abilities of the kids to read, write, and learn to do arithmetic and so on. It is to make sure that India has a literate audience, literate young people because education is so vital for people's economic and social mobility that is what the focus is. I am not sure whether that is the place but yes, there is role when people sell the phones to come out with some kind of guide.
By the way, smartphone manufacturers are trying to do that in some way. For example, they are giving you your weekly activity; they are giving you tools to shut down bad content, giving you tools to limit usage so they are doing their own thing. I think it is not just about what they do. It is about what you do and how you adopt a simple set of principles that we have outlined in the book.
The way we use the internet with our devices usually involves us giving up a lot of our information. There is nothing new in that. Where are we today in terms of what we have given back? Can we take back and how do we be more cognizant of what we are giving up and yet using in a more rational way the power of the Internet that we want to use?
TB: The first thing that you want to make a shift in your mind is that a lot of conversations around privacy are usually framed as binary. With WhatsApp you do not have privacy, Facebook you do not have privacy. I think that notion itself is what causes a lot of stress and anxiety in people.
If you start thinking about privacy in the way that we are used to in the real world which is that you would show different aspects of your personality to different people. You are in the office, you are somebody else, and when you get into the cab, you will speak to the cab driver differently and at home you are a different person.
On the Internet all of this has collapsed because these platforms are all big and one large platform. So identity has collapsed and you are essentially everything to everyone all the time, which is very hard to do and which is very jarring also. So privacy is not one binary on or off where your data is protected, it is boundary management. It is being able to choose or have control over what parts of yourself you reveal to whom.
Now, you said a very interesting thing that I also hope that people understand that data will always be generated. It is about who can see what part of that data that is privacy. In the Internet if you interact it will happen.
What can you take back? What can you claim? I would say that the first thing you need to remember is that not all your life history or life data - the way some people put it that Facebook has all your data. But data beyond 60 days ago does not say anything interesting about you. You are not that same person anymore right? Your interaction, or social communication messages might be very relevant and private even for years later but in general in browsing what these companies collect about you, they also do not want more than 90 days old data because they know that nothing matters. People change and time changes.
So, how can you reclaim therefore? You can reclaim a lot. Because even if you start today, in three-six months' time you can have that sense of comfort. So what do you do?
Practical advice, use different identities. The way that these people link it altogether is by identity. It might be an email address, phone number or whatever. So you can choose what part of you is revealed to whom by choosing what identity or identifier you share with them which means divide and keep a number and an email for just your personal contact and it is just for them and not given to any corporations or website. For marketing and people spamming you use burner ids, use temporary ids so that those emails come and you do not even have to look at them.
And the other thing is all your messages. Just think about messages that you really want to keep because nowadays everybody offers ephemeral messaging because even the messaging companies realise that we can't stop a Pegasus kind of a hack where somebody has access to your phone itself. So the options that they offer is end-to-end encryption so that no middle parties can read but the other thing that they offer which is underutilised is ephemerality which means that just let all your messages delete in 24 hours.
When the book was conceptualised, was it a technology book, a management book or a spiritual book?
NN: Just to give you some background, in my history of book writing, I wrote two books that were largely big picture policy books– Imagining India and Rebooting India with Viral Shah. I did not want to do a book about all the new things we have done. But then we realised that we need to study something that matters to people. Because if you write a book about how a big strategy should be done then it is not relevant to most people. But what is relevant to people is how they can use the technology better.
And that is how it began. The latter part of the book is all about selective solutions to this whether it is about using crypto technology or using India Stack or whatever. So we tried to combine both the individual response and the collective response.
I do not know what it is but it is really a book. Our goal at the end of the day is somebody gets this book, reads it and even adopts a few of the lessons from it, if it makes their digital life more manageable, if they feel less harassed, less overwhelmed, if they get more time to do other things, then I think we have achieved our objective.
To some of our Gen Z viewers who are entering secondary education, college, full on Internet users accelerated by COVID what is your advice to them in a general sense?
NN: I think they should certainly decompress a bit from this thing, COVID-19 has actually forced us to spend even more time on the digital platform. The time has come back now post COVID-19 to engage with people and things in the real world, build empathy with them, friendships with them, build relations with them. I think a little more of that is required because I see four children going to a party and all of them are on their respective device which actually does not make sense. They should actually be talking with each other. We need to encourage human contact in the post-pandemic era.
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