Before I joined the much-vaunted iPhone population, I was a die-hard Android fan, trading good quality iTunes tracks for some poor sounds or garden-variety music for free, as long as I could simply plug in my phone into a laptop to extract photos, numbers and whatnot without being put through the wringer for extra cloud storage and other high-brow proprietary applications. Till the phone started reminding me of every place I had parked my car in over the past one week, constantly prompting me to part with information that had already given away my last location, in any case.
It’s a honey trap - this need of ours to keep adding layers of simplicity to our lives when, in fact, with each one we add, we give away a little bit of ourselves. Sometimes I feel it is a little like going to a shrink. You must reveal more of your secrets to make sense of them in the first place. So it is with data.
Big data is slowly, but surely, changing the way we do business - be it in the public or private sector. The more we share, the less trouble - we are told - we will have in getting to the bottom of what we all really need. There was a time when you had to fill out a hundred different forms the length of which would put our epics to shame, only to have them rot in the dusty shelves of some godforsaken office. Now, all you have to do is enter a search into an e-commerce portal’s website and you may have just committed yourself to a lifetime of product information and best deals on handheld vacuum cleaners.
When it comes to individual privacy, gone is the time when you felt you had at least a semblance of control over the information you wished to share publicly. Facebook and other social media applications may come with a host of privacy options but the truth is that human nature and its need to broadcast trumps even the least evil of intentions. The more you play, the bigger you win - the lure is hard to resist. The problem is the data we seem to be beaming out there has nothing to do with specific information-sharing choices we make.
What we share inadvertently can have an equally intrusive impact on our lives as a regrettable picture we post on Instagram. Take the example of news. If, in a moment of weakness, you give in to a fluff news piece about your favourite Hollywood star or footballers, chances are all news related to it will continue finding its way back to you. On a more serious note, customisation of news feeds and a shift in reading habits from ink to online have meant that our search habits are even defining the quality and parameters of the information we consume, leaving little scope for accidentally stumbling upon something new.
It’s a scary thought, to realise that something is taking permanent note of your every misstep. Just as it is an exhilarating one to be appreciated by complete strangers.
Not only that, the issue of data privacy is creating dilemmas for everyone - be it private businesses, governments or individuals. It’s becoming harder and harder to draw the boundaries between private information and public good. For example, sharing detailed, intrusive information about your health can perhaps help devise solutions for larger problems that beset a nation. But a growing sense of unease and a lack of trust in the guardians of that data makes it more difficult for us to be honest about something as simple as our blood sugar levels when we visit a doctor, than it is for us to admit to a one-night stand on Twitter!
At the same time, we expect our apps to know the books we should be reading, our radio cabs to find us right at our doorsteps, our government to understand what we want better, all the while lamenting a loss of our right to privacy. It’s a little like nailing jelly to a wall - defining the boundaries of our own openness to benevolent intrusion.
The interesting thing is, the quandary we find ourselves in every time a website asks for our number or an app our email, is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. What lies ahead is anyone’s guess. My view is we will find ourselves in a state of mutually-assured destruction, where we stand to lose as much by parting ways with the digital universe out there as it would from losing us.
Till then, I’m only accepting LinkedIn invites via my P.O box number.