The overdocumented self?

After a long time, one had the experience of going to someone’s office and one had to go through a very modern ritual. It involves getting photographed, sharing one’s mobile phone number, receiving an OTP on it, submitting it at reception, showing some government- approved proof of identity, getting an admission slip, which needed to be duly countersigned by the person being visited for submission on the way out. It is unclear as to what nuclear secrets were being protected at the apparels company one needed to visit, but it is reassuring to know that these continue to lie there unmolested thanks to the stringent security.

Growing up, one cannot remember ever being asked to produce any proof of identity, except perhaps occasionally in college. Indeed, one did not have any documents that could establish who one was. Bureaucracy existed even then; the fondness for entering things in registers and issuing passes which needed to be stamped is not a modern affliction. But most of this was an exercise in pure tokenism- one could write whatever one felt like and besides most of what was written was illegible and unusable. And we certainly had very little interest in documenting our own selves. A few people kept diaries and journals, but for most, life was lived in utter unselfconsciousness, with little need felt to present oneself to the world.

It almost seems as if the recording of every action of every individual is an end by itself. If official surveillance is one side of the story, then intense self-documentation is the other. As a consequence, both out of choice and out of compulsion, there is very little that we do that does not leave an imprint of some kind behind. In a digital world, every click is on record for eternity. We call it data, but it is a living testimony to our existence and what we do with it. What we say, what we like, who we diss, what our vices are, our guilty pleasures, our vanities, all of it being logged min to a ledger that has near divine omniscience.

We are surveilled everywhere, even in the physical world. CCTV cameras that now have increasingly sophisticated facial recognition systems, GPS which tracks our movements, location histories on our phones which tell where we have been at any time, biometric based instruments like Aadhar that are needed to navigate many public spaces, algorithms that follow us through our meanderings in the digital world- the sphere of the private has shrunk immeasurably. 

We are being goaded to surrender privacy, even of the mind. Social media sites subtly encourage us to unburden ourselves to others. Our lives, or at least Eastmancolour versions of it, are public documents. The abandonment of privacy is a project that we carry out with gusto. We vie to be more ‘social’, to put more of ourselves out there for the edification of others. If Twitter wants to excise us of our opinions, Facebook creates a new grammar of relationships, Instagram makes our lives a visual treat for our audience, Whatsapp helps us broadcast every passing thought to a closed community, new kids on the block like Clubhouse harvests our voices.

The selfie allows us for the first time to convert mirrors into cameras. We rapid prototype ourselves as we shoot a flurry of self-portraits. A camera like Go Pro shows us what the world would look like if our bodies were cameras. Wearables are on the way, that will make our bodies sentient. Already Fitbit and our regular smartphone records our physical activity- how many steps did we walk, how many calories did we burn. Sleep apps tell us about our sleeping patterns, including the duration of the period we snored or the number of times we coughed. Tomorrow, sensors will pick up key health parameters and feed them to a medical facility in real time so as to keep track and intervene when necessary.

What will remain are our thoughts. The unexpressed ones, that is. And even that may not be forever. Technologies that are able to decipher our thoughts is on its way. The truly, nothing will be ours alone anymore.

What are the social consequences of such a dramatic inversion of the self? Will we need to develop layers of personae which allows us to stash away a small part of ourselves? Will the idea of the self itself become meaningless, as that idea will inevitably need to be hyphenated for it to make any sense? We will never only be ourselves.

The paradox is that technology ostensibly strives to ensure that an individual gets whatever she desires and needs whenever it is needed and with the least possible effort. But in doing so, it ends up compromising the very things that make one an individual. As algorithms keyed up to anticipate our needs, ply us with more of what we like, we find ourselves surrounded by mirror images of our desires, unable to break free.

We are moving towards a world where we all can effectively become part of a single organism. The idea of data converts all our actions and thoughts into a single fluid currency that flows constantly. One way of thinking about social media is that we are the extensions of the medium, the nodes that act according to an implicit master script instead of being users in charge of our own destiny. The social media system is a commercial engine, which is harvesting our attention for use by advertisers. 

This is a world we have no previous templates of. What might be useful is for us to practice a form of self-aware commentary, one that characterises the changes that we are undergoing, thanks to an unstoppable torrent called technology. To step outside the immersive grasp of new technologies so as to make sense of what is happening. Till such time as we can. 



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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