Discussing the idea of ‘How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds’.

One of the best piece that I have read in the last one year is this article recommended by Manu Prasad on How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds. Tristan Harris, who has been a magician and then “an Ex-Google Design Ethicist”, shares how “attention companies” (companies such as Facebook, Snapchat, Netflix) run their business completely on one metric – “time spent”. They give us an illusion that we are making our own “choice” by spending more and more time on their app, while in reality they manipulate by playing on our psychological vulnerabilities (such as impulses, social approval, fear of missing out etc). The only choice we find ourselves is either be constantly distracted –  by interruptions of notifications, chat pings or if we tune out, risk missing out on something crucial (FOMO).

He believes that the onus for  helping us exercise truly “empowering” choices lies with these companies, they need to think not only from the prism of maximising profit through “time spent” by their consumers but helping bring back the agency of choice to their consumers, respecting their real needs, aligning to their goals so it’s “Time Well Spent”.


There are some compelling examples that Tristan shares to make his point -

Every time we try to maintain self-control, we forget that there are hundreds of people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break it down

Millions of people check their phone 150 times a day – when we wake up, when we go to sleep and moments of boredom. The average teenager sends 4,000 texts every month, once every 6 mins they are awake. Forget the brain implant, the phone is an implant.

Every time we are interrupted, it takes up to 23 minutes to resume focus, fragmenting our attention and leaving us constantly distracted. It’s harder and harder to focus our attention where we want to put it

This is an idea that strongly resonates with me because I do find myself lost in streams across apps and even as I suspect that I am not benefiting from improved ideas or social relationships, I find myself helplessly enslaved to the streams. It’s impoverishing not just the routine productivity but long term purpose. It’s the same sense that I get when I am at a mall – at the mecca of consumption, suddenly conscious of my fragmented being – not a human being – a “consumer being” if you will. Seductive window displays, fueling inadequacy and a gluttony for consumption and never ever satiating in the end. Even as I look around others engaged in the same pursuit, even as I suspect that this whole thing looks like a grand conspiracy to keep us ‘distracted’ perhaps from our purpose, I am not able to dis-engage from the scenario.

Coming back to the original discussion, this dis-engagement from the enslavement by our devices can happen either by us becoming more aware of the illusion of choice and exercising some self-control (the site gives some tips on how we can “live better with our devices”). Or by escalating the idea to these companies, that in the long-run its better to align to people’s needs and not just their business needs.

Now obviously these “attention companies” have no altruistic reasons to clear out the interruption because they only gain from it. In a different discussion on the problem of fake news, my colleague Rajesh made a similar point -

“Any conduct in a civil society is regulated. If it was not regulated then we would not be a society,” Rajesh Lalwani, founder of Scenario Consulting said. “To expect that we will self-regulate will not happen,” he said, adding that “The only regulation that can and should happen is at a platform level. They have the means, the wherewithal and the responsibility. To expect that the media owners are going to do it is not going to happen. To expect the readers are not going to participate, is not going to happen. We don’t want the government to regulate. The answer is at the platform.”

From MediaNama’s discussion on Dealing with Fake News.

What  do you think? Does the agency of choice lie more with the consumer or the platform-owner?

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The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth

In every period in the history, there has been tension between different social groups based on the dynamics of the power structures in that age. When that tension would escalate, it would take form of discrimination – basis race, gender, caste, economic class or sexual orientation. The discriminated group, no matter how weak would always aggregate as an interest group and fight for the balance of power to tip in their favor.

What if the discrimination was so covert that the ‘discriminated’ person wasn’t even aware of the bias at play? What if there were walls behind which deprivation could be ‘personalized’ and ‘customized’ in ways that would disallow for the deprived to know one another or rally together?

The Daily You is an interesting account of such a deprivation, what it calls “the practice of social discrimination through profiling” in the digital age:

This book tells the story of an advertising system that has embarked on a fundamental and systematic process of social discrimination. It’s a new world, and we’re only at the beginning. Nevertheless, the logic of social discrimination is already firmly entrenched in the advertising system and the media that serve it. The direction is basic: In their quest to separate “targets” from “waste,” marketers buy access to data about users’ backgrounds, activities, and friends that will allow them to locate the customers they deem most valuable. They surround those targets with commercial messages that match their views of them and that offer them incentives and rewards—discounts, personal messages, the possibility of relationships—that are designed to make them feel good about the product. And digital publishers help the marketers: by drawing on information about individuals acquired through registrations and purchase from data firms, they provide the targets with personalized content. This personalized content is designed for two purposes: to keep individuals on the site and thereby increase the chance that they will interact with the sponsor’s ad; and to resonate with and reinforce the commercial message

The book highlights several problems with this new data-led approach of labeling people:

Credible content is dying – advertisers are squeezing content publishers both creatively and economically and killing their editorial autonomy. They are “destroying traditional publishing ethics by forcing media outlets to adapt their editorial content to advertisers’ public-relations needs and slice-and-dice demands.”

The publishing industry has already been torn by the emergence of a completely new ecosystem with a new set of rules – a) sophisticated audience data technology enables marketers via the ad networks and ad exchanges to reach out to audience in real-time wherever they are on the web, hence eroding the basic value of a website as a destination to reach a particular set of audience b) emergence of new players who use technology to curate or aggregate content offering free apps, as against old model of humans performing those roles c) disintegration of media – “consumers no longer typically confront media products as unified branded products or programming flows. Many read individual newspaper articles, listen to individual songs, and view individual program episodes unmoored from a “channel”

In such an environment, the publishers have increasingly been under the pressure on the business side. They affiliate with ad networks who drop cookies to track behaviors and background of the visiting audience and sell this data to advertisers and in turn share revenues with the publishers. The margins earned are so low that they no longer even cover the cost of production of content in many cases. In the yesteryears, leading media houses could command a premium and create expensive content. With the money literally drying up, they are being forced to produce inexpensive content and to surrender to the needs of the advertiser (extort more information about their visitors, create sponsored content) to sustain their existence. Hence the traditional boundaries between the “church” (editorial integrity) and the “state” (business side of publishing) are colliding and colluding in ways that compromise consumer trust and interest.


Limiting people’s choices basis their ‘reputation’ - by personalising not just ads but the entire media experience (news, entertainment etc.) on the basis of “marketing reputations we don’t even know we have”, what’s at stake is both how we see the world and how we see ourselves. This concept was elaborated by Eli Pariser in his best-seller ‘The Filter Bubble’ – how people  are less likely to encounter new ideas and views, when we all live in our own, unique information universe that confirms and reinforces our existing bias. Here, the author focuses more on how every individual is ranked on the hierarchy of desirability for marketers, which in turn influence the product choices that are put in front of them. The advertisements, offers and discounts that a person receive now become concurrent with the ‘label’, ‘segment’ or ‘reputation silo’ in which they have been placed:

 Advertisements and discounts are status signals: they alert people as to their social position. If you consistently get ads for low-priced cars, regional vacations, fast-food restaurants, and other products that reflect a lower-class status, your sense of the world’s opportunities may be narrower than that of someone who is feted with ads for national or international trips and luxury products.”

 “In fact, the ads may signal your opportunities actually are narrowed if marketers and publishers decide that the data points—profiles—about you across the internet position you in a segment of the population that is relatively less desirable to marketers because of income, age, past-purchase behavior, geographical location, or other reasons.”

Harboring social hostility by offering unequal choices and experiences - While advertisers and platform owners celebrate how content personalization brings higher “relevance” to the user experience, as stated in the previous point, it also discourages people from exploring ideas and information beyond their comfort zone. Living in their ‘idea cocoons’, we don’t realise the possible pitfalls of this “cyber-polarisation”. According to the book, this kind of personalisation will –

allow, perhaps even encourage, individuals to live in their own personally constructed worlds, separate from people and issues they don’t care about and don’t want to be bothered with. Such a preference may accelerate when antagonisms based on employment, age, income, ethnicity, and more rise up as a result of competition over jobs and political muscle. In these circumstances, reputation silos may accelerate the distance people feel between one another. They may further erode the tolerance and mutual dependence between diverse groups that enable a society to work.”

The question of privacy – there are several arguments extended to thwart the idea that this form of behavioural advertising is a serious threat to privacy. One is that people actually don’t care about their privacy; they would trade it for a free soda or a $5 discount on their grocery bill. The other is that the youth don’t care about privacy, it’s the older demographic who is old-fashioned about the idea of privacy. Another idea is that the marketers and regulators have already dealt with the problem through laws that protect sensitive financial or health information and that people only worry about use of their data because it appears “creepy” to them but is actually not harmful. The idea heralded most by marketers is “public should appreciate marketers for promoting anonymity and relevance as the two pillars of acceptable tracking by the advertising system.” The book exposes the chinks in each of these arguments. It gives a graphic account of how cookies, beacons, IP addresses are the new age surveillance technology which map and mark every activity undertaken by its ‘target’ on the web and integrate with other behavioural data from offline world. The author quotes a study to show that while the youth are digital-natives, they lack online and legal literacy about privacy and it is this illiteracy rather than disregard for traditional privacy which is the reason behind their attitudes. My own belief  is that the emergence of players such as SnapChat and growing preference for messenger services is a clear sign that the youth do care about creating a private confine. The book rues that laws such as defined by FTC don’t do justice to consumers’ right to information about use of their data and in fact allows marketers to gather most of this data on an opt-out basis. It highlights how publishers create complex, ambiguous privacy policies to “hide particulars of buyers’ audience-tracking and targeting activities from visitors to their sites.”  It also raises an interesting point about how social media and other web platforms give its users’ an illusion of control through privacy settings:

Facebook, which gathers an enormous amount of information about what everyone on its site does and then turns around and sells the ability to reach them anonymously with advertising based on the profiles that Facebook members have created for themselves. As Facebook members construct their profiles and then hide behind privacy settings, they probably don’t know that these lockouts are irrelevant when it comes to advertisers. In offering the data anonymously, Facebook claims the right to use even aspects of profiles that members have chosen not to make public

Another larger point raised is that it isn’t just about how their data is used to target them with advertising; it is how people’s data is used to engineer their entire social experience:

“…marketers’ analyses of the “social graph” of an individual’s friends may lead advertisers to shape the earned, paid, and owned media that those friends see to the extent that it affects the way they collaborate with each other.”

The insatiable hunger for data finding new frontiers in TV, mobile and brick and mortar stores – Google is well-known to have revolutionized the online advertising business and have completely dominated the game, also taking away a major share of advertising money from television. There are several players who are trying to address their threat both on web and TV. Today, there are technologies available for offering the same form of targeting and personalisation that exists on the web to TV – for example tracking individuals researching a new car purchase on the web and placing related ads on TV in front of those individuals.

The book offers a futuristic but an alarming view of the new frontiers to which this world of data-mining and reputation building is headed:

Eventually, marketers will want to go further than just the household. They will persuade you to log on to your TV set and its browser (via clicked buttons, voice identifiers, fingerprint analyzers, or even face detectors) in order to get special discounts for products as well as programs aimed not just at your family but specifically at you. Search engines will then individualize their results so that your suggested television agenda will depend on the search company’s understanding of you. And when you start a viewing session, Google Television, Comcast, or another entity will take advantage of that by watching you. It will use software that will have what Google calls a “content aware interactivity layer,” which can determine what is being shown on-screen and then offer additional related information; it allows the viewer to ask Google questions.

The book is a detailed account of how media-buying system is the “prime mover in the emerging digital world”. The obsession of marketers with quantifying ROI and the media optimization dream project has led to progressive de-humanisation from individuals to consumers to commodities. Like the author states, “at the core this story is the health of consumer-business relations in twenty-first century”. There is a need for regulation and to arrive at a common understanding of disclosure that advertisers need to make to their consumers about how they mine and use the information about their lives. If the disparity in the power equation between advertisers and consumers is allowed to widen, we are likely sitting on a civil uprising of a different kind.

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Digital journalism in India – how these 6 start-ups are re-thinking content, distribution and business

Digital journalism has seen several new players enter the fray especially in the last two years. On one hand international players such as BuzzFeed, Quartz and Huffington Post have been ramping up their presence – creating own teams or entering into content partnerships. On the other, Indian legacy media brands have been trying to extend their empire to the digital world launching their digital editions or new products (Daily O by India Today, Catch News by Rajasthan Patrika, FirstPost by Network18 among others). With social media and mobile providing potent streams of distribution, the last few years have seen an emergence of a few interesting start-ups in the space of digital journalism.

I came across an excellent analysis of this landscape by the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism and I highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in the space of digital media. You can download a full copy here.

There were several facts and statistics that I found pertinent, example:

  • “From 1995 to 2010, internet use in India grew from almost nothing to a mere 8%, even as global access reached 30%.5 From 2011 to 2015, the Indian figure grew to over 30%, and the bulk of that growth is from 2014 and 2015. In absolute numbers, it took 15 years to get the first 100 million Indians online, three more years to reach 200 million, one more year to reach 300 million, and then another year to reach 400 million.”
  • “The Huffington Post was launched in 2005 and reported its first profit in 2010. After it was bought by AOL in 2011, millions more was invested in expanding the site’s global reach, and the site only reported a profit again in 2015. BuzzFeed, launched in 2006, reported its first annual profit in 2013. Politico, launched in 2007, announced its first profit in 2011. All of these sites have pursued a path of ‘users first, profits later’ that requires significant investment and patience from their backers. All have first carved out a distinct niche in the United States and then turned to the pursuit of a global audience to reach the scale necessary to break even. All of them have been launched by people with strong networks in other media companies, leveraged for visibility and investment, confirming the wider point that innovators are rarely young, new entrants and more often are people who bring confidence, business knowledge, and social connections accumulated from prior experience at existing organisations to a new venture.”

The report builds up case studies around six start-ups in the space of digital journalism in India , “content based (the Quint, Scroll), aggregation-based (InShorts, DailyHunt), and  nonprofit (The Wire, Khabar Laharirya) ”  and analyses their content, distribution and business strategy. For my understanding, I have summed up their models in the grid below, in case you do not get a chance to read the complete piece,  you could use it for a quick reference:


What’s your take on the space? Will we have our desi Salon or Slate or are we a market too distinct for such comparisons to hold any meaning?



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How Music Got Free: What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime? by Stephen Witt

One of the best books that I have read in the recent past is a book that documents the shifting power politics of music industry over the last few decades. At the core, the book navigates how the mp3 technology which struggled for years to find legitimacy inadvertently became ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ on the shore of privacy. It’s almost impossible for me to capture this thrilling story through just this post but I have shared some parts which I found remarkable. If you are interested in knowing the history of music privacy, I strongly recommending reading this one.

Piracy as a subculture

Music in every age has had its own subcultures – from rock to pop, punk to Goth. The author shares how we ‘acquired’ music also has had its set of subcultures –

“Record collecting had been a subculture too, and, for that vanishing breed, finding albums proved to be an exhilarating challenge, one that involved scouring garage sales, sifting through bargain bins, joining mailing lists for bands, and Tuesday visits to the record store.”

The reason why piracy thrived, the reason behind its ‘perverse lure’ was also that “it wasn’t just a way to get the music; it was its own subculture.” The thrill of leaking a much anticipated Jay Z album was something else. It wasn’t just random internet users who were leaking the music, they were working as organized outfits often competing to outdo each other, to create a legacy for themselves –

“My assumption had been that music piracy was a crowdsourced phenomenon. That is, I believed the mp3s I’d downloaded had been sourced from scattered uploaders around the globe and that this diffuse network of rippers was not organized in any meaningful way. This assumption was wrong. While some of the files were indeed untraceable artifacts from random denizens of the Internet, the vast majority of pirated mp3s came from just a few organized releasing groups. Piracy was a social phenomenon.”

Part 1 – How MP3 came into being

The mp3 technology was created by a team of engineers at the Fraunhofer institute, Germany. The institute was funded by a state-run research organization who “brokered commercial relationships with large consumer industrial firms” once the research matured into viable technologies. Karlheinz Brandenburg, considered the father of mp3 led this team and solved one of the longest held problems of digital audio. Brandenburg’s thesis adviser Seitzer believed that it was possible to record high-fidelity music with very small amounts of data. This belief was based on some brilliant research by his own adviser Zwicker, a doyen of psychoacoustics, who had unraveled inherent flaws of the human ear. Zwicker found out that the ear did not act like a microphone and the human ear could be tricked for example into hearing two different tones as a single one by bringing them closer together in pitch. This meant that data compression that could enable digital music could be a reality –

“Information in the digital age was stored in binary units of zero or one, termed “bits,” and the goal of compression was to use as few of these bits as possible. CD audio used more than 1.4 million bits to store a single second of stereo sound. Seitzer wanted to do it with 128,000.”

 In 1982, when the compact disc debuted, Seizer interestingly had applied for a patent for a digital jukebox which we routinely use today as a music streaming service –

“Under this more elegant model of distribution, consumers could dial into a centralized computer server, then use the keypad to request music over the new digital telephone lines that Germany was just beginning to install. Rather than pressing millions of discs into jewel cases and distributing them through stores, everything would be saved in a single electronic database and accessed as needed. A subscription-based service of this kind could skip the manifold inefficiencies of physical distribution by hooking the stereo directly to the phone. The patent was rejected. The earliest digital phone lines were primitive affairs, and the enormous amount of audio data on the compact disc could never fit down such a narrow pipe. For Seitzer’s scheme to work, the files on the disc would have to be shrunk to one-twelfth their original size, and no known approach to data compression would get you anywhere near this level.” 

 (note: visionaries do not always benefit from their ability to change future, they may draw the satisfaction but not always the cheques for the same)

Brandenburg set out to solve this very problem. He applied decades of research in acoustics physics and human anatomy and combined it with basic principles of information theory and complex higher math. At the age of 31, he wrote a rudimentary program that gave a working demonstration of his approach to capture audio data using fewest bits without compromising the quality of sound. “In late 1988, the team made its first sale, and shipped a hand-built decoder to the first ever end user of mp3 technology: a tiny radio station run by missionaries on the remote Micronesian island of Saipan.” (I find this deeply ironic, the legitimate sale of mp3 being to an obscure entity on the fringes and how it’s illegitimate distribution devastated the mainstream music industry)

Part 2 – The politics of acceptance – how MP3 became an outcast

Impressed by the technology, AT&T and Thomson, a French electronics company put their weight behind the technology but there were other technologies which were also vying for consumer market:

“Seeking to mediate, the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG)—the standards committee that even today decides which technology makes it to the consumer marketplace—convened a contest in Stockholm in June 1990 to conduct formalized listening tests for the competing methods.

There was a tie and the two winners who emerged in the contest were Fraunhofer and MUSICAM:

MUSICAM was more representative of the typical MPEG contest winner—a well-funded consortium of inventors from four different European universities, with deep ties to the Dutch corporation Philips, which held the patents on the compact disc…Fraunhofer’s approach provided better audio quality with less data, but MUSICAM’s required less processing power. Brandenburg felt this disparity worked in his favor, as computer processing speed improved with each new chip cycle, and doubled every 24 months or so. Improving bandwidth was more difficult, as it required digging up city streets and replacing thousands of miles of cable. Thus, Brandenburg felt, MPEG should look to conserve bandwidth rather than processing cycles, and he repeatedly made this argument to the audio committee.

MPEG rechristened the two methods: MUSICAM’s method as Moving Picture Experts Group, Audio Layer II—better known today as the mp2—and Brandenburg’s method, as the Moving Picture Experts Group, Audio Layer III—better known today as the mp3.

This is one of the most interesting sections of the book as it shows the murky politics of the corporate world. While mp3 is believed to have had the technical edge, mp2 was backed by Philips who was the undisputed leader at the time. For months the Fraunhofer team waited for a ruling from MPEG who finally agreed to endorse mp3 provided they followed certain rules set by MP2. They manipulated the MP3 team to use the filter bank used by MP2 which only complicated their product without improving the audio quality. Worse, Philips had a patent on the code which meant that they stood to benefit by 1) introducing inefficiency in mp3 product 2) gain financially every time mp3 got adopted. The Fraunhofer team actually accepted this condition as a desperate measure to gain an endorsement from MPEG.As the author states -

“It was a commendable piece of corporate sabotage. They’d tricked Fraunhofer into wearing an ugly dress to the pageant, then made fun of them behind their backs.”

Over the next few years, in five straight head-to-head competitions, they got swept. Standardization committees chose the mp2 for digital FM radio, for interactive CD-ROMs, for Video Compact Disc (the predecessor to the DVD), for Digital Audio Tape, and for the soundtrack to over-the-air HDTV broadcasting. They chose the mp3 for nothing.

While MPEG denied any allegations of bias, the Franoufer had much to lose from these corporate machinations –

“…Still, history showed that, from the AC/DC “Current Wars” of the late nineteenth century to the VHS-Betamax battle of the 1980s, victory didn’t necessarily go to the best, but to the most vicious. From Edison to Sony, the spoils were won by those who not only promoted their own standard, but who cleverly undermined the competition. There was a reason they called it a format “war.”

In early 1995, the mp2 again beat the mp3 in a standards competition, this time for a massive market: the audio track for the home DVD player.

 To draw the final nail in mp3’s coffin, the mp2 team appealed saying that two radio standards would cause confusion and in the best interest of standardization, only adopt one. The steering committee then went to vote against mp3 and abandon it forever.

Brandenburg was not the one to give up on 13 years of work and saw flicker of hope in licensing agreements that they had cut with a few hundred hockey stadiums. However, the per unit fee wasn’t likely to earn them significant profits and he knew that the home consumer was his target. He got his team to write a PC application that could encode and playback mp3 files. This was something revolutionary because for the first time, consumers could create their own mp3 files and play them at their home PCs. It was called Level 3 encoder or “L3Enc” and “was a miraculous piece of software, capable of taking 12 compact discs and shrinking them to the size of one, unencumbered by any digital rights management”. To promote the mp3, they incredibly decided to give the L3Enc away for free. They distributed thousands of floppy disks at trade shows. The team also created a prototype of the world’s first handheld mp3 player. They had created a whole new environment for music to be heard and distributed – a free encoder, a rapidly growing PC market enabling hearing the music at home and the handheld player “that could be built by any consumer electronics firm for a minimal per-unit licensing fee. But they elicited little interest from the music industry. The record companies got high profit margins from CDs, enjoyed high control over artists and didn’t see a reason to be interested in the potential of internet and digital music. Brandenburg also got his team to make an mp3 player for Windows95 which was dubbed as WinPlay3. It had the capacity to play 20 songs after which it would self-destruct and to play it again you had to send a registration fee to Fraunhofer. Sadly though they were stuck in a vicious circle – no one would buy an mp3 player if there were no mp3 files and there would be no mp3 files without an encoder. So, they launched their first website in 1995 where they offered versions of their L3Enc encoder for DOS, Windows and Linux for free. In case the users liked the product, they requested them to send 85 deutsche marks to Fraunhofer. The shareware encoder turned out to be a flop and very few people ever sent them the money

Part 3 – Resurrection – The Pirates of mp3

In the early days of the internet, one of the most sought after spaces were the chat rooms. Internet Relay Chat or the IRC was a “constellation of privately owned and operated servers” where you could participate by creating an anonymous username and joining any channel that was indicated by a hash mark #cricket #computers #politics (you know where Twitter has its origins). One of the most popular activities on these groups was exchanging pirated files or “warez”. “Music, games, magazines, pictures, pornography, fonts – they pirated anything that could be compressed.” They were organized as “The Warez Scene” or “The Scene”. The Scene members organized themselves as “loosely affiliated digital crews” who often competed to leak the latest material. They were often able to leak it the same day as the day it had been legally released (“zero day”) through hacking or with insider help from employees. While software privacy had been fairly rampant, music piracy had been hard because of data compression. And guess what came to the rescue – yes, mp3:

“Using Fraunhofer’s L3Enc encoder, NetFraCk had started a new crew, the world’s first ever digital music piracy group: Compress ‘Da Audio or CDA for short. On August 10, 1996, CDA had released to IRC the world’s first “officially” pirated mp3: “Until it Sleeps”, by Metallica, off their album Load. Within weeks, there were numerous rival crews and thousands of pirated songs.”

The author deftly uses the characters in his book to take forward its thrilling narrative. From “Kali” the mastermind behind one of the most infamous internet piracy groups in history (yeah, turned out to be an American Indian who led the group to leak 20,000 albums over 11 years and cost the music industry tens of millions of dollars) to 18 year old Shawn Fanning who created Napster, from Bram Cohen who invented BitTorrent to Glover, a reticent worker at the Polygram plant who made several bold leaks – each tells a story of human intentions and outcomes often entangled in inverse relationships.

I would probably end up reproducing the book so I would end the post here. Do check out the book if you are interested in all things music, digital, piracy, commerce and human motivation.,

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TaxiforSure or SexismforSure?

I have been thinking lately about the growing social outrage against crimes against women. Sadly though, our beliefs and values as individuals and collectively as a society which lead to such crimes thrive more than ever. That women are a ‘commodity’ manifests blatantly through different forms of popular culture yet it never strikes us as ‘unnatural’. These manifestations appear so ‘small’ or ‘insignificant’ to be noticed or debated upon.

There is something that I have been noticing for some time and I do think it merits a discussion. We are far away as a society to reach even semblance of gender equity. Yet, there is something very wrong when sexism permeates the DNA of the day to day practices and furthers the vicious cycle.

One such sexist practice that I find myself staring at fairly often is while booking a cab from the TaxiForSure service. At the end of the journey, the service escalates a message for customer feedback. Here are some snapshots:


I have booked the service nearly a dozen times and every single time, the automated message quotes a female name. This may seem like a really small thing but every time I get the message, I find it to be very odd. I have never received a message from a ‘Rahul’ or ‘Rohit’ but always from an ‘Aliya’, ‘Deepika’, ‘Sheeba’ or ‘Pooja’. I find the subtext to be fairly sexist: In a repressive society, a message masquerading to be from a woman has a much higher chance of feedback.

Of course TaxiForSure is not the first entity to do this nor in proportion that cinema or advertising or advertising practice sexism. Nor is this something new. In her 1970 book, ‘Female Eunuch’, Germaine Greer states:

“She is the Sexual Object sought by all men, and by all women…Her value is solely attested by the demand she excites in others. All she must contribute is her existence. She need achieve nothing, for she is the reward of achievement…”

“Every survey ever held has shown that the image of an attractive woman is the most effective advertising gimmick. She may sit astride the mudguard of a new car, or step into it ablaze with jewel; she may lie at a man’s feet stroking his socks; she may hold the petrol pump in a challenging pose…whatever she does her image sells.”

Equality between men and women has a long way to go.  But for that to happen, we need to question the stereotypes that reinforce the inequality. There is something disturbing to see a business entity employ a stereotype as a daily business practice.

For me, this is a case of SexismForSure.


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The Fettered Internet Part 1 – Five things you should know about surveillance

Technology and its impact on our psychology has been one of my pet subjects lately. I wrote this post on the brilliant book by Nicholas Carr on ‘What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains’ apart from this post on front-facing camera and most recently on selfies.

One of the most insightful books that I have come across on this subject in the recent past is Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet by Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Jeremie Zimmerman and Andy Muller-Maguhn. I read the book a second time over the weekend and this time I took some notes on my phone for this post. The book is essentially a dialogue between the 4 authors who are a group of thinkers and cyber-space activists on the politics and economics of privacy, surveillance and censorship on the internet and how states across the world alongside private corporations are colluding to ‘control’ lives of people and threatening what we considered ‘free’ internet. The book outlines the major issues and speaks about how cryptography can offer people a chance to retain their freedom.

The points made in the book are extremely pertinent especially given the increasingly ‘virtual lives’ we lead. Instead of one long post, I am breaking this into a series of posts.

In this first post, I ll set the context shared in the book and focus on 5 reasons why surveillance today is so dangerous.


“The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen. The internet is a threat to human civilization.”

Human life has always been at the cusp of shifting power balance throughout its history. Religion and the State have been the traditional coercive forces who have held control over the masses. They have held control over physical resources such as land, money and colluded with those with similar access on oil wells, plantations to ensure that the power balance remains in their favour. Most importantly they held control over intellectual resources such as knowledge, access to new ideas and means of communication to spread the same. As the authors share:

 Factions within a state may compete for support, leading to democratic surface phenomena, but the underpinnings of states are the systematic application, and avoidance, of violence. Land ownership, property, rents, dividends, taxation, court fines, censorship, copyrights and trademarks are all enforced by the threatened application of state violence. Most of the time we are not even aware of how close to violence we are, because we all grant concessions to avoid it. Like sailors smelling the breeze, we rarely contemplate how our surface world is propped up from below by darkness. In the new space of the internet what would be the mediator of coercive force?

The internet held the promise of a new level playing field where an equal access to the intellectual pool (access to best ideas, ‘free’ communication, one-to-many collaboration) meant a whole new world of possibilities and potential as an ‘individual’ over your own destiny. However, this is a dream that today stands threatened by a new seismic shift being caused by some of the traditionally powerful (state, private corporations) and the neo-powerful (data companies) who ‘control’ the access to the infrastructure through which this knowledge is created and shared. The authorities who hold the switch to fibre optic cable lines, satellites and computer servers are gaining monstrous scale and this growth is ironically being fuelled by us – who just can’t have enough of ‘sharing’ the most private aspects of our lives and thoughts on Facebook and Twitter or worse turn-in all our concerns, worries, fears by ‘asking’ Google.

It’s no longer Science Fiction.  We are all in the house of ‘Big Boss’

The authors discuss how the people in power see internet as an illness that would “affect their way of governance”. The “medicine” they have found to this illness is surveillance:

The state would leech into the veins and arteries of our new societies, gobbling up every relationship expressed or communicated, every web page read, every message sent and every thought googled, and then store this knowledge, billions of interceptions a day, undreamed of power, in vast top secret warehouses, forever. It would go on to mine and mine again this treasure, the collective private intellectual output of humanity, with ever more sophisticated search and pattern finding algorithms, enriching the treasure and maximizing the power imbalance between interceptors and the world of interceptees.

They look at the internet like an illness and ask their consultants, “Do you have some medicine against this thing out there? We need to be immune if this affects our country, if this internet thingy comes.” And the answer is mass surveillance. It is, “We need to control it totally, we need to filter, we need to know everything that they do.

Five aspects of surveillance in 21st century which make it deeply disturbing

  1. Mass commercialisation of surveillance – unlike in the past where only a select few had the means to ‘intercept’ like the Americans, the British, the Russians, the Swiss and the French, today nearly EVERY state is accessing systemically the lives of its people, from the mighty China to even a small nation as Libya . It’s real cheap to snoop over ‘everybody’ than even bother following select targets.  Consider this:

…you get decent voice-quality storage of all German telephone calls in a year for about 30 million euros including administrative overheads, so the pure storage is about 8 million euros. JULIAN: And there are even companies like VASTech in South Africa that are selling these systems for $10 million per year.

We’re now at the stage where just $10 million can buy you a unit to permanently store the mass intercepts of a medium sized country.

2. Everybody is under watch – previously a person was put under watch when he was ‘suspected’ of something or was in a powerful position that made him a ‘target’. Today everybody is a ‘target’ or a ‘suspect’ because technology makes it ‘efficient’ to intercept everything and store it permanently and then ‘sort’ that data in future. From your financial transactions, political beliefs to all your private and public conversations are being ‘tracked’ today by companies ranging from mobile operators, credit card and social networks

 3. Not only your ‘public’ data your most ‘private’ data is being intercepted – as one of the authors shares aptly: 

And it’s totalizing now, because people put all their political ideas, their family communications, and their friendships on to the internet. So it’s not just that there is increased surveillance of the communication that was already there; it’s that there is so much more communication. And it’s not just an increase in the volume of communication; it’s an increase in the types of communication. All these new types of communication that would previously have been private are now being mass intercepted

4. There are tanks in our bedroom. We just can’t see them yetone of the grimmest aspects of surveillance today is that much of this is being conducted by military organisations. Again the economics of it have a major role to play – compared to traditional military budgets, “cyber warriors or mass surveillance are super-cheap”:

When you communicate over the internet, when you communicate using mobile phones, which are now meshed to the internet, your communications are being intercepted by military intelligence organizations. It’s like having a tank in your bedroom. It’s a soldier between you and your wife as you’re SMSing. We are all living under martial law as far as our communications are concerned, we just can’t see the tanks—but they are there. To that degree, the internet, which was supposed to be a civilian space, has become a militarized space.

5. Deliberate complexity in technology, hence users don’t question what they don’t understand – from aeroplanes to mobile phones, nearly everything in our life is nothing but a ‘computer’ and the technology behind most of it is not “not intended to be understood. That’s the case with proprietary technology.”  This can be dangerous:

 “…it is important to understand these systems, because when we don’t understand them there’s a general trend to defer to authority, to people who do understand them or are able to assert control over them, even if they do not understand the essence of the thing itself.”

In the next post, I will cover some of the other key themes such as  ways to tackle surveillance, how private corporations are complicit and the ‘economics’ of control.

Do share your thoughts.

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How men see women and the case of leaked celebrity pictures

The recent episode  of nude pictures of celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence being leaked by a set of hackers launched widespread debate on the topics of privacy and consent when it comes to a woman’s body.

Their were two fairly polarised views on the subject. One, why would these celebrities click nude pictures of them in the first place. If they need to protect ‘privacy’ they shouldnt have clicked such a picture:



The other view has been widespread shock and outrage at such lack of sensitivity and understanding of the concept of ‘privacy’:


When I wrote my previous post on selfies, there was actually something else in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing that had caught my attention in context of this episode which I originally wanted to share.

There is a particular chapter in the book that explores the ‘usage and conventions’ around how  ‘the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man’. I have shared some excerpts which I found very powerful (highlights in the text are mine).


A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies…The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual – but its object is always exterior to the man. A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you.


By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – indeed  there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence…

To be born a woman has been to be born, within an alotted and confined space, into the keeping of men…But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self  being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is continually accompanied by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.


How Men ‘see’ Women

Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it…Every woman’s presence regulates what is and is not ‘permissible’ within her presence

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns into an object – and most particularly and object of vision: a sight.


Over centuries, there has been much change in both work and public sphere as well as the home sphere in the widening of space available to a woman to assert her presence. And yet if you really look at every form of abuse against women and the justification given by the perpetrator (man or woman), it can really be summed up by the above convention – men act, women appear.

Hence, by such a convention in the act of clicking a nude picture of herself, the woman is ‘defining’ how she needs to be ‘seen’ – a visual object of pleasure. Why should it then matter that this image resides in the private recesses of her phone gallery or splashed across the internet goes the argument? She herself has ‘sanctioned’ such a ‘view’ of herself and the men are only complying with how she would like to be ‘seen’. The question of her having clicked her nude for her self-pleasure does not arise, after all ‘objects’ can’t ‘feel’ pleasure, they can only ‘give’ pleasure.

Consider, some of the most common justifications given for sexual abuse against a woman – she was dressed provocatively, she was walking alone at night etc all place the ‘choice’ of the treatment that was meted out to the woman squarely on her. She was the one who invited such a behaviour. On the other hand, boys will be boys, their defined role by the convention is to communicate that women have no ‘agency’ on their bodies. They need to comply with the conventions of the ‘male gaze’. If there is an aberration in the woman’s ‘appearance’ from the expected convention, then she is liable for ‘punishment’ to reinforce the social order where -

men act and women appear


Unfortunately, the current conventions continue to reinforce this belief. There is an immense focus on a woman’s ‘appearance’ for her acceptance. We can talk about social change and preventing crime but till things change at a belief level, the scope for real change is limited. There is a lot of work required to crack the deep internalisation of the need to ‘present’ a self among women and the sense of entitlement among men to watch this ‘presentation’. Awareness of these dynamics can be a good first step.

What do you think?

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Looking at Selfies through John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’


About a month back I started reading, John Berger’s classic text ‘Ways of Seeing’. It’s been on my reading list since my literature days. I am only half-way through but it’s a fascinating read on how we see is not a random act of looking at a thing; it’s always us “looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Berger analyses a wide variety of images from oil paintings to graphic art to look at how we “look” is affected by a set of “learnt assumptions” that we form about ‘Beauty, Truth, Genius, Civilization, Taste.’

He sets the context in the beginning by talking about qualities of an image:

“An image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and preserved – for a few moments or a few centuries. Every image embodies a way of seeing. Even a photograph. For photographs are not, as is often assumed, a mechanical record…The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject…Yet, although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image depends also upon our way of seeing.”

I am fascinated by this concept in context of “selfies”. What are the implications of this “reproduction” when the photographer and photographed are the same person? Does it give us more “control” by creating an image of us which is how we would like to ‘see’ ourselves or be ‘seen as’ by others? Or do we only create a deeper “delusion” for ourselves by aligning the physical image to our internal self-image and propagate that myth to ourselves and to others? Hence, do others start seeing us as WE see (or like to see) ourselves? Or can the only thing they can any longer “see” is “how we like to be seen”?

Now I am sure this isn’t that simple because we ‘see’ ourselves is a complex intermesh of what are the “assumptions” or the accepted cultural codes around being ‘funny’, ‘beautiful’, ‘rebellious’, ‘sensational’, ‘shocking’, or ‘goofy’. These codes exist outside us, as ‘masks’ that we wear to navigate the external world. Is it possible that if we wear the ‘mask’ for too long, we will soon forget the ‘face’? As avid participants in the vicious cycle of creation and consumption of these masks on our newsfeeds every day, are we getting stuck deeper where we “see” and are “seen” to be “accepted” only if we constantly appropriate these ‘masks’ for ourselves and then reprocess as the ‘norm’ for our network?

If what we know is what we perceive, are we on a downward spiral in our knowledge of self and the world outside?

Will there be no place for the ‘hidden’ and the ‘unknown’ on the Johari window as we redraw our realm of comfort between what we mutually already know (known) and that we rather not know (blind)?

Johari Window

Johari Window

What do you see?

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Talk on Social Content at TERI’s Future Leaders Cafe

One of the focus areas at the work front is that of ‘social content’. I recently spoke at TERI’s Future Leaders Cafe event on the topic. Here is the deck that I presented. Check it out to know more:

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How Kindle is changing my reading habits

In my previous post, I wrote about the impact of the internet on our brains. One of my favourite key take-away from the book which inspired that post was how we need to evaluate the impact of a new technology:

In one of the most perceptive, if least remarked, passages in Understanding Media, McLuhan wrote that our tools end up “numbing” whatever part of our body they “amplify.”

“McLuhan’s point was that an honest appraisal of any new technology or of progress in general, requires sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained.”

The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” wrote McLuhan. Rather, they alter “patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”

I have been thinking a lot about this in context of my changing reading habits with the introduction of Kindle. I am keen to evaluate the changes that I can see its bringing about me.

This post isnt about the pros and cons of an e-reader but unalterable cognitive changes triggered by it.

What makes me happy

Extended reading hours  

Most of my reading (as I guess for most people) takes place in the quiet hours of night. With a physical book, the upper limit for reading was based on when the lights needed to be switched off. At this point, I did, at times choose to move to the living room but on more occasions chose to resume the reading next day. The back-lit screen of the Kindle did away with all such constraints as I could continue to read in the comfort of my warm bed without causing any distress to the other person in the room (on a different note, with the back-lit screen, my childhood fantasy of reading in hiding comes alive. I grew up watching this Bajaj ad and used to imitate the child with the torch inside the blanket for many years)

The compact size of the Kindle means that books I carry don’t have to be evaluated basis their size or that of my bag. Hence, I have also been reading more during local metro commute and travel outside the city.

Access to best global content at seductive rates

 Previously the choice of reading content was governed by ease of access at the bookstore. Sure the option of online shipping has existed for years but the shipping costs would sometimes become a deterrent. With the Kindle, the biggest value unarguably is the access it gives to global content at unmatched prices. From an old obscure title to the newest title from my favourite author, everything is available like a form of instant intellectual noodles

What worries me

Picking easy reads versus long texts

The previous post quotes research studies which show how “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”

To an extent I have experienced this both in the way I read and my choice of books.

As my use of internet and digital media had increased, there had been a parallel rise in levels of distraction and I had started struggling reading a printed book. Strangely, it’s easier to focus reading on a Kindle perhaps because the mind has become “used to” experiencing digital text (what confuses me though is that I still like reading the newspaper in print format than digital, if changing consumption habits are responsible for the struggle with printed book, how does this not extent to the newspaper?)

While I am able to focus better on a Kindle, I feel that I do on occasions end up “browsing” and “scanning” instead of using deep concentrated reading. Re-reading a page is often more conscious and deliberative than a natural act to assess and assimilate.

Further, as a means of self-discipline, I have created a ground rule, not to purchase a new book on the Kindle till I have completed the previous one (don’t wish to end up with an unread shelf of digital books!). Hence, I carefully sample a new book in terms of writing style to make sure it’s not something I will end up getting stuck with. I wonder if this makes me choose ‘a certain kind of book’ which is compelling and different yet not too lengthy, nor too dense (nor an obstacle in gaining psychological brownie points of “finishing” a book). This I consider a really dangerous “change”, already the amount of fiction that I read has dramatically decreased, the high focus on most “useful” (in my case books on marketing, consumer behaviour and the internet) is perhaps leading to a narrowing circumference  of intellectual discovery.

As I write this, I realise that some of the changes that I am talking about are not entirely to do with the piece of technology itself but a function of who I am as an individual, my own motivations and anxieties. I must confess though that I am beginning to be worried about our growing subservience to technology and ‘Singularity’ not remaining just a possibility in the realm of science fiction.

More on this soon.




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