Tech It or Leave it

I may sound like a broken record by the end of PUB 802. Each week, I’ve inevitably taken a philosophical or spiritual route to express my views on topics relating to technology. I am conscious that some of my thoughts have taken a wide arc to arrive at certain conclusions. The tech class was more about the journey, rather than a particular destination.

For me, the class was less about what I know, but more about what I need to know and may never know. How technology evolves during my lifetime (whatever it may be) is anyone’s guess. The tech class helped me put things into perspective the potential of human communication and knowledge sharing. It also presented me with some hard truths about how technology can be misused or misinterpreted.

If there is one clear takeaway I have from this course, it is awareness. Through the entire course, we waded through a wide spectrum of topics relating to technology and publishing, in particular. I appreciate the learning and insight I have at the end of this course. But most of all, I appreciate the conscious thought I have about technology and how it affects me as person, and how I inevitably affect the society as a whole.

The course made me aware of what my contribution and interaction means in the bigger picture. I realised that I am not separate from the system I am part of. I know I need to examine my routine actions (digital footprint) more closely. Technology is a two-edged sword.  Either I use it consciously, or it’ll end up using me.

I am also thankful to my amazing cohort for bringing different point of views to the table. I enjoyed the discussion on annotations and how it was carried forward into the class. Even though I had my reservations about the self-driven pedagogy of this course, I was more than happy with what each and everyone in the class contributed to the conversation. In a way, this course was a perfect example of collective and conscious group effort, which eventually became greater than the sum of its parts.

This course, in a nutshell, gave me perspective, objectivity, consciousness and awareness . . . not only about technology, but myself too.

Thanks Juan, I enjoyed every minute of it.

The Sound Of Silence

The question about the rights of a writer and a commenter is full of gray areas. It used to be pretty straightforward when publishing was limited to print. Readers used to write letter to authors and editors. Reviewing of text was in the hands of few critics or peers who had the credibility to comment. Books used to exchange hands via libraries and used books stores, gaining annotations along the margins with every exchange. The chain of dialogue was always consecutive and never concurrent.

Online publishing does not enjoy this privilege.  The web has opened the flood gates of social interaction. Anyone can express any opinion and find a large audience with few measured efforts. Publishing your thoughts is easy. So is commenting on it. We live in a day and age where everyone is “Google expert” and feels it’s their right to express opinion. We rarely stop to think – what, why, who, when, where and how we should articulate our thoughts.

Lack of barriers means there is a growing gap between what gets published and what actually needs to be published. Similarly, who comments on what is a complicated concept. In both instances, someone decides that it is a good idea to break the silence and write about a topic or for someone to comment on someone’s work.  Perhaps this Zen story can convey the conundrum of social interaction:

Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out.

The first monk said, “Oh, no! The candle is out.”

The second monk said, “Aren’t we not suppose to talk?”

The third monk said, “Why must you two break the silence?”

The fourth monk laughed and said, “Ha! I’m the only one who didn’t speak.”

Each monk broke the silence for a different reason. The first monk became distracted by one element of the world (the candle) and so lost sight of the rest. The second monk was more worried about rules than the meditation itself. The third monk let his anger at the first two rule him. And the final monk was lost to his ego.

There is no right or wrong way of looking at who gets to moderate feedback or who is entitled to give one in the first place. What we, as a society, need to spare more thought to is our reasons for breaking silence. Yes, freedom of speech gives us the write to express ourselves, but this fundamental right comes attached with duty. We’re responsible for what we express. And that applies equally to the writer and the commentator. Self-moderation is what we need, where online text is concerned.

Maybe there was a fifth monk in the story, who slept through peacefully, blissfully unaware of the value of his silence.

 

 

Skim Or Swim – The Book Must Go On

In her book, Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf craftily inserts an excerpt from Proust’s book, On Reading and asks the reader to read the text as fast as they can.

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those . . . we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter, all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist (M. Wolf 2007).

After reading the above text, Ms. Wolf asks the reader to analyze what they were thinking while reading the paragraph. She claims that Proust successfully conjures up the reader’s long-stored memories of books; the secret places they hid in, to read. Perhaps took them to the moments they spent reading underneath a tree, eating their favorite snack, completely lost in a trance; reading for the pleasure of reading.

The act of reading has been evolving forever. From Papyrus to parchment, to paper, to typewriter, to a computer, to a mobile phone . . . the way we read has come a long way. As reading habits change due to digital distraction and the dynamic nature of the web, our ability to consume long pieces of text and our capacity to focus is declining. Thus, not only are we reading differently, our brains are being exercised in a new way that is causing a shift in our cognitive processes. This transformation in the act of reading is affecting how publishers and innovators are approaching literature.

Canadians are among the biggest online addicts in the world, visiting more sites and spending more time visiting websites via desktop computers than anyone else in the world, according to comScore Canada. According to them, Canadians visit an average of 80 sites and spend an average of 36.3 hours online on their desktop computers every month. This leads us to the question: are people skimming content in same way they would skim their FB feed? Have our online scrolling and browsing habits affected our ability and desire to read real works of literature?

As has been discussed in our class, websites are designed to support the skimming behaviour, with clear heading, sub headings and the emphasis on the F-shaped pattern. Reading online can affect how we process information. Even as the online fatigue gets to us, we filter though the popping ads, hyperlinks, distracting layouts, colors and contrasts. These considerations that the reader has to make today, is steadily turning the goal of reading from contemplative to utilitarian. Time is of essence as our whole world is captured in one single screen and is constantly vying for our attention.

Considering that scrolling and scanning are the way of the future, the publishers and authors have to keep the needs (without assumptions) of the readers working through so many distractions and a shorter attention span.

Radish fiction is effectively doing this by serializing longer books in romance genre for its readers. Similarly, Juggernaut Books, India is remediating longer works of literature into shorter abridged versions to encourage the distracted/ reluctant readers to read more, imitating the short-term goals of digital reading. Author James Patterson is of the opinion that people have trade books for TV, movies, mobiles and social media. He craftily created a new line of short and propulsive novels, called Bookshots, that are easy on the pocket at $5 and can be consumed in a single sitting. The idea of serialized content is not new. Earlier it was done considering the reading style, level and genre of the content. But now, with digital reading making a one big umbrella, it can be applied to most of content being published. Another innovation is Spritz – a reading software that runs a speed reading box that shows no more than thirteen words at a time on a rolling basis and keeps you from getting distracted by the rest of the page.

So yes, the publishers care, as they should. But, this is no longer a lone man’s job. Publisher, authors and innovators need to work hand-in-hand as the readers re-calibrate  to the reading style of the future, whatever that may be.

Who knows . . . it might be wearable books!

Wolf, Maryanne. “Reading Lessons From Proust And The Squid.” In Proust and the Squid, by Mayanne Wolf, 3-17. HarpeerCollins Publishers, 2007.

The Churning Must Go On

As more news emerges about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I feel myself going through a range of emotions – confusion, disbelief, insecurity, paranoia, anger . . . and resignation. I am sure I am not alone in this flux. We’re all in it together – willingly or unwittingly. As a Facebook user (a decade now), I feel I’ve already shared so much with FB that there is no turning back. They have my number already. But then so do I. I think FB and I finally understand each other. This entire event actually drove me to look for some answers in the Indian mythology (we have answers for everything!).

Samudra Manthan is one of the more popular stories of the Bhagavata Purana, which finds expression in numerous South Asian miniatures and carvings across the ancient Indian kingdoms. It’s a fascinating story of the Devas (good guys) and the Asuras (bad guys) jointly churning the Ocean of Milk or Kshirsagara to obtain the Nectar of Immortality or Amrita. Although initially it is decided that the nectar would be shared equally between the two, but the Devas tricked the Asuras and consumed it all to attain immortality. However Amrita was not the only object that emerged from the Kshirsagara. The Bhagavata Purana describes numerous other living and inanimate beings which were birthed from the Ocean. This episode talks of alliances, treachery, deceit, intentions, desires and problem-management, among other things. But the chief image which is being highlighted is, of course, the manthan itself. The churning.

Mythology expert, Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik says churning is not the same as tug-of-war. Both require a force and a counter-force, but whereas a tug-of-war implies the two sides implementing force at the same time (so that one side may win), churning requires one party to let go while the other applies force, and vice-versa (so that both are benefited). Change in any form has met with reactions and counter-reactions, but we, as a civilization, have never dwelled on them for too long. Kingdoms have emerged, and kingdoms have been devastated; people have settled and people have moved; temples and mosques and churches have been built and destroyed; there has been love, there has been hate, but nothing has been permanent. A constant churning has been in progress – sometimes in good faith, sometimes in ill-will; but much like the Devas and Asuras, we have been realizing the need for alliance and acceptance; the need to rise to the needs of the times; putting the land above everything else, at some point or another.

The Cambridge Analytica episode brought back the churning into focus for me. We’ve been part of the push and pull to unearth the digital delights of this world. We’ve actively contributed with our data to make our lives better. We’ve been tracked, and quite willingly too. I would like to point out that I feel I’ve been tracked not just the last few years on internet, but essentially since my birth. My kindergarten profiled me as a ‘sweet, but talkative child’, the neighbourhood grocery man knew my buying behaviour, the salesman at the clothing store quickly profiled my likes and dislikes about colours and patterns, my parents thought I was a rebel, my friends thought I was crazy cuckoo. Point being, we’ve been profiled forever. It’s nothing new. With the advancement in technology, this profiling has, in a way, made our lives easier. We have better cars, better houses, better clothes, better medicines etc. Someone is paying close attention to our likes and dislikes and making things just for us. So far, so good.

So while I happily consume the Nectar of Ocean, much like our gods did, I cannot ignore the other darker things that emerge from this or cry unfair. The data that benefited us, can also manipulate us. We need to be aware of that. Alternatively, we can disconnect from the internet and go back to our old ways. But really, is it possible to be disconnected in today’s world? We’re all caught in the spiral now. We can either roll with it or it’ll churn us, whether we like it or not.

What we need today is awareness, of our actions and the implications it can have; not only on us as an individual, but society as a whole. The greatest thing about our world today is the ease of communication. We’re on the cusp of being connected to every other individual on this earth. We’re not without power.  We have access to higher thoughts, ideologies, and intelligence to push back on manipulative intents. It’s all about the push and pull.

The churning must go on.

Anumeha Gokhale

Hey Siri, What Should I Read Next?

The topic AI, as I am beginning to appreciate, is a Pandora’s Box. Once opened, it cannot be contained. And although AI promises to simplify complex things, it inadvertently contributes to adding complexity to our ‘once simple life’.

To imagine the next possible confluence of AI and Publishing, we first need to evaluate the most urgent need for publishers. What is the most persisting need?

Considering that publishing industry is going through a big shift, the fight has moved beyond two key parameters—content and availability. The age-old cornerstone of publishing—find great content and make it available to as many readers as possible, usually through extensive distribution network. Earlier, a book had to compete for shelf space. The possible field was limited to bookstores and newsstands. But the market is different now. With the innovation in eCommerce and Amazon’s hold over the market, the concept of shelf space has disappeared. Every book fends for itself now. Distribution is one of the strongest assets of publishing industry, but with Amazon in the picture, it’s no longer a unique advantage.

The publishers still hold advantage over content; but not for long. Amazon has single-handedly revolutionized self-publishing, breaking one of the strongest barriers of entry—a publishers stamp. Anyone can publish now. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the publishers.  Some really promising writers have emerged through the cacophony of indiscriminate self-publishing. There’s a low-risk opportunity for publishers.

But going forward, the fight has moved to discoverability now–It is all about the reach now. And that’s where AI can really benefit the publishers. The market can no longer be limited to geographical boundaries, or demographics for that matter. With Machine Learning and NLP, it’s becoming increasingly possible to not only track what people are buying, but also why they are buying it. This deeper, non-linear understanding of human behaviour is leading the way to behavioural marketing. With the use of AI, publishers can expand their reach with better, more focused marketing.

Publishers can benefit a lot from AI. From content curation, to SEO, user generated data (reviews, ratings, categories), to email marketing and social media reach; these tools can not only to make publisher’s lives easier, but to make them better at their jobs. The optimization of processes and faster turnaround time not only yield better results for businesses, but they also help by being relevant for the consumers, leading to better informed buying decisions and higher conversion rate.

AI has already had a tremendous impact on the way users conduct online searches and discover books. This in turn is changing the way marketers create and optimize content. Innovations like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana make it easier for people to conduct searches with just the press of a button and voice command. That means the terms they’re searching for are evolving too. The publishers need to observe this user behaviour closely. How people search of books is important to ascertain how buying decisions are made and where the actual buying takes place. With help of AI, publishers can re-establish a more efficient purchase funnel for the readers.

I think publishers need to smart here. The industry is going through a disruption right now, with the driving force in the hands of tech giants, who can’t necessarily be identified as publishers. For all the waves Amazon is making, it couldn’t have gotten where it is today, without the groundwork of traditional publishing. To me it seems quite clear that the publishers need to embrace AI, because it is bound to get them anyway. It makes sense to stay on top of the game, rather than play catch-up all the time. If there is a remotest possibility of publishers regaining the ground lost to Amazon, it is through the AI. It is the only thing that’ll level the playing field once again.

Anumeha Gokhale

May The Force Be With You, Mr. Publisher

I grew up in a small town in Northern India, where bookstores were a rare sight. Academic reading was very much encouraged, but the concept of reading for leisure was foreign to majority of folks. I come from a family of non-readers. Since I turned out to be the book-sheep of the family, I had to find my own ways to secure reading material. Beg & borrow aside, I used to walk couple of kilometers, twice a week, to visit the only library in our locality. Calling it library would be stretching it. It was just a hole in the wall, lined with a couple of hundred books. But to my book starved eyes, the place was salvation.

A couple of decades later the picture is quite different. Today, I have access to almost every book that gets published worldwide. I can read anything, anytime, in any format, without moving an inch.

With internet business models taking more and more concrete shape, publishing industry, as we know it, is undergoing a sea of change. Access to publishing platforms and access to content are two extreme ends of the traditional publisher’s role – to decide who gets published and how their books get distributed. Publishers have, in a way, acted as a Chinese wall between the reader and the author. That wall is crumbling as we speak.

Some believe that the role of publisher as the middleman is becoming increasingly redundant as self-publishing gains ground. With traditional distribution stuck in a rut, the readers are getting click-happy. The authors are discontent because traditional publishing methods don’t payout for majority of them. The readers are loyal to the author alone, so they don’t really care how the books are reaching them. So where does that leave the publishers?

As the part of this industry, we understand the value a publisher adds to the process of making a book. But an average reader is often unaware of the role the publisher plays in the making of the book. Most readers don’t spare much thought to the process of building a book. And as convenient as internet publishing models are, abundance isn’t always a good thing. We’re moving away from a streamlined dissemination of content to indiscriminate publishing, creating less value and more noise in the process. Yes, eBooks are cheaper and easier to find, but it also means chaos as every book fends for itself on an algorithm driven website. Most books run a hundred meters sprint and die. Suddenly, the derelict library from my childhood is looking so much better.

To survive this era of digital transformation, the publishers need to pivot and regroup. They need to rethink their ‘behind-the-scenes’ approach and start marketing, not just the books, but themselves as well. Readers need to understand the value publishers add to their favorite books. That is the only way to preserve the sanctity of this profession. Publishers need to bring the fight where their strengths are—print books. Readers are still loyal to the printed book, and that’s something publishers have an upper hand at. The digital model of publishing completely sidelines the ‘form’ of the book. No eBook or print-on-demand copy can compete with a lovingly reproduced book through the hands of an experienced publisher. The publishers need to re-calibrate their strategy to give the readers a reason to buy more books or return to the print format. The digital distribution battle belongs to Amazon, because they got there first. But publishing business as a whole is teetering on precipice of big change. The publishers need to up their game, because this can go either way.

Anumeha Gokhale

 

For Better Or Worse: I Do

Back in the day, while I was growing up in the 80s, retail landscape was vastly different from what it is today. That was the time when retail was bounded by geographical constraints and variety was the USP of retailers. You walked into a store, pointed at things and the man behind the counter served you. There was discoverability for the customer, but filtered through the sales person. It worked in its own way.

Sometime between my childhood and adulthood, I blinked and the retail scenario changed completely. Retail, as we know today, has evolved since the days of supply driven market. Today, it is not only driven by demand, but convenience too. What retailers offer isn’t enough; it’s also about how they offer it. It’s all about the consumer’s need and how it influences their buying decisions. With the advent of newer technologies, newer business models and predictive analytics the retail process is on the verge of a paradigm shift. 

Retail industry has been in a constant flux as the focus shifted from brick and mortar stores to the internet business models. Amazon happened, smartphones happened, conspicuous consumerism happened. For the last decade, we’ve all travelled the riptide of online businesses boom. We got click-happy. Online businesses have succeeded for many reasons, one of them being the ‘legacy’ of brick and mortar retail. This legacy of brand trust and association, which has been cultivated for decades by companies, came in handy when consumers decided to cut the line and simply order online. The companies knew their customers, and vice versa. 

But now that the markets have opened up completely, newer businesses, which do not have the luxury of legacy, find themselves on the back foot. The demand and supply are in place, but the buying decisions have hit a blind spot. We haven’t interacted with these products, haven’t made a tangible connection with them yet. And therein lays the conundrum. It’s a risk. The distinct feature of physical retail space is conducive to making purchase decisions, which is sorely lacking in the internet models of business. The retail industry has caught on to this. With the arrival of stores like Amazon Go, the emergence of click and mortar model has come full circle. Amazon Go allows customers to scan their smartphone as they enter the store, pick up the products they want, and leave. Computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning technologies automatically detect when products are taken from or returned to shelves and keep track of items in a virtual cart. After consumers leave the store, they are charged and sent an automatic receipt. All customers need is a smartphone, an Amazon account, and the Amazon Go app.

Where is retail headed?

I think that the click only model isn’t sustainable on its own because retail is all about tangibility. The consumer needs to form an association with the product, experience it, and evaluate it. The future of retail will be integration of physical space with the technology to make the experience seamless for the customer. The retailers will move on to not only offering the merchandise, but an experience as well.  It’s possible that some retail formats would exist in virtual space only, but consumer durables market will definitely see an upgraded integration with retail tech. 

I envision a retail experience that will make it worth my while to make the trip to the store. Our phones will be integrated with the retail space; will act as a personal assistant, make suggestions and give in-depth information of the product (much like how it is online). Logistics will move from ‘seek-buy’ to ‘seek-buy-deliver’. The stores would be digitized to offer the most compelling experience to the customer. Robots will take on the more repetitive tasks, freeing up staff to offer more expert and personalised advice. Stores will become more like a showroom for people to discover and try new products. We’ll also see the emergence of ‘mass personalisation’– it is about understanding who our customer is, what they would like to buy and how they would like to buy it, it will be about making our customer’s shopping experience completely unique.

We might also see growing trend towards brand partnerships – for example womenswear brand Argent is selling its clothes at a co-working space in San Francisco – the store of the future might be around capturing customers in other spaces they already exist in.

When it comes to the future of retail, I’m convinced that stores will take centre stage once again. But the way these physical stores operate and service their customers will change; it’ll be about a seamless merge of a fantastic physical experience with powerful, yet subtle technology. In another two decades, it might be impossible for us to make a distinction between physical and digital. There may be a time when one would wonder about the ‘once upon a time’ stores that did not have a digital point of access, or the websites that did not have a physical outlet.

Brick, meet Click. You’re made for each other.

Fifty Shades Of Copyright Law

As I sat down to contemplate the future of copyright law, I felt the need to cue Fifty Shade of Grey OST in the backdrop. It’s ironical that the said work is also an example of copyright infringement (or not, it’s debatable). The Fifty Shades Trilogy was originally written as a Twilight fan-fiction.  Fan-fiction stories are written by fans of the original story, using various story lines, characters and settings. Even though clear parallels can be drawn between the two books, the copyright law holds in James’ favour, calling it a ‘Derivative work’ rather than outright copyright infringement. See, that’s the nature of copyright—it is fifty kinds of gray.

Before anyone takes a stance on copyright law, it’s prudent to not only look at the things as they are now, but to also examine why this law came into existence.  When the Statute of Anne was passed in 1710, it was concerned with the reading public, the continued production of useful literature, and the advancement and spread of education. It was all about text. Until a few decades later it was modified to cover works, independent of any medium— cinema, gramophone, radio, and so forth. A few decades on and the copyright was steered in a completely new direction–the Internet—for regulating access to tools in a way much more arbitrary than anyone in the pre-digital age could have imagined.

This change is the result of the fast changing scenario where previously tangible mediums of delivery have merged in to one singular intangible medium of the Internet. This is a classic case of ‘one size doesn’t fit all’. It is simpler to establish copyright laws when dealing with ideas in conjunction with physical forms—a book, or a CD, or a piece of art. Copyright infringement or the act of ‘copying’ is easier to establish when dealing with identifiable mediums. This differentiation becomes more and more obscure when the very idea of using a networked computer is based on creating copies, lots and lots of them.

So where is copyright law headed? Copyright law, right now, is a simple idea that is ambiguous in application. It needs to be the other way around. The law needs to be far reaching in its coverage but easier in application. The line, between what is infringement and what is not, should be explicit. That’s just one aspect of it. There’s more.

We live in a digital age where we’re more or less getting conditioned to having instant gratification. The world has shrunk to the size of your computer screen and anything that you may ever want is available for a price on the Internet. We want things fast and we want them now. The entire premise behind Google Books was to make the collective knowledge base searchable and readable within minutes, or at least that’s what they told us. But Google’s intentions are non-issue here. We need to self-examine ourselves and the way we consume information today.

Extensive piracy of copyrighted material not only throws light on the inherent problems of the copyright law, but also our psychology, where we seemed to have developed a sense of entitlement. We expect more and more things to be free—books, music, movies, research, software, etc. We are caught in the web of conspicuous consumerism without having to risk anything in return. Sometimes we do it knowingly (See Oatmeal’s comic strip), sometimes unknowingly, and sometimes under pretext of ‘fair use’. There is more than one way to skin a fish. Sigh.

On the other side, it’s true that piracy hurts the content creators, but not entirely. Singers, authors, artists have been known to use the free-for-all Internet to promote their works. ‘Go viral’ is the motto in the age where eyeballs mean everything. The bone of contention here seems to be money.

Yes, the relationship between creativity and commerce is tenuous, but not mutually exclusive. As things stand right now, consumers and creativity are in a meeting place. But the commerce is missing. There is no use yelling at the pirates and freeloaders, because the need and the means to fill that need already exist. If a viable platform to access these works doesn’t show up, people have no qualms about turning to a bit of a pirate themselves, because the manifestation of stealing a real object is categorically missing here. Yes, it’s stealing, but you’ll forgive yourself.

It’s hard to imagine a world without intellectual property protection. Having said that, there is a clear need to evolve into something more flexible, agile and enforceable, considering how people consume information and pay it forward. Shifting the focus from pirates, I feel even the publishers need to re-evaluate their approach and work towards creating a more meaningful user experience to gain competitive edge, making the copyright redundant anyway. The resulting experience will leverage on content quality, open partnerships and co-op arrangements across various platforms to offer the end-user a product that they will be compelled to buy, rather than use illegally. In the fast evolving digital age, we need to channel the flow of information, not create more boundaries.

Taking a leaf out of Rumi’s books, copyright law needs to go beyond the antiquated idea of right and wrong and meet the consumers in a place where knowledge meets economy, for the betterment of the world as a whole.

Anumeha Gokhale

A Wild Goose Chase

As I put on my soothsayer hat and predict the decline of one of the “Big Four” companies, I feel a sense of irony as I use Google search extensively to come to my conclusion—Google could be the next one to fall. As things stand now, the four companies—Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, collectively own the virtual world that we live in. They look invincible to someone like me, who routinely prostrates herself in front of a browser window or mobile app to get through the day. If asked about the role these companies play in my life, I often flounder over the answer. Yes, I use technology on daily basis to accomplish work, socialize, explore, research, shop and express opinion. But on closer inspection I sense a measure of helplessness as my life gets documented without my explicit consent. I am left questioning the role these companies play in my life and vice versa.

I feel Google might meet their hypothetical doomsday within the next decade. Technology giants often meet their end not with a bang, but with a whimper. Take the case of Nokia, Kodak, and much closer to home—Microsoft, on its decline. These one-time market leaders are no longer the same. In the dynamic virtual world, things change extremely fast and it’s inevitable for companies to pivot in response to the winds of change. Google has been consistently investing in building its AI that intends to gather, rearrange and disseminate the collective knowledge of this world. They have set themselves a humongous task that is primarily financed by their ad revenues. Google enjoyed the first-mover advantage in the online advertising field. Ad revenue contributes to 90% of their earnings. The growth in the ad revenues has flattened over the years because of Amazon and FB in-app advertising. This exposes Google’s handicap. They have tried and failed to establish their presence in the retail or social media. Much of the ad revenue is directed through social media sites and Google is definitely feeling the pinch. They have been confined to browser window that serves as a transactional interface to connect other websites. This affords a very limited interaction between the user and Google.

Also, consider the coping mechanism we all develop to keep the noise of ads away. Advertising experts suggest that we are inevitably developing “Banner-blindness” that affords us to tune out the ads that pop-up in our browsers or mobile apps. Considering this and the fleeting affection we have for Google, which is sometimes an afterthought—a means to an end; what does it mean for Google?

The era of ruling on data alone is over. I feel that the next big move in the tech is context. How well do these companies know us? How well do the understand us? What value proposition are they offering us? What do we actually want? These are the questions all four companies need to deliberate on. But being on the back foot with their ad revenues, Google is vulnerable to becoming redundant in our lives. Unless they can provide a richer context to their searches and not merely peddle their partners, Google will lose their edge to their nearest competitor.

I agree that this theory has holes in it and can be countered in hundreds of ways. The arguments for and against are moot at this point. Because only time will tell how the cards fall. One can only predict the direction of the wind. And Google might have some turbulence ahead of them.

We’re not above this disruption heading for us either. Our interdependency on technology is growing day-by-day. Does the health of the big four companies affect us too? Maybe yes. Maybe no. It all depends on our perspective.

There’s a Zen Koan that goes like this: “If a man puts a baby goose in the bottle and feeds it until it is full-grown, how can the man get the goose out without killing it or breaking the bottle?”

The idea behind any Koan or riddle is to provoke doubt and question the status quo. The point is to sit with the sheer illogic of the situation; tearing at it with the logical part of your mind, until finally your mind surrenders further attempts to analyse and makes a leap into “pure consciousness”. In this case, the goose is your consciousness and the glass bottle is the mind. You might start with raking your head about ways to get the poor goose out of the confines of the bottle, until you realise in a moment of utter clarity that there is no goose; there in no bottle.

Similarly, we are the geese living in the shiny technology bottle bearing the label of the big four. We can either live in it or we can simply decide not to. If we stop being the goose, there will be no bottle. It’s that simple.

Anumeha Gokhale

 

Willingly, unwillingly, or unwittingly?

I read Gopnik’s article . . . a few times to be honest, just to get a better understanding of the categories—Never-Betters, Better-Nevers, Ever-Wasers. It all seemed convoluted until I identified the underlying thread running through it. After much deliberation, I simplified the essence of these categories into fearless-optimists, cautious-pessimists and wary-pragmatists.

The interaction between man and technology is complex, to say the least. When it comes to technology, we all engage with it willingly, unwillingly, or unwittingly on daily basis. Depending on our age, education, experience, involvement and inquisitiveness, we can move from one category to another during different phases of our lives.

Gopnik says, “Yet surely having something wrapped right around your mind is different from having your mind wrapped tightly around something. What we live in is not the age of the extended mind but the age of the inverted self.” I agree with Gopnik here. I remember the thrill of sending my first e-mail. How readily I had accepted this gift of internet and have embraced everything that has come my way so far. But I no longer find myself wrapped tightly around technology; rather, I would describe it as a friendly-hug. I understand technology and what it does for me. I also understand the blurring lines of consent, as far as my conscious participation is concerned.  I am clearly an Ever-Waser.

Change is inevitable, both inside and outside of us. We can’t stop it, resist it or control it. But we can be aware of it. We’re a minute part of this virtual socio-economic platform. But it is we, who make the internet what it is. By way of our social media interaction, buying or selling patterns, search prompts, personal opinions and other virtual footprints, we contribute to the collective database that drives the virtual network. Somewhat similar to how our society has been evolving over thousands of years. Ultimately, our society is a product of our collective consciousness.

I am increasingly aware of how technology is impacting me. Even as I get pulled deeper into the web, I am developing a filter to keep the arms of technology at bay. For now, I am navigating through technology, as opposed to simply flowing with it. But I am not discounting a day when I would likely seek my non-existent grandchildren, to explain a certain piece of technology to me, or to warn them against the malice of virtual world, or to simply regale the experience of living through an era that is re-defining the scope of learning and how we learn it.

Anumeha Gokhale