Critical thinking – our only defence against personalised web

Several years ago, when I first starting using Internet in the early days of Web 2.0, it felt as if someone had opened a window to the wider world. Besides allowing one to connect with friends and family, the internet made it possible to discover new information at the click of button. It was no longer necessary to merely rely on one’s imagination, one could simply find information about various subjects online. In that sense, by democratising information the web really helped expand one’s mind.

The Internet of today is much different. In a world where we explore internet mainly through encrypted apps and platforms owned by a handful of commercially driven companies, we increasingly encounter information optimised to our interests. To some extent, this can be useful, such as while online shopping, as it can help one navigate reams of data and arrive at more relevant material. However, this becomes problematic when such personalised messaging starts interfering with what we know about the world or when it limits our exposure without our awareness in different areas of public life. Recent global events indicate that exposure to partial information can have a polarising effect on society.

Election social media critical thinkingIn Brazil, rumours about the dangers of Yellow Fever vaccine spread via WhatsApp reportedly impeded government’s efforts to vaccinate people. In the UK, a parliamentary enquiry into fake news has pointed towards the misuse of Big Data analytics and social media platforms for delivering targeted messages to individual voters in the Brexit Referendum. It has been suggested that it would have not been possible to win in favour of leaving the European Union without computational tactics. Experts explain that personalised targeting of messages may not dramatically alter one’s opinions, but it can ‘convert’ or ‘swing’ those who could vote either way. Even slight variations between voting preferences can have a significant impact as can be seen from the Brexit vote where 51.9% voted to leave the UK while 48% voted to remain.

Such findings are highly relevant for India as the country gears up for general elections next year. As a country with a large young electoral base and significant penetration of social media, the (mis)use of closed platforms such as WhatsApp for election campaigning is inevitable. In the run up to elections, be prepared to find memes, videos, text messages created and disseminated with the intention to polarise views, influence perceptions towards specific political parties or leaders. That said, one must be cautious while engaging with and sharing messages with emotional overtones, emphasising a certain narrative and highlighting specific information related to politics and culture masked and shared as words of wisdom.

Despite the many challenges, the internet is still an indispensable part of our lives for seeking information and connecting with others. The danger lies in believing claims as facts and not trying to seek alternative views. In a world increasingly mediated by technology and which thrives on our participation, our only defence is thinking critically, sharing responsibly and keeping an open mind towards people whose views differ from ours.

Ruchi.hajela@gmail.com

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Social apps track and sell personal data of users

Social media apps have become such an indispensable part of our lives that at times it’s difficult to evaluate their role critically. Presented to us as tools for ‘connecting’, ‘getting more social’ and ‘improving efficiency’, they track and sell our personal information. Have you ever wondered how ‘free’ to access digital platforms such as Google, Twitter and Facebook earn their revenues without manufacturing or selling a single product? As the adage goes, if you are not paying for it, you are the product being sold.

Consider any popular app on your phone, what drives it is the activity and content generated by you, the user. Every click, share or like of yours is a data point, which is collected by digital platforms and sold on further to other firms. While there might be short-term gains for users in terms of making new connections, or building an online reputation, tangible long-term gains for a large majority of users are not clear. Moreover, there seem to be a clear trade-off between access to these ‘free’ networks and our privacy.

User data is the holy grail, which helps marketers profile people and target them with relevant advertisements and products. Companies such as Facebook have access to very personal user data and they use machine learning algorithms to predict and profile users so that they can make their products more relevant. As users, it’s difficult to imagine what tracking would be like as most of this is not in our face. A few months ago, I attended an exhibition in London called ‘The Glass Room’ that aimed at making visitors reflect about their use of technology. One of the exhibits asked visitors to browse the Facebook app on their phones for two minutes while the installed camera monitored them. It made me very uncomfortable to see that the app was trying to predict my age, behaviour, mood and even the level of attention.

The larger issue with this detailed level of tracking is that data brokerage firms buy such data, aggregate it with more information and sold on further to companies such as those in the insurance sector that might use this information to offer different pricing for customers. Increasingly, governments are also becoming active in using online user data for surveillance and monitoring purposes under the rhetoric of good governance. In 2014, the Chinese government announced its plans to implement a social credit score by 2020 that monitor one’s social behaviour and interactions to assess their trustworthiness as citizens. This score could affect one’s job prospects, access to mortgage, schools other public services and such. Implementation of Aadhar in India and its linkage with back and tax accounts has also been criticised for its scope for citizens’ surveillance. In the UK, a leading health insurance company is offering rewards to its users who accept to install health tracking app on their phone.

It’s time for companies to be more accountable and transparent about the way they use our data. As users, we need to acknowledge that social media platforms are run by profit driven companies that possibly prioritise revenue over user privacy. Is the trade-off worth it? Sharing what and how much is enough? Would you rather pay for an app where you know your data would be protected? It’s time to start considering these questions.

Looking at the past through rose tinted glasses

Live in the present, be like a child

As photos of the Indian monsoon flood my Facebook timeline and news feeds, I find myself in the grip of strong nostalgia. After a long, hot and dry summery spell, monsoon is a time of celebration in India. Childhood memories of thundering rain clouds, the cool breeze filled up with the earthy smell of the first rains, mom made ilaichi (cardamom) tea and aloo pakore (potato fritters), all come alive in a flash and make me long for ‘home’. I look out of my window now and see a thick grey cloud in the sky. There’s no dearth of rain in England but the dull, achy drizzle fades in comparison to a full blown, scented downpour.

Nostalgia – a constant companion
As a first generation migrant living away from my ‘home’ and family, nostalgia is my constant companion. It catches me unaware when I least expect it. Amid the quiet of my home in a leafy suburb here in England, I particularly miss the ambient sounds made up of vegetable sellers, people talking, traffic (yes, even traffic), and chants heard from the nearby temple that I grew up listening to.

The past wasn’t perfect but somehow seems rosier. As a child, I hated to be dragged to meet the large number of relatives during festivals, but memories of those times seem joyous. The mind doesn’t remember details of getting stuck in traffic jams after rain, all it remembers is the scent of the first showers. I guess the longing has no logical basis but is more of an emotional need to connect with the people, places and events associated with the younger, carefree self.

The old is comforting but the new is reality
While memories of younger days have helped me stay connected to my Indian roots, I am not entirely sure if I always like the nostalgia as it evokes very strong emotions, when I would prefer to be more rational.

Logically, there should be no room for the kind of nostalgia that holds us back. We travel to home countries far more often now, and are in touch with immediate and extended family on a daily basis thanks to Whatsapp and Skype. The presence of strong multicultural communities mean our children can absorb the best of both worlds, without any of our emotional baggage.

Still, most of the first generation migrants I know perpetually oscillate between missing the old and adjusting to the new. We moan about how our children don’t get to play on the streets like we did at their age. At other times, we indulge in self-pity about how our children are somehow deprived of the affection and company of cousins and large families that we enjoyed. The result is, we are in a constant state of flux, and neither completely belong here or there. The children, thankfully, do not know any different and seem content with their lifestyle in the present.

“I miss my home,” I casually tell my four year old.

“But this is your home mummy,” she replies.

“But I miss my family and friends,” I say.

“But papa and I are your family mummy and you have so many friends,” she concludes.

I secretly hope the child’s pragmatism always wins over my nostalgic overdrive.

Cyberattacks emerge as real threats in digital world

In an increasingly digital world where organisations and individuals store more data virtually, cyberattacks and misuse of data have emerged as real threats.

Last week, a global cyberattack affected nearly 200000 machines in 150 countries. Computers running on the older version of Microsoft operating system were impacted. Users were locked out of accessing their files and the hackers demanded $300 in ransom for providing access, resulting in disruptions and delays at workplaces. Imagine being locked out home of your home and being asked to pay up to access your belongings.

cyberattacks may 2017In the UK, healthcare services were affected as the ransomware locked up computers and equipment storing patient data, which means doctor appointments and routine operations had to be cancelled or postponed. This was such a severe event that the highest government authorities held crisis meetings that take place during national emergencies. In other countries, telephone giants, carmakers, universities or even police services were disrupted. We don’t yet know how much data was accessed and stolen by the hackers but thankfully no such reports have emerged yet.

At the individual level, newer dangers have emerged. We are living our lives increasingly in the virtual world and hence leaving a massive footprint that can be misused to manipulate us. In what seems like the plot of a thriller, there are reports that political parties rely on analytics based profiling and manipulation of user data to target their messages and gain voter support. For example, if you are profiled as a blue collared worker, you might end up seeing both real and fake news about spoils of the rich or a nationalist might be bombarded with messages about the perils of globalisation.

Apparently, the seemingly harmless and fun quizzes on Facebook that reveal your personality traits or even your ‘likes’ help analytics firms to draw a personal profile of the user, which can then be used for targeted campaigns. The danger of such messaging is that it only reinforces your beliefs without making you aware of the other points of views, thereby altering your reality.

Imagine how uncomfortable it would feel if someone were to stalk you all day and make a record of everything you did ranging from where you went, how you went there, how well you slept, what you ate etc. The nearly 30 apps on my smartphone do precisely the above and strangely enough I have given them access trusting my data is safe.

Study abroad loses sheen due to employment hurdles

 

Studying in foreign universities and building a suitable career abroad has long been the dream of the aspiring and ambitious middle class. A degree from a leading university in the US or UK has been seen as a sure shot ticket to a better life. But not so anymore.

It all started after the global financial crisis in 2008. Stories about lay-offs and hiring freezes had replaced news about strong economies and global workplaces. Recent world events such as a vote for Brexit and Donald trump’s election have indicated that many perceive increasing global mobility (of foreigners) as a threat.

Amid economic certainty about the future of UK in a post Brexit world, recruiters have been shying away from hiring people who require work sponsorship. College students reveal that whether one requires a work visa is a qualifying question for nearly all the companies they aspire to work for.

UK higher education Brexit Indian studentsMy brother-in-law who is pursuing a Masters’ degree from a prestigious London-based university recently interviewed for a global technology firm. Despite having a great work experience and strong grades, his discussion with the recruiter lasted all of three

minutes and ended abruptly when he mentioned he required visa sponsorship. Closure of post study work route since 2012 aimed at curbing the abuse of student visa category had already made it difficult to find jobs in UK after completing studies and last year’s Brexit vote has made things even more uncertain.

A one year degree from a university in England can cost up to Rs 50 lakh (including living expenses and tuition fees) and undergraduate would cost even more given the longer duration of the course. But for most Indian middle class families, spending on education is seen as an investment for securing a professionally successful life. According to a global survey published by HSBC Retail Banking and Wealth Management in 2015, most Indian parents ranked professional success for their children over being healthy or happy.

After investing substantial sums of money on a coveted higher education degree, hoping to work in the host country is not a totally unreasonable desire to have, but in an increasingly closed world, fulfilling that dream is likely to be more difficult. That said, all is not over.

These countries need skilled workers as much as the workers need jobs. It also helps to think beyond finding a job (difficult if you have a huge loan to repay) view studying abroad as an opportunity for cultural exchange and exposure.

It is also time to re-evaluate one’s choices and look for alternatives. For long we have focused only on building skills in IT to support the booming requirements of overseas firms. Perhaps it’s time to explore other subjects, build different skills and focus on working in India. Becoming an entrepreneur and creating jobs for others might also be the way to go.

Rote learning makes way for interactive lessons

When I went to school a couple of decades ago, learning was a largely passive and linear experience where the teacher instructed and the student listened. Intelligence was mainly measured on how much information we could memorise and reproduce on paper. Nowadays, hands-on and practical teaching that encourages one to observe and question has opened up endless possibilities for acquiring knowledge, making rote learning methods seem outdated.

My 4 year old daughter is yet to perfect her reading and writing but can be quite chatty while explaining how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly or what Saturn’s rings are made of. “A caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, and not a cocoon, before it becomes a butterfly,” she corrected me when she was only 3.5 years old. I later learnt that she had seen the process of a real caterpillar growing into a butterfly in her preschool classroom.

Concepts of mathematics and science are now taught through games and play, more so during the early years before children start formal schooling. For instance, young children aren’t expected to remember the names of different seasons but explore them through activities like nature walks and learn about capacity during sand play.

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In England, mandatory guidelines regulate all schools which means all children can benefit from a similar approach to learning, irrespective of whether they attend state sponsored free schools or fee paying ones.

Practical learning is not limited to classrooms and places of interest also cater to children with fun activities that introduce concepts. Last week, my husband and I took our daughter to the planetarium in London at the Royal Observatory Greenwich where the famous Prime Meridian is also located. We had booked tickets for a show that was aimed specifically at children of my daughter’s age and revolved around a teddy bear’s journey to find the Big Bear in the sky. The interactive show was led by an astronomer and involved singing and rhyming as it talked about the sun and various planets in a simple yet engaging tone relevant for young children.

There are more chances of children retaining some information about the solar system through an engaging story of a teddy bear rather than having to learn the names of planets in order, as we did in our days.

London’s world famous museums with their vast collections of artifacts from across the world are also full of exploratory activities for children. According to an official statistic, nearly 4 lakh young people (11% of total visitors) visited London’s science museum alone in 2015-16 as part of a school or educational group.

During a recent visit to the Science Museum, we were fascinated to see flight simulators and Apollo’s command module. There was also a 3D animation about Apollo’s lunar missions that brought alive the feeling of rocket take off, landing on the moon and even enjoying a bumpy ride on its surface. Now a 3D movie is hardly innovative but using it to experience science concepts definitely is.

Brightly lit-up London dispels wintry gloom

 

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Christmas has just gone by and one can’t help but admire the beauty of Christmas lighting that brings cheer to the cold and dark winter days. December marks the onset of winter and the days in UK are short with darkness setting in from even earlier than 4 pm. The days can feel particularly gloomy in the absence of much light and near zero degree temperatures requiring one to stay indoor. Thanks to the festive season, excitement starts building up a few weeks in advance as people start readying their homes with lights and other decorations that brighten up the otherwise dark days.

You can see Christmas tree decked with baubles and fairy lights peeking at you through room windows or more extensive outdoor lighting. During my childhood days, mainly my Christian friends and neighbours would keep a decked up Christmas tree adorned with string lights in their living rooms. But now, it is common for people across religions to put up Christmas decorations in their homes as they try to embrace different cultures and celebrate the festive spirit.

in vey elaborate displays by putting up tens of thousands of lights and other embellishments such as an illuminated reindeer, handmade sleighs, fake snow and so on in their gardens. Walking or driving past such homes is a treat to the eyes. People with quirky light displays are covered well by the local and national media. I read about a house that has over 50000 light bulbs on. There was another story about a 22 year old who spent nearly £15000 (Rs 12 lakh) to create a snow scene (among other things) in his garden where children could be pulled by a sleigh. Across the country, there are many families that not only brighten up their neighbourhoods through their glittering displays but also raise money for charities through donations given by visitors.

Towns and major shopping streets also come to life with fancy fairy-tale light displays. For instance, the lights adorning a popular area in Central London are powered by a biofuel based on cooking oil collected from London’s restaurants. There are reportedly 750000 LED bulbs lighting up the snowball-like decorations on the popular shopping destination Oxford Street. No wonder then, the switching on of Christmas lights is an event in itself across the country. The switching on is marked by lantern parades, fireworks displays and musical and dance performances by local children or even popular artistes.

With so much creativity and lighting on display, it is hard not to feel warm inside even when it’s freezing cold outside. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.