Digital Native: Finger on the buzzer

Posted by Nishant Shah at Oct 22, 2017 10:50 AM |
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Which Hogwarts House are you? No, you don’t really want to know.

The article was published in Indian Express on October 22, 2017.

Internet browsing histories are dangerous things. One of the reasons why I would not want mine made public is because it will expose the part of my surfing that I am the most ashamed of — click-bait quizzes. No matter how frivolous the quiz might be, I can’t resist taking it. From which Hogwarts House I belong to (Hufflepuff all the way) to which Hollywood celebrity I look like (the last result was Matt Damon! Go figure); from how many books I can name by their first lines (92 on a score of 100) to how many words I can spell correctly (always a 100 per cent). While I know that most of these are completely pointless and a huge distraction from watching videos of hamsters eating carrots and goats butting people, I am a complete sucker for these quizzes. I even have an entire anonymous social media account just to take and share these endless no-sense time-sinks that populate the social web.

Recently, while succumbing to the late-night temptation of answering questions on one of these “tests” that challenged me to identify the correct spelling of the most commonly misspelled words, I erred. I am embarrassed (that was one of the word) that I am always a little confused when it comes to the word “accommodate” — I can never remember if the number of “c”s and “m”s are the same in the spelling and I made the wrong choice. I knew it, in a split second after choosing the option, that I was wrong. However, like the boy scout that I am, I decided to just continue with the test rather than re-doing it, and be content with a less than perfect score.

So imagine my surprise, when I got the final results. The test declared I was the next of kin to Shakespeare (which is weird, because he was such an atrocious speller) and that I had a 100 per cent accurate result. The analysis sang paeans (see, I can spell that without a spell-checker!) to my prowess at spelling and how, when it comes to the English language, I am nothing short of a savant. But I knew I had made a mistake, and so I decided to take the test again. This time, I deliberately made more than one mistake, carefully choosing wrong spellings for different words. Lo and behold, my final analysis still announced me as the peer of Shashi Tharoor, with the capacity to confound the Tweetosphere with my verbiage.

The pronouncements of my spelling skills had nothing to do with my ability. No matter how many times you took the quiz — with varying degrees of error — like a doting mother, it insisted that you are the best. Quizzes like these, which pretend to test and give an insight into our own capacities, are the new click bait. These quizzes have nothing to do with content or our skills. They have a simple function: they want us to feel validated so that we share the results as a humble brag with others in our social networks, catalysing an avalanche of people who would perpetuate the cycle. In this indiscreet sharing, these quizzes collect valuable data without our consent.

It is impossible to take such quizzes without signing in through our existing social media accounts and giving access to data that we would otherwise never think of giving to complete strangers promising to tell us our fake futures. These quizzes have identified that the biggest currency of the digital web is personal data, which, then, gets collected, collated, correlated and circulated to other actors who capitalise on it. This is the promise and threat of the big data industries that we live in. I do not want to add to the fear-mongering that often surrounds data theft — if data is the currency, then it is obvious that we are going to have to trade it, guard it, and save it, just the way we do our other currencies.

What I do want to point out is, that if there was a quiz, an app, a programme or a device, which asked to access our bank accounts in order to tell us that we are geniuses, we would be very suspicious of them. Remember, we are still hesitant to even giving our credit card details to websites (you know the premium platforms I am talking about) that have questionable content. We do not easily part with our passwords and keys to Artificial Intelligence scripts masquerading as fake prophets. Similarly, we need to give equal attention to the personal data sets that we give away to seemingly harmless things like quizzes and apps. Indeed, it is fun to indulge in this world of self-congratulatory feedback loops, but it is also good to pay some thought to the cost of this fun. Because when it comes to the world of data driven digitality, the axiom is really simple: if you are having fun for free, you are paying in ways that you cannot see. Often, it is through your personal data and private information.

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Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.