Is IT a boon or a bane? Let us start asking tough questions now – before it is too late

The Perils of IT and Social Media

By Arvind Saxena

If health warnings on cigarette packs could deter people from smoking, why can’t we have similar hazard warnings on social media platforms? Perhaps such warnings will compel users to question if they really need these services. IT has also promoted the idea that disruption is good for economic development. Since we have lost the imagination to build something people want, we must tear down existing systems to create space for a semblance of economic activity. Even this disruptive model would have done some good if it had opened up avenues for employment. Not so, the disruption is coming through increasing use of IT, questionable business models of big data analytics and predatory pricing for market penetration, which destroys existing businesses before itself going bust. Ever wondered how some online start-ups can sell fruits, vegetables and dairy products at less than the price offered by conventional establishments?

Carrying on with more questions, the next one should be, if data is the new oil and the ‘captains of industry’ are salivating to cash in, then we must ask where this new oil is being mined from. If the data belongs to the people, as all physical national resources do, then who is permitting this mining activity? If there are no permissions or regulations governing this activity, then it is not mining – it is theft. National data is sacrosanct and adversary intelligence agencies used to spend millions for accessing it. Today by placing everything on-line and permitting private players to collect and process data, we have provided free access to all critical information for unauthorized use. The people have been rendered transparent and vulnerable while big corporates have created walls of secrecy around themselves. The more data we collect and process on activities of our citizens the more vulnerable the nation becomes to its misuse by big players, foreign agencies and global as well as domestic corporates.

We must now ask, where does the demand for more and more data come from? Who is asking for faster rates of data transfer? Why don’t nations demand a pause in introduction of 5G or 6G type of technologies when there are concerns about their radio interference and ionization levels, which can potentially affect safety of communications and cause damage to animal life, including human life? If the need is for vital activity like national security, we must let it be used for a select purpose by regulated institutions. Not by the people who are looking for avenues for more data theft, digital marketing and strengthening social media platforms. Believe me, if there is war, you will find none of these IT advocates, or their progeny, on the frontiers. The soldiers will lose their lives as will civilians living in border areas, but our vile technology advocates, seeking high speed internet, will never be ‘collateral damage’. (Just mull how words can hide the horror of criminal activity?). I sometimes wonder if the world of these data-hungry people living in the ‘fast lane’ has a single lane leading up to our ‘lava-hot’ borders in the North and the West!

The ultimate dumbing device

IT and AI are the backbone of a majority of our recent start-ups. Lot of youngsters have done very well through their innovative service aggregation platforms, or Apps. So, money is being made here – which should please us. The problem is most of these Apps are producing nothing! No tangible goods and products, which are still dominated by old-fashioned industrial establishments. If anything, these Apps are actually doing a disservice to the manufacturing sector by pushing down profit margins and also suppressing wages, even while they suck out transaction charges from the real producers. Promising efficiency in delivery of services, they make industry unviable and promote a highly exploitative ‘gig economy’. A large number of these start-ups, including many big ones, end belly up in a short time, after their bogus business models break down. Please remember, in the new economic models, ‘Smart’ means ‘Street Smart’, i.e. you should have no qualms in fooling or cheating unsuspecting people if you can make money out of their ignorance. Reminds you of the snake oil seller? At least he was not destroying normal social intercourse. The smart phone is the ultimate dumbing device known to man.

So who is in charge of the IT systems which are replacing systems of say, school and college education, travel and hotel bookings, keeping records in government departments, Income Tax processing etc.? Yes, there was potential for corruption in our earlier systems but we also had systems to punish the deviants. That we failed to use those provisions is another story. What is happening today is that the control has been taken away from trained and experienced people and handed over to a faceless, unfathomable system which overrides human ability to understand and empathize with fellow humans. How often have you got the feedback – system accept nahin karra ha, i.e. “system does not accept”?

So, what is this system which has become more powerful than the highly qualified, trained, and experienced officials who understand the working of their departments more than the people who designed the system? Irrespective of how much interaction the IT system designers have with the organisation people, the system should remain a tool of the organisation, not the other way round. The data in the system and how it is processed is inaccessible to the officials but is available to the youngsters operating the system, youngsters who are not a part of the organisation and, more often than not, are contract employees or, at best, workers who will switch jobs before you can pronounce ‘whimsical’. See the danger? We will not be talking here of losses incurred by banks and the increasing instance of cyber frauds all of which can be traced to distancing of the system from trained personnel. Professionals have ceded space to semi-knowledgeable IT geeks, before whom they are rendered helpless.

Have we ever wondered about the consequences of becoming dependent on IT tools? There are movies which have shown how massive disasters could strike if these systems fail for one reason or another. How many of our young people van reach from place A to place B, in their country, state, town or even neighbourhood without using GPS? Most will be totally lost. Similarly, what happens to the much-hyped driver-less cars if the GPS satellites go on the blink? Will they go haywire crashing into each other and things around them? Why don’t we resolve these questions first, before getting hooked to posting our selfies on social media – the most sickening manifestation of narcissism?

Why do our political leaders gift smart phones, tablets and lap tops to students? These are definitely not required for conventional learning. Good teachers and books are adequate for learning in schools and colleges. Why can’t the money be used for providing scholarships, books, educational tours and, yes, more well-paid teachers? No, we are not helping in the education of our young, the motive is to win votes – addictions and socially irresponsible behaviour be damned. We must question why we are being provided free internet connectivity. How do companies earn revenue when they provide a free service? Advertising is not the real answer. The answer could lie in data theft, surveillance, spreading fake news, normalising hate and creating addictive dependence.

Ever wondered who decides which pages get displayed on top when you do a web search about a person, place, event, or news? Most of us assume that the algorithms display the pages which are viewed most often. Probably true, but then these views can be easily manipulated through fake accounts and bot activity, just as star ratings on select products can be manipulated on e-commerce sites. The greater danger is that the IT companies can decide the placement – for a price? This manipulation is worth its while because most users generally go through the top few pages before concluding they know enough about a topic. So place the glorious stories on top and a person can be shown to be God’s own gift to mankind, or place the unsavoury stories on top and you could defeat a Presidential candidate in the US.

social media and wars

Can IT and social media create wars? Disinformation is a potent weapon of non-conventional warfare. You can spread false narratives to inflame passions among the non-discerning masses, who can then be used to sub-serve political ends. This has been used in the past by dropping leaflets behind enemy lines, setting up clandestine radio stations or defaming leaders to sow dissension, create confusion and destroy the credibility of unfriendly power centres. Look back at how the colour revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring were engineered largely through social media. The potential for causing destruction is as massive as the thermo-nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Now to the greater danger looming in front of us. Having read these two pieces and drawing from their own knowledge and life experiences ten of us could write ten vastly different papers, each one of which will shed light on different aspects of the subject. Now let each writer have access to ChatGPT. The App will churn out a comprehensive paper of acceptable quality – but then it will be the same for all ten writers. See the irony some guys in hoodies have taken control of something as vital as knowledge, filtering out everything except what the programme chooses to throw up.

So is IT a boon or a bane? We need to demand more information. Let us start asking tough questions now – before it is too late. At stake is human ingenuity, insight, concern for others, respect for differences and the ‘Eureka’ experiences – à la Archimedes.

Arvind Saxena is former Chairman, Union Public Service Commission, India

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 16 February 2024

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